Interview: Paul Janeway of St. Paul & The Broken Bones

Frontman, Paul Janeway

Frontman, Paul Janeway

Paul Janeway, frontman and lead vocalist of St. Paul & The Broken Bones sat down with Front Row Boston before taking the stage at The Paradise on October 21, 2014.


ANNIE SHREFFLER, INTERVIEWER: Paul, I’m Annie.

PAUL JANEWAY: Hello, Annie. I’m Paul.

SHREFFLER: Nice to meet you. All right, we’ll just start from the top. Way back in your childhood, what are your earliest memories of being involved with music?

JANEWAY: My earliest memory with music is definitely when my mom said I used to line up my stuffed animals, and I would perform for them. I vaguely remember that. Then I also remember my first solo in church, I think it was “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” I was four years old. So that is the first absolute association with music I’ve ever had.

SHREFFLER: Aw, that’s sweet. I can still do that one. Speaking of church, you obviously bring a lot of church into your performance. So what did you take away from church and how did you bring it in to what you do now?

JANEWAY: What I bring from the church to the way I perform now…I tell people this all the time, I never was like ‘man, I really hope to be a musician and sing one day.’ I wanted to be a preacher. Since I was about ten years old. I had a pastor come into church and I felt like that’s what I needed to be doing. I learned more from that how to read a crowd and being able to see how a crowd reacts to something and things of that nature. That’s what I love. Then if the crowd’s not as into it I can be like ‘all right let’s do this here, let’s figure things out.’ But really that enthusiasm, that passion…you feel like you’re singing for a higher cause when you’re in church. You feel like you’re doing something for the betterment of way beyond yourself. So I just try to take that and apply it to what we do now.

SHREFFLER: You do. You preach it, and it moves me. I just love your music. But you obviously thought you might perform; you performed for your stuffed animals, preached to them maybe. But then I read you did a little accounting, you did some other jobs…so you didn’t seem to realize you possessed James Brown in your body. So do you wish you were an accountant now or are you happy?

JANEWAY: Well, starting off coming from accounting and all these crazy things that I came from before this, it’s been a really bizarre journey for me because I was in accounting school working as a bank teller when this happened and we decided to go into the studio. And it’s this weird kind of experience. Part of me is still kind of in awe of it all. I think the moment you start getting used to doing this, that’s when you start messing up. You start think you can’t fit through doors because your head’s too big and all that kind of stuff. Every step of the way has been really fascinating. But yeah I was going to be an accountant. I’m about to marry a girl now, but I had met her and kind of got my life in order. I was unemployed and then decided ‘hey, I’m gonna get a job and go back to school.’ So my trajectory in life was headed up, so it’s kind of bizarre that this came and…I say ruined it all [laughs]. But really it’s been just an unbelievable experience.

SHREFFLER: So you guys were doing a little other music when you guys decided to go this way, right?

JANEWAY: Actually, we weren’t doing much music. Me and Jesse were in a band previous of this. That was the only band I’d ever been in and that kind of fizzled out. Then that’s when I was like ‘I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to do with my life.’ That’s where I was unemployed, I was living in my dad’s basement, I was unemployed for almost a year and I got a job in a sporting goods store selling shoes to kids. And then decided I was going to go back to school.

SHREFFLER: But you were singing that whole time, right?

JANEWAY: I was not singing during that time period. I actually had kind of quit singing.

SHREFFLER: So how did you get into soul?

JANEWAY: The way that I got into soul music was that my parents had me on a very strict diet of only gospel music, and the only outlier to that was a little bit of Sam Cooke, a little bit of Otis Redding, I always say some Marvin Gaye pre-“Let’s Get It On,” I couldn’t listen to that. And then there was a 70’s group that my mom loved called The Stylistics. So we did that. And so when I heard these singers, I thought that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. So when me and Jesse decided to do our last hoorah and go to the studio, I have the voice I have—it is what it is. So instead of trying to fight that and do something totally experimental we said why don’t we just embrace what I do. Part of you feels a little cliché because it’s like that’s what you do with that voice. But it’s like you know what, if that’s where you’re comfortable then that’s where you need to be. And once we started getting into the swing of things and started doing this it was like ‘why didn’t I do this when I was 19 or 18.’

SHREFFLER: Yeah, I heard your mom wasn’t really a fan of some of the music you brought into the house. I heard she tossed some Nirvana out?

