When you talk about Southern values, family certainly ranks as a significant cornerstone.
For Paul Janeway, lead singer of St. Paul & The Broken Bones, it was inspiration for the collection of songs that make up “Young Sick Camellia.” It’s the third studio offering from the Alabama octet, coming to the Englert Theatre in Iowa City on Tuesday (3/26).
Not unlike the two albums that preceded it — 2014’s “Half the City” and the 2016 follow-up “Sea of Noise” — “Camellia” is a gritty batch of gut-bucket soul. They’re framed by on-point horn arrangements and driven by Janeway’s vocal phrasing that bounces between a biting falsetto and yearning croon.
Janeway, who hails from the rural Alabama burg of Chelsea, started the project by deciding he wanted to record a trio of EPs inspired by the relationship between his grandfather, dad and himself.
“I think when we got done with record two, I kind of knew where I wanted to go almost immediately. Once I’m done with a record, I want to know where I’m going next and it’s kind of what I did with this,” Janeway said in a recent phone interview.
“For me, initially, it was to make three EPs. It was going to be through my eyes, my father’s eyes and my grandfather’s eyes. I had a desire to do it because they are complicated relationships, which I think a lot of people can relate to. It doesn’t have to be a father, but family in general. For me, I wanted to work through that. This is part one, and I just had this desire to do it through my kind of lens. It became a bigger project than I thought.”
When it came time to tackle this considerable undertaking, Janeway and his bass-playing collaborator, Jesse Phillips, were in the middle of trying to find a producer who would help facilitate their creative vision. Columbia Records CEO/chairman Ron Perry suggested the duo meet with Jack Splash, best known for working with hip-hop/R&B artists like Kendrick Lamar, Goodie Mob and Alicia Keys. It didn’t take long to find plenty of common creative ground.
“On the musical end, it was one of those things where we worked with Jack Splash, a producer that was ‘out of our realm.’ That was musically important, because it changed things for us. For him, he was just enthusiastic about the project. For us, it felt right and we just led with our guts. If it feels right, then it probably is right on the creative and artistic side,” Janeway said.
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“It was like a blind date in a lot of ways when you do these kinds of things. We had our publishing company and the record company tell us to talk to this guy to see if we liked him — and we really liked him and hit it off almost initially. We said it was an open canvas that we needed to figure out what to do. Working with him, he’s an overly positive guy. He extracts the best effort out of everybody, which is really what a producer should do.”
Having grown up as a preacher’s kid, Janeway brings the kind of performative fervor to the studio that he does to the stage, not unlike musical forbearers/influences Sam Cooke and Al Green did a generation before.
Highlights include “Apollo,” a delectable mash-up of Hammond organ, funky synth squiggles and a dash of ambient psychedelia punctuated by lyrics like “Lookin’ down from my orbit/Captain, can you get her to call me?” Elsewhere, cuts like the stop-and-stutter “Convex” and the string-kissed “GotItBad” pump up the grooves in a way that anyone who’s ever been sucked in by the late Sharon Jones or Charles Bradley will immediately gravitate to and embrace. Equally entrancing is the dreamy soul of “Concave.”
Adding to the esoteric vibe infusing this collection are snippets of dialogue from conversations Janeway recorded with his late grandfather, which are interspersed throughout the album. “Camellia” closes with “Bruised Fruit,” a ballad that finds Janeway dialing down and delivering a performance building off the slightest bit of orchestration, mournful horn charts and sparse piano accompaniment that frames couplets like “You did nothing right/you did nothing wrong/But no one seems to recall the love that you gave/The love that you forsake.” It all comes off as equal parts substantial, dark and life-affirming.
While Janeway and Phillips had been the main ones to steer St. Paul & The Broken Bones, the decision to rope the remaining members into the creative process for the current record proved to be a successful and rewarding one.
“I think our approach this time around was just kind of open and we went many different ways. There are songs on this record that the trombone player wrote. And some of the songs were written with me, Jack and Jesse,” he said. “We had a drop box, and anyone who had any sort of musical idea could put it in and I could choose what I was feeling. ‘Apollo’ was written in the studio, with all eight of us in the room.
“Honestly, it was the best, because we learned over time that there are many ways up a mountain. Obviously, if you’re afforded the time, that was what was really great about it. This is the most prepared we’ve ever been for a record and that’s a good feeling.”
Having spent a significant time performing live, including a memorable stint opening for the Rolling Stones, St. Paul & The Broken Bones is a road-tested bunch eager to expose fans to the band’s latest evolutionary direction.
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“(We’re going to do) mostly new stuff,” Janeway said. “We’re getting to the point where we’re singing some of these songs for six years and it starts wearing thin. You don’t want to mess up what got you to the dance obviously, but you want to change a little bit. I think every record, you should have a different show. Even what I wear is different.
“We recently did a test run and went to Texas and we were doing the new show. I think the energy of the crowd and audience has never been better — and that’s a good sign because you don’t know (how it’s going to be) until you do it.”
WHAT: St. Paul & The Broken Bones, with Michael Nau (Cotton Jones) opening
WHERE: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (3/26)
TICKETS: $44.50, Englert Box Office, (319) 688-2653 or Englert.org/event/st-paul-the-broken-bones/
BAND’S WEBSITE: Stpaulandthebrokenbones.com