If you hear St. Paul & the Broken Bones sight unseen, the Alabama neo-soul band conjures images of Al Green sweating while crooning. Singer Paul Janeway chuckles when asked about listeners' preconceptions of his appearance before they see his band live. "When we started, there were assumptions I wouldn't look the way I do," he says. "It's fun to surprise people. I sing the way I sing. It does catch people off-guard."
Janeway had been singing in church since the age of 4. "Church is where I learned that when you sing, you have to give it all you've got," he says. He performed at open-mike nights, but a career in music was something he never foresaw. He was working as a bank teller and attending accounting school when bassist Jesse Phillips persuaded him to start a musical project centered on his unique and powerful voice. "He got together a bunch of musicians because he's more social than I am," Janeway says. "We figured it would be one last musical gasp before we went our separate ways. If it didn't work out, I'd become an accountant and Jesse would go back to Montana, where he's from."
It quickly did work out, and St. Paul & the Broken Bones was born. The eight-piece has released three albums since 2012 and has become a huge concert draw because of the band's spectacular live performances. "We have a beginning and an end planned for each show. We try to get the set real tight but keep open spots for ad-libbing. We have room for improv, but you have to know where everything is going. We rehearse at soundcheck, but we play so much we don't need that much rehearsal." Janeway uses exceptional concerts he's attended as learning tools for his band's stage show. "Anytime I see a good show, I ask myself, What did I love about it? I've been lucky to see great musicians like Prince, D'Angelo, Springsteen, and Paul McCartney."
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Janeway understands his voice is a gift right up there with his heroes and tries to keep it well rested. "I don't smoke or drink. I exercise it. I warm it up and warm it down, but I'm not always as disciplined about that as I should be. If my voice gets in rough shape, I try not to talk much. But getting good sleep is 80 percent of keeping my voice in shape."
St. Paul & the Broken Bones are set to play Culture Room Friday, December 7, in part to promote their latest album, Young Sick Camellia. "I thought the record would be an EP," Janeway says. "I wanted 3 EPs: one from my perspective, one from my father's, and one from my grandfather's. I was going to explore each generation's viewpoint." The songs from Janeway's point of view began piling up, so the EP became a full-length. "It was self-analyzation. I was self-reflective, getting personal with inner dialogue. The camellia is Alabama's state flower, and it's also in a Caravaggio painting that was a self-portrait. This is kind of my self-portrait."
He thinks the new album will surprise listeners the same way matching his face with the band's music astonishes them. "This album, like the others, I wanted to move forward. We're so flexible — it's fun to experiment and go further. It shows the elasticity of the band."