The era of classic soul is sandwiched between R&B and disco, roughly 1963 to 1973, which is to say it was a long time ago when giants walked the earth and screamers and pleaders like Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding issued from transistor radios.
But everything old is eventually new again, and so we've been treated to a gaggle of soul revivalists over the past several years, from Fitz and the Tantrums to Mayer Hawthorne. Some are even masterly: See the revue style of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and the neo-soul of Alabama Shakes. Can we still be surprised by this stuff?
Yes. One Thursday morning several weeks ago, some listeners to NPR's Morning Edition heard Paul Janeway's voice, likely before they'd had their first cup of coffee, and thought, "Wait, what?" and then, "Wow ..."
Janeway, the lead singer of St. Paul & The Broken Bones, a seven-piece soul group from Alabama, was singing a song from the band's first album, Half the City, which was just released in February. He sounded unearthly, like a classic soul singer. The twist was that the singer had somehow been reincarnated in the person of a 30-year-old plump white guy.
Following a breakout performance at this year's South By Southwest festival, in Austin, Morning Edition called. A week later, St. Paul & The Broken Bones were summoned to New York to perform on CBS This Morning: Saturday.
Meanwhile, some smaller shows, booked before SXSW, sat happily on the calendar. For instance, an April 15 date booked in Denver at the hi-dive (which has since sold out). And a show in Colorado Springs at Ivywild, capacity 250, this coming Monday. As of press time, tickets were still available at ticketfly.com/event/519353.
Janeway grew up in rural Chelsea, Ala., in a devoutly Pentecostal home, and wanted to be a preacher until he was in his late teens. Then he discovered Otis Redding and other singers such as James Carr and O.V. Wright, who made his ear buds tingle, he says.
He'd been singing some in church. He started singing outside. After a stint studying accounting at a community college, aiming to be a bank teller, "this music thing showed up," he told NPR.
Janeway formed the band about three years ago. It was slow-going at first, and then ... boom.
So St. Paul & The Broken Bones may not be playing club dates much longer — which could make their local show a rare treat. With that in mind, we thought we'd chat with Janeway about where he came from and where he's going, and, as it happened, some of the history of soul. He and his band were en route to Indianapolis when he spoke to us last Wednesday.
You're blowing up. You've had all this media buzz, you have a sold-out show in Indianapolis tonight. You're talking to me on your cell from the road — do you have a big tour bus yet?
Ha ha, no. We still cart around in a van and a trailer.
Some of our readers might be wondering whether they should go see St. Paul & The Broken Bones in Colorado Springs. Tell me about what your shows have been like lately. What kinds of places have you been performing in, what have the crowds been like? Have you felt this buzz building around the band?
It's been interesting just because some places — well, I can give you an example. We played in Pittsburgh a couple days ago — all of our shows have been sold out on the East Coast — and it was sold out at 140 people, and the next night we played a sold-out room at 500 people. A lot of these shows were booked a while ago, and we're in this weird spot now where we're, "Oh man, we can play a bigger room now."
The weirdest part recently is that a lot of people know our songs. That's thrown me off a little bit. We've gone a year with this record, from the time it was made until it was released, with no one knowing the songs.
Now things are picking up quickly?
I would say so! It's been fascinating.
Paul, what did your folks do for a living?
My mom, she got her associate's degree in nursing, and my dad worked for a paving and construction company. He didn't go to college, he kinda worked his way up and eventually as I got to be a little bit older, he got a little higher up in the company.
So good country people, working-class?
Do you think that influences the way you approach performing?
To a degree, yeah. It's one of those things where I feel like you gotta earn it all the time, you know what I mean? I think it definitely influences the show.
There's a lot of people who just strum a guitar and sing, and that's great, that's fine, but to me, I feel like if I'm not sweating and working, I'm not earning my pay. Most of my family, it's about working your ass off and putting food on the table.
When singers like Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding were having hits in the '60s, they mostly came from rhythm and blues and gospel, and I guess listeners just assumed that was the sound of blackness, of soul, even though there were a lot of white folks involved in crafting their sound, too. With you, it feels like people hear your music and maybe they see your picture and think, "Where on Earth did that come from?"
I do have a little bit of a strange history. It might not have been so much back in the day, but now, I'm a white fella who grew up in the woods. I guess I should be singing country and bluegrass music, but I didn't grow up around that as much as I did soul and R&B folks, so when I heard Otis, and when I heard gospel, I just thought that's the way you're supposed to sing. I guess that's not how everybody grows up now.
