Janeway adds that his reading of the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, played a role in the direction of the work: “I didn’t want it to be an overly political record, but I feel it shows up a little bit on the album.”
With a full complement of new songs in hand, St. Paul and the Broken Bones entered the studio with Butler, leader of the British band the Bees and producer of Devendra Banhart and Michael Kiwanuka.
“Jesse was listening to one of his records and he said, ‘Everything sounds great,’” Janeway recalls. “It sounded like a real record – everything had depth, and was expansive-sounding. Butler ended up being the guy that we wanted to use. Producer- wise, I think we knocked a home run. He is very meticulous.”
On Sea of Noise, the band’s brawny horn-driven sound is augmented – and displaced — by the use of a string quartet and a vocal choir. The strings – recorded at Memphis’ historic Sam Phillips Recording by engineer Jeff Powell – were arranged by Lester Snell, a veteran of Stax Records sessions by Isaac Hayes, Shirley Brown, Albert King, and the Staple Singers, among many others. Janeway says of Snell, “He did all these classic, great records in Memphis – he did the string arrangements on them. The strings, for us, supply a darker tone. Horns sometimes can’t portray a certain darkness. We thought that would be the best option, instead of horn lines. We have songs on this record that don’t have any horns at all.”
Employed on “Crumbling Light Posts,” the recurring motif that appears three times on the album, Jason Clark and the Tennessee Mass Choir were recorded in another legendary Memphis facility. “The Stax Museum let us go in there after hours and record the choir,” Janeway says, adding with a laugh. “We said, ‘Well, hell, we’re in Memphis, let’s just see if they’ll do it.’ It was pretty neat, I’m not gonna lie.”
He says of the finished work, “Sea of Noise is not quite a full-blown concept record. It is focused in terms of subject matter – finding redemption and salvation and hope. ‘Crumbling Light Posts’ comes from an old Winston Churchill quote, in which he said England was a crumbling lighthouse in a sea of darkness. I always thought that was a really interesting concept – that we’re falling anyway. In this day and age, it is the noise that has defined so many things. We’re going to fall to it eventually, but for now we feel like our heads are above water. It felt anthemic.”
The album’s lyrical and emotional richness is heard loudly in stunning new compositions like “Burning Rome” (which Janeway describes as “a letter to God, if I could write it”) and the startling “I’ll Be Your Woman,” which knocks traditional soul music gender roles on their heads. Janeway says of the latter song, “I wrote that with Jesse, and he said, ‘If I can write that song, I can die a happy man, because I’ve finally made something that I feel can stand up to my standards.’”
St. Paul and the Broken Bones, which toured extensively in the U.S. and Europe behind their debut album, will put their take-no-prisoners live show on the road this fall. Their most recent concert work included arena dates opening for the Rolling Stones in Atlanta and Buffalo. Some acts may have been daunted by such a task, but not this one.
“It was pretty neat, it was pretty crazy,” Janeway says. “I love the Rolling Stones, but my train of thought it, you gotta try and blow ‘em off the stage. And that’s still my goal.”