St. Lucia: South African Dance-Pop Dabbler Shines an Ecstatic Light
"Learning classical theory and being surrounded by contrapuntal music made me feel like I needed to make something that's multi-layered. But that's not the only thing that I do."
Who: Born and raised in South Africa, New York resident Jean-Philip Grobler is the creative force behind St. Lucia, a solo studio project and five-piece live band whose billowy textures and soaring choruses offer a potent elixir of tropical breezes and distilled sunshine. Grobler credits a youth spent performing in the Drakensberg Boys Choir (“South Africa’s singing ambassadors”) with the development of his lush, polyphonic esprit: “I assume that had something to do with it; learning classical theory and being surrounded by contrapuntal music made me feel like I needed to make something that’s multi-layered. But that’s not the only thing that I do. In the future, there might be some stuff that’s a bit simpler.”
Sheltered No More: St. Lucia’s releases on New York’s Neon Gold label — home to similarly ecstatic, electronic-leaning pop from Marina and the Diamonds, Ellie Goulding, and Passion Pit — offer a particularly pneumatic take on the ebullient indie-dance sound espoused by acts like John Talabot and Delorean. “September,” with pumping house chords set against airy vocal harmonies, sounds like Bloc Party covering Carl Craig remixing M83, while Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel inform the sky’s-the-limit expanse of “We Got It Wrong.” Growing up in remote South Africa had a lot to do with his musical instincts, says Grobler. “A lot of what I was exposed to was quite poppy,” he explains. “For a long time, we were shielded from a lot of the more underground influences. For me, the most underground band was Radiohead. When OK Computer came out, that was so crazily different from anything that I’d ever heard, it was just amazing. When I left the country to study in the U.K., I suddenly realized, and I’m still realizing, how much other stuff is out there — like My Bloody Valentine, who millions of people are passionate about, but they’re still considered an ‘underground’ band.”
Jingle Sells: Grobler moved to New York to take a job writing music for commercials; he did work for “random companies” like McDonald’s and Ethan Allen, even arranging a cover of a Beatles song — surely a piece of cake, after three years studying music in Liverpool. “The upside to doing commercials is you have to work in a lot of different genres and make stuff that you never thought you’d be making,” says Grobler. It also taught him to work on a deadline and be adaptable. “I remember when I had to do a full, four-minute song from start to finish — literally writing it, recording it, mixing it, mastering it — everything in one day…With my own stuff, I’ve always held to the belief that it should take as long as it takes until it feels right.” To that end, St. Lucia’s album should see a release in May or June, although “it’s been pretty much done for six months.”
Random Map: While the name “St. Lucia” certainly fits the music’s sunny, leisurely vibe — see other neo-“yacht rock” indie-pop bands like Beach House and Chairlift, whom Grobler cites as current faves — it attached itself to him partially by happenstance. “I was totally frustrated trying to find a band name,” says Grobler, “so I took a map of South Africa, took a pen, and just closed my eyes and put the pen on the map somewhere. I think ‘St. Lucia’ was the fifth try.” It’s certainly a more appropriate fit than “Pofadder” — Afrikaans for “puff adder” — which came up in a preliminary throw of the cartographical dice. According to one South African writer, “Pofadder occupies a semi-mythological place in our imagination, a sort of South African Timbuktu, a generic caricature of Afrikaner hickdom.” Quite the opposite of St. Lucia’s wide-open worldview.