St Paul & the Broken Bones, hailing from Alabama, USA, have seen resounding success since their formation in 2012. With the band now touring after the September release of their second album, Sea of Noise, I caught up with frontman Paul Janeway before their show at Bristol’s Colston Hall venue.
Although often described simply as “soul”, I note that they’re a hard band to pin down. “We get grouped in with a lot of artists,” Paul admits, “and I think they’re going for a very strong retro thing, which is great, but I don’t feel like we fit anywhere.” He says he tries not to think of it in those terms.”I mean, I sing the way I sing.”
Paul’s mentality as an artist is to be always developing, always creative. With that in mind, we get on to the subject of the latest album, 2016’s Sea of Noise. I ask how it builds upon their first album, Half the City. “The first record is a nod to what we grew up with, how we grew up, and we did it in a very classic style […] we didn’t do that this time, we really sat down and thought about it.” Paul modestly attributes the fuller sound of Sea of Noise to having had more time to write it. “We had a month to write [the first album], and just a couple of days to record it… This record, we had time to think about it.” They also, Paul tells me with evident delight, had the assistance of Paul Butler, whose producing credits include the likes of Michael Kiwanuka.
The album is verging on conceptual, “trying to navigate the American South”
With Sea of Noise, the band really wanted to fully explore their wide range of influences, and expand the sound. “The second record tells people – this is the kind of artist you are. Doing the same record again would tell your audience that this is what you have to offer… I think that to this band, there’s a lot of things that are kind of limitless.” The album is certainly more cohesive than the first, verging on conceptual. “For me, a lot of it is trying to navigate the American South, that identity, through modern times.” This is something Paul feels has become even more relevant since the album’s release. He cites Just Mercy, the memoir of renowned lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson, as a key thematic influence.
St Paul’s reputation has been built on their stellar live performances, and Paul humbly attributes this to the first album being less developed. “I think the live show was leaps and bounds better,” he admits – whereas Sea of Noise he feels is more well-rounded. “All I can say is that we do put all that we got into it, and all the sweat into it.”
the Broken Bones are a well-oiled musical machine
When the band walks on to thunderous applause two hours later, I can’t help but agree. This is a performance of such energy and vitality that it’s sometimes hard to believe this is the same man who, not long ago, told me he was one semester away from becoming an accountant. Perhaps this took the Colston by surprise too – originally booked for the smaller Trinity venue, tickets to this show had sold so fast that it was moved into the main auditorium. Indeed, the performance is so explosive that I almost feel sorry for opening act The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer, whose more stripped down, harmonica-buzzing sound (with the two band members each playing multiple parts simultaneously) risks being overshadowed by the eight-piece tour de force that is St Paul and the Broken Bones. They pull it off, though, swinging country and gospel style. I’m reminded of what Paul said when I asked him about opening for the Rolling Stones: “Whether we’re playing before or after you, I’m gonna make you bring it.”
On stage, the Broken Bones are a well-oiled musical machine. True highlights included frequent instrumental solos, and what can only be described as a duel between saxophone and trombone that left the audience just as out of breath as the band. Paul, meanwhile, is giving it his all. At one point, acting out the lyrics to ‘Broken Bones and Pocket Change’, he removes one shiny gold shoe, before kneeling down as if struck, and crawling under the drum podium – all whilst singing perfectly. The ability to do something so bizarre and receive about a minute of solid applause shows just how much he has the crowd in the palm of his hand. The live show for Paul is about resonance, about “an almost spiritual connection”; all I can tell you, one uproarious show and four songs of encore later, is that St Paul & the Broken Bones have got it down to a fine art.