St. Paul and the Broken Bones' Paul Janeway talks snazzy suits, soul heroes and more
Here’s one thing they don’t teach you in Rock Star School: The importance of wardrobe maintenance.
“When I first started, I got this really nice Billy Reid suit, and it was like, Wow, this is awesome! This is the nicest suit I’ve ever owned!” said Paul Janeway, the flamboyantly attired singer of Alabama soul-rock collective St. Paul and the Broken Bones. “Then about two weeks in, I blew out the crotch, and I was like, All right, I’m going to have to have more than one suit.”
These days Janeway rotates three suits between shows, ironed and steamed and crisp as they day they were tailored. But he can probably afford a lot more, considering St. Paul and the Broken Bones are one of the most in-demand live acts touring today.
Thanks in large part to the timeless pipes and theatrical flair of their bespectacled, slightly doughy and wholly arresting frontman, St. Paul and the Broken Bones have opened for the Rolling Stones, played Elton John’s Oscar party and suited up at nearly every major festival you can name. Janeway, who once thought of becoming a preacher and studied to be an accountant, is the group’s lodestar, its defining source of energy and flair.
With Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse dearly departed, Janeway, like his fellow Gulf Coaster Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes, is among the artists doing the most to push classic soul music into the future. The group’s latest tour, in support of their sophomore album Sea of Noise, brings them to Jannus Live on Friday for what promises to be a powerful show.
“With this last record, people were like, ‘Oh, sophomore record, sophomore slump,’ all this,” he said. “I didn’t think about that. For me, if the song doesn’t move me, I don’t want to sing it. Until that itch isn’t scratched anymore, I’m just going to continue to do it.”
Before the show, Janeway called from a day off in Philadelphia to talk about his soul heroes, his “St. Paul” persona and more.
I apologize for my voice; it’s a little scratchy. So if I launch into a hacking fit, just bear with me.
(laughs) You and me both, friend.
What’s your go-to voice remedy?
Sleep. I have an emergency kit if I can’t sing — it’s like antibiotics or whatever the case may be. Hot tea, of course. And then I have this stuff called Entertainer’s Secret. It’s like a synthetic saliva that keeps everything lubricated. You don’t ever want it to dry out.
You have one of those voices where, if you don’t have it on a given night, you can’t really fake it.
No. You’re exactly right. If I’m at 80 percent, it’s very obvious. I’ve had a little cold, so me having a little cold has been very frustrating. But I can get through it because I don’t sing out of my nose a lot. As long as it’s in my nose, I’m okay. It’s when it gets into my throat that it’s an issue.
Why do you say it’s noticeable if you get down to 80 percent? What is it that people notice?
Because I was stupid enough to write these songs where I sang in all sorts of ranges. So sometimes when you have a cold, it’s harder to hit those bigger notes. And unfortunately, there’s a lot of those big notes in these songs.
The last time you came through here last year, you were playing with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. How well did you get to know Sharon Jones before she passed away?
I knew some of the people in the band, to a degree. I had very few interactions with her. But they’re just totally good folks who worked really hard and always had a very high respect, and I think that’s the thing. There’s a lot of talented folks out there, and when you meet good people who are talented, you’re never going to pull against them. And that crew, that was one of them, definitely. I would be lying if I said we were all super-close, but it was cool. And it was just really, really, really sad when she passed, because you lost kind of a titan there.
Do you think of yourself as a musical preservationist, or someone who’s always trying to push an old tradition forward?
It’s probably drawing from the old tradition and trying to expand it and put it in a new kind of context. I don’t think of myself as a historian by any stretch. But I definitely feel like we’re drawing from an older style and trying to figure out, “All right, how do you do that in modern times?”
We lost a lot of music legends last year, not just Sharon but Prince and David Bowie, who were some of your heroes. Who would you say are some of the legends who are out there performing right now that maybe we should be appreciating more than we are?
There’s so many old soul singers. Someone like William Bell, who I don’t think gets the credit he deserves. We got to play with William a couple of months ago, and got to do I Forgot to Be Your Lover. I think a lot of those guys, the Syl Johnsons of the world, and people like that who I don’t think get the love that they should. I was more nervous about playing with or being around William than I ever was the Rolling Stones. That’s how big of a deal he is to me, on a personal level.
It was great to see him pop up on the Grammys this year.
That was great! It was fantastic. And didn’t he win for something like Americana? There’s a lot of old soul singers that don’t get the love that they should. And it’s just sad. To me, those guys are the real heroes and the guys that I look up to.
This idea of “real singers” — I know that’s how a lot of people view you, because it’s what people would call “real music.” Yet theatricality and stage presentation are really big in what you do. Could you still play the music you play the same way — and would you be as successful — without the snazzy suits, the presentation, the way that you stage your performances?
My mentality was always, when you went to a job, you dressed up. You wore a uniform. The theatrics and all that — to me, it’s a show. It’s an hour and a half of therapy for me. It’s method acting, in a way. You get lost in the music — not too lost to where you don’t know what’s going on, but you get lost in the moment. So no, I don’t think it would have been as successful. But a lot of that is it’s part of who we are. The whole thing’s an extension of us.
Since you play this heightened, elevated “St. Paul” character on stage, do you have a favorite rock ‘n’ roll character from throughout history?
Oh, man. There was a guy named Wayne Cochran who I really love. He was a trip. I even dig someone like Iggy Pop, who is just so outlandish. I’ve seen some Little Richard stuff that was like, Man, that guy was a character. And then someone like Prince. Prince was so smooth, it was almost like he was perfect. I am not that. (laughs) I’m going to fumble and bumble.
You talk about big personalities — you just played Elton John’s Oscar after-party. At what point during a gig like that do you become aware of who’s in the room?
I’ve never been in a room with that kind of money, so it was very uncomfortable for me. Robert Kraft, who owns the Patriots, was in there. It’s culture shock in a lot of ways. Elton is very generous, very kind, and has been very good to us. It really is something that you just kind of go, “Why are we here? Why did they want us?”
When was the first time one of your musical heroes knew of you and your band?
One of the first was actually Otis Redding’s family. They have been wonderful to us. We played Otis’s 75th anniversary party, and Zelma, his wife, took us on a tour of the Big “O” Ranch, and only like four bands had been out there before. It was a huge honor. They sent this beautiful letter to me that I’ll never forget. And when that happened, you’re like, Oh, okay, so maybe what we’re doing is translating as coming from a real place. Because it isn’t fake. Even to this day I don’t know if I fully appreciated that, because we’ve been working so much. Maybe one day I should just sit back and enjoy it.
-- Jay Cridlin