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St. Paul and the Broken Bones Are Finally Reckoning With the South

“I’ve always felt like a broken Southerner,” singer Paul Janeway says of the conflicted feelings that inspired his band’s new LP ‘Young Sick Camellia’

st paul and the broken bones

St. Paul and the Broken Bones discuss coming to terms with their conflicted feelings on Southern identity on new LP 'Young Sick Camellia.'

McNair Evans

Sometimes, Paul Janeway admits, when touring the world with his band, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, he’ll find himself with this “weird desire” to return to a more simple life. Like, say, one spent working at one of the body shops in his rural hometown of Chelsea, Alabama.

But such feelings are fleeting. Because while members of his family have never wavered in their intense Southern pride, as Janeway matured with age — and particularly once he began self-identifying as “uber-liberal” in his twenties — he felt more and more conflicted with his roots. “I felt alien in a lot of ways,” Janeway says. On any given day, “there’s tugs in all sorts of directions,” he says, “but I’ve always kind of felt like a broken Southerner.”

Ironically, St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ Southern origins have long been central to the soulful R&B band’s identity. But while Janeway previously felt reticent about confronting the topic, when crafting their new album, Young Sick Camellia (due Friday, its title a reference to the Alabama state flower), Janeway was confident enough to finally dig deeper. “It’s always been something that’s been in the back of my mind,” he says, but now the singer was at last ready to reckon with the fact that he often struggles to find common ground with those he grew up among.

Illustrating this fact, the 35-year-old singer recalls a recent heated discussion he had with a Trump-supporting friend of his father’s. Janeway was back home to move a piano out of his late grandfather’s house, and he and his father’s friend got to talking politics. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before they were arguing. “And then part of you is like ‘Fuck you!’” Janeway says. “But the other part is like, ‘We grew up on the same street!’ That to me,” he says, “is the struggle.”

In these sorts of situations, Janeway says he typically holds his tongue. “Because you can say, ‘Hey, they’re just dumb rednecks.’ Fine. They love that! All you’re doing is reinvigorating them.” But when writing the lyrics to Camellia he didn’t hold back an inch.

“Gun-shaped Bible and a loaded tongue/Jesus ain’t the problem but he started one,” Janeway, who once considered joining the seminary, snarls of hypocritical evangelism over a funky Chic-esque disco groove on “Got It Bad.” Later, on “Bruised Fruit,” an elegant piano ballad that closes the 13-track album, Janeway, taking his usual octave-defying howl down to a gentle croon, reckons with his unchangeable lineage: “Blood is what I can’t escape/Harbored in the DNA.”

From the time they began collaborating together prior to the release of their 2012 debut EP, Greetings From St. Paul and the Broken Bones, bassist Jesse Phillips says he’s always trusted Janeway’s instincts when it comes to lyrics. “He’s putting so much of himself into the delivery of the lyrics, especially when we do shows so he’s gotta feel it,” Phillips says, referencing the singer’s reputation as a frenzied live performer known to stagedive to fire up a crowd. “So he may as well write it and be fully invested.”

Sea of Noise, the band’s second album, released in 2016, was a darker, more ominous affair than Half the City, their much-heralded, retro-soul-leaning debut full-length. For Camellia, the band pushed its sonic limits even further, enlisting L.A.-based producer Jack Splash, best known for his work with pop and hip-hop artists including Kendrick Lamar, Christina Aguilera and Alicia Keys. The result finds St. Paul swapping Hammond B3 organs for synthesizers and embracing their more psychedelic and experimental impulses.

“I think we’re reckless in a lot of ways,” Janeway says. He says they could easily have made another straight-down-the-middle R&B/soul album, more akin to their debut. “But who gives a shit about that?” he says with a laugh. “How is that fun? You have to take risks. You have to be willing to fail.”

“I don’t think we’re in a place where we could do something like an Ummagumma,” Phillips says, referencing Pink Floyd’s polarizing 1969 double album, which its members later disavowed as “a failed experiment.” “But we’re also not trying to adhere stringently to what people might be expecting from us. I still do think we consider ourselves an R&B band fundamentally. It’s just how far can we push it in any given direction while still sounding like ourselves and not going too far off the deep end?”

Splash was first introduced to the band via Ron Perry, the chairman and CEO of Columbia Records, and says working with them was an opportunity to create an album that combined some of his greatest musical influences. During early sessions in L.A. with Janeway and Phillips, Splash recalls pitching the pair on an album that had “the beauty and elegance of Jeff Buckley or Pink Floyd … but then totally clash that with the swing or the funk of Jamiroquai and Dilla.” And the cool thing was,” he says, “right from the beginning Paul and Jesse were 100 percent down.”

Given his grand ambition for the project, it’s even more remarkable that Janeway was so flexible. The singer reveals his initial plan was for the album to be the first in a trilogy of EP’s, all of them centered on his Southern roots and intimate family dynamic, with the first focusing on himself, and the next two told from the perspective of his father and his late grandfather, respectively.

“But in the end this became too big a project,” the singer says. “I couldn’t do this in four or five songs.”

Still, he’s certainly not backing away from his grand ambition. Following the release of Camellia this fall and an accompanying North American tour, Janeway said he plans to head back to the studio this winter to begin work on the second installment.

“I am a person of contrasts,” Janeway says with a laugh. “The studio to me is where you can sit and think and the live show is where you can rip your clothes off and just go crazy.”

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