In this year of consequential referenda and elections, many of the most thought-provoking albums have been ones that explored various sorts of personal and political polarization. Veteran acts in particular have excelled at communicating these cyclical themes with revitalized forms. See, for example, the pairing of loss with enlightenment on A Moon Shaped Pool, the subversive journalistic detachment of The Hope Six Demolition Project and theological fury of Showbread Is Showdead. These are uneasy albums for uneasy times.
For St. Paul and The Broken Bones, a newer band known largely for its horn-blaring good-time live act, there seems to be some risk involved in broaching such topicality. Since releasing their debut album Half the City in 2014, the group has undergone many shifts on the way to sophomore effort Sea of Noise. The quickly-recorded Half the City was a surprise hit, ushering the Birmingham, Alabama soul band to bigger stages, greater business opportunities, and the scrutiny that comes along with being so closely identified with a specific musical tradition. Fittingly, Sea of Noise is a set of songs about holding on to what’s lasting amidst upheaval. In this PopMatters interview, front man Paul Janeway discusses the changes, debates, inspirations, and challenges involved with album number two.
Looking back on Half the City, Janeway says, “I didn’t know my voice. That was the first time I’d ever really done any professional recording with my voice. I’ve had to learn, you’ve got to be more nuanced. Going big all the time doesn’t always mean good, you know?” He also says “the general lyrical direction” is another area in which the group has evolved. “I wanted to get away — and it was just kind of where my instinct was taking me — I wanted to get away from the standard heartbreak, loneliness, hey, happy times. I wanted to really dig deeper and just add a little more depth at least lyrically than your standard, ‘oh this guy’s job is to sing well’.
“I wanted to expand that and artistically, it’s just exploring that more, being open to explore and not so set in your ways. That’s a battle, because when you have success with a debut record it’s easy to kind of go, well, we can just play it safe and do the same thing. You battle that. Cause to me it’s still somewhat of an art. From one album to the next album, we are not a band that’s going to write the same album every time. It’s not in our DNA. I feel like you take people on a journey with you. That’s kind of the point for us, even on songs.”
Having recently returned from a European tour, Janeway mentions two artifacts of history that resonate, indirectly and directly, through Sea of Noise. The first is The Death of Marat, which Janeway visited up close at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels. “It’s one of my all-time favorite paintings,” he says. “I got to see that, which was pretty spectacular.” The second is a quotation from Winston Churchill, who in his memoirs wrote that Harry Hopkins was “a crumbling lighthouse from which there shone the beams that led great fleets to harbour.” On Sea of Noise, “Crumbling Light Posts” is a recurring theme that unifies the album.
“I always thought that was really interesting imagery. In a lot of senses, I feel like — you know, you talk about making an album. Just in that sense you feel like, is this dying or crumbling hope of light and it’s falling into this sea of noise, which is, you know, the other part of it. That can represent all sorts of things. You can get as deep as you want to go, go as shallow as you want to go, and I think that’s kind of the significance of being hopeful but feeling like that’s slowly being drained out of us, drained out of me, how I look at the landscape of things. That’s kind of a common theme throughout the record.”
Lyrics from new song “Waves” typify the crumbling hope of Sea of Noise: “All the people they are praying but there ain’t love no more / just bullets and hate”. Bullets and guns appear throughout the album, which assesses the state of the family or nation or globe at various points as “midnight”, “hell”, and “a black hole”. I ask Janeway if he considered the possibility that by making an album so glum in its concept, he might magnify the distress that inspired the songs.
He answers, with a perceptive laugh, “That’s the thing. That’s the issue that you fight. It’s not a glimmer of hope. There’s not a lot of hope on it. It’s me, talking about, sifting through this kind of Southern identity, and it is what it is — you kind of come to terms with who you are, where you are, and you just kind of move on from there. You might get to the destination and be disappointed, but it’s really the journey that you should try to enjoy and really relish that.”