JANEWAY: My mom was not a big fan…my cousin brought in a Nirvana CD to me and she found it and threw it away. She was so upset. But I’ve told that story before and my mom goes ‘well had you listened to that you never would have been a soul singer, would you?’ and I was like ‘all right Mom, all right.’ So I give her credit for that.

SHREFFLER: Oh so you didn’t get into it at all?

JANEWAY: I didn’t listen to it. I did not listen to that Nirvana album at all.

SHREFFLER: You’re just saying that because your mom might hear.

JANEWAY: No, I didn’t! I do now, but I did not. It’s really bizarre.

SHREFFLER: My husband is a preacher’s kid so I had to say to him ‘St. Paul and the Broken Bones…is that a biblical reference I’m not getting?’ and he couldn’t think of one either. So you’re going to have to tell me if there is one.

JANEWAY: There is no biblical reference in St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Actually the way that came up, I don’t drink or smoke. I’m pretty…I say boring [laughs]. But I don’t do much of that. So Jesse, our bass player, who has been my best friend for a while now, he was like ‘I want to do something and the something something.’ And I was like ‘well as long as you don’t put my name in it that’s fine.’ And he said okay and he gathered everybody up and said ‘how about St. Paul and the Broken Bones?’ and I said ‘I don’t want my name in it!’ But it just kind of rolled off and it plays off the kind of funny ‘Paul doesn’t do all this.’ Then the broken bones part comes from the first song that me and him wrote before the band. I came up with the line ‘broken bones and pocket change’ in a song. So we thought it was funny to be like ‘all she left me with is broken bones and pocket change’ as in this band and no money which is kind of a funny line.

SHREFFLER: Have you been to Boston before this?

JANEWAY: This is the second time I’ve been to Boston. We played over at Great Scott, and I will never forget that show because it was hot as all Hades. And we didn’t have a dressing room so I had to dress up in the bathroom. The place is packed, there’s only one bathroom so we’re sitting there changing and people are coming in after the show congratulating us…it was the oddest conversations I’ve ever had. So I’ll never forget it [laughs]. Each time we’ve come it’s been in the fall, which is nice. It’s been fun.

SHREFFLER: And you don’t like the cornbread, but…

JANEWAY: [Laughing] Boston cornbread, it’s not cornbread though; it’s cake. That’s what I try to tell everybody.

SHREFFLER: So you’ve been on the road for how many months now?

JANEWAY: We’ve been on the road for what seems like an eternity. It’s been since last October, so it’s been a year, easily. Easily. And we’re not ending it until the end of March. I get married in December!

SHREFFLER: You’ve got the long distance thing going on.

JANEWAY: Oh yeah, yeah we do. That’s the thing, but you know you have momentum and you need to try to take advantage of that. But yeah, it’s been about a year.

SHREFFLER: Do you get nervous on stage still? How do you deal with that?

JANEWAY: With nervousness…I don’t really get nervous. There’s been one time recently that I’ve gotten nervous, and it’s funny. We did a fairly large television or radio show in France, in Paris. And they said ‘hey why don’t you say this in French’ and it was something like ‘welcome to blah, blah, blah we’re from Alabama.’ And I could not for the life of me say it in French. They were practicing with me, and I was sweating bullets just thinking about saying something in French. I could care less about who was there and what performance it was…I was more worried about saying those words than I had been in five to six years, easily.

SHREFFLER: What’s your songwriting process?

JANEWAY: The way we write it is very collaborative. We all sat in a room that had a leaky roof, a tiny room. Tiny room, God. So small. But we wrote most of the record and we’d all sit there and our drummer would have a horn idea and all that. I mean most of them were educated through music school or something of that nature. So they know what key it’s in and measures and all that stuff and I don’t know much about that. They’ll say ‘this song is in the key of whatever’ and I’m like ‘just play it.’ But the process was very collaborative; we all sat in a room, which I really liked. And after the song was developed I would sing vocals over it. When we recorded the record I was still writing lyrics, because we had to write the record in three weeks and record it in four days. So all my vocal tracks I had basically two passes and we kept the best take and went from there.

SHREFFLER: Let’s play that song association game. We’re going to give you some songs and you tell us what comes to mind. “Broken Bones and Pocket Change.”

JANEWAY: The song “Broken Bones and Pocket Change” what comes to mind with that is it’s the first song this band ever wrote. And it’s a special song to me, always will be until the day this thing is over because it was the beginning of all this.

