Q&A: Jesse Phillips of St. Paul & The Broken Bones

Q&A: Jesse Phillips of St. Paul & The Broken Bones

St. Paul & The Broken Bones are a tour de force of soul power and talent.

If you’ve seen them before you’ll understand, if not, there’s a golden opportunity coming up Sunday, June 4 at George’s Majestic Lounge to see the spectacle of Paul Janeway belting his heart and soul out into every note, backed by a red hot six-piece band.

Janeway takes on a sort of Otis Redding persona onstage, and his voice seems to know no bounds. He’s a dancing machine, and his stage antics are unpredictable. He could be rolling around on the floor for half of a song.

The band released their second LP, Sea of Noise in late 2016 to critical acclaim and have been touring the world and even opening up for The Rolling Stones since.

Jesse Phillips is the band’s bass player — an essential key in writing great soul songs — who started the group with Janeway in Birmingham in 2014. Originally from British Colombia, Phillips met Janeway in late 2008 and the two quickly hit it off. Believing their gigging days were done, the two hit the studio for a last hurrah and came out with the group’s first EP in 2012, which quickly rose to acclaim and landed them an offer to record a full length album. The rest is history.

The band will be playing at George’s Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville, June 4.

We talked with Phillips while he was hanging out at Highland Music, a vintage guitar shop in Birmingham:

TFW: I’m curious to know, what was it about your “last hurrah” recording sessions when you started St. Paul & The Broken Bones when you knew there really was something there?

PHILLIPS: When we started making those early recordings, to us it didn’t really sound like anything. It was just music Paul and I were making. We had written Broken Bones and Pocket Change a while ago and wanted to record it. A lot of people really responded to it. Something about it had this above standard quality. It was around that time The Alabama Shakes crept into the blogoshphere with their song “You Ain’t Alone.” While our music isn’t quite the same, it’s in that vein of Muscle Shoals soul that the Shakes are in. I watched the Shakes blow up really rapidly and they captured lightning in a bottle. It showed me that it can happen, that people in bands with authentic vibes of older and earthier music groups of the south can really make it without having to be revivalists. Once we finished the EP, they had people’s attention peaked to these sounds and styles. I don’t want to say they blazed the path forward for us exactly, but it was totally unexpected timing.

TFW: So coming up from Birmingham, Alabama to where you guys are at now — which is a fairly popular spot — what have been some moments where you just had to pinch yourself?

PHILLIPS: There’s been a few of them. We sort of jokingly refer to them as getting your cool kid card. There’s a few things you do in life where you just know that I’m going to tell all my offspring and their kids about again and again for forever until I die. We got to open for The Rolling Stones a couple times and opening those stadium shows that was something that was pretty surreal. Earlier this year we played Elton John’s AIDS foundation Oscar viewing party and Elton decided to come and sit in with us and sing a verse and a chorus on one of our songs. That was pretty cool. There’s been a few of them, we did two back to back nights at the Ryman in Nashville in February and they were both sold out. There’s experiences that are slowly piling up that you sort of normalize them in the midst of doing them so you can do them efficiently and not psyche yourself out and afterwards you think yeah, that was pretty wild [laughs]. We got one more punch on the card. I have a feeling there will be a few more before this is all said and done with.

TFW: As the bass player in a soul band, what do you think are the elements of a great bass line in a soul song?

PHILLIPS: I think economy and feel are the hallmarks of the best R&B bass players. There are exceptions. My taste skews to David Hood from the Shoals that play fewer notes but seem to play exactly all the right notes and puts them in all the right spots. But by the same token, someone like James Jamerson from the Motown house band, he’s all over the place. He’s playing all these chromatic lines and arpeggiated jumps between notes. He’s one of the few that seems to pull it off. David Hood and Donald Dunn at Stax Records were economy guys and used space as much as they used sound sometimes and made sure everything was in the right place and that it felt good. Obviously you have to be in the right place with the drummer. It’s intimidating being one half of the rhythm section in a recognized R&B soul band. There’s a solid legacy and the bar has been set pretty high in the classic soul and R&B world.

TFW: I know you guys are still touring on Sea of Noise, but is there any new stuff coming down the pipe from y’all?

PHILLIPS: Yes actually, We started demoing songs loosely and roughly without any objectives in mind for what will probably become the next record. There’s a strong possibility we might start working on that this fall. That might seem like a quick turnaround, but we feel creative and inspired. If you’re feeling it you should just do it. The music industry is changing so fast, and there’s this idea that you should put a record every two years and there should be 13 songs on it with two radio singles and there’s this old model that people are adhering to based on inertia. The way people consume recorded music now is different from the way it was even two or three years ago. I read a New York Times article that recorded music sales rose last year by 11 percent for the first time in about 10 years or so based on the popularity of streaming platforms and how they’re figuring out how to monetize those things. You don’t have the adhere to old model of releasing a batch of songs on all platforms now. You’re seeing a lot more now in the hip hop and R&B world where sometimes people are putting out two songs at a time to build buzz and it’s months before their album comes out. We’re considering waiting and releasing songs all at once or explore the other avenues these days that are available. It’s an exciting time and all the doors are open. You can be really creative in how you release music in today’s market. Rules are being broken and bent everyday. We’re still going to make albums in terms of coherency and we like the album as an art form. But that doesn’t mean waiting every two years. There’s lots of new ways to approach the dissemination of these things. It’s liberating.

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