When you consider the number of charity events entertainers are asked to lend their names to, it’s a small miracle that Band Together NC has been able to pull off their “Main Event” each year since its inception in 2004.
With help from both national acts and local music scene stalwarts, the Triangle-based nonprofit organization has watched as its mission of using live music as a platform for social change has grown to the point that it now stands as the largest annual charitable music event in the Southeast, according to the organization. More than $8 million has been donated to various philanthropic organizations through Band Together NC’s efforts, with this year’s bash hoping to raise over $1 million for Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s fight against child hunger.
It’s just one of countless events St. Paul & the Broken Bones is asked to take part in each year. Paul Janeway, lead singer of the Birmingham, Ala.-based retro soul act, said it’s hard to choose a cause, and to say no to others. The decisions hit him on a personal level, he tells The News & Observer.
“It’s one of the hardest things I have to deal with,” he said in a phone interview. “You want to try and do good, and you have this opportunity to maybe generate some money in a larger scale than just what I could personally pay.”
The band has chosen to devote their efforts to Band Together NC and will headline the annual concert June 1 at downtown Raleigh’s Red Hat Amphitheater.
We spoke to Janeway about St. Paul’s rapid ascent in becoming one of the premier indie rock bands only five years removed from the release of their 2014 debut album “Half the City,” as well as thoughts of leaving it all behind to mow yards for a living.
Q: Legendary ska band Toots & the Maytals are supporting you Saturday night. Has St. Paul shared a stage with any bands where just being given the opportunity seemed surreal?
A: Well, we opened up for the Rolling Stones; that was the big one. We started as a band in 2012, and this was happening in 2015, so you’re talking about three years existing as a band and we were opening for the Rolling Stones. It’s pretty remarkable, and pretty incredible, because those weren’t even three years of performing every night as a band.
Q: Speaking of the band being created in 2012, in your bio it says that you and bassist Jesse Phillips were kind of looking at what became St. Paul & the Broken Bones as your “last hurrah” before going on to just working a nine-to-five job. What were you looking at doing outside of music?
A: I had worked on an asphalt crew; I did that for a while, because that’s what my dad did. I was like, “I don’t know if this is what I want to do with my life,” so the government gave me some money to go to college, and I ended up really liking it. I had gone to community college, and I thought that’s what I was going to go back to.
My life trajectory had been in the pits for a while, but then I met a girl, who is now my wife, and then everything was kind of looking up. Around that time I started thinking that we had a lot of fans coming out to our local shows, but I just didn’t know anybody who had really broken out as an act in [the Birmingham music scene] and really made a living being a musician outside the city. I didn’t think it was a viable option, so I really did think, “I’m going to give this one more shot, and then I’m going to go to accounting school.”
Q: What was the music scene like around Birmingham, Alabama? Did you ever consider, if the career as a soul singer didn’t work out, giving country music a shot? It seems like that would be the more financially viable career path as a singer in Alabama.
A: That’s really the only way that I would have ever chosen the country route as the way to go, but that’s not what I grew up with. I mean, I’d listened to country. You live in Alabama, you’re going to hear country music.
Birmingham is not a very big place, but there was a club called the Bottletree Cafe that brought in all sorts of acts — acts that I never thought I would have seen in a thousand years. It has sadly shut down, but for a lot of people, it shaped Birmingham music. There were people who toured through there, and they were these amazing acts that were filling up 200-[capacity] rooms everywhere else, and it would feel like you were at a house show. I saw St. Vincent play for 300people there once. It was such a key part of Birmingham music at that time.
Q: It’s no secret that for the majority of musical acts, the only way you are going to make a living at playing music is to tour almost nonstop. Now that you do have a wife and kids, and even with the success that St. Paul has had, do you ever have those moments where you wish you had just gone to accounting school?
A: You know, there are times. I mean, we recently did a tour of Europe, and Europe is wonderful. I’m very grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to go there. But we’ve toured there about 10 or 10 times at this point. If you figure all of the time that goes into one of those, eventually you’re gonna get tired of it; if you’re not home, you’re missing home.
I don’t remember when exactly it crossed my mind, but I remember on one of those tours being like, “I’m just going to go to the airport, fly home, and start a lawn care service.” I just wanted to quit [the music business], and just go start a lawn care service so I can work nine-to-five or whatever. We’re fortunate that I make a good living doing this, but you’re right in saying the money is on the road. We can sell records, but we ain’t Taylor Swift selling millions [of copies of each new album], and we never will be.
Q: St. Paul & the Broken Bones was one of the first bands to really embrace the retro soul sound and have commercial success with it. Now that we’re a few years removed from the peak in popularity for that genre of music, and so many bands who aped the sound have seen their fanbase wain as well, do you feel relief at still being a headlining act?
A: There were bands who were already successful embracing that sound before us, like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, but after we made it onto radio we began to see a lot more young bands that all of a sudden had a lot more horn [in their music]. I don’t even think we really thought about it in that way at the time, until we were about to play a music festival and the booking agent walked up to us and said, “Hey, just letting you know that the band playing now didn’t sound like this when we booked them, and I just wanted to make sure you weren’t mad.”
I hope I never get mad about something like that, but it’s definitely a trend we began noticing. Somebody came up to me a while ago and said, “Y’all were first generation [retro-soul], and we’re second generation!” I was like, “What? We’re not that old!”
We’ve always just wanted to make good music, and I think that’s always the concern. I also think being called retro-soul was probably more apt for our first record; I don’t think people would say that about the last record [2018’s “Young Sick Camellia”]. I think what’s been our biggest difference [as a band] is that we’ve kind of evolved, where we could have done an Otis Redding [”Try a Little Tenderness”] cover in 2014, but now it would seem really weird in the set.
I think that’s a testament to the musicianship in the band, and it’s kind of how we want to grow. We don’t want to be the one retro soul act that every festival feels they must have on their bill, just so it’s covered, you know what I’m saying? Because you can make money doing it, but we’re just not at that point where we need that yet.
Someone told me early on that you don’t worry about anybody else’s journey, you worry about yourself. You can’t worry about bands that were once on the periphery who have now moved in front of you, because everybody’s journey — especially in the music business — is different, and you need to just keep doing what you do. Just try to make what you think is good music, and that’s some of the best advice I ever got, because it is true.
Who: Band Together NC Main Event presents St. Paul & the Broken Bones with Toots & the Maytals
When: 6 p.m. June 1
Where: Red Hat Amphitheater, 500 S. Salisbury St., Raleigh
Cost: Tickets start at $20 for lawn seats; $25 and up for reserved seats
Info: bandtogethernc.org, RedHatAmphitheater.com or 919-996-8500