SHREFFLER: “Sugar Dyed.”

JANEWAY: The song “Sugar Dyed” that’s a funny one because that’s a kind of upbeat song. When we were writing it, it was one of those weird songs that when we were playing we couldn’t figure out why it sounded so familiar. So we actually recorded it differently from the way we actually play it live because we didn’t know if we were infringing on anything. We knew it sounded familiar but we didn’t know what it was. But it’s a fun dance song that we love doing.

SHREFFLER: “Half the City.”

JANEWAY: The song “Half the City” that conjures up, you know we ended up calling the album Half the City it’s the album title track. I feel like it’s the most baller line I’ve got that has heartbreak in it. It’s ‘I’ve populated half the city but I still can’t find no love.’ And I was like that would be like a Jay-Z line and I love it. So now I’ll say ‘populated half of Boston’ and everyone will get a kick out of that.

SHREFFLER: I want to hear you say it like Jay-Z now, but we won’t make you do that. “I’m Torn Up.”

JANEWAY: The song “I’m Torn Up” it’s the first song on the album. We actually were really trying to figure out how to start off the album. And it’s kind of a slow burn and it’s got this cool little guitar thing that slows in. We actually covered a whole Otis Redding album before we released this album, we just decided we’d learn it; it’s Otis Blue. That album starts off with a song called “Old Man Trouble” and I said well if Otis Blue can start off with that kind of slow burn, I think we can start our album out with it. I think that’s ok.

SHREFFLER: Ok, two more. “Call Me.”

JANEWAY: “Call Me” that’s what’s been playing on the radio. It’s our first single, so it’s really weird…it’s usually the song that gets the best reaction.

SHREFFLER: What does it conjure up? Come on, I want the good stuff.

JANEWAY: Well, I love this Wilson Pickett song called “634-5789” and I was like ‘I’m putting a number in a song.’ So I put “611-3369” and it’s actually the one song I was like ‘that’s going to be the single?’ But I was very wrong, and it’s all worked out for us.

SHREFFLER: “Like a Mighty River.”

JANEWAY: The song “Like a Mighty River” that one always gets me in a way because I have to go [sings high pitch notes] really high in the middle of it. So it is always the most taxing song that we do. And I think it’s catchy, it’s a catchy song but that’s the toughest song we do, for me vocally. I’ll get out of breath sometimes so I have to be real careful about it. But I love doing that song live because it punches you right in the face right in the start, and I like that.

SHREFFLER: It takes a couple bottles of Coke to do that one.

JANEWAY: Yes, it takes some Coca-Cola.

SHREFFLER: Yeah, should be more specific on that one. So tell us about your horn players, there was a problem with going on tour and them being in school?

JANEWAY: So the reason we had a hard time initially with this band was our horn players were in school, graduating college. They were seniors. So I wasn’t going to be responsible for pulling a kid who’s a senior and has a semester left. So we had to do all sorts of crazy stuff. We had to hold a full-blown tour for them. And not kidding, the day the graduated, they did not celebrate they went and got in a van with us and we went. I told them I said ‘you guys are the luckiest guys I’ve ever met.’ You get a music degree of all things and then you have an instant job. They don’t know any better, you know. But they’re a good group of guys. That was really funny though, yeah. The day they graduated I think we did a hangout-fest in Gulf Shores and it was like that was it.

SHREFFLER: You actually gave them their best semester ever because they didn’t have to worry about job hunting.

JANEWAY: Exactly! It’s so funny though because that’s what I was like, I would have loved to get a music degree. I didn’t go to college until later in my life, but I went for practical reasons. For some reason I still really liked accounting, of all things, accounting.

SHREFFLER: So you’re the business manager now too?

JANEWAY: I actually handled the band’s business for a while and it was hard. I’m slightly a control freak and it was hard for me to let it go. But things tend to grow and you don’t have time and we have a business manager now. She says things sometimes and I’m like ‘ah ah ah…’ you know [laughs]. But I know what everything is when she sends me end of the month or end of the year statements. I’ll be honest there’s not a lot of musicians that know much about accounting so I always feel like a nerd. Most musicians don’t like numbers, but I do.

SHREFFLER: Boston loves its nerds, so you’re among your people here. So if you want to talk a little accounting on stage…

JANEWAY: Yeah, yeah. Let’s talk about debits and credits and end of the year statements. Has everyone filed their taxes? What are we writing off this year?