When people describe Alabama-based St. Paul & the Broken Bones, artists of eras past tend to make easy comparisons. Paul Janeway (aka St. Paul), the band’s wailing, writhing, high-note-hitting frontman, calls to mind greats like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, while the Broken Bones’ rhythm and brass trace back to the Memphis Horns and Stax Records. But on the group’s latest album, Janeway looks to a much more personal past for inspiration—his family history.
Young Sick Camellia is Janeway’s musical self-portrait, and he mines the connections he shares with his father and grandfather, whose voice appears on four interludes. Upbeat numbers like “GotItBad” or lead single “Apollo” harness the same rich, horn-heavy instrumentation that won listeners over on 2014’s Half the City, but infuse them with disco-era Chic-style strings and rubbery bass. Other songs give Janeway’s gravity-defying voice room to soar. Take piano ballad “Bruised Fruit,” a letter to Janeway’s dad that brought the singer to tears. “You can hear me crying a bit in the song,” he says. “To make good art and to make good music, you have to be vulnerable. You have to really hit a nerve. I don’t think I could have done this six years ago—or three years ago, or two years ago.”
Your first release, four-song EP Greetings from St. Paul and the Broken Bones, came out six years ago. How has Birmingham changed in that time?
The perception has changed. When we first started, people told us, “Bands don’t come out of Birmingham. That’s not something that happens.” Birmingham itself, obviously, has changed, too. It’s changed in that a lot of empty spaces that were in abandoned places are now being used for something. It’s a little hipper, I guess you could say. [Laughs] I mean, we just had a restaurant win the James Beard!
What made you choose the titleYoung Sick Camellia?
Obviously, the camellia is the Alabama state flower. And I am obsessed with this painter, Carvaggio, who has a painting called the Young Sick Bacchus. The painting is actually a self-portrait: his face as a withering, sick Bacchus. Because this was a self-reflective album—I actually wrote two songs, “Convex” and “Concave,” looking in a mirror—I chose [to approach the self-portrait as] a camellia to represent a few things: home, me, the balance of it all.
When I initially started this project, rather than one full-length record, it was going to be three different EPs to represent me, my father, and my grandfather. But when we started working, I realized this was too big to just do four or five songs each—it had to be three different albums. So I look atYoung Sick Camellia as part one of a three-part series. The idea is that this record represents me.
This is your third album, and each one is different from the last. Is that intentional?
You have to let those things kind of happen organically. This band can do so many different things—they’re all such good musicians—that you don’t go in and try to say, We gotta do this, we gotta do that. But we didn’t want to do the same thing over and over. So, working with [producer] Jack Splash provided an opportunity to do something different. Picking a producer, there’s always a feeling out process. When we met with Jack, I was like, “This guy’s one of us.” He’s just a weirdo, a music nerd. When you have that connection with people, it feels right. We’re a big band, and he just knew how to handle us.
On album track “GotItBad,” you sing about how “Everybody’s sellin’ that Southern thing.” What do you mean by that?
I’ve always just found it really fascinating that [Southern-ness] is a selling point for us—it’s something we’ve embraced. Being “Southern” used to not be anything. It was not something that people bragged about; There were different connotations with it. You’d try to lose your accent, you’d try to do this, and try to do that—which was impossible for me.
The album’s spoken interludes are one way you’ve included a nod to the South. Your grandfather’s smoky drawl really gives the album a sense of place. Why was his voice important to include?
Originally, I just thought he was an interesting storyteller. If you grew up in the South, you probably have a grandparent or someone you know who sounds like that, and I think that’s relatable. I called my grandfather and told him about the album, and asked if I could tape a conversation he and I had on the phone. I had a strong desire to do that, and I asked him about the worst storm he had ever been in. About two months after I made that recording, he found out he had lung cancer. It’s been a few months now since he passed. Since then, that clip holds a different kind of reverence for me. Looking back, I feel like the universe was telling me to make the recording, and that was why.
Young Sick Camellia will be released on September 7 and is available for pre-order.