Although a lot of soul singers in the '60s had great covers of country songs, like Arthur Alexander and Solomon Burke.
And Ray Charles. I love that stuff! I was on this ship with [country singer and songwriter] Buddy Miller back in January and he said, "You know, to me country and soul are like brother and sister." That's the beauty of it, they go hand in hand, but as a child I don't think I made that connection.
I'd love to hear you do a country cover.
I'd like to! You know what, I'd like to do a George Jones song, I think that would be really cool.
When I was on that ship, they had a recording session and they had me and Lee Ann Womack singing "Golden Ring," the duet by George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and that was neat. I was probably the only person in the room who didn't know the song.
You've been doing a lot of interviews lately. Are you getting sick of it?
Not really. See, I think I've come to an understanding with all this. It's personal to me. But I talk about coming from the church and my family and why I sing the way I do, and it's just weird that then it's in a magazine or a newspaper or a blog. But I get that.
A couple of months ago, for a Birmingham News piece, you told the writer, Mary Colurso, "If it stops right here, we're fine." But it didn't stop right there ...
You know, it was funny having that conversation, and it was a real good one. The question was, "How do you handle everybody saying, 'You're gonna blow up, you're gonna blow up'"? I'll tell ya, to me it feels pretty damn special right now. We're going to Denver and Seattle and all the shows are sold-out. I'm getting asked for autographs and pictures more. That's different.
People, critics, remark a lot on the fact that you're a white guy fronting a soul outfit, and the rest of the band is white as well. Does that bother you? Do you wish they'd get past it?
Well, I don't think you can help it, you know what I mean? It's something visually. We were around the Muscle Shoals rhythm guys, the Swampers [who played on a lot of classic soul cuts in the 1960s], and all those guys are white. I think it's weird probably in my position because there's not a lot of white soul singers.
But I don't think of it in those terms, I kind of leave that to other people. I just love soul music and I love Otis Redding. When I first heard him, I couldn't tell if he was black or white or whatever.
OK, since we seem to keep coming back to Otis, let's throw down.
My favorite has got to be "You Left the Water Running."
Ooooooh. [He sings] "You left the water running / When you left me behind, baby now / You left all the water running / It's running from these eyes of mine ..."
I can't believe you're singing just for me. Other people need to hear this!
I just love that song! That's not one you hear a lot. But now, see, I've been obsessed with him with the Carla Thomas duets, like on the King & Queen album. "New Year's Resolution," that's the one I'm obsessed with. And it's a holiday song. I like holiday songs. I also really like "Trick or Treat." See, that's another great [Otis Redding] holiday song.
So — America has a rich vein of soul music, mostly from the '60s. It's black singers we associate first with that music, right? Like Aretha and Otis and all, but like we were saying, there were also white players and writers and producers who collaborated to make that sound, people such as Dan Penn and Eddie Hinton and at Fame, in Muscle Shoals, where you recorded, Rick Hall. Were you aware of that when you went in this direction?
Oh, man, Eddie Hinton! People say, "You sound like Otis," but I look at Eddie Hinton as somebody I really, really admire.
Did you see the recent documentary Muscle Shoals?
Yeah. Twice. You know what? I got to sing at the premiere of Muscle Shoals — in Muscle Shoals; I was supposed to be one of Percy Sledge's backup singers. I'm not kidding! They called me and they gave me two songs. And then the week before the show they called and they said, "Hey, Percy's not feeling well, would you mind singing "When a Man Loves a Woman"? So I did it, right? And I'm out there and I'm singin' and givin' it my all and at one point I look and three feet to my right, there's Spooner Oldham [the Muscle Shoals songwriter and organist, who played on the original recording], playing the key part! Oh, man! That was, still, to this day, probably one of the coolest things I've ever done.
I saw where you were also quoted in the Birmingham News in February saying, "Right now, being from Alabama is kind of a thing. It helps." How, why?
It's true. My PR guy called me the other day to congratulate me on the CBS thing, and we were talking and I said, "The two things I thought would be deterrents is the way I look, being a chubby white guy, and being from Alabama" — and those two things have worked in our favor! I don't know why. But yeah, Alabama right now is kind of a badge of honor.
The first time I heard Half the City, the first time I heard you, actually, which was not that long ago, I think it was the song "Don't Mean a Thing," and the first thing I thought was, "This kind of sounds like Alabama Shakes" — whom I love. I know Shakes touring keyboardist Ben Tanner produced your album. Do you hear any other similarities?