While Janeway readily admits that political and spiritual strife are “big subjects to tackle”, he doesn’t see his exploration of these issues as being necessarily fixed to the present moment. “I think that’s what was really interesting is that, I’m a big non-fiction reader, and my wife teaches a class about human rights and philosophy and a bunch of stuff, and what you realize is that some of the past looks a little bit like the future. It’s an interesting thing that, though there are things that are better, some things are worse. To me it’s not necessarily this overly political or faith-searching thing; it’s really just sifting through all of that for me, kind of a perspective.”
Another goal the singer identifies is “wanting to get away and wanting to try and find some sort of realness”, which is an aim directly stated in a repeated phrase on “Sanctify”: “Oh but I want to feel something real.” What most distinguishes the album’s coming to terms, its questioning, is that there are few answers offered or conclusions reached by the time the music ends.
Listening to the album, and speaking with Janeway about it, creates an impression that the “sifting” is still in progress. “It’s weird. I didn’t write the record going, we’re going to write a semi-political, or faith-based struggle, it was sifting through all that and I think for some reason it might resonate a little bit with modern times, which is interesting. I know there’s something to be said. I just don’t know what. I don’t think it’s for me to know what. I’m working through that.”
“Burning Rome”, one of the more pointedly personal songs on the album, required a translation, of sorts, by Janeway for the other members of the band. “That was a difficult song to get to because I think the guys were like, this is kind of a standard ballad. I was like, ‘yeah not really’ just because of the subject matter. Then once I told everybody where I was headed, it was kind of a prayer.” The song, which begins with the question, “Where’d you go my sweet devotion?” is about the singer’s withdrawal from the religious activities that were so central to his early life.
He explains, “When I look at my youth, especially where I’m from — you know, you’re from the South — you know that the church is typically the epicenter of all social activity in a small town. When I let go of that I felt like I was destroying my life. It was just the image of burning Rome. I did. Then you realize, well, no, faith can’t be defined by that. It’s not defined by that for me. I think the destruction of that was actually what built me up and made me really realize, what do you believe? It explores that. That’s a tough song for me. It’s going to be a tough song for me.”
I ask if part of what makes the song tough is the thought of its reception. “That was what was so difficult about this record,” he says. “It dug deeper. I’m proud of it, obviously, very proud of it. But it’s not one of those records that I feel like, lyrically at least, I didn’t play it safe. So there are elements that scare me that it might ruin — you know, my Mom and Dad might be asking me a lot of questions.”
One of the questions such lyrical content creates is how decisively Janeway has turned aside from his faith. For a point of comparison, I bring up David Bazan’s 2009 album Curse Your Branches, which marked the former Pedro the Lion singer’s turn away from Christianity and conversion to agnosticism — a period the music press widely referred to as his “break-up” with God. Janeway says Sea of Noise and its “sifting” is not that conclusive.
“It’s not. It’s complicated. It’s a very complicated thing for me, even to this day. So it’s hard for me to go, yeah, breaking up, and have that definitive line that I jump over. It’s just not that way for me. It’s kind of an exploration. You lay it on the table. Some people are like, ‘maybe you shouldn’t even explain the songs’. I don’t think that’s going to hurt the meaning for other people. Our style of music, there are going to be people who have no clue what I’m talking about, and just dance to it. And there are going to be people that really pay attention. I just think I’ve laid it out there and let it fall as it may.”
Because the album is so cohesively structured and forthright in its subject matter, Janeway says, “I didn’t like … releasing singles for this record. You’re not hearing it in context. You’re hearing it just as a single entity. That’s not really how it was designed. We’re still in the album-making business. I know that this is a singles-driven market, but that’s not how I view it. The album is the whole of the work and it needs to be listened to as the whole of the work. That’s how we designed it. That’s on purpose. If people think that’s archaic… But I still think there are people out there that want that. They’re just — most of them are not fifteen years old.”
One increasingly common way for artists to influence the way their albums are experienced is the surprise release, in which an entire album is rolled out at once. St. Paul and The Broken Bones “debated that” but concluded “we just don’t have that kind of profile.” The singer says, “That’s the thing. I worried because I thought if we do something like that, we’re just not this huge band. We’re still building a lot and I was also worried about people’s reaction to this record a little bit. I didn’t know if people were going to like it. You kind of want to prepare people.”
