When St. Paul & the Broken Bones emerged from their small-town-Alabama home and started playing shows, it was almost as if a fully realized group of old pros had stepped out of a time capsule from Muscle Shoals’ heyday. A sharp-dressed band that counted trombone, sax, and trumpet among its ranks, with screaming soul man Paul Janeway leading the way, this wasn’t an act that had any trace of a newcomer’s hesitation onstage.
“I grew up in what I call ‘fun church,’ ” says Janeway, the band’s bowtie-sporting big-personality of a frontman. “We jumped around, spoke in tongues. As far as performance, it teaches you that you do it at 100 percent. You don’t half-ass it.”
Janeway’s made a career of not half-assing it — when it comes to music, anyway. But while he’s quick to credit the church for his finely honed performance chops, it wasn’t a spot in the choir that pushed him into the spotlight.
“When I was about twelve years old, I had a pastor come in who kind of was grooming me to be a preacher. So [as] a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old kid, he would let me speak on certain nights,” he says. When Janeway takes the stage, it’s easy to see elements of praise music and a call-and-response type of leadership. “That’s what I thought I was gonna do — I didn’t think I would be talking to you, that’s for sure. I didn’t think I was gonna be a musician.”
By any standard, Janeway and the Broken Bones have plenty of reason to give thanks and praise. In the last six months alone, they’ve played big-ticket fests like Coachella and Bonnaroo, shared stages with icons such as Mavis Staples, and even snagged a coveted opening slot for the Rolling Stones. Janeway was also one of the big voices selected by newly appointed bandleader Jon Batiste to help Stephen Colbert break in his reign as the new Late Show host.
“I think it could possibly be written on our tombstone,” Janeway says of the dates with the Rolling Stones. The bespectacled Paul and his buttoned-up Broken Bones may not look the part of rock stars, but if any young band could stand a chance of winning over a crowd anxious to catch a glimpse of Mick Jagger, it’s this one. “It was very weird, because we played to a football stadium of people, and obviously they’re not there to see you at all. So it was loads of fun. I was still kind of like, ‘We gotta get ’em! We gotta get ’em.’ ”
It was the kind of gig that most kids with a voice as big as Janeway’s would have probably been dreaming about since the first time they opened their mouths, but growing up in a strictly religious household — traditional gospel music with the occasional soul song made up his parents’ soundtrack — meant Janeway wasn’t falling in love with the Stones or many of rock ‘n’ roll’s big legends until later in life.
“I always tell people that if me and God had a Facebook status, it would be ‘complicated,’ ” he says. “I’m a fairly liberal guy, so growing up in a predominantly red environment, you have a real hard time with your identity: You’re a Southerner, but you don’t believe these things. As a late teenager, when you start falling out of love with it, you develop a lot of venom for it.”
That’s not to say Janeway and the band’s Deep South roots haven’t been influential to them; with role models like Percy Sledge and peers like Alabama Shakes, Janeway says that their home state built them up in a way that was crucial to their success, especially at the beginning.
“Alabama has a very rich musical history, and those are the shadows you’re living in. You’re gonna have to sell a lot of damn records to even compete with those guys who played on Aretha Franklin records,” Janeway says. “You’re gonna have to sell a lot of records and make some pretty special music.”
With only an EP and a subsequent full-length under their belt, St. Paul & the Broken Bones are already beginning to fulfill at least the latter half of that challenge. And while so much of what caught fans’ attention with the band from the beginning was the novelty of their familiar old sound, they’re not worried about falling into a slump as they gear up for a sophomore effort.
“You know how people tell you that you have a lifetime to write your debut record, and then you only have like a year to write the second record? That’s kinda true,” says Janeway. “But the way we recorded, we wrote the first record in three weeks and recorded it in four days. So it’s weird for us [this time] because we’ve actually had time to write and think.”
“I feel like [the first] record kind of represented the past, and this one kind of represents the now,” he says. “It’s gonna be really interesting. I’m really excited about it — really excited about it. Everything’s kind of taking shape now. I can’t wait to ruin our careers.”
St. Paul & the Broken Bones play Webster Hall on September 15 and Brooklyn Bowl on September 16. Both shows have sold out, but tickets can be found on the secondary market.