For its third album, Young Sick Camellia, Birmingham soul outfit St. Paul & the Broken Bones turned to pop and hip-hop producer Jack Splash, who has worked with Kendrick Lamar, Diplo, Solange, Alicia Keys and more. The result is not some radio-ready move towards the mainstream, but the band’s deepest album to date.
Credit frontman Paul Janeway for cracking his innermost feelings open and getting them on tape (the bespectacled, braggadocious crooner can be heard crying on tape during “Bruised Fruit”) and try not to get sucked into the allure of the voice of Janeway’s since-deceased grandfather, whose stories guide one of 2018’s most personal albums.
"I think that vulnerability is important. This record was a difficult record to make, in a way. But it was also, I guess, relieving, as well. Very satisfying, too. But I do think to make good art you do have to make yourself vulnerable," Janeway told CL before the band's recent gig in Glasgow.
"That song in particular is definitely one of those. I definitely did that. It was a very intense day, and Jack, he would come in, I would be emotional, but he'd come in, give me a hug and tell me, 'Hey, what you're doing is a beautiful thing, so don't stop `that.' So you go through, and you kind of make it."
CL spoke with Janeway about Camellia, fellow Broken Bone Al Gamble, having to help naked old ladies at the tanning salon and more. See our full Q&A and get more information on the show below.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones w/Seratones. Thurs. Dec. 6, 7 p.m. $25. Jannus Live, in St. Petersburg. jannuslive.com.
Paul, I'm wondering what the over/under is on you drinking a Coca-Cola right now.
Haha. I'm actually drinking hot tea.
OK, you're not gonna quit that are you? The guys are gonna have to stop drinking alcohol if you give up that vice.
Nah, nah. I'm not quitting Coca-Cola, but we're in Glasgow, and it's chilly, so I have to keep the voice nice and warm.
You’re a thinking man in the booth and unhinged onstage. Are the live renditions of the songs a little more sprawling and loose onstage than they are on the album? How’s the translation going?
All response we've had has been great. The crowds have been great. I don't think the show has lost any energy or anything like that. It's only gained it. It's been a blast. We've had a great time. We rehearsed a lot before this tour, and that paid dividends because last time we rehearsed a little bit, but it took us about a tour to get the set right after Sea of Noise. For this one it was about two shows, and it was there.
So was Al Gamble available for rehearsals as well? I had a question about him and how he fits into the band as well.
Yeah, we was there.
You’re a homebody, but you’re also a builder. Could you talk about the pressures and nuances, publishing matters, that come with managing the small business that is St. Paul and the Broken Bones? I mean you have Memphis Hammond golden boy Al Gamble in your band. That has to be expensive.
Haha. Well... hahaha.
I mean, he's a partner, so he gets to enjoy and not enjoy. He's part of the entity. He doesn't worry too much. Honestly, management of that is me getting to play CEO unless there is a big decision that everyone but me disagrees with, then it usually all works out.
Has the pressure expanded as the band's income, I'm assuming, rises? All these people rely on the band to make a living...
Yes and no. I think it's one of those things where — yeah, we employ more people now — but the music business is full of people that go from gig to gig. Obviously we tour a lot, and I've had to learn that while that is great for people who want to work — at some point, I assume, that we'll slow down. You can't let that factor in. You have to be, not cold, but be like, "Hey at some point you have to take a break." The people we have now, most of the folks, we have a really great crew, they've been doing it long enough to know that, "Hey, when it gets back together I'll be here, and in the meantime I'll find something else."
I wanted to go back to some of the technical stuff from the album, but ask you — and first off, condolences about your grandpa who passed away after the record came out...
Oh, thank you.
He's on the record. Was that your dad's dad who was a pretty big drinker?
Yeah, it was interesting that you brought him in because there are so many of the stories that you've told when everyone asks you why you don't drink — you've explained it a million times — but I hadn't heard the one about your dad's decision to not drink after he pulled your grandpa, naked or something...
Yeah, the record is very vulnerable, and I'm thinking about “Bruised Fruit,” where I'm pretty sure you're crying on the record?
Yes, I am.
You’re vulnerable, which is crucial in terms of making good art.
I think so. I think that vulnerability is important. This record was a difficult record to make, in a way. But it was also, I guess, relieving, as well. Very satisfying, too. But I do think to make good art you do have to make yourself vulnerable. That song in particular is definitely one of those. I definitely did that. It was a very intense day, and Jack [Splash, producer], he would come in, I would be emotional, but he'd come in, give me a hug and tell me, "Hey, what you're doing is a beautiful thing, so don't stop `that." So you go through, and you kind of make it.
Yeah, the record is kind of a declaration, too. Along the way you've learned to embrace who you are and not give a shit. The album feels like that, like a reckoning...
Right, right. I think that's very true. It's a more personal and self-reflective record. It's accepting who you are and where you're at.
So what if Broken Bones doesn’t happen? Would meeting your wife, going to school, maybe being an accountant or going back to the body shop or tanning salon, get you to that point where you don’t give a shit and can unabashedly be who you are?
