Smelling the air

St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ Paul Janeway explores Southern identity in these times

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St. Paul and the Broken Bones
David McClister

The economy had just rushed headlong into the recession when Paul Janeway met his future wife, Caroline; he was unemployed, living in his dad’s apartment with three other people.

And he was about to go on a date with her roommate.

“It was one date,” Janeway says, his warm Birmingham drawl melting into laughter. “There’s nothing weird.”

Janeway was nervous to ask this girl out; Caroline was “an amazing person,” working for a nonprofit that provided a variety of resources, like vision screenings and tax prep, to low-income families.

And she was cute.

So he stayed in touch with her, and over the course of a few months the two began dating — and then Caroline got accepted to Georgetown University.

“One of the great things about this relationship is that we don’t stand in each other’s way; this was a lifetime opportunity [for Caroline],” Janeway says. “We thought well, it’s not gonna work out, but a week went by and we couldn’t stand [being apart].”

The two finally got hitched in 2015.

“There’s nobody I love more than my wife. If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t be doing this, but she believed in me,” he says.

So, thanks to his wife, Janeway’s gainfully employed now, lending his sweet-as-Southern-tea and fiery-as-a-freewill-Baptist’s voice to the Southern soul-revival outfit St. Paul and the Broken Bones. It didn’t take long for folks to notice the band after their debut album, Half the City, was released by Alabama label Single Lock Records in 2014. By the summer of 2015, St. Paul and the Broken Bones were opening for The Rolling Stones. Janeway, with his penchant for stage diving and rolling around like a man possessed, made sure folks walked away from a Stones’ show remembering the opening act.

On the phone on this particular day, Janeway is back home in Birmingham, having just wrapped up a run of gigs through Europe: the U.K., Germany, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, where his wife joined him for a few extra play days in Prague.

Europe’s rich art scene captivated Janeway, who credits his wife, as he does often when mentioning positive aspects of his life, for his appreciation of art.

“For some reason I love getting to see paintings, because it’s stuff you don’t… ” Janeway pauses. “Well, I sure as hell didn’t see it in Alabama.

“I find more inspiration from art than I do music,” he admits. “It’s a very odd thing.”

It’s not, really, when you begin to understand Janeway’s inclination to explore life. He was working at a mechanic’s shop right before he got laid off during the recession, mowing grass and pouring asphalt in the Alabama sun. And before St. Paul and the Broken Bones broke big, he was working at a bank, just a semester away from getting his degree in accounting.

But the boy from Shelby County, Alabama, grew up thinking he’d become a preacher. When the doors to his nondenominational church were open, Janeway was there. At home he’d deliver sermons to his stuffed animals.

“As with anything else, I felt like I grew out of it, maybe that my worldview expanded a bit and I didn’t quite agree with some of the messages I was receiving,” he says. “I just fell out of love with that idea.”

There was a period of time when Janeway “developed a lot of venom” for religion, as is the case with many adolescents raised on messages filled with as much love as they are with hellfire and brimstone — but he grew out of that too.

On stage with the Broken Bones, always dressed in a suit, Janeway has found a way to channel the passion of a Southern preacher, and maybe even a way to deliver some of the same messages of love and acceptance.

“I don’t think our goals are as lofty as to speak with God or have a conduit with God, but I do think the goal is the same: to bring people together to have a unique experience, to have a real experience, to have a genuine moment, which I think is something that doesn’t happen as often as I think it should,” he says. “It’s like that one time I saw Prince; I remember having this moment… it was an amazing performance. The neighbor next to you, didn’t matter where they were coming from, you were all experiencing the same thing, you had the same look on your face. I think there is something somewhat spiritual about that.”

Janeway’s a bookworm, and not one to choose light fare. He just finished Blood in the Water, a book about the Attica Prison rebellion in New York. The latest album by St. Paul and the Broken Bones, 2016’s Sea of Noise, was inspired in part by activist lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s memoir Just Mercy. Filled with images of gun violence and systemic oppression, Sea of Noise is reflective of a nation in crisis, and Janeway’s personal crisis.

“It was an internal search of Southern identity in these times, kind of smelling the air,” Janeway says. “Obviously, where we’re at now, here in the political climate and with [movements] like Black Lives Matter… there’s a restlessness. I’m trying to figure out what that is and is there hope. [Sea of Noise] asks a bunch of questions — it doesn’t answer anything. For me, Just Mercy put me there. I had to write that way. I don’t know if I’d write another record like that.”

In fact, he’s just gotten off the phone with his manager, and while he can’t get into specifics, the next Broken Bones project is “very ambitious.”

For a band that’s covered Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees,” and “Let Me Roll It” by Wings, “ambitious” conjures interesting possibilities.

“That’s a good place to have your head.”

And that’s all we’ll get from Janeway — for now.

On the Bill: St. Paul and the Broken Bones. 7:30 p.m. Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder, tickets.chautauqua.com. $35-$50.