Music Interviews
4:31 am
Thu March 20, 2014

From Preacher To Grass Cutter To Earth-Shaking Soul Singer

Originally published on Wed April 2, 2014 2:08 pm

One of the hottest new bands out of Birmingham, Ala., doesn't sound new at all. On the new album, Half the City, St. Paul and The Broken Bones hits all the marks of a classic Southern soul band, complete with a fiery lead singer. Speaking with NPR's David Greene, bassist Jesse Phillips recalls the first time he experienced the voice of frontman Paul Janeway.

"I'd been warned of what comes out of Paul's mouth when he opens it," Phillips says, "basically because it's a big surprise for most people."

A surprise, he says, because the singer doesn't exactly look the part.

"Paul, according to all the reviews and stuff that are written of the band, he looks like your high school history teacher, or he looks like Drew Carey," Phillips explains. "Bottom line is that we're a bunch of kind of nerdy-looking white guys, and when this sort of earth-shaking soul roar comes out of his mouth for the first time, you can always hear the air being sucked out of the room."

Janeway wasn't raised to be a soul singer. He grew up in rural Alabama in a strict religious household.

"I could only listen to, like, gospel Christian music," Janeway says. "And a little dash of Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye."

And he got most of his musical chops from church. He even trained to be a preacher.

"I learned more from preaching than I did singing in church," Janeway explains, "because you learn a little bit more about how to interact with the crowd — feeling momentum, just feeling that intensity — and it's not a whole lot different than what we do now."

But eventually, Janeway would fall out of love with preaching and begin to look for another path.

"Dad works for a pavement and construction company," Janeway says. "He said, 'Well, boy, if you're not going to college, you're going to work.' He found me a job, basically, as a mechanic's assistant. I'd cut the grass, I would do all sorts of stuff — but when the economy crashed, I lost my job, and I was unemployed about a year and a half.

"And I met a lady," he adds, "and decided that I wanted to kind of figure out what I was going to do with my life. I went to community college, and after a little while I kind of started to be attracted to accounting. ... What's crazy is that I'm about two semesters away from getting my accounting degree, and then this music thing showed up and ruined my life."

Now, as the lead singer of a soul band, Janeway exhibits a deep passion in the music he performs on stage.

"It's really difficult for me not to sing every time like it's the last time I'm going to be on the planet," Janeway explains. "I don't care if we're playing to five people or 5,000, I have a mental thing in my brain that clicks that it's like I've got to give every possible fiber of my being into my voice right now when I'm singing."

The music has its roots in church, and religion is still part of Janeway's life — but the relationship remains complicated.

"Not agreeing with what is predominantly taught growing up the way I did, I had a lot of animosity toward the church," he says. "One time there was a woman with cancer, and they were telling her, 'All you need to do is say you're healed.' And she tried to so hard, and tried and tried and tried, but she eventually died of cancer, and she died thinking that she didn't have enough faith to be healed. And that really resonated with me. I still think about that to this day."

As for his parents, Janeway says that in retrospect he's glad they were so strict. He remembers a particularly formative moment when his mother found his copy of Nirvana's Nevermind.

"She found it and threw it away," he says. "I told her that story, and she goes, 'Listen, Paul, if you'd have listened to Nirvana, you wouldn't have been a soul singer.' So, I look at it now and go, 'Well, maybe it's turned out to be a really good thing.' "

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Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One of the hottest new bands out of Birmingham, Alabama doesn't sound new at all, St. Paul and the Broken Bones. They're a classic Southern soul band with fiery lead singer.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

ST. PAUL AND THE BROKEN BONES: (Singing) Hello, sweetheart. How is love going nowadays...

GREENE: The band's bassist Jesse Phillips remembers the first time he experienced that voice.

JESSE PHILLIPS: I'd been warned.

GREENE: Warned of what?

PHILLIPS: What comes out of Paul's mouth when he opens it, basically.

(LAUGHTER)

PHILLIPS: Because it's a big surprise for most people.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

BONES: (Singing) I know you miss me. I know you miss me late at night...

GREENE: A surprise he says, because singer Paul Janeway doesn't exactly look the part.

PHILLIPS: Paul, according to all the reviews and stuff that are written of the band, and they're like: He looks like your high school history teacher or he looks like Drew Carey...

(LAUGHTER)

PHILLIPS: Bottom-line is we're a bunch of kind of nerdy-looking white guys. And when this sort of Earth-shaking soul roar comes out of his mouth for the first time, I mean you can always hear the air being sucked out of the room.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

BONES: (Singing) And you just got, you just got to, you just got to...

GREENE: Believe it or not, Paul Janeway wasn't raised to be a soul singer. But his story is familiar somehow. He grew-up in rural Alabama in a strict religious household.

PAUL JANEWAY: I could only listen to, like, gospel Christian music and a little dash of, like, Sam Cook and Marvin Gaye.