Janeway figures the group’s new label, RECORDS, might still be getting accustomed to them. “I’m not exactly sure what this new label thought they were getting. I think maybe they thought they were getting, like, Adele or something like that. Little did they know that’s not anything close to what they are getting.”
I ask about his experiences with the business of music, as the band has transitioned away from Single Lock Records and onto bigger, but less familiar, ground. “I don’t know, for me as far as the business side, it opens your eyes. I mean there are some things… Single Lock, I love those guys. That’s family. It really is. Those folks are family. It’s just we grew so quickly, so fast, that it got hard. You really have to start having hard conversations. And I hated it. I hated it because that’s family. So we debated so many things and we debated going fully independent, just making our own label and doing it that way. We thought really hard about that.
“This label we’re on now is associated with our publishing company, Songs. We kind of thought, alright well, we don’t really want to go big in the States so we need to kind of expand the reach overseas. So they got us hooked up with Columbia overseas, so that was part of it. To me, as long as we get to make the music we want to make, which that’s how it’s written, you know, I don’t really care. Now if someone is sitting there and breathing down your back and … they have creative control, then we have an issue. We like the relationship, it seemed like it was a good fit, and you know, we go from there.”
Janeway says that despite the rising profile of the band, he hasn’t given into any significant pressure to conform to a certain industry-approved image, but at times “moral questions” do arise. “If you were going to make a lead singer, he probably wouldn’t look like me. That’s just the way it is. I am who I am. I’m going to grow from there. So if people don’t like how we do things or the way we do things, it’s kind of like, well, too bad. That’s just who we are. So that’s been hard to navigate.
“Radio’s the worst. Because radio, you kind of have to kiss ass a little bit. And you’re like, ‘how much ass do you kiss?’ There are always real moral questions. This is still an art form to me. I don’t look at this as a business. I take care of the business side and I have no problem talking about it but … the point is, write great music, play great shows. That’s it.”
The arrangement of voices and instruments on Sea of Noise conveys the duality and conflicts that exist in the lyrics. For example, the disquieting “Waves” considers abandoning hope and surrendering to hell, but then a concluding gospel section turns the dire mood around. Janeway describes that aspect of the song: “I used this philosophy, when opera first got introduced there was this whole philosophy that the choirs and voices together were the voices of angels and of divinity. Solo was more about the human struggle. You heard someone sing about themselves and it just kind of tore at your heart. The choir is throughout the record.
“That was kind of the idea, is that the solo, by myself, is kind of the human struggle but the divinity and real spiritual stuff is when the choir kicks in. I use that throughout the whole record. That song’s a prime example, because the choir comes out of nowhere. We had a big debate about that. Because the guys are like, should we maybe just bring them in a little bit? I was like no; I want it to be a surprise. I wanted to catch people off guard a little. Because you hear the song, and you go, ‘oh man this is kind of sad’, and then they come in and it’s not so bad.”
Yet another noteworthy change on Sea of Noise, compared to Half the City, is the presence of strings. The group, Janeway says, wanted the album “to be more orchestral” and “wanted the arrangements to be really thought out.” To that end, “The horns don’t sound like a horn band in a lot of the stuff. It sounds more orchestral. There’s obviously some horn band stuff, but we wanted to use the horns more that way on this record than say a standard Stax or soul thing. So there were parts where the strings just fit.” Joining the group to make this happen was Lester Snell, whose experience Janeway notes includes working “with Isaac Hayes and all of these great Memphis artists. We wondered if Lester would be interested, and he did it and he did a phenomenal job.”
As to what the strings add to the music, Janeway declares, “I love strings, the violin and cello, they just make me weep. To put those on the record — a song like “I’ll Be Your Woman” — that song with those strings, it just makes it. We thought about horns. Live, we probably will do horns, because we can’t afford to bring strings with us everywhere. But it just fit. It kind of gives it that darker tone, brings a little bit of heartache and warmth in there. It’s hard to get the warmth at times.”
