St. Paul & the Broken Bones on Fixing the Narrative and Writing a New One

Music Features St. Paul & The Broken Bones
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St. Paul & the Broken Bones on Fixing the Narrative and Writing a New One

Paul Janeway is in the middle of moving. He and his wife Caroline bought a house in Birmingham, Ala. and are packing their belongings—including our bespectacled protagonist’s 3000 LPs—in labeled cardboard boxes. Janeway says he prefers to do so in gym shorts and shower shoes.

St. Paul, however, politely brags about this new wardrobe on the day of his band’s sophomore album release, Sea of Noise. The frontman for the Birmingham-based neo-soul/R&B band bearing his name, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, has seven pairs of show shoes and three new blinding suits.

This stage persona represents an exaggerated version of self for the South Alabama-born Janeway. It’s what spurred him to run off-stage from his seven bandmates and into crowds during the group’s earliest shows—turning aimless listeners into shameless fans. It’s the superpower that enables him to jump on Bob Boilen’s Tiny Desk and show off his gold patent leather loafers.

But, as Janeway says back in the comforts of home and unflashy fashion, “What we do is not real life. You have people wait on you hand and foot. That’s just not real.”

Likewise, Janeway finds the narrative surrounding 2014’s debut LP Half the City tiresome and an exaggerated version of his real life. As the elevator pitch went, Janeway grew up in a Southern Baptist church and wanted to be a preacher. Thus bore his convincing, passionate stage presence.

“I get the appeal; I get that it’s an interesting story. But that wasn’t my life…I had to go back and remember lots of stuff because it became the narrative,” he recalls. “And I’ve always considered myself a spiritual person, but I’m not a practicing religious person.”

As for St. Paul, however, he still seeks the embellished and the embroidered, the fanciful and the fantastic. As a result, Sea of Noise is far funkier than Half the City and the band’s 2013 self-released EP, Greetings from St. Paul and The Broken Bones.

Before even digging into the album, the cover art foreshadows many of the changes afoot on Sea of Noise. A golden altarpiece—inspired more by the old cathedrals the band visited on past European tours than the Half the City’s weathered narrative surrounding Janeway’s religious upbringing—floats immobile in space. Outlines of hearts and guns and diamonds and angel wings seem welded in the altar, each symbolizing a piece of a song on the record.

But once you click play or drop the needle, the new album opens with the first of three parts of a spacey interlude-like song called “Crumbling Light Posts.” Each part seems to represent a signpost throughout the album, diving the record into smaller pieces and directing listeners to the coming musical themes and lyrical ideas, by referencing a Winston Churchill quote, in which the English Prime Minister said England was, “a crumbling lighthouse” in a sea of darkness.

Additionally, St. Paul and the Broken Bones incorporates percussion not usually found in rock and pop drumming in songs like “Flow With It (You Got Me Feeling Like)” and the addition of a choir, recorded in Memphis, that can be heard on tracks like “All I Ever Wonder” and “Waves.”

The most obvious sonic evolution on Sea of Noise comes in the form of strings. Lester Snell, a Stax Records session pianist who also regularly collaborated with Isaac Hayes in the ‘70s, did all the arrangements for the record.

As Janeway describes, “On a song like ‘I’ll Be Your Woman,’ there’s no horns on it! And the reason is because we wanted that song to take on a darker tone and still sound big and still have that dramatic kind of lift that you get when you orchestrated something like that. So that’s why there’s a bunch more strings on this record.”

Yet, Janeway realized that lyrically, he wanted Sea of Noise to communicate more of a message than Half the City. “For me, [the lyrics were] the one thing on Half the City that I kind of regretted. And to be fair, I only had so many days to write it, so you gotta do whatever comes to mind,” Janeway says, backpedaling slightly. “I really regretted that because I feel like I can really try to dive deeper into this.”

Soul music and many R&B songs have a tradition of social commentary and many tracks on Sea of Noise follow in this tradition, if unintentionally. “Brain Matter” opens with the line, “That’s my daddy with the gun / Shooting someone else’s son,” before obliquely alluding The Groveland Four rape case of 1948. “Is It Me” addresses the contemporary struggles of coming to terms with The South’s contentious history. And single “I’ll Be Your Woman” turns gender norms upside down.

Referencing Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Janeway recalls a sense of urgency while writing Sea of Noise. “It really inspired me that if you’re gonna write something, write something that really digs deep. If you’re going to continue to do this, really dig deep within yourself,” he recalls. “When you sing with that kind of urgency and that kind of passion, you gotta mean what you say.”

And although many songs on the new album were written with contemporary issues in mind, Janeway clarifies that he never intended to prophesize anything about America’s social struggles. Rather, he and the band are just trying to understand the world around them—in the micro and the macro. “It’s not really making a statement. It’s just exploring those things,” he says. “To me, there’s not a lot of answers…To me it’s a lot more about the journey.”