The first time Paul Janeway saw the work of Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, he found himself transfixed by the artist’s choice to paint subjects with dirty feet and ragged fingernails, with Caravaggio’s somber, working-class representations of holy figures like Mary and St. Matthew.
For Janeway, a working-class man who now fronts soul group St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Caravaggio’s work was a revelation, an ingenious mix of the ethereal and the terrestrial.
“Throughout the Renaissance, when you painted Mary, it was this reverence, there was this glow,” Janeway says on the phone from Boston, where the band has landed after a week of shows around New York. “With Caravaggio, he was using common people. I’ve always thought about him as a working-class artist. There was a darkness to it, it felt real. These are common people, people you’d meet down the street. For St. Kathryn or Mary, there was a prostitute friend he would typically use [as a model].
“I always thought that was really beautiful and that he’s the kind of artist, though my father and grandfather would never be into that, I think they would appreciate.”
There’s an intersection between these things for Janeway, between his complex relationships with his father and grandfather, his love of art and his passion for — and conflict with — the working-class, conservative world in which he was raised in Alabama. Janeway tethers these disparate aspects of his life and personality on his band’s new album, Young Sick Camellia. Musically, the album fuses the band’s trademark soul with cerebral interludes and a touch of electronic funk. Lyrically, it steers away from the message-driven content of the band’s previous album, Sea of Noise, to focus on the Janeway clan, specifically Paul, his father and his grandfather. Conceptually, Young Sick Camellia borrows from Caravaggio’s piece “Young Sick Bacchus,” a jaundiced self-portrait the artist rendered while he was sick. The album’s cover, a wilting camellia — the state flower of Alabama — greets listeners with eerie personification.
The record is the first in a very personal trilogy Janeway hopes to pen, this one written from his perspective, the next two from the point-of-view of his father and grandfather. Interludes include snippets from a conversation Janeway had with his grandfather, who died shortly after the album was released.
“It was one conversation we had, just an hour-and-a-half long one day,” Janeway says. “[St. Paul and the Broken Bones] were opening up for Hall and Oates in Texas. It was something I wanted to do, knew I wanted to do a while ago. I told him, ‘I’m going to record this conversation,’ and he didn’t care. About two months after that he got sick. It was one of those things where, you know, the music just took a different meaning after he passed. Now it’s a little more haunting than what I initially wanted. That’s what happens with art.”
The album opens with an atmospheric feel and theme with “Cumulus Pt. 1,” the elder Janeway talking about tornados tearing through the low-lying land of Georgia and Alabama.
The theme of storms runs throughout the album, and throughout St. Paul’s work in general.
“[There’s a] Sisyphus quote: ‘I was born from the storm,’” Janeway says. “I feel like that’s a line between my grandfather, father and me. This chip on my shoulder, you have to prove yourself. Anytime there was a church song about storms, [like] ‘I’ve been in the storm too long,’ that imagery I’m always drawn to. I wanted [my grandfather] to share the worst storm he’d been in.”
Janeway says his relationship with his father and grandfather could be described as typically southern, typically masculine.
“My grandfather worked every day of his life and never went on vacation,” he says. “He had a pretty angry streak, very hard person. Didn’t say I love you. My dad is kind of the same way. I struggle with stuff like that. I have to try and make an effort. Even people I work with, I have to make an effort to compliment them,” he admits with a laugh.
“I have to work at that. I put my head down and plow through, which can be good. It can also be bad. My dad and grandfather’s relationship was always complicated. They had… they were never really affectionate. Me and my dad didn’t have a really good relationship until my late teens. I guess when I moved in with him, it was like a two-bedroom apartment, and there were three other people. I think that’s what changed our relationship because I understood him a little bit more. I always thought he was angry and tough on me. I’m glad I did that because we have a decent relationship now.”
As a voracious reader, Janeway’s literary tastes often influence his musical output as well. The band’s 2016 album, Sea of Noise, filled with images of gun violence and references to systems of oppression in the U.S., was inspired in part by activist lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s memoir Just Mercy. For these more personal records, Janeway turned to Detroit poet Philip Levine.
“I think poetry really helps get me in the right headspace,” he says. “It’s very much like a working-class kind of poetry. It’s beautiful.”
On the Bill: St. Paul and the Broken Bones — with Black Pumas. 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder. $35.