Laced throughout St. Paul & The Broken Bones’ third album, Young Sick Camellia, are recordings of an older man speaking. They are seamlessly integrated into the band’s signature, soulful sound to the point that the thought of the recording’s absence would render the whole effort no less beautiful, but much less vulnerable. The man speaking throughout is the grandfather of frontman Paul Janeway — affectionately called papaw — who passed shortly after the conversation was recorded.
“We just talked,” Janeway says of their conversation. “I was in Texas somewhere, opening up for Hall & Oates. Two months later he was diagnosed with lung cancer. It’s weird, because now the album has taken on a different complexion than I thought it was going to. He was older, in his 80s. I knew he wasn’t going to be here forever but I didn’t know it was going to be that quick. It was kind of like the universe was telling me something. I’m so glad it made it on the record.”
The idea to record his grandfather came to Janeway through the work of author Kathryn Tucker Windham, a fellow Alabama native who documented ghost stories through their shared home state and other southern locales. He felt inspired to do the same but instead of examining ghosts, he would use the conversations as a jumping-off point to explore the “complicated” relationships amongst the men in his family.
Originally intended to be the first in a series of three EPs around three generations of Janeway men, the burgeoning subject matter eventually took on the body of a full LP. This record represents Paul himself. He hopes to continue the project with two more albums, focusing in a more direct way on his father and grandfather.
“I always thought there were some things that were off limits. But those are usually the things you should really explore. These kinds of relationships, and growing up the way I did, why are things the way they are: exploring those ideas is terrifying,” he explains. “Why can’t I write little pop love songs or something of that nature? Why is my inclination to always push things forward and really explore and expose vulnerability? At some point, as an artist you just kind of go ‘alright, I don’t have anything else to give.’ This has been a well of creativity, though.”
Though the record has a literal end — the expansive “Cave Flora” — Janeway explains that the closing track is merely a bridge to what will be a further exploration of his family. Much like future generations carry on the family name, these albums will serve as a living document to the strength and the complexity of parental relationships.
The title of the album itself connects back to Janeway’s honest introspection displayed throughout, and pays homage to another one of his greatest influences — Italian painter Caravaggio.
“Bizarrely, I am a closet art fiend,” he says. “I love Caravaggio. The whole theme of the record, Young Sick Camellia, is based of a painting of his called ‘Young Sick Bacchus.’ It’s supposed to be a self-reflective painting of Bacchus, but it’s really after Caravaggio when he was sick. And with camellia being the Alabama state flower, [it all] represents this self reflective record.”
Although Young Sick Camellia is incredibly intimate, St. Paul & The Broken Bones still has all the dynamics of a band. While recording the songs he wrote, Janeway says the familial ties were the glue that held everyone together. The marked difference in this case was how the whole band was able to play up each other’s strengths even more so than on previous efforts.
“Here’s the situation: I am not the smartest guy in the world. I’m just not,” Janeway says with a laugh on handling a group dynamic and the personal subject matter he wrote. “But what I want to do is surround myself with people who are smarter than me, or better than me. I want to be able to develop the ability to edit them and to cherry pick what they do and try to let their strengths play out. It’s like a group project. You just have to figure out the process that best fits you and your group. I don’t desire the spotlight, but it just kind of happens when you are the voice and the face of the group. We finally got comfortable with who we are as a group.”
The result is what ultimately makes Young Sick Camellia so fascinating: it is deeply personal but allows you to bring your own familial ties and reflect on them through the experiences of someone else.
St. Paul & The Broken Bones play The Anthem on Sunday, September 30. Doors at 6:30 p.m., show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets begin at $41. For more on the band, visit here.
The Anthem: 901 Wharf St. SW, DC; 202-888-0020; www.theanthemdc.com