In order to make an inaugural South by Southwest trek with his band St. Paul and the Broken Bones earlier this month, frontman Paul Janeway had to give up some things. He'd bought tickets for Nick Cave's Ryman show the moment they went on sale, but — since he couldn't magically be in Austin and Nashville at the same time — those went to a Cave fan who'd actually be able to use them. And since his request for the time off from work had been denied, he left for the festival knowing he'd no longer have a day job as a bank teller to come back to.
"There have been times," says Janeway, "where I've been like, 'Oh yeah, I don't have any money.' You know, you just get worried. You just get scared. The thing is, though, I feel like I wouldn't have just done it for any band. I feel like we've got something really good going on."
Up until recently, the Birmingham, Ala.-based singer was both working at the bank and belatedly trying to finish his accounting degree so he could, as he puts it, "get a big-boy job." Janeway had made the grown-up choice to relegate his love of music to extracurricular status. He definitely didn't foresee a day when he'd be in a buzz band that shares a manager with Jason Isbell and has an in-the-can album produced by Alabama Shakes keyboardist Ben Tanner.
About nine months ago, Janeway and his longtime collaborator Jesse Phillips went into the studio to fool around with song ideas on their own dime; they emerged with not just a four-song EP but a freshly formed band whose musical identity was rapidly coalescing around its most potent instrument: Janeway's voice. The Broken Bones might've leaned toward psychedelic classic rock, or something stylistically closer to the Shakes' alt-rock 'n' soul, if not for the fact that Janeway is plainly a soul shouter, and a magnetic one at that. The sound they found, and continue to tweak and tighten, is that of a Southern soul horn band with a keen, kinetic rhythmic attack.
The Broken Bones were aware of what the Shakes were up to, considering both bands are from the same state and Bones guitarist Browan Lollar is pals with Tanner. But beyond that, the Bones didn't realize just how good their timing is. They've arrived on the scene at a moment when tons of their twenty-something peers are gravitating toward music that does away with ironic distance and engages the body, toward performers who view putting themselves out there with panache — entertaining, in other words — as part of their artistry.
It's nothing for Janeway to work up a sweat before the band even gets through the first song. He'll stalk around, shake his fists, do a sort of Holy Ghost jitterbug and dive to his knees like the original Hardest Working Man in Show Business. When the Broken Bones played their second Nashville show at The Basement (Music City Roots was the first to book them, and this Basement date will be their fourth appearance in town), he jumped off the stage and came right out to meet the crowd; when they played Mad Donna's Loft, he climbed onto Lollar's amp. Already his persona is too big to be confined to a small club stage. That's gotta be one reason he digs the walloping characters conjured by Nick Cave and Tom Waits.
"We one time played a pizza joint in Farragut, Tennessee," says Janeway. "I stood up on one of the pizza tables where they were eatin'. I think that blew their minds. I think they thought, 'Oh man. This guy might not be hittin' notes right, but he's sure givin' 'em something.' "
Vocally, Janeway gives even more, with his enflamed timbre, his thrilling, bob-and-weave phrasing and his ecstatic outbursts. He was brought up in a small-town Alabama Pentecostal church, and it shows, though not necessarily in the simplistic way that people assume. Church was where Janeway learned how to spontaneously perform — or perform spontaneity — how to fantastically and demonstratively throw himself into the moment and move people to respond. The fact that it's an approach he's cultivated doesn't mean it's cynical or devoid of emotion; it's what helps him give 'em something night after night. A vinyl collector, Janeway's also taken cues from scintillating recordings by gospel groups like The Mighty Clouds of Joy and Memphis soul singers like O.V. Wright. (He's said that another Memphis singer, James Carr, is the reason he wears a suit and bow tie onstage.)
"The guys get kinda mad at me sometimes," laughs Janeway, "because I'll be kinda spontaneous. I'll go off somewhere vocally. The beauty is they're so good that they can keep me in the ring. I definitely feel like that's a skill, because first off, you've gotta be ballsy enough to do it. ... I don't know how good or bad I am at it. The one skill I will give myself credit for is I can read a crowd pretty well. When I preached and spoke [in church], it's just something you have to develop. You gotta figure out, 'Where can I go with this? How far can it go?' "
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