Paul Janeway's journey to musical success is a bit more unusual than most. It goes something like this: teenage preacher, mechanic shop gopher, part-time bank teller, accounting student -- and now buzzworthy soul singer.
"Yeah, you know, that normal path," Janeway says with a laugh. "It's so weird talking in interviews now, because it's what happened. And you look back and go, 'That is kind of crazy.'"
The 31-year-old singer fronts St. Paul and The Broken Bones, a fast-rising soul band from Birmingham, Alabama, which plays at Grand Stafford Theater on Saturday night. The band's debut album, Half the City, was released in February and produced by Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes. Since then, the band has received raves for performances at music festivals including Bonnaroo and South by Southwest.
Janeway was raised on gospel music in Chelsea, Alabama, and says the only secular sounds he heard were soul legends Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye. He started as a preacher-in-training in church around age 15 -- "I never did the main event on Sunday morning," he says, "but they would let me do a Wednesday night" -- and continued until he was 17 or 18. The art of preaching helped develop his sense of performance, he says.
"At the time, I really enjoyed it," he says. "There was something magical about it, where you think, 'Oh, maybe that's the Holy Spirit or God or something. Really, it was just the aspect of performing. You realize that as you get older and get a little more life experience."
Though Janeway says he "kind of fell out of love with the whole church thing" and calls it a "complicated relationship" now, he acknowledges it helped him learn how to read a crowd. After that, he drifted through odd jobs before deciding, "I've got to figure out my life," he says. That led him to take accounting courses at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. He says he was a semester-and-a-half away from getting his degree when "this band thing showed up, and as I say, ruined my life."
The group stemmed from collaborations with bass player Jesse Phillips. They had played in a band previously, and Phillips called to try "one last record of our musical relationship," Janeway says. That blossomed into the full-blown soul sound, complete with a horn section.
The R&B roots run deep in Alabama, Janeway says. It is the home of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where legendary performers Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge and the Staple Singers recorded, which then attracted mainstream performers including the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson.
"Golly, you name it, they recorded at Muscle Shoals," Janeway says. "Any great soul singer. … Soul music comes from the gospel roots here. Like they always say, it's just in the water."
Like the old-school crooners, Janeway has a big presence, in a down-on-my-knees, begging-you-please kind of way. Take the gritty desperation of I'm Torn Up, the first track off Half the City. Or Call Me, which veers off toward Sam & Dave's Soul Man halfway through.
It's a sound that could be considered unlikely to come from this group of guys, and that has added to the initial intrigue of the band. Janeway says he's often mistaken for being part of the crew instead of the man behind the microphone.
"I'm not kidding," he says. "I can't tell you how many times I've walked into a venue and they're like, 'All right, the crates are over there.' And I'm like, 'Hey, I sing. I'm in the band.' And it's always really funny."
Janeway also chalks up the looks-versus-sound interest to a "first record thing." When the band records its second album, he says, "the music has got to stand on its own."
"I know I don't look like Carla Thomas or even Dusty Springfield or someone like that," he says. "I know I'm not the prettiest guy in the bunch. But it's fun. I especially like playing places that have never seen us. I love it, because if someone's not seen us, they're like, 'What?' It doesn't add up in their mind. Which I like."