Alabama Soul Band St. Paul and the Broken Bones Know Their History

Denver residents have been lucky to witness firsthand the power and energy of a rising "new soul" band in the form of Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. Across the country, acts like Leon Bridges, JD McPherson, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones are bringing the storied style of music back into the mainstream.

St. Paul and the Broken Bones, set to perform this Wednesday, September 28, at the Fillmore Auditorium, released their new album, Sea of Noise, earlier this month. The album, the group's second, combines soul, R&B, gospel and rock and roll played with a proficiency and craft that pays homage to classic soul artists and their home state of Alabama, with its deep and meaningful musical roots.

We caught up with St. Paul bassist Jesse Phillips and asked him about the new album, his move from Canada to Alabama, and why modern soul music is important to people. 

Westword: While following a similar framework from your previous album (2014's Half the City), there are some nuances on Sea of Noise that give it a much different vibe. What are some of those? 

Jesse Phillips: It goes from really obvious things to thinking some songs need a darker cinematic vibe to them, so we'd get a string section instead of horns. Or we’d think, this one has a gospel feel, so we'd hire a choir. Those are obvious things, but we focused on a lot of details like ways to use the horns in a classic Memphis or Muscle Shoals way. By taking that approach, [singer] Paul [Janeway] gets to be a little more thoughtful and reserved as opposed to always going from a whisper to a yell. 

You mentioned Muscle Shoals. I recently interviewed Jason Isbell, an Alabama native who has a  strong history there. Not talking about him specifically, but tell me about your history with Alabama music and why so many great artists come out of there?

I’m the only non-Alabama native in the band. I grew up in Canada, but I’ve been living there for ten years now, so I feel like I’ve assimilated. It's cool for me, because that kind of musical environment and history just doesn't exist where I grew up in British Columbia. I think sometimes I appreciate the musical history of Alabama more than people who grew up here because it’s normal for them, even though I don't think they take it for granted.

It’s such an amazing thing that around Muscle Shoals, you still have guys like David Hood playing at a Mexican restaurant or Donny Fritz just walking around town. You can have those guys tell you any number of amazing stories. The tradition is very humble, even though you are talking about guys who have had a massive influence on music. They’ve just never grown egos, and nobody really moved away and became celebrities; most of them clung close to home and did what they did. Getting to be around people who just create great music as a normal everyday thing is a pretty cool thing. 

Did you know these things before you moved to Alabama? Did you move there because of that?

I didn't specifically have that in mind. I moved in 2006 and was kind of following a girl and a job, but I had some friends there I knew I could play music with. I’ve seen it develop in real time. I feel like it's only been in the last ten years that I’ve seen it stand on its own two feet and run into national awareness.

If you look at the people who did it before then, they had to move to other places to get their project off the ground — like the Drive-By Truckers moved to Athens [Georgia] to get moving, and Phosphorescent moved to New York City. 

What do you think of the resurgence of soul music? 

There’s obviously been quality soul music for a while. Daptone has been churning this stuff out of Brooklyn and been at the top of their game for probably fifteen years.

I don’t know what the catalyst of the resurgence of popularity of R&B-influenced bands is. It’s a more colorful sound that people are drawn to. You can only listen to so much "mid-spectrum” rock and roll; after a while, it gets tiresome. So when you hear a band with a dynamic singer and a huge horn section, it's more [that] the harmonic palette expands and is more pleasing to the ears.

Top 40 and club music has become canned beats and AutoTune, and soul music represents the antithesis of that. It’s got bumps and bruises; the singers aren't always pitch-perfect, but they're always gonna go for it. There's a realness and authenticity that are counterpoints to a lot of things going on in the musical world.

And the world in general, right? People need meaningful music now. 

Sure, even a sad soul song is cathartic. It can make you happy by virtue of being sad.

St. Paul and the Broken Bones perform at 7 p.m., Wednesday, September 28, at Fillmore Auditorium, 1510 Clarkson Street, 303-837-0360. Seratones opens the show.

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Andy Thomas is a music journalist who hopes other music journalists write nice things about the music he performs. He lives in Denver with his wife, their two cats and a massive pile of unfinished projects.
Contact: Andy Thomas