On the eve of flying to California for his band’s Coachella debut, the relentlessly boisterous St. Paul and the Broken Bones frontman Paul Janeway is in a chipper mood, recalling his first trek to the festival, as a fan. “I had a broken heart and decided I was gonna spend a paycheck on Coachella,” he says with a laugh. “So that’s what I did. I’m a huge Prince fan — I think it was in 2008 — and I was front and center for him. I got up early, waited all day. I waited, literally, all day.” These days, Janeway and his band are the ones fans are waiting for.
Last weekend, the blue-eyed, Otis Redding-rasping crooner was red faced, sweating through his three-piece suit. Strands of wispy blond hair stuck to his forehead and black-rimmed spectacles slid down his nose as he led his six-piece band through a midday set before thousands at Coachella. Onstage, Janeway — a lifelong R&B fan who grew up wanting to become a preacher — is known to bust out James Brown-cribbed dance moves that betray his burly stature. He belts out heartbroken, horn-arrangement-heavy pleas for forgiveness in ballads like “I’m Torn Up,” rave-ups like “Sugar Dyed” and four-minute-long tenderness-to-triumphant melodramas like “Call Me.”
Such staples of the soul ensemble’s airtight R&B revue aren’t classics yet, but they sure sound like it. The Red Bull Sound Select band nods to the golden era of Southern soul and reaches into its backyard of Muscle Shoals to craft a timeless sound they’re taking around the world.
This summer, St. Paul and Broken Bones will hit many of the major U.S. festivals, including Sasquatch!, Lollapalooza and Outside Lands. They’ll also return to Europe, where Janeway says fans find his thick, buttery Alabama accent endlessly entertaining. Add that to last year’s invitations to Bonnaroo and Hangout Fest, and accolades like an Emerging Artist of the Year nod at the 2014 Americana Awards (where they took the stage at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium and brought down the house). They also sold out Chicago’s 500-plus-capacity Lincoln Hall two weeks before their debut full-length, “Half the City,” even came out. Big things have happened; bigger things are on the horizon.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones formed in 2012 when Janeway, then a 31-year-old accounting school student, got an out-of-the-blue call from bassist Jesse Phillips. The pair had previously played together in The Secret Dangers, an Alabama bar band that did Led Zeppelin covers. “He was like, ‘Hey, man! Did you wanna record somewhere? Just kind of our last hurrah as a musical relationship?’” Fatefully, what they ended up cutting was anything but a swan song.
Together, they wrote the slow-dance waltz “Broken Bones & Pocket Change,” one of the standout songs on their debut album, which was produced by Alabama Shakes touring member Ben Tanner. Phillips, a social butterfly of the Birmingham music scene, quickly tapped guitarist Browan Lollar and drummer Andrew Lee, sowing the seeds that would quickly blossom into St. Paul and the Broken Bones. “It just clicked,” Janeway recalls.
This week, with a couple hundred shows and some big festival dates already under the belt, St. Paul and the Broken Bones began the writing sessions for their sophomore album. Janeway concedes he feels a combination of confidence and pressure. “Part of me is super excited,” he explains, “because we’ve been playing so many shows together that we know each other back and forth as musicians. [And] part of it is daunting now, because people care. When we recorded the first album, no one knew who we were; people could care less. Now there’s going to be a little anticipation.”
It’s also daunting because the band wants to expand its musical pallet and not get pigeonholed as an R&B throwback group. “What does that look like for us?” he asks. “There’s not a desire to be called a retro act,” he says, explaining that the band’s talked about integrating elements of psychedelic soul and flirting with more modern sounds. “We’ll see,” he says. “The next record, if we played an Otis Redding song in the middle of the set, it might sound weird.”
But first, the band will return to the Mojave stage for the second weekend of Coachella, where Janeway will try to give his fans the same magical experience Prince gave him a few years ago. “It’s all about confidence,” says Janeway. “You have to get on stage and think what you’re doing’s not dumb. You have to give it either 100 percent or not at all.”