Paul Janeway can think of at least one way life’s changed since he made his first hit record with St. Paul and The Broken Bones.
“Well, I got richer,” he deadpans in his Alabama drawl before breaking into laughter.
Thanks to a dynamite live act, a classic Southern soul sensibility and Janeway’s powerhouse vocals emulating Otis Redding and Al Green, St. Paul and The Broken Bones found critical acclaim and a spot on the Billboard 200 with their 2014 debut album “Half the City.”
But success freaked Janeway out. In fact, he says he briefly considered quitting show business entirely.
“I started getting really self-conscious,” Janeway says. “Success changes things.”
If he was going to continue being a professional musician, Janeway needed to find a deeper purpose. The product of that inner journey was the band’s 2016 record, “Sea Of Noise,” which finds Janeway exploring heavier themes like losing one’s faith and political polarization. And as the band begins work on their third album, Janeway wants to continue taking risks.
St. Paul and The Broken Bones released their sophomore album ‘Sea Of Noise’ in 2016.
“If we fail, we’re going to fail miserably,” Janeway says. “I don’t want to plateau. I either want to fail miserably or make something I’m extremely proud of. I don’t want to just float above water.”
Ahead of St. Paul and The Broken Bones’ Saturday night show at Brooklyn Bowl and Sunday set at The Meadows Music & Arts Festival, Janeway shared his thoughts about politics at concerts, breaking out of the “retro soul” bubble and Southern pride.
NYDN: How do you think success impacts creativity?
PJ: It depends upon how you take success. I just turned 34 so I kind of am who I am at this point. But I think it can make you get lazy. It can make you sit back and be satisfied. Fortunately, I don’t operate that way. I always operate in the way that someone’s going to take your spot any second so you have to continue to work.
I love being creative. The process of writing a record or coming up with a show or even the album artwork, I love those things. I love thinking about it. What speaks to me? You have to find what speaks to you.
I was talking about this other day with some of the guys in the band, but what happens with a band is they get a certain amount of success and just get tired of the creative process. It is exhausting. I think about it 24/7. And I love it, but I’m sure there’s going to come a point where I don’t love it as much and I’m just like, “Ugh.”
I still think you have to do what moves you. I’m very fortunate that I have a lot of people in my life who aren’t enamored with the success. They love me for me, and I think it’s important I don’t have a bunch of yes-men around me to keep perspective. It’s easy to lose perspective quickly.
NYDN: When it comes to the news cycle and political issues, there seem to be two camps of artists: those who want to use their art to address those issues and those who want to use their art to provide an escape from those issues. What camp would you consider yourself to be in?
PJ: Art is a reactionary thing. It’s a combination of both for us. I don’t bring (politics) up during shows because I don’t think anyone wants to hear it. We hear it all the time. When someone comes to the show, they don’t want to hear me go on a 20 minute rant about how much I think Trump sucks. I’m not a geopolitical expert.
Is your writing going to be influenced by that? 100%. There’s no way it can’t be.
“Sea Of Noise” is a record that gets into more topical stuff, but because the music is the way it is, you can kind of avoid (the politics) as a listener.
I don’t do it at shows unless there’s something so egregious. But I just don’t because people are paying their hard-earned money to get away from that. Are there songs that have a political slant to them? Sure, 100%. If they want to get that out of those songs, they can.
I make it no secret where I stand. It’s not like I’m hiding anything. I just don’t do it during shows.
I remember seeing Prince and he never did that. Nobody doubted where Prince stood, you know?
There are creative ways to display your frustration, and I think that’s the job of the artist.
NYDN: That perspective seems to fall in line with a lot of the band’s influences from ’60s R&B and soul, which were rooted in the civil rights movement. Do you ever feel pigeonholed or boxed-in when it comes to emulating that classic throwback sound?
PJ: For the first album, we definitely rested on what we know. A lot of our guys grew up in Muscle Shoals, our keys player is a Memphis guy, you know? We all grew up around it.
The problem is I knew when the first record came out that we were going to start changing things. There is a pressure, 100%. The philosophy of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” that’s not the way I’m going to operate.
I listen to so much, everything from Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” to Serge Gainsbourg. It would be dishonest if you don’t let some of that leak in.
If you’re doing “retro soul” or whatever you want to call it, and you release the same record twice, all you’re telling your audience is, “Well, this is all we have to offer.” But I think there’s more to this band.
We’re starting to work on our third record and it’s going to be very different. It’s a progression.
With “Sea Of Noise,” we couldn’t lose ourselves. You can go too far and you lose that thing. We’re writing the third record right now and it’s so much easier. It’s easier because everyone goes, “Okay, we’re fine.” But there were guys on that second record in the band who were like, “I don’t know. I’m scared. This is a career.”
And I get that. So I told them, “You have to trust this.” And if we fail, we’re going to fail miserably. I don’t want to plateau. I either want to fail miserably or make something I’m extremely proud of. I don’t want to just float above water.
NYDN: A lot of people across the country are talking about how we honor the past and what history we choose to honor as a country. You’re from Birmingham, one of the flashpoints of the civil rights movement. What’s your perspective?
PJ: When I was little, I lived in a town that was like 800 people. And there was a guy who would sell rebel flags out of the back of his track right around the corner. This is a tiny town. His sign said, “Heritage, not hate.”
I always thought that was bizarre. I never saw that flag in my house, my mom and dad never had it. It was always just kind of bad. But I knew guys in schools who would wear that flag on the back of their T-shirts.
I’m a fan of reading non-fiction, and when you read that history, I have a hard time understanding why anyone wants to memorialize this war that was such a huge issue. And slavery was the issue. Some people used to tell me it was about states’ rights. Well, it was about the state’s rights to own slaves!
When you’re from the South, you do see it. I just always thought it was bizarre that you’d have those monuments up. I get Southern pride. I’m proud to be from Alabama, but I’m not proud of that part (of history). I wish that part didn’t exist. And I bet you there are a lot of southerners who feel the same way. They wish that history didn’t exist.
St. Paul and The Broken Bones play Brooklyn Bowl on Saturday and The Meadows festival on Sunday.
Should we take those monuments down? Absolutely. I don’t know why they’re up. At this point, I just don’t know why.
The problem is that when slavery was abolished, instead of going, “Alright, man. We f—-d this up, let’s figure this out.” Instead, the North tries to get the South back on track, so they make all these laws and we’re talking about Jim Crow and the prison system. It’s just this constant thing of a “f-k you” to African-Americans. It’s systemic.
So I don’t rejoice in the monuments of Robert E. Lee. I don’t understand why they’re standing. It’s not a heritage I’m proud of. I don’t want a daily reminder of it.