It should be obvious from their sound that St. Paul and the Broken Bones have a good sense of history. The Birmingham-based band’s debut album, 2014’s Half the City, trafficked in throwback soul, echoing touchstones of the genre’s golden age so closely that the result bordered on pastiche. The album, buoyed by a vibrant horn section and singer Paul Janeway’s powerhouse vocals, was a collection of 12 effortlessly nostalgic pop tracks — but by the end of the album’s 39-minute running time, not much had been revealed about the band beyond their uncanny ability to evoke Otis Redding and Sam Cooke.
The band’s follow-up album, Sea of Noise, was released in September and paints a much clearer picture of who St. Paul and the Broken Bones are. That 1960s influence remains — with some ‘70s funk thrown in for good measure — but the songwriting is more confident, the production more modern. Janeway’s lyricism, meanwhile, is more developed in Sea of Noise, thoughtfully interrogating contemporary society without coming across as condescending or preachy.
The result is an album that embraces the political aspect of classic soul — the sense of protest that informed iconic songs like Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” — and gracefully transposes it into the present.
As has become somewhat of an annual tradition, St. Paul and the Broken Bones — which, in addition to Janeway, consists of Jesse Phillips, Andrew Lee, Al Gamble, Browan Lollar, Allen Branstetter, Chad Fisher, and Jason Mingledorff — will perform two hometown shows at the Alabama Theatre on Wednesday, December 28, and Thursday, December 29. Recently, Janeway spoke with Weld about the band’s new direction, exploring Southern identity in his lyrics, and the state of contemporary political protests.
Weld: Sea of Noise is a pretty dramatic step forward from Half the City, both lyrically and sonically. Was that shift a conscious decision at the outset, or did it emerge during the process of making the album?
Paul Janeway: When we recorded Half the City, we [had been] a band for about four months. We didn’t have hundreds of shows under our belt. So by the time we released that album in February of 2014, I was on to the next thing. I wanted to expand the style. Because by that point, the band was a different band. We’d played shows together. There was just so much more chemistry.
I definitely wanted to expand lyrically and vocally. And I wanted to be more nuanced. I wanted it to be a record that had some [longevity] to it. With Half the City, you either liked it or you didn’t like it. I didn’t feel like it was a record people sat down with and were like, ‘Oh, I see what they’re doing here.’ I felt like Sea of Noise was that kind of record. It’s not one that’s about instant gratification, in a lot of ways. It’s something that will reward you on the second or third listen. And that’s the kind of record we wanted to make. Whether we achieved that or not, I don’t know, but we definitely expanded the sound — and we’re going to continue to do that.
We’re not artists that are going to sit still. Someone told me, and I think this is very true, if you make your debut record again, you’re telling your audience, “This is all I have to offer.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not us. It’s not true to who we are.
Weld: In that desire to evolve, though, was there any nervousness that you might alienate fans who had gravitated toward your earlier material?
Janeway: Absolutely. And we’ve seen it, to be honest. It’s been really interesting for us. We’ve definitely lost a few fans. But we’ve gained some, too.
I knew with the subject matter and the sound that we were going to lose fans. It’s not like there were violent reactions to it. I think it was always going to happen. I’m telling you, the guys — we were talking about it, and they were like, “There is no way that people are going to like our debut record more than this one. There’s no way.” And I was like, “I guarantee you that there will be [some people].” And there were! I’ve had people straight-up tell me. It’s not been traumatic or anything. We’re selling more tickets than we ever have, and we’re playing, I’d say, 80 percent of the new songs.
Honestly, I feel like you have to give your audience a little bit more credit, and understand that you’re going to take them on a journey. You’ve just got to see how many people are willing to go with you.
Weld: You mentioned that the band’s chemistry changed as you played more and more shows together. How did that change the writing process for Sea of Noise?
Janeway: The process was so much more different. What’s really funny is that we tried to sit down and write songs all together, and what we found was that it wasn’t working.
