Anyone who has witnessed Birmingham, Alabama-based eight piece powerhouse St. Paul & The Broken Bones in action at Bluesfest will know that it’s a musical experience like no other. The band’s sound is huge, their horn arrangements heart-melting and singer, songwriter Paul Janeway is one of the most passionate performers you’ll ever see. On their new album Young Sick Camellia, you’ll find the band’s usual passion, soul and intensity but they’ve also lightened up a little, including several feel-good dance tunes that will rock your socks off. Thematically, Janeway delivers his most personal lyrics to date, exploring his relationship with his father and grandfather and their different views on some aspects of life. St. Paul & The Broken Bones will be returning to Australia next Easter to take part in the Bluesfest 30th anniversary celebrations. Ahead of the tour, Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips spoke to Paul Janeway about the new album and the upcoming trip to Australia.
Hi Paul, I believe you’re in New York at the moment. How do you and New York get along?
It’s a complicated relationship. I have never been able to sit down and really enjoy New York. It’s always go go go go, so while it’s fun and lively, at the same time I kinda dread it sometimes because you know it is going to be a lot of work.
In the press release for your new album, you were saying that originally this album should have been 3 EPs. Could you expand upon that?
Initially my whole train of thought was that I wanted to do it through the lens of me, my father and grandfather. Initially I wanted it to be 3 EPs … one through my lens and then one through my father’s lens and one through my grandfather’s lens. We got to the point where I had started working on it and I thought, no this is a full album situation. To me, this is part one of a 3 part series. So this one is through my lens. Hopefully I will follow through with it and there will be two more records associated with each part.
Tell me about the soundbytes of your grandfather’s voice between some of the songs.
Those are just a phone conversation me and him had. I kind of knew where I wanted to go with the record. I did those … we were opening up for Hall & Oates in Texas. I had the desire to have some kind of spoken word connectors between the songs. I wanted to ask him what the worst storm he was in and it was just this organic conversation that happened. Then he got sick about 2 months after and then passed away about 6 months after that. So that has taken on a different tone than I had initially thought it would. It’s more haunting now than when it was when I recorded it. The intent was always to record it but now it is haunting in a way and kind of spooky. He never heard the record, he didn’t make it till then but he was aware enough to know what I was doing. I obviously told him I was recording the conversation. His exact quote when I said what I was doing … I said hey grandpa I’m going to record this conversation for the record, he goes “I don’t give a shit, go ahead”, so that was his ok or at least to Song Music lawyers, that was his ok! You know, he didn’t care.
The album title is based on the Caravaggio painting Young Sick Bacchus. Have you ever seen a Caravaggio painting in real life. If so, how did that effect you?
I have. I am very fortunate that my wife works for a university and every year she goes to Italy with her students. I have gone with her a couple of times and I think that is where I fell in love. We’d go to these little chapels in Rome and see the Conversion of Saul or something like that and it had such a profound impact on me. You try to educate yourself and learn more. I felt like Caravaggio was someone at the time who was showing the working class in that time period. The idea that these deities and people were treated with such reverence and were put into normal folks, poor people clothing, with dirty feet. To me that had quite a profound impact on me and I have been kinda obsessed ever since.
Does art effect you in the same way a song or piece of music might?
I think so, almost art in that form inspires me more than music actually does. It draws something out of me that feels creative. I feel inspired. You see a masterwork and you just go, wow! I go through a steeple or chapel or cathedral somewhere and even all the details mean something. I see people working with that kind of intent and I think people have gotten a little lazy at times. To think about that kind attention to detail back then … I really want to build albums that way and music that way, where there is intent everywhere. It may be subtle stuff but to me, that is important.
How did you come up with the cover art for the album?
Well it was based on Young Sick Bacchus which was a painting that Caravaggio did, which was the god Bacchus but actually was a self reflective painting of Caravaggio when he was sick. I always love in those paintings how everything is kind of withering and dying. So I talked to this photographer, whose name is McNair Evans and he’s like a legit art photographer and I was surprised that he decided to work with us and I am glad he did. I told him what the direction was and he did it in that baroque period, Dutch style painting and that’s a photo! It’s a withering camellia. The camellia in the record takes on myself, takes on the idea of home and the relationship between the two and that’s what that represents. He did a wonderful job.
How complete were these songs when you brought them to the band? What form were they in?
In various forms. Got It Bad was a song which is about 2 years old. Some of those we got together with Jack Splash, who produced the record and wrote some of them. Some of them were done on the spot in the studio. I would say that most were written with this record in mind and created in various ways, whether it was live in the room or with Jack and me and Jessie or someone else in the band may have a had a file or dropbox idea. It was many ways up the mountain with this one.
