In the right light, Paul Janeway could pass as the accountant he expected to become. The Pentecostal-raised frontman for St. Paul and the Broken Bones has a penchant for polished suits, carefully styled combovers and maintaining a mean bowtie collection. But Janeway’s distinct, clean-cut look is the least important detail in The Gospel of the Broken Bones. Taking cues from his church choir background and emulating greats like Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding, a performance from St. Paul and the Broken Bones is completely uninhibited—the kind of transcendent experience that will leave you eager to share your vision of the light in the days that follow.
“We probably, on more than one hand, have had shows that were just special,” Janeway says. “And I think the main element is that obviously, everyone that’s there is just super into what you’re doing, and you’re into what they’re doing. It’s like a call and response. It almost is like church, in that you have this moment with people, and in having this moment together where you sing a sad song and people are crying, or you’re singing a happy song and people are dancing.”
It’s hard to imagine, given Janeway’s arresting stage presence and the band’s knack for old-fashioned Southern soul, that just two years ago the Broken Bones hadn’t set together. Janeway and longtime friend and multi-instrumentalist Jesse Phillips had played in a few bands over the years, but nothing had really taken off. Janeway was pursuing a degree in accounting, and the pair was playing one-offs in coffee shops, peppering their sets with just-for-fun covers.
But it was at one of these low-key performances during Birmingham’s Secret Stages festival that Les Nuby—friend and owner of Ol Elegante Studios in Homewood, Ala.—saw something in the duo and invited them to spend some time recording. Janeway and Phillips would show up a few times a month, trying out new styles and eventually figuring out what worked. After months of recording, the duo settled on what they should have known all along: Janeway’s hearty croon absolutely flourishes in gospel-rooted Southern soul.
“Everybody’s known that Paul was a great singer for a long time,” Phillips says. “We just hadn’t quite figured out how to portray it.”
With a solidified mission statement, things moved quickly from there. The guys invited a few friends in for the final touches of what would become their debut EP, Greetings from St. Paul and the Broken Bones.
“It was kind of magic,” said Janeway of the experience. “We kind of knew we had the band.”
With only a few performances under their collective belt, the band was already garnering acclaim from well-respected critics. But more significantly, audiences with unexposed ears to the band’s south-soaked sound started moving.
“Paul really gets up in people’s faces and engages them,” Phillips says. “He’ll make people clap, and he will elicit a response from the audience and he pretty much won’t take no for an answer. We’re aware that we’re not the coolest looking guys or the best dancers or anything like that. At the end of the day, Paul is up there and just giving everything he’s got, I think people really respect that.”
“I know there’s other people making music similar to what we’re doing, and there’s even a ton of other R&B and funk bands, but I don’t think there’s a lot of other people doing it like Paul does,” Phillips continues. “Giving people every last ounce of what they have, every night. It doesn’t matter if there’s 3,000 people or if there’s 20. You know, if there’s 20 sometimes I think Paul will work even harder to make sure those people know that they saw something special.”
There may be plenty of bands out there putting on memorable live shows, but rarely is the audience as fun to watch as the performer. Head to any Broken Bones show and reserve at least a few minutes for people watching, because attendees are bound to be flailing, laughing, crying and everything between. Janeway and the band cater to these peaks and valleys, altering the setlists for crowds of all different moods.
“It’s just when all those elements combine, it’s why we do music,” said Janeway. “I specifically remember going to see Prince, and I was put to tears. I think ever since then, I try to seek out that kind of concert experience. Obviously we’re not even close to a Prince level, but I think we can have those moments.” And with the band’s growing reputation as a monumental live force, Janeway’s come full circle by seeing new fans brought to tears.
“That’s mind-boggling, but it’s brilliant,” says Janeway. “That’s what makes it special. We’re a very fortunate band, to get to experience that, because I don’t think everyone gets to experience that.”
As the band continues to garner more national attention, Janeway and Phillips are quick to credit Birmingham’s burgeoning music community for its unwavering support.
“There’s always been great music in Birmingham, but it’s one of those places where the scene hadn’t really had a chance to coalesce or have a set of common goals for a long time,” Phillips says, noting the band’s frequent haunt The Bottletree as a catalyst in the music community’s recent growth. “People move to LA, people move to Nashville, people move to New York if they want to do something in the music industry. What we’re seeing now is maybe you don’t actually have to do that. You can actually manage to make a dent in the world at large from Birmingham.”
And Phillips is right. With several big summer bills behind them and a rigorous touring schedule ahead, their unmistakable take on southern sounds has already forced a clean break from the “local band” tag. Don’t be surprised if St. Paul and the Broken Bones manage to wail, dance and sweat their way into your regular rotation.