We rented out a warehouse in Avondale, and it was one of the most grindy things we had ever done. The problem with creativity in general is that you can’t force it. I try to write something every day, but if it’s not happening, it’s not happening. We tried hard, and God have mercy, was it difficult. There would just be days that we would just be noodling for hours. [That went on] for about two weeks, and I eventually had to say, ‘Alright guys, I know we have this place to practice, but let’s just come up with ideas on our own and bring it to the table.’ It was kind of crazy. It was an interesting process.
What we started doing was, if I had an idea, I would send it online, via [file sharing service] Dropbox or whatever. It just became more rewarding. The dividends were getting paid on it. I did a lot of the vocal [demos] in my house.
We recorded the full record in Nashville. We worked with Paul Butler, who produced the record, and to be honest, there were a lot of things that we went into the studio with that were just ideas. They were not fully formed, and that’s where he really knocked it out of the park, because he kind of bought into what we were selling him, basically, in the vision for the record. He was able to really trim the fat and really make it a focused effort.
Weld: Lyrically, Sea of Noise is far more political than anything you’ve done before. What pulled you in that direction?
Janeway: You have to write what moves you. That’s the place I was at.
I was really disappointed in myself with Half the City, lyrically. I admire [songwriters] like Tom Waits and Nick Cave, people like that. And to be fair, I didn’t have time. We had three days, and I really didn’t have time to think about what I was writing. It’s not that it was bad, necessarily, I was just disappointed in myself.
With this one, I had more time to think about the lyrics, which I think helped me. One thing that hit me was seeing the world at large, right now. And being [from Birmingham], just looking at it through that scope. I just felt like, “If I’m going to sing this, it has to move me.”
Weld: The chorus of the lead single, “All I Ever Wonder,” really captures the sense of ambiguity that’s at the root of a lot of this record’s politics: “I can’t tell what side I’m on / I can’t tell what’s right or wrong / We ain’t ever gonna sing one song.” You don’t really expect that kind of helplessness from what’s ostensibly a protest song.
Janeway: For me, the record doesn’t give a lot of answers. I didn’t want it to, because honestly, I don’t know. I’m not some sort of geopolitical, social expert. I know what hits me in a certain way and what moves me. But there’s not a lot of answers.
With the lyrical content of the record, I think there was a slight worry — “Alright, we released Half the City, which was, you know, not a softball, but just had common themes of love and heartbreak and ‘Let’s dance,’ and that kind of thing. And then we’re going to release a record that deals with really heavy [expletive], but there’s some danceable stuff to it. It’s really confusing.”
What we just found out was that a lot of people aren’t going to listen to the lyrics, so I can write about whatever I want. At the end of the day, the one biggest lesson I’ve learned from this is, you’ve got to do what moves you. If the record’s successful or unsuccessful, whatever — if you’re proud of it, and you stand behind it, it doesn’t matter. That’s really important.
Weld: Race relations are a major part of this record’s thematic content, particularly on tracks like “Brain Matter.” It’s worth acknowledging that there is some tension inherent in an all-white soul band from Birmingham singing about the black experience.
Janeway: For us, it’s something that we have to acknowledge. It is complicated. To be honest, I think that as an all-white band from Birmingham, if you do not talk about it, if you do not address racial issues, it just seems worse. And while I sound the way I sound — there’s just no two ways about it — it is something that moves me.
I read a lot of nonfiction and grew up in this city and know a lot about the Civil Rights movement. It’s a dodgy subject. But I am tired of people not talking about it, you know what I mean? I’m tired of, “Don’t say anything.” And I’m just like, “Well, bulls—. That’s not how it’s going to work.” I think in a lot of ways, you have to address stuff like that head-on. There’s been a lot of injustice. It’s weird reading history books and then looking at what’s happening right now and being like, “Hmm. There’s a similar flavor.”
Weld: There’s a connection to be made, too, between what you’re setting out to do with this record and how a lot of protest-oriented soul music of the 1960s reflected the political climate of its time.
