The ancient Greek playwright Euripides is quoted as saying “To a father growing old, nothing is dearer than a daughter.” It’s a sentiment Paul Janeway, the namesake of southern soul outfit St. Paul & the Broken Bones, can well relate to. Back in 2020, fatherhood and the ability to create a musical message for Janeway’s then-unborn child became a major inspiration for Angels in Science Fiction, the fifth and most recent album from this Alabama octet. With Janeway and his wife learning they were expecting a daughter in January of that year, the 30-something frontman found himself grappling with a well-spring of creativity amidst a generational pandemic.
“With this record especially, it was bizarre timing-wise,” he recalled. “We’d just gotten done with Alien Coast in February 2020 right before the shit hit the fan. Once the pandemic happened along with what was going on with George Floyd and all this type of social unrest and big things that were happening, it was spawning a lot of music and inspiration. For me, becoming a dad for the first time was about exploring all the anxieties, joys and clichés that with it. The record was [coming along] in a being-struck-by-lightning kind of pace where we’d come up with something and the song was written. It was just kind of overflowing. I would have written this record whether I was the postman or being a musician. It was going to happen. I had to figure out how to channel this energy into a place that invoked relief.”
A flurry of songwriting occurred in April and due to COVID-19 restrictions, it wouldn’t be until September until St. Paul and the Broken Bones were able to hit Sam Phillips Recording Studio, along with a quick jaunt back to Alabama, and lay down what became the dozen songs that make up Angels in Science Fiction. For Janeway, getting these tunes in the can became a race against the clock.
“The real complication at that point after writing those songs so quickly was how to record it because at the time COVID-19 was going on and you wanted to be safe,” Janeway explained. “But you also wanted to finish the project. In my mind, I really felt like I had to do this before [my daughter] was born. Two weeks before she was born in September we took a week out in Memphis and a couple of days in Birmingham to hash everything out.”
The result is a complicated collection of songs wrapped in the ambiance of quasi-psychedelic neo-soul that subtly conveys Janeway’s feelings of joy, fear and confusion tied to this major worldview shift that comes with bringing another life into the world. Spirituality is a major driver in these songs which is unsurprising given how Janeway’s childhood is rooted in a conservative religious upbringing. And while he’s gone down a more secular path not unlike his hero Al Green, the holy spirit is never far on Angels in Science Fiction. The melancholy title cut opens with Janeway crooning, “I don’t know if God is real, but then I see Him in your eyes/I don’t think I hear his voice, but then I hear your little cry/Angels seem like fiction, but now I’m not so sure” while the glockenspiel-soaked “Sea Star” has its roots in a pastor’s sermon from Janeway’s youth. Elsewhere, the mid-tempo soul groove of “City Federal Building” evokes vibes of minor key Stax-Volt as Janeway sings of crumbling skyscrapers and dead leaves. The album’s most key heart-on-your-sleeve moment is on the piano and string-kissed closer “Marigold,” a tribute named for his daughter that find Janeway promising, “I don’t want you to be alone/But I gotta go, I’ve got a show.”
While family is at the core of this new record, it’s not the first time Janeway has looked to his family tree for a creative spark. The band’s third album, 2018’s Young Sick Camellia went from the vocalist wanting to record separate EPs that would serve as the voices of him, his father and grandfather to a full-length outing that musically connected the trio of generations. There are even spoken-word conversations between the singer and his grandfather interspersed into the album. In many ways, Angels in Science Fiction is the companion piece to Camellia despite the two albums sandwiching 2022’s The Alien Coast.
“I think my relationship with family is a complicated thing, as is my relationship with religion,” Janeway said. “Alien Coast is its own separate thing. I think [Angels and Camellia] intertwine a lot and are such a part of what inspires me that it’s still a well. I think there’s definite connective tissue between those two records.”
Having just returned from Australia, St. Paul and the Broken Bones are back in the States but won’t be presenting a full Angels in Science Fiction production until the last quarter of 2023.
“We have shows on the East Coast and festivals and I’m not sure if the Angels of Science Fiction tour would be the greatest festival thing because it is a little more subdued,” Janeway said. “At festivals, you have a tendency to want to punch people in the face for 45 minutes or whatever. That’s not the kind of record [Angels] is. I think because we’ve released records so closely, we’ll play some of those songs in the set. But it won’t be the full-on show until we get to the fall.”
In the meantime, Janeway feels this latest outing is a creative inflection point for his band. For the vocalist, he went from being a kid whose childhood dream was to become a preacher and stumbled into a secular gig fronting a soul band to getting a firmer grip on his creative impulses a decade-plus in.
“I’ve said that with this record, it feels like the end of the book,” Janeway said. “This feels like whatever the band was trying to do, prove or whatever it is, this is the end. Now, we as a band have to reassess what are we, what do we want to accomplish and what do we want to do? What is moving us? I think that’s where some of this comes in. It’s okay that it comes in easy or naturally. That’s an okay feeling. But I think for us, we’ve had to run this through the system. You start bizarrely thinking about your body of work in a way and when you look at it, what do you want it to look like? Now that we’re where we’re at, I think it’s really fun. But it does feel like the end of an era for us with this record and I think that’s interesting. People are asking if we’re going to break up and that’s not what I’m saying.”
St. Paul & the Broken Bones will be appearing on June 25 at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, 108 Avenue of the Pines, Saratoga Springs. For more information, visit www.spac.org or call 518-584-9330.