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Preacher turns unlikely rocker with Broken Bones

Paul Janeway, lead singer of the US soul band St Paul and The Broken Bones. — AFP pic
Paul Janeway, lead singer of the US soul band St Paul and The Broken Bones. — AFP pic

NEW YORK, Dec 1 — With a rich, soulful voice that soars high and deep, Paul Janeway has commanded growing crowds as the frontman of his band St Paul and The Broken Bones.

But Janeway has little interest in the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. The affable 33-year-old said he learned how to lead the enthusiastic audiences at rock venues from spending his teenage years training as a preacher.

“In church, there were moments when you thought you were connecting as a people, and I think music has the ability to do that,” Janeway, sipping a bottle of cola, said in the drawl of his native Alabama as he prepared to play a sold-out show before 3,000 people at New York’s Terminal 5 club.

“With any great public speaker, there is a rhythm to the way they speak, and the tone — the high and low, being captivated, keeping someone’s attention, understanding valleys and peaks,” he said.

“That’s how we write a set-list. We’ll take ‘em all the way up here and take ‘em down — kind of an emotional roller-coaster in a way.”

The bespectacled Janeway — who still looks more like a Bible student than a rock star — went to church for as long as he knew and at 11, a pastor took him under his wing, letting him preach — or “perform,” as Janeway also described it — on select days.

Janeway’s faith eventually grew complex. He embraces the power of religious experience, but is no longer observant in the way of his youth.

“I thought that was what I wanted to do — I wanted to be a preacher for the rest of my life. And then I got to be 19 or so, and I just kind of fell out of love with it,” he said.

Janeway grew up with limited exposure to rock, with his mother strictly controlling the music at home.

“I could listen to Gospel music, of course, and any sort of religious music and then a little bit of soul,” he said, explaining with a grin: “Marvin Gaye — pre-Let’s Get It On. A little safer!”

More bank teller than rock star

Janeway’s voice — graceful but erupting into forceful, brassy fermatas — calls to mind not only Baptist preachers but also soul masters such as Al Green and the late Otis Redding.

Janeway, who is white, tackles his conservative state’s political and racial fault-lines through the music, but with the subtlety of a reflective religious scholar.

On Sea of Noise, the second album by St Paul and The Broken Bones which was released in September, Janeway bends gender on I’ll Be Your Woman and repeatedly muses on questions of faith.

“All the people they are praying / But there ain’t love no more / Just bullets and hate,” he sings on “Waves.”

With a band with roots in soul but also R&B and rock, St Paul and The Broken Bones has drawn inevitable parallels to Alabama Shakes, a fellow group from the Southern state that has quickly won success through acclaim for a gifted singer.

Yet Janeway, who in January will lead his band on its latest tour of Europe, is strikingly fatalistic about his rising fame.

“This was not a dream realised,” he said of his music career. “It was a realisation just that this was what I was supposed to be doing.”

“In my family, you work hard and you put your head down,” he said. “I was a bank teller for a little while. I approach it in the same way.”

Janeway demands little on tour except plenty of water to preserve his voice. After each show, Janeway, who is married, said he generally returns to his hotel room and reads a book.

“I never drank alcohol and I never smoked a cigarette. I don’t participate,” he said with a laugh. “I have bad language, but that’s about it.” — AFP

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