Janeway: If you’re going to sing from the heart and sing from what you see, I don’t know how you can avoid it. I don’t know if we’ll ever do another record like this, because it is taxing. It is heavy, and it’s something that you’re just like, “Golly, this is not uplifting by any stretch of the imagination.”
But you see the climate right now, and you see all of these things happening. … I didn’t grow up around money, and I’ve always thought from a socioeconomic standpoint that there’s a lot of bias. And then, when you have race with that, it’s always been something that hits me in a certain way. So I don’t know. It’s interesting, and it’s complicated, but for me, [Sea of Noise is about] navigating Southern identity in these modern times as a white male who doesn’t necessarily agree with what the general politics are of where he grew up.
Weld: It’s interesting that you bring up identity, because one of the record’s standout songs, “I’ll Be Your Woman,” is all about blurring gender boundaries.
Janeway: For me, that is the song of the record in a lot of ways, in that it represents turning gender identity on its head a little bit. When you think about soul or R&B — even modern R&B — it’s very masculine. It’s all about being a man, and I was just like, “Well, I just don’t think that’s the case.” Someone like Prince definitely explored that a little more. He’s a huge influence on what I do. I just thought that it was an interesting idea.
That was a song that no one [understood]. Some of the guys in the band were like, “Okay!”, and some of the guys were like, “Are you saying you want her to be your woman, or…?” And my mom’s [reaction] was obviously the most interesting, because she just couldn’t wrap her head around it. I was like, “Don’t worry about it, Mom.”
That one to me is an interesting exploration of the lines [society] has. I think they’re kind of stupid. I think we’re beyond that at this point.
Weld: The record is structured around the three-part track “Crumbling Light Posts,” in which you repeat, “We’re just crumbling light posts / In a sea of noise.” Why did you choose to build the album around that refrain?
Janeway: I honestly think that’s the glue on the record. For some reason, I read too many history books or something. It helps me go, ‘Maybe your stupid, meaningless [expletive] isn’t so bad.’
But [that line] comes from a Winston Churchill quote, actually. He was talking about England in the war being a crumbling lighthouse in a sea of darkness. And it just struck me, just stuck with me. It can mean what you want it to mean. It can be as shallow or as deep as you want it to be. That’s a theme of the record, that people can reach their own conclusions.
Weld: That line can read as a call to action, in some ways — that chaos is threatening to overtake the light, and that our inaction is allowing the light posts to keep crumbling.
Janeway: I think that’s exactly what the point is. Just do [something]. Quit being so apathetic. And honestly, just as humankind, as the human race, the issue is that nobody can talk anymore. I think really trying to find something of substance [is difficult].
For us, a lot of people are like, “You really need to be really good at social media.” And I try so hard at times, but I just can’t. To me, it feels so self-obsessive. It doesn’t feel real. So I struggle with stuff like that.
Weld: In a way, you could see social media as part of that sea of noise you’re fighting against on the album.
Janeway: It is! Every tragedy is turned into a hashtag. And that’s the thing. When Trayvon Martin happened, that was somebody’s child. There is real connection there that I don’t think [is being addressed]. And it spawned movements, but it feels like every movement is kind of squashed somehow. It’s like our attention span just goes, “Eh, you know what, [expletive] it.”
While I do think there are things that have come from it that are good, it just seems like there’s no teeth. When the Civil Rights movement was happening, when the bus boycott happened, it was so important because it hurt people’s wallets. I think that’s the thing. Yes, peaceful protest on streets is important, but businesses and entities aren’t going to listen to you unless you hurt their checkbook. And I don’t know how to fix it, but I feel like — we’re all tough when we’re on social media, but when it comes time to actually get out and do something, people don’t. I think that’s the issue.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones will perform at the Alabama Theatre on Wednesday, December 28, and Thursday, December 29. Wray will open on December 28, while Heath Green and the Makeshifters will open on December 29. For more information, visit alabamatheatre.com.