One of the hottest new bands out of Birmingham, Ala., doesn't sound new at all. On the new album, Half the City, St. Paul and The Broken Bones hits all the marks of a classic Southern soul band, complete with a fiery lead singer. Speaking with NPR's David Greene, bassist Jesse Phillips recalls the first time he experienced the voice of frontman Paul Janeway.
"I'd been warned of what comes out of Paul's mouth when he opens it," Phillips says, "basically because it's a big surprise for most people."
A surprise, he says, because the singer doesn't exactly look the part.
"Paul, according to all the reviews and stuff that are written of the band, he looks like your high school history teacher, or he looks like Drew Carey," Phillips explains. "Bottom line is that we're a bunch of kind of nerdy-looking white guys, and when this sort of earth-shaking soul roar comes out of his mouth for the first time, you can always hear the air being sucked out of the room."
Janeway wasn't raised to be a soul singer. He grew up in rural Alabama in a strict religious household.
And he got most of his musical chops from church. He even trained to be a preacher.
"I learned more from preaching than I did singing in church," Janeway explains, "because you learn a little bit more about how to interact with the crowd — feeling momentum, just feeling that intensity — and it's not a whole lot different than what we do now."
But eventually, Janeway would fall out of love with preaching and begin to look for another path.
"Dad works for a pavement and construction company," Janeway says. "He said, 'Well, boy, if you're not going to college, you're going to work.' He found me a job, basically, as a mechanic's assistant. I'd cut the grass, I would do all sorts of stuff — but when the economy crashed, I lost my job, and I was unemployed about a year and a half.
"And I met a lady," he adds, "and decided that I wanted to kind of figure out what I was going to do with my life. I went to community college, and after a little while I kind of started to be attracted to accounting. ... What's crazy is that I'm about two semesters away from getting my accounting degree, and then this music thing showed up and ruined my life."
Now, as the lead singer of a soul band, Janeway exhibits a deep passion in the music he performs on stage.
"It's really difficult for me not to sing every time like it's the last time I'm going to be on the planet," Janeway explains. "I don't care if we're playing to five people or 5,000, I have a mental thing in my brain that clicks that it's like I've got to give every possible fiber of my being into my voice right now when I'm singing."
The music has its roots in church, and religion is still part of Janeway's life — but the relationship remains complicated.
"Not agreeing with what is predominantly taught growing up the way I did, I had a lot of animosity toward the church," he says. "One time there was a woman with cancer, and they were telling her, 'All you need to do is say you're healed.' And she tried to so hard, and tried and tried and tried, but she eventually died of cancer, and she died thinking that she didn't have enough faith to be healed. And that really resonated with me. I still think about that to this day."
As for his parents, Janeway says that in retrospect he's glad they were so strict. He remembers a particularly formative moment when his mother found his copy of Nirvana's Nevermind.
"She found it and threw it away," he says. "I told her that story, and she goes, 'Listen, Paul, if you'd have listened to Nirvana, you wouldn't have been a soul singer.' So, I look at it now and go, 'Well, maybe it's turned out to be a really good thing.' "