Brooklyn’s St. Lucia specialize in synth-pop anthems so effortlessly danceable it’s hard to imagine frontman Jean-Philip Grobler struggling with his inner demons to write them, but that’s exactly what happened when it came time to craft their sophomore album, Matter, which is due out January 29 via Columbia. First, he hesitated to leave his home borough to work with other producers and musicians in California, where he wrote the bulk of the LP last January. “Up until that point, I’d kind of been against that idea,” he tells SPIN over the phone, laughing. “How everybody’s going out to L.A. and doing these writing trips where they write everything for their record with somebody else and it’s like a big writing orgy, basically.”
Once he did touch down at LAX, he balked at what he flew 3,000 miles specifically to do: write with someone else. “It felt like pulling teeth to me,” says Grobler, who penned most of St. Lucia’s dreamy 2013 debut, When the Night, on his own.
Fortunately for Matter, his wife and bandmate Patti Beranek and their manager convinced him that he just had Pacific Ocean-cold feet. He decided to stay, returning triumphant to New York about two weeks later with songs like the recent soaring single “Dancing On Glass,” written with Tim Pagnotta (Walk the Moon, Matthew Koma), and “Help Me Run Away,” a collaboration between Grobler and Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff, which pulsates with bright drums and builds to an exultant shout-worthy bridge. For production assistance, St. Lucia tapped Chris Zane, whose previous credits include work with Passion Pit and the Walkmen. “It was a super fruitful trip,” Grobler says, “though it definitely threw me out of my comfort zone.”
Grobler has been expanding his musical purview since growing up in Apartheid-era South Africa, where he discovered his voice by singing at the Drakensberg Boys Choir School before leaving his native country to study at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts in the U.K. There, he met Beranek, a dance student in her final year (“I kind of hit the jackpot,” he says) and before long, the two moved to Brooklyn so Grobler could pursue a job writing jingles.
He really made his name, though, writing St. Lucia’s effervescent debut, a work rich in tropicália hand drums, watercolor cascades of melody, and bombastic rhythms primed for sunny summer festival stages. Since then, the five-piece band – including guitarist and bassist Ross Clark, keyboard player Nicky Paul, and drummer Dustin Kaufman — have been touring, beginning production for Matter while on the road following When the Night‘s success.
“I had to embrace just basically writing and recording on my laptop,” says Grobler. “On long drives through the Rockies, I would take my laptop and mess around with ideas and make rough sketches of songs,” eventually outfitting those rough drafts with booming beats and Rainbow Road-worthy keyboards.
While writing and recording, Grobler tried to ignore pop songwriting restrictions — like traditional verse-chorus-verse structure — and he broke more self-imposed rules by asking for increased input from his bandmates: Kaufman played drums on half of the album’s tracks, while Grobler and Clark dueled with their guitars. “With Ross I came up with parts that I don’t think I would’ve been able to do by myself,” says Grobler, who admits he’s an “okay” guitarist. “He’s such an incredible guitarist, so having them involved definitely expanded the sound a lot.”
Beranek also played a key part in the making of Matter. She and Grobler wrote together for the first time at school, resulting in a “super cheesy country love song” called “Forever” for one of her class projects. After that, the two didn’t collaborate in that way again until they conjured up Matter‘s sweet closing track, “Always.” (“We have a tendency to write ballads when we write together,” he says, laughing.) But even when they weren’t writing together, Grobler would often plays songs for his wife as a litmus test. “When you work together in a creative way you have to be less selfish about your ideas and learn to let both parties feel valued,” he says. “Of course, that’s also a really great quality to have in a relationship, too.”