Decisions like the choice to introduce such new compositional elements correspond to the motion of growing into the industry and further defining the identity of St. Paul and The Broken Bones. “That was our whole goal with album two,” Janeway says, “was to not lose ourselves. You know, we are who we are, but really to expand the musical palette. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed. We’re still very much rooted in R&B but some of it might be a little more modern than say the ’60s or something like that. There are songs that have zero horns on them. And trust me — that was a point of contention. You know, when you have horns in the band. But we realized we’re going to treat live differently than the album, and that’s what we did.”
For Janeway, the determination to not lose himself, and the search for what’s real, extends beyond the political, spiritual, and commercial concerns to the day-to-day lifestyle he enjoys as a member of St. Paul and The Broken Bones. “A lot of it’s just searching for something real, something with substance. I think that’s my biggest fear in my life in general, especially with what I do. Because it’s not real life. You know what I mean? I go to the venue and there’s food and there’s people that go get stuff. For me. That’s not real life.
“That’s not real,” he reiterates. “That’s the business that we do. It doesn’t feel real to me at times. So in my life, that search can get a little muddled. You’re like, is this real? We have all this social media. I’m sure you know people who seem happily married on their Instagram and they get divorced a year later. We’ve created this thing, this wall and there’s no substance anymore. People create this image. The search for beyond that has gotten a little more difficult.”
For an R&B act like St. Paul and The Broken Bones, the concept of authenticity presents a particular challenge, which is the defensive position against the charge of cultural appropriation. While the group has mostly avoided being tagged with the label, critical perspectives of that sort do appear in blogs and YouTube comment sections of the band’s performance videos. This is an undoubtedly touchy subject, as a Salon interview with Daryl Hall vividly illustrated earlier this year.
Janeway is candid in his response. “That is the biggest thing that hits me so hard, because it’s difficult to navigate. The problem is I sound the way I sound. If you say, hey, he was influenced by black music when he was young, and so he’s emulating that … maybe? You know? I’ve talked with a few of my black friends about this. What are we doing? Is it inherently racist? One of my friends was like, ‘no, the thing is, you’re from the South, you grew up on the music, you can’t help that. Who’s to say cultural appropriation is so bad, anyway?’
“I mean if that’s the case, then you would have to say the Beatles were cultural appropriation, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, all of these people would be considered cultural appropriation. If that’s the case, it’s been a long line of that. For me, it’s a personal thing. I think if you acknowledge what you came from, what you were listening to, and you pay respect to that, I don’t think it’s coming from a negative space.”
What complicates even a well-intended continuation of musical/cultural tradition, Janeway observes, is that “there are legit race issues in this country”. But he also points out an incongruent source voicing the “legit” problems. “You know who tells me about cultural appropriation most of the time?” he asks, and then answers, “Some white people. And I’m like, well who are you to say that? Because I think the issue is, it’s some white guy going, ‘oh I know what it’s like’ to be relevant. No, you don’t. You don’t know what it’s like to be black in this country, and neither do I.
“There are big issues out there. There are. That’s what blows my mind. Now if any of my friends who are black were like, ‘hey, Paul what I think you’re doing is inherently wrong’, I would have a conversation about that. But that doesn’t happen. We have fans that are black. It’s not a situation like that. But it burns me up because we’re from Birmingham. So there is a long, sad history in Birmingham with racist shit.” Asserting his hometown bona fides, Janeway wonders, “How else do you want me to sound? What do you want me to sing, bluegrass? So we stay in our little boxes? We don’t do anything different? No one works that way…
“If you’re going to put that label on stuff, that’s a slippery slope. For us, we come from the South, I mean, are the Swampers, are they culturally appropriating? Are we influenced by Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, and Sam Cooke? Absolutely, but we’re also influenced by David Bowie and so many other things. Eddie Hinton. There are so many influences in music now that it’s so hard to be like, ‘well you’ve got to stay in this little corner here’. No, man, that’s just not how music works … Prince was influenced by Joni Mitchell. I think that’s what’s beautiful about music. I think that’s the beauty of music, is that it brings a lot of people together.”