Over the last few years, Birmingham has become renowned for spawning a soulful septet who are making their presence felt on the world stage. St. Paul and the Broken Bones have gone from jamming in Homewood to jamming in Paris in under three years, riding high on a wave of swaggering singles with gospel groove.
Since forming in 2012, these guys have set cheering crowds ablaze across the globe from New York to Nashville, the long way around. They graced the stage at Bonnaroo and South by Southwest. They’ve been the iTunes Single of the Week and have been featured on major programs like NPR Live In Concert, KEXP, Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. To put it simply, St. Paul and the Broken Bones have been making the Magic City proud.
“There’s no place like Birmingham,” vocalist Paul Janeway tells Weld. “The whole city has this energy that can’t be put into words. It’s impossible to quantify. We’re very proud to call it our home.”
After all, everything started in Birmingham just over two years ago, when Janeway and bassist Jesse Phillips were both ready to walk away from performing music altogether.
Janeway, then an accounting student at UAB, was fully prepared to take the path that most vocalists unfortunately take, relegating his soulful croon to the inside of his car on rides home from work. Phillips, after years of writing, producing and plucking bass, hadn’t yet found the kindling to match his creative spark. But amid an afternoon jam and a “last hurrah” mentality, St. Paul and the Broken Bones were born.
“We met up at Ol’ Elegante Studios in 2012 and something just clicked,” Phillips says. “Paul came in with this really soulful sound and we walked out of the studio that day pretty much knowing that we were onto something.”
“We were both done,” Janeway adds, laughing. “We were both planning on having a little fun, then finally growing up and moving on with our lives. I mean, I was going to be an accountant! But things didn’t work out that way.”
No, things did not. The Broken Bones now sit in their van, hot and battling Tennessee traffic on yet another cross-country trek, fresh off a tour from Europe, to which they are already preparing to return. Despite all this, you wouldn’t think that these guys were anything more than a troupe of old friends riding down the interstate chilling out to a little Otis Redding.
“We’re like a family,” Phillips says. “You can’t do something like playing music without forming a real connection with the people around you. We just do what we do, have fun and try to be a well-oiled R&B band. … But yeah, now I get paid to get together with my friends and play songs that make people happy, and that is really cool.”
“It’s strange,” drummer and fellow Birminghamian Andrew Lee says. “We’ve spent so much time with our heads down, taking it one day at a time. Then we come back home to Birmingham and people say ‘You guys are getting so big!’ and we’re like ‘Oh, are we?’ All that really matters to us, though, is that we’re doing something that connects with people.”
“We had recorded an EP and were planning on releasing it ourselves, which we did,” Phillips recalls. “But Ben contacted us saying that he wanted to mix it first, and of course we said ‘Yes!’ That’s how we first got involved with the guys at Single Lock.”
A few weeks later, Single Lock Records formed a tacit pact with the band to record and release the live album, Live and In Person. The band’s unique sound, captured by the release, quickly caught fire with fans, and soon St. Paul was back in the studio recording their full-length studio debut, this time with Tanner fully producing the sessions.
“What started as a handshake agreement,” Phillips says, “ended up turning into a life-changing relationship.”
“The success of St. Paul has far exceeded any of our expectations,” Tanner says. “We recorded Half the City at the NuttHouse in Sheffield and FAME Studios in the Shoals. It was a great experience. They’re really talented guys and they have a one-of-a-kind sound.”
“We were so humbled to be recording in a place as legendary as FAME,” Janeway says. “So, we just went in and tried to do our best, tried to live up to the legacy and tried, well, just not to f— it up. Ben was a huge part of why that record sounds so good.”
Half the City, released by Single Lock in Feb. 2014, hit No. 7 on the iTunes charts and No. 62 on the Billboards Top 200 during its first week. This came as little surprise to their ever-growing fan base, though. St. Paul’s combination of ‘60s era soul, powerful vocals and a crisp brass section gives them an appeal that is both multicultural and multigenerational.
“It took us a little while to find our sound when we were first getting started,” Janeway says. “But once we found it, people responded to it. We loved playing around Birmingham and seeing both younger and older people getting down.”
Anyone that has seen St. Paul in a live setting can attest to the raw power of their stage show, another aspect of the band that is garnering massive attention. Onstage, Janeway channels greats like Marvin Gaye and James Brown both audibly and in the charisma of his stage presence. His larger-than-life reeling, belting and sliding still feels appropriate amid the creative prowess of the rest of the band.
“I wasn’t really allowed to listen to much music growing up,” Janeway says. “We had a few old gospel albums and, later on, I started listening to Otis, Sam Cooke, stuff like that. I was raised in the church. I wanted to be a preacher when I was young.”
And it shows. Janeway can control both intimate clubs and festival crowds in a way that can only be considered “pastoral.” This writer personally watched the Broken Bones pack out their bit of Hangout 2014 beachfront real estate into standing room only, delivering a performance in the afternoon sun that was on par with any major label act at the festival.
It’s been almost a year since St. Paul and the Broken Bones have electrified their home city with raucous rhythm and blues, due to a planned furlough that the boys are exceedingly ready to break. They will return to the welcoming arms of the Magic City for two sold-out shows Nov. 13 and 14 at the Alabama Theatre.
“We got to the point in 2013 where we were playing [Birmingham] almost every weekend.” Phillips explains. “So, when we hit the road, we decided to not play there for one year – before people got tired of us.”
“Playing the Alabama Theatre is going to be an amazing time,” Lee adds. “It’ll be our homecoming. Birmingham is a great city filled with great people, a lot of forward-thinking people. Even if it wasn’t our home, playing there would still be special for us. It’ll also be really cool to play a show and then sleep in my own bed.”
Though they agree that the road has been very tough, an exhaustive tour schedule doesn’t seem to be slowing down St. Paul and The Broken Bones at all. They plan to keep right on trucking with single shows and festivals booked through the end of the year. “We’re gonna keep doing what we do and see how big this thing gets,” Janeway says. “We know that we have a lot of big decisions and hard work ahead of us, but the music can’t be stopped.”