I guess. But I think we kind of think of ourselves as a soul band, and I think they look at themselves as a rock band that has a soul singer. They don't have any horns, they don't have anything like that. But I don't think you can be from that region and not have that region affect you. And hey, there's lots worse company to keep. I'll take it any day.
What other difference do you think the horns make? Are they essential?
Absolutely. When we started this thing, the one thing I said was, "I'm not doing a band without horns." I love the way they sound. It puts an extra voice on things, especially with these guys. They know what they're doing. Trust me, I'm so glad those horns are there, and they're not hired guns. We purposefully put them as part of the band.
I listen to you on the aptly named "I'm Torn Up," when you're tearing it up, and part of what makes it exciting is thinking, "He's gonna rip his throat out if he keeps doing this." Are you ripping your throat out?
Ha! Here's what's funny: We recorded that record, the band was probably five months old, and so at the time — and I still to this day — I'm learning how to sing. And ... I thought, "I am just gonna go full bore all the time." I would hit stuff on that record I had no business hitting.
So we recorded that thing and our manager said, "Ooooh, sounds great — you're gonna have to go to a vocal coach" — not to make me sing better, but to help preserve my voice. So I did, and she helped me to find my sweet spot so when I'm screaming, I'm doing it right. A lot of tea and honey and warm-ups. Well, and sleep. Sleep is about 80 to 90 percent of it.
You're gonna be one of those guys with his throat wrapped in a muffler, sipping tea on the road.
It's all I got. I don't play guitar well or horns or drums or keys, so I gotta earn my keep and take care of it.
Aren't you tempted, though, onstage, to just let it rip?
That's the problem. There's no struggle with lack of effort, there's a struggle with too much. What I've learned as time goes by is, if I've got my monitors and I can hear myself, I'm OK. If I don't, I'm gonna try and hear myself. Unfortunately for me, I can get pretty loud.
We did this thing a couple days ago, it was just electric guitar and horns and I didn't have a mic and, God, it killed me. I told the guys, "We can't do that anymore."
Electricity is your friend.
So do you see yourself eventually moving away from the soul sound?
I don't think so. I think it might be more — well, where I could see it going? I also love someone like D'Angelo — like, D'Angelo's Voodoo to me is one of the best albums of the past 50 years. But I really don't know. I don't think we've perfected this yet.
I think our album's kind of a statement of, "Hey, we're here," and I think maybe the next album will be something more like, "We're gonna perfect where we're at." I don't know. I only sing a certain way, so I ain't gonna be breaking out in any Radiohead albums anytime soon.
Do you worry about getting pigeonholed?
Yeah, a little bit, I mean, that's the biggest thing. Here's my thing: I think if you write great songs, it doesn't matter the format it's in. A good song is a good song, soul, rock, whatever. Good songs transcend genres. But yeah, you don't want to be a novelty act, you don't want to be the token soul man, like, "Let's get St. Paul, we need our soul fix."
All right. So Paul Janeway's Top Five deep Southern soul cuts?
Oh, you want to go deep. The deep stuff. Yeah. So we got William Bell, "I Forgot to be Your Lover," just, for some reason, the way that song flows and works, it gets me every time. I love the Syl Johnson song "Concrete Reservation," on Is It Because I'm Black. He's one of those guys that you hear and you go, "Why isn't this guy über-famous?" I really, really dig it.
We got to get an O.V. Wright in here: "Eight Men, Four Women." I love the story, the whole thing where he's in court and talking to the judge, it's crazy. There's a Tommy Tate song called "Where Did I Go" — at first when I heard it, I thought, "This sounds like Gnarls Barkley." It's kind of a psychedelic-esque song. And Otis Redding's "Cigarettes and Coffee," obviously.
That's me and my girlfriend's song! She knew a little bit about soul when we first met and I remember I had a compilation of everything Otis ever recorded and she heard that song and kind of fell in love with it. Now my big record collection gets to stay at her place.
Oh yes. Sometimes we play at a record store and I just go nuts. My girlfriend, she's like, "I never, ever, ever worry about you leaving me for another woman. I worry about you leaving me for a record collection or music." I love playing it, that's No. 1, but No. 2, I love listening and collecting it.
Anytime I come home with a crateful, my girlfriend just freaks out. She's, like, "C'mon, we don't have room for this." And I'm, like, "But sweetie, they had this Billy Paul album I had to have!"