St. Paul & The Broken Bones continue a generational conversation on Young Sick Camellia
By Timothy Dwenger
When the needle hits the vinyl it isn’t long before a crackly southern drawl emerges from a soundscape that starts delicate and builds like an approaching storm. While the track is over before anyone knows what to make of it and a jerking drums beat ushers in a funky soul groove, that voice sticks in the brain and makes several more appearances as it punctuates the latest experiment from St. Paul & The Broken Bones.
“Musically, I don’t think we could have gone from Half the City to this record. I think we would have alienated a lot of people,” admitted the band’s charismatic frontman, Paul Janeway, during a recent interview with The Marquee, as he spent a few days at his Alabama home after stopping by The Jimmy Kimmel Show. “That was very much a garage soul record and I think you have to take your fan base on a journey. That’s why I think Sea and Noise was so important; it was the bridge.”
The bridge that Janeway is referring to took the band from the “retro soul” sound of their breakout album, Half the City, to the modern, almost glossy, R&B of their most recent release Young Sick Camellia. “It’s a little more 21st century,” he said. “We are just not the kind of band that is going to make the same record over and over. We don’t want to lose who we are, but each album is going to be some kind of progression, one way or another.”
With that progression in mind, Janeway and his longtime songwriting partner Jesse Phillips set out on a mission to make an album that didn’t bask in the afterglow of their previous successes; and to do that they knew they had to have the help of a veteran producer. “I can’t tell you how many times we went to L.A. or New York or Nashville or wherever and met with producers. We took a day and just worked with them. It was like blind dating,” he joked. “The label had mentioned Jack Splash and we did our homework and were like ‘Well, when this guy sits, we love the way it sounds’ and that’s always going to be what moves us — the sound. So we went to L.A. — me and Jesse did — and got in a room and it took about five minutes and I was like ‘I think this is the guy.’ I feel like you know these things pretty quickly. You know, vibe, how they work — he has a really strong work ethic and we do too — but also just when we talked about music and how we talked about music and what we were into and what we were listening to and those kinds of things. We just hit it off. He has a presence, he’s smiling, and he’s really positive and just knows how to handle things.”
From the first spin, Young Sick Camellia shows off a nearly club-ready sound that betrays some of Splash’s other credits including Kendrick Lamar, CeeLo Green, John Legend, and Christina Aguilera. “He is a low end, bass and drum guy,” Janeway explained. “He is going to bring a hip-hop element to the music that not everybody would and he does it in a tasteful way where it’s not like ‘I can’t hear anything but bass and drums.’ To me when you listen to the record that’s the change from record one, to two, to three. That low end.”
While songs like “Got It Bad” and the album’s lead single “Apollo” feature that trademark low end married effortlessly to rubbery bass lines, punchy horns, and Janeway’s electrifying vocals, the eerie spoken word ruminations on a life gone by sway things in a darker, more contemplative direction and start to reveal Janeway’s initial intention of creating a song cycle focused on the complicated male relationships in his family.
“There is a famous Alabama storyteller named Kathryn Tucker Windham and I was like ‘my grandfather kinda tells stories like that so maybe I should use some of his spoken word on my work,’” said Janeway as he described why he included the crackly interludes on the record. “He was in his early ’80s so I knew he wasn’t going to be here forever but at the time [all I knew was]his back was really hurting him and that was about it. I was like ‘I have to have a conversation with him’ so that was what I decided to do. We had that phone conversation in a parking lot when we were opening up for Hall & Oates in Texas and two months later he got diagnosed with lung cancer. The album took on a different tone for me when he passed. It wasn’t meant to be a tribute, it was meant to be a generational conversation, but it kinda turned into that — it’s a little haunting. I guess the universe kinda set me up and I think that’s beautiful.”
Descended from conservative southern men who shied away from talking about their feelings and saying “I love you,” Janeway considers himself the “artsy weirdo in the family” and a “blue dot in a very red part of the world.” “I’m not sure my dad has listened to this record,” he admitted. “If he has, he hasn’t told me. We don’t have conversations about those things. It’s just not really what me and my dad talk about. I think the only person I haven’t heard from is my father and I don’t expect to hear from him. He doesn’t judge me for it, or think I’m a bad person, but doesn’t want to understand it, doesn’t care to understand it. Not that he’s not proud or anything, it’s just a different mentality.”
While his dad isn’t showering praise on him, Janeway revealed that their relationship has improved greatly since he was a boy. “When him and my mom divorced I had no place to go and he was living in a two bedroom apartment and he let me sleep on the couch for three years. It was in my early 20’s and I think that changed our relationship,” he said, before alluding to the pain of his younger years. “He had a lot of anger built up and a lot of things he was dealing with and he would take that out on us. I think that having that time with him and understanding him more allowed our relationship to improve. We talk pretty consistently now and while we don’t really talk about the music stuff, I think he’s just happy I have a job. It is way better now than when I was a kid and up through a teenager. Unfortunately, him and his father didn’t get to have that relationship, so that’s the complication and that’s why I think it’s fascinating.”
There is no doubt that family dynamics are fascinating and, while sometimes painful, Janeway has proven with this album that it is important to take the time to be introspective about the things that make us all who we are. “Two years ago I thought this kind of subject would be off limits for me,” he said. “But I don’t think it is. I think how you make good art is to show vulnerability and I think that’s where my brain’s been at. There have been a lot of good things seeping out of me and the more records you make the harder that is so you have to strike where there’s oil.”
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