Wednesday, April 24, 2024

St. Paul and the Broken Bones frontman reflects on fatherhood, the band’s next direction

In 2020, fatherhood became a major inspiration for “Angels in Science Fiction,” the most recent album from the Alabama octet St. Paul and the Broken Bones, performing at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater Thursday night. (Photo by Paige Sara) 

The ancient Greek playwright Euripides is quoted saying: “To a father growing old, nothing is dearer than a daughter.”

It’s a sentiment Paul Janeway, the namesake of Southern soul outfit St. Paul and the Broken Bones, can well relate to.

In 2020, fatherhood — and the ability to create a musical message for Janeway’s then-unborn child — became a major inspiration for “Angels in Science Fiction,” the most recent album from this Alabama octet. 

With Janeway and his wife learning they were expecting a daughter in January of that year, the 30-something frontman found himself grappling with a wellspring of creativity amidst a generational pandemic.

“With this record especially, it was bizarre, timing wise,” he recalled in a late-April phone interview. “We’d just gotten done with ‘Alien Coast’ in February 2020 right before the shit hit the fan.”

As months carried on in the pandemic, and protests began in the wake of the George Floyd murder that summer, it created a hotbed of inspiration for the band. Janeway said the album reflects his anxiety over new fatherhood and the social unrest of the world.

“I had to figure out how to channel this energy into a place that invoked relief,” he said, explaining the culmination of the record was coming about in a “struck-by-lightning kind of pace.”

Songs were written fast and furiously.

“It was just kind of overflowing,” Janeway said. “I would have written this record whether I was the postman or being a musician. It was going to happen.”

A flurry of songwriting occurred in April, but due to Covid-19 restrictions, it wasn’t until September that St. Paul and the Broken Bones were able to hit Sam Phillips Recording Studio and lay down what became the dozen songs that make up “Angels in Science Fiction.” For Janeway, getting these tunes in the can became a race against the clock.

“The real complication at that point, after writing those songs so quickly, was how to record it because at the time Covid-19 was going on, you wanted to be safe,” Janeway explained. “But you also wanted to finish the project. In my mind, I really felt like I had to do this before [my daughter] was born. Two weeks before she was born in September, we took a week out in Memphis and a couple of days in Birmingham to hash everything out.”

The result is a complicated collection of music, wrapped in the ambiance of quasi-psychedelic neo-soul that subtly conveys Janeway’s feelings of joy, fear and confusion tied to this major worldview shift that comes with bringing another life into the world.

Spirituality is a major driver in the songs, unsurprising given how Janeway’s childhood is rooted in a conservative religious upbringing. While he’s gone down a more secular path, not unlike his hero Al Green, the holy spirit is never far away on “Angels in Science Fiction.”

The melancholy title cut opens with Janeway crooning: “I don’t know if God is real/but then I see Him in your eyes/I don’t think I hear his voice/but then I hear your little cry/Angels seem like fiction/but now I’m not so sure.”

The glockenspiel-soaked “Sea Star” has its roots in a pastor’s sermon from Janeway’s youth.

Elsewhere, the mid-tempo soul groove of “City Federal Building” evokes vibes of minor-key Stax/Volt, as Janeway sings of crumbling skyscrapers and dead leaves.

The album’s key heart-on-your-sleeve moment is on the piano-and-string-kissed closer, “Marigold,” a tribute named for his daughter. It has Janeway promising: “I don’t want you to be alone/But I gotta go, I’ve got a show.” 

While family is at the core of this new record, it’s not the first time Janeway has looked to his family tree for creative spark. The band’s third album, 2018’s “Young Sick Camellia,” went from the vocalist wanting to record separate EPs that would serve as the voices of him, his father and grandfather, to a full-length outing that musically connected the trio of generations.

There are even spoken-word conversations between the singer and his grandfather interspersed into the album. In many ways, “Angels in Science Fiction” is the companion piece to “Camellia,” despite the two albums sandwiching 2022’s “The Alien Coast.”

“I think my relationship with family is a complicated thing, as is my relationship with religion,” Janeway said. “’Alien Coast’ is its own separate thing. I think [“Angels” and “Camellia”] intertwine a lot and are such a part of what inspires me, that it’s still a well. I think there’s definite connective tissue between those two records.”

Having just returned from Australia, St. Paul and the Broken Bones are back in the states but won’t be presenting a full “Angels in Science Fiction” tour until this fall. They’re scheduled for numerous festivals — DelFest, Hollywood Bowl Jazz Fest, Green River — and shows along the East Coast.

“I’m not sure if the “Angels of Science Fiction’ tour would be the greatest festival thing because it is a little more subdued,” Janeway said. “At festivals, you have a tendency to want to punch people in the face for 45 minutes or whatever.”

The band will, however, intersperse a few songs into the sets.

In the meantime, Janeway said this latest outing is a creative inflection point for his band. For the vocalist, he went from being a kid whose childhood dream was to become a preacher and stumbled into a secular gig fronting a soul band, to getting a firmer grip on his creative impulses a decade-plus in.

“I’ve said that with this record, it feels like the end of the book,” Janeway said. “This feels like whatever the band was trying to do, prove or whatever it is, this is the end. Now, we as a band have to reassess: What are we, what do we want to accomplish and what do we want to do? What is moving us?”

Creating music comes organically for the group, also consisting of Browan Lollar (guitars, vocals), Jesse Phillips (bass), Kevin Leon (drums, percussion), Al Gamble (organ, piano), Allen Branstetter (trumpet), Amari Ansari (saxophone), and Chad Fisher (trombone). Since 2014, they’ve released five albums, with six tracks landing on the U.S. AAA charts.

“You start bizarrely thinking about your body of work in a way, and when you look at it, what do you want it to look like?” Janeway asked rhetorically. “Now that we’re where we’re at, I think it’s really fun. But it does feel like the end of an era for us with this record — and I think that’s interesting. People are asking if we’re going to break up and that’s not what I’m saying.”

St. Paul and the Broken Bones will perform at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater on Thursday, May 25.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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