GREENE: And he learned most of his musical chops from church. He was even training to be a preacher.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

BONES: (Singing) How do we always do this...

JANEWAY: I learned more from preaching than I did singing in church, because you learn a little bit more about how to interact with the crowd - feeling momentum in a room, just feeling that intensity - and it's not a whole lot different than what we do now.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

BONES: (Singing) We put on our Sunday best. We live our quiet mass...

GREENE: The preaching thing didn't work out though. So Paul started looking for another path.

JANEWAY: Dad works for a pavement and construction company, so he said: Well, boy, if you're not going to college, you're going to work. So he found me a job, basically as a mechanic's assistant. I'd cut the grass and I would do all sorts of stuff. But when the economy crashed, I lost my job and I was unemployed about a year and a half.

And I met a lady...

(LAUGHTER)

JANEWAY: ...and decided that I wanted to kind of figure out what I was going to do with my life. And I went to community college and after a little while, I started kind of being attracted to accounting. And I thought: You know, what would be a good job, if I could be a bank teller. And I got the job. And what's crazy is I'm about two semesters away from getting my accounting degree, and then this music thing showed up and ruined my life.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: What do you mean by that?

JANEWAY: My trajectory was like, OK, hey, I'm getting my life in order. I'm getting my accounting degree. I'm not as dumb as I thought I was. You know, like you're starting to feel good about yourself. And then we started doing this music thing and it's changed my life completely.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

BONES: (Singing) Young love has made me old, worn down like a shoe...

GREENE: So, Paul, where does this fiery passion come from?

JANEWAY: I don't really drink or smoke or have a good outlet to kind of wash my sorrows...

(LAUGHTER)

JANEWAY: ...and sadness away. And so, I feel like when I sing that's exactly what I'm doing. And I've had to be a little bit better about this. This is really difficult for me not to sing every time I sing like it's the last time I'm ever going to be on the planet.

GREENE: It's hard to actually show restraints sometimes, you're saying.

JANEWAY: It is. It's very difficult for me to do because I don't care if we're playing to five people or 5,000, that I have a mental thing in my brain that clicks, that it's like I've got to give every possible fiber of my being into my voice right now when I'm singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

BONES: (Singing) Why have you forsaken, forsaken me? Oh, (unintelligible), I can change...

GREENE: As Paul says, his music has its roots in church and church is still part of his life. But it's complicated.

JANEWAY: My faith is very important to me. But it's not something that defines me necessarily. It's something that I still struggle with a lot.

GREENE: What's the struggle?

JANEWAY: I think it's pretty basic. You know, you have so many terrible things that happen and it's so hard to, like, get over that sometimes. Not agreeing with what is predominantly taught growing up the way I did, I had a lot of animosity towards the church.

GREENE: Can I hear a little more? You say, you know, you've gotten over some terrible things in your life. It sounds like some of it has involved the church. I mean what are we talking about?

JANEWAY: For example, like, there was one time there was a woman with cancer. And they were telling her: All you need to do is just say you're healed, say you're healed. And she tried to so hard, and tried and tried and tried, but she eventually died of cancer. And she died thinking that she didn't have enough faith to be healed. And that really resonated with me. And I still think about that to this day, that that's awful.

(LAUGHTER)

JANEWAY: You know, that's terrible. And that's one of many things that I struggled with.

GREENE: Is some of the passion that we see on stage now letting out the anger that you feel towards the church?

JANEWAY: I would say that's probably true. I mean anger towards a lot of things, but that being one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

BONES: (Singing) I called her. No. No. No. You are too young. Her...

GREENE: I wanted to ask about your parents. They put restrictions on the music you were allowed to listen to...

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: ...as a kid. Have their views on secular music changed over the years?

JANEWAY: Absolutely, it's bizarre. Apparently my dad used to go to, like, Elton John concerts and Elvis Presley concerts. But he never told me as a child, never told me.

GREENE: This is while he was telling you that you couldn't listen to most music?

JANEWAY: Yeah. Exactly, yeah. And so, it was really bizarre so because my dad was like: Yeah, I saw The Commodores. And so it's funny now because, you know, I talked to both my parents and for some reason they just decided that's how we're going to raise our son. And we talk about it now and we're kind of laugh about it.

But one time, my mom - a friend of mine gave me a Nirvana "Nevermind" CD.

GREENE: Mm-hmm, something you would not have been allowed to listen to as a kid.

JANEWAY: Yeah, when I was a kid. So she found it and threw it away. I told her that story, and she goes: Well, listen, Paul, if you'd have listened to Nirvana, you wouldn't have been a soul singer. And...

(LAUGHTER)

JANEWAY: ...so I look at it now and go, OK, well, maybe it's turned out to be a really good thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

BONES: (Singing) I know we're going to make it, child. I know we're going to make it, baby...

GREENE: That's singer Paul Janeway of the band St. Paul and the Broken Bones.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

BONES: (Singing) I know. I know. I know. I know. I know... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.