You know, I don't know, now. I've done this. I've lived this life, and I've played music. I don't know. I feel like had the Broken Bones thing not happened... let's say it fizzled out. I'd probably finish my accounting degree, meet my now-wife... I don't know. I think that artistic itch would still need to be scratched — there's no two ways about that. I know that now. That would have been a give in. Obviously I'm glad that it brought success and all of those things, but I would have had to have done it anyway. I was always that way, whether it was successful or not.
But there's no way your wife would've been cool with helping naked old ladies fix the tanning booth.
Haha. No. Man. Ugh. No. I don't think I would go back to the tanning bed, I know that for sure. Haha.
I thought that was the craziest thing. The palest man in soul music working at a tanning salon.
Yeah, exactly. It was... uh, I don't miss those days, but it was probably the funniest job I've ever had — that's for sure.
Lester Snell brought those gorgeous strings to the last album, and the last time we talked you were fresh off the Elton John gig and going to work with a producer in L.A. You didn’t mention it, but it was Jack who is a weirdo, music nerd, someone a lot like you. He's someone who normally works with artists categorized in a different part of the record store.
Other than it feeling right, and his pitch about an album that had “the beauty and elegance of Jeff Buckley or Pink Floyd … but then totally clash that with the swing or the funk of Jamiroquai and Dilla” — can you explain the connection and how you made the decision to hand your big band and what you thought was three EPs over to him?
I think he just fit. Honestly, when we first met him, in those first five minutes you're kind of like, "OK." He's a really flashy dresser. He's a unique personality. We're coming in with jeans and T-shirts, so you're kind of like, "Alright." But you sit down and start talking about music. You're talking about your goals, what you want to accomplish, what you're doing, and he was in it. He can work with a lot bigger people than us who can probably make him a lot more money than we will.
But I think, he just, we just kind of had this connection. We talked about music, what we wanted to accomplish, and he starts getting like, "Oh wow, this is more than just a financial decision. These guys are obviously passionate about what they're doing." So I think he kind of just bought in, and we bought in. We connected.
For example, we played the Hollywood Bowl, and he brought his family. He brought his fiancé, and his son...
And you're working together already, at this point.
Yeah. We're still kind of doing a few things, but yeah. To me, having that, for us, he got us — and we got him. That, to me, it was really important. We wanted to do something different and we wanted to get somebody who people wouldn't necessarily think was in our orbit, just for the challenge and to see where it takes you. And it was really fun.
Whose idea was it to switch from three EPs to a trilogy of albums?
I think he was down for whatever. He's like, "Let's just do three albums." That's where he's at. He liked the EP idea, he thought that was cool. When I called him I was like, "Well, it looks like we have a lot of material," and working with him, he knew how to handle so many people. We've loved all the producers we've worked with before, but Jack knew — he just knew, it was crazy. I've never seen anybody work like that.
When I called him I said, "Hey, I think this has kind of grown to more than just three EPs. It might be three records," and he was worried. He was like, "I wanna do it with y'all," and I was like, "No it's not that — we're gonna do this," but it just turned into something bigger than we thought. But he loved the idea. He loved the vision of it and still does. It's one of those relationships that I think it's gonna last a while.
Yeah, you're a very look-forward person. So would you say you already know what's next? You're always thinking about the next thing.
Yeah. There's a lot of things moving right now. Who knows. With this entity, 100 percent that's where it's going.
Part two of this trilogy is on the horizon.
Yeah, I know where it's going as far as that goes.
Maybe I'll skip these Birmingham and Chelsea questions since we're short on time. Your parents got divorced, which kind of made you uninterested in high school. You ended up having to get your GED at Alabama — did that experience shape the way you approach relationships, especially the one with your wife? Like was it an experience that was akin to your dad pulling his dad out of that...
I think, obviously, I come from a small community, so that was a big part of what happened with stuff like that. That was a pivotal moment. I think they didn't have a happy marriage. For me, I don't ever want that. Obviously, nobody does. They got married when they were really young, and I got married in my 30s — it's a different thing. Of course it shapes you and changes the way you view relationships. It's something that you have to work at; it's not something that just happens. To have a good relationship, you have to make effort, and I think that's definitely something that was pivotal in my life, sure.
Cool, and last question. Last time we spoke we mentioned how Just Mercy, a book by Alabama activist and lawyer Bryan Stevenson, had a hand in your last album’s direction. Any books shape this one, or was it that internal exploration...
I think it was more of an internal thing. All that's been going on, maybe subconsciously, I felt like I had to internalize these things and explore these relationships. But nothing specific like that. I feel like Sea of Noise was kind of an outward view. I caught inspiration there, and I felt like this one was more internalized. Neither one gave a lot of answers to questions; it was more like trying to figure out the right question. Nothing quite like that.
Heard, well thanks for letting me eat up the minutes on the European burner phone.
Oh no man, it's fine.
I felt bad when I found out I was calling you while you were over there.
It's a tax write-off.
Right on. Haha. Bye Paul, safe travels.
Thank you, man. Bye.