“I know it’s all broken / I ain’t got to focus / I can’t tell what’s right or wrong,” sings Paul Janeway, frontman of the Alabama soul band St. Paul and the Broken Bones.
“That’s a sentiment I really relate to—I think we can all relate to,” says Andrew, the drummer of the seven-part band. Andrew is at his hotel in St. Petersburg Florida when I call. It’s mid afternoon, the night after a major show in Orlando, and the band is set to play again that night. They’ve been touring their most recent album, Sea of Noise, since September, “without breaks, and with a lot of help from visits to the chiropractor,” Andrew jokes.
Afternoons on tour are for relaxation and alone time, though “sometimes you’ll run into one of the guys at the coffee shop–it’s sort of inevitable,” he laughs. It’s important to take this time for reflection when touring with the same crew for so long, but Andrew reports that there is a great energy among the group. “Everyone’s so different, and each of us brings something different to the table,” he says.
Catch St. Paul and the Broken Bones as they headline Wanderlust Stratton.
The Makers of the Music
St. Paul and the Broken Bones was formed in April 2012 and originally comprised of Paul Janeway, Jesse Phillips, and Andrew Lee. Jesse and Paul were writing some tunes and Jesse, who’d played in a psych rock band with Andrew, invited him to join.
“A lot of it was a willingness to say yes to a lot of things,” Andrew says. “Sometimes, it just clicks.”
And with these three musical forces, it certainly did. In their early days, St. Paul and the Broken Bones was a no frills operation, functioning more like a “garage soul band.” Now they’re made up of seven players, including two horns, bass, guitar, drums, and vocals.
“We played our first show in Alabama to about five people in 112 degree heat,” Lee recalls. When they finished their set, they felt “just alright” about it. By no means did they know that their music would one day bring audiences to jubilation and tears. At the next show, however, the crowd roared. There was such a visceral response that they thought “well, we may just have to make this work.” People were channeling the raw emotion and spirit that they possessed in their performance. It was electric.
The name is a both a satirical poke at the notion of sainthood, no doubt spurred from the band member’s religious upbringing, and an homage to one of the band’s earliest songs titled “Broken Bones and Pocket Change.” A recurring line is “broken bones and pocket change / is all she left me with.”
The song is raw and subdued compared to some of the fuller tracks of their later work and evokes feelings of longing and sorrow, but also of joy and visceral passion. There is the sense that the music is an act of rising up from the ashes of a love lost. At the end of a love, you are left with art and expression to lift you back up again. Paul is a force of nature, laying it all out on the line for us to hear, and to feel with him. It’s as though this revelatory music has always existed, as though it possesses an innate human truth, and at the same time, evokes something fresh and new. There is a sense that playing is a cathartic act for the band, as well as for the audience.
I ask Andrew if he thinks that great art must stem from sorrow. He cites a poem from The Prophet by Lebanese-American philosopher and writer Kahlil Gibran called “On Joy and Sorrow,” saying that “the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” Music has the ability to take you to a higher love. There is joy, even when it’s sad.
“It’s a natural dichotomy,” he says. “You can’t have light without the dark.”
The band’s songs are illustrative of this notion, much like the 60s and 70s southern soul musicians their sound harkens to, such as Otis Redding and Al Green. The music expresses a deep pain, but are simultaneously uplifting. They make you want to dance and cry all at once.
Andrew speaks poetically, frequently creating analogies to the art of a great cup of coffee. His voice is measured and rhythmic, as though he is softly drumming on the other end of the line. He grew up in a religious household, like the majority of the members of the band, and he meditates on how this has had an effect on their music.
“It’s strange when you grow up blindly believing something” he says, “only to realize that it wasn’t quite what you thought it was. “That’s not to say that I am not deeply spiritual.” Music itself is a spiritual outlet and is at once grounding and transcendent. When you strike a nerve, it’s amazing to see the response from those who are touched by your art.
“There’ve been numerous people crying at our shows” Andrew continues.
He describes the band’s writing process is much like “throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks.” If they can’t all be together at one time, they send each other media files through garageband and play off of one another’s ideas. Ideally, though, the band gets together to write.
“Where you play and what time of day you play makes a huge difference,” Lee says. “Sometimes you come up with things during a soundcheck and that’s what sticks. Janeway writes all of the lyrics, which Lee says are often almost “prophetic.”
Sea of Noise is a step away from soul revival. It seems that the band has found its voice, and is using it to speak to current issues. The sound is fuller and the lyrics are questioning, searching. There are no answers to the questions, rather we are with Janeway as he searches for meaning. In the song “Sanctify” he sings:
What good is a bullet with no gun? What good is a flower without no sun? / Oh, but I wanna feel something real. / What good is a light with no dark? What good is a king without a cross? / Oh, but I wanna feel something real / Is there a right when all is wrong? Is there a partner when left all alone? / Oh, but I wanna feel something real.
Though the lyrics may be philosophically and emotionally loaded, the band has a great sense of humor. In response to my inquiry about backstage rituals, Andrew laughs, “well, last night a bunch of the guys were watching Star Wars clips, so…” He describes the feeling of being in the crowd when you’re young, waiting for a band you deeply admire to come out on stage and how in those moments, teeming with energy and anticipation, the band can seem almost godly or otherworldly.
“And meanwhile, we’re backstage watching Mr. Trololo. Do you know Mr. Trololo?” he asks. He tells me it’s a band favorite, and upon watching the clip, it’s clear to me that the energy backstage before a show is jovial and lighthearted.
You can’t have dark without the light.
Jillian Billard is a poet, yoga teacher, cellist and avid wanderer. A native New Yorker, she is often caught daydreaming of sprawling green fields and mountains. She trained and received her ashtanga yoga teacher’s certification in Goa, India and works at Laughing Lotus Yoga Center in Brooklyn. You can often find her with her head buried in a book, doused in lavender. Follow her on her (very newly developed) Instagram page for class schedules and updates at @jillboyoga.