A few of these songs almost have a disco vibe, LivWithOutU, Got It Bad and Apollo, they’re certainly danceable anyway. Was that always the intention to do some songs like that for the album or did it just turn into that at some point?
You know I think it kind of happened organically. The one thing I didn’t want for the record was for it to be too heavy … we needed some creamer for the coffee! I was a little concerned that maybe the subject matter may weigh it down but with Apollo and Got It Bad and LivWithOutU … I remember seeing Jamiroquai and The BeeGees and even that latest Daft Punk record and we thought, this is something we haven’t done. It’s kind of bridging out of the southern soul thing. You know, we can do that in our sleep, so I was interested to try something different that maybe takes us to a different place.
I imagine they’d be fun to play live?
Oh it’s a blast. We’ve started climbing up the east coat and its been a lot of fun. With most of the other records we’ve had a lot of mid tempo songs, so we’d have to cover something to keep the set list up, so it’s been a blast.
A great element of your songs are the horn arrangements. Which bands were you into for the way they used brass?
Obviously the Muscle Shoals sound with The Swampers, Booker T and the MGS, even Earth Wind and Fire. Some of that stuff to me is so timeless and it’s become our thing. It’s not the most economical decision to bring 3 horn players with you but it’s kind of essential and I don’t know what the band would be like without them … it’s essential to what we do. It’s something I always wanted and I’m definitely getting plenty of it but it’s all been good.
Once you’d recorded the album, were there any issues in regard to how you were going to reproduce these songs on stage? Has that been an issue at all?
Yeah, a hundred percent. Things like Mr Invisible, we have an old grandfather clock sample that was my grandfather’s clock and it’s just him spinning his finger around making that sound, that winding sound. There are a lot of things .. I mean vocally, there’s some stuff that has three part harmonies and we can’t really do that. We have our keys player doing some background singing but we’ve found that as long as you get the meat of it, we usually end up alright. Some of it was really hard, this was probably the hardest record to try to do live for a multitude of reasons, which has been a lot of fun because it has been challenging. We’ve been doing this for a little bit now so it is good to be challenged.
Of course you will be down here again for Bluesfest next year. What are your memories of your first Bluesfest?
Well the first time we played, the first show it is something I don’t forget because the people were going bananas. They were going crazy. It was one of those shows … you know you fly half way across the world and you don’t know if anyone is going to like you, not like you, you just have no clue. But the reaction was one of those you felt in your chest. It was so loud and you just go wow, ok this is for real and honestly, it is why we come back and come back, it is a great festival. It really is honestly one of my favourite festivals because it is one of the few festivals that I usually really like the lineup because it is so diverse. One year we went, D’Angelo was playing and I’m a huge fan and finally got to see D’Angelo play and it was amazing. It’s a festival that I look forward to and a lot of things over there are pretty chilled, not like there’s people with their hair on fire or anything like that, it’s communal and really nice. We went to Minyon Falls, I think it’s called, which is not far from there and that was a magical day and I was like, is it always like this? We were swimming under some kind of falls and seeing all of these animals and I was just thinking man, this might be close to paradise! It was pretty awesome.
How much of the new album will you play in your set for Australia?
I would say we would probably play most of it.
You grew up listening to gospel music and I know from other interviews that you weren’t allowed to listen to much else. Were you allowed to listen to Aretha Franklin when you were young?
Yes of course, Aretha Franklin, everybody got to listen to Aretha. She was definitely on the OK list. I think some of her best work was written in Muscle Shoals. We were always trying to figure out how to cover Rock Steady, I think it is an amazing song. Aretha Franklin to me is … I mean any singer, doesn’t matter who you are, Aretha Franklin to me is the pinnacle as far as her tone and the way she sang, the conviction. There was a recording I think in the 80s when she did a gospel record again and she did a live record with Joe Ligon and the Mighty Clouds of Joy and there’s a song I’ve Been In The Storm Too Long. It’s an old song but to me that’s one of those songs to me that it hits me in the right spot every time I hear it and there aren’t too many that do that. It just makes you feel something other-worldly.
You’re an incredibly passionate performer, what’s the most passionate performance you have ever witnessed?
Oh man it’s a good question. I’ve seen some bands in small little clubs that I thought did a really good job but I saw Prince and you could tell there was a lot of love put into that show and you could tell he did everything he can to make that show happen. I do remember that.
St Paul & The Broken bones appear exclusively at Bluefest. April 18-22, 2019 Byron Bay. Info: https://www.bluesfest.com.au/
Young Sick Camellia is available now via Sony Music