The Windy City and St. Lucia front-man Jean-Philip Grobler are similar in more ways in one, even though they’ve only met briefly, and that was six years ago: they’re both insightfully in-depth, offering eye-and-mind-opening perspectives to those who engage with them, not to mention reverberate a liberating and enlivening acknowledgement. Oh, and they offer ethereal, versatile music that pleases the ears, the membrane and the mood in a matter of milliseconds. Although Grobler’s origins are vastly different than Chicago’s, they’re still compelling and unique to learn about, indubitably earning the city’s stamp of approval. The two will reunite on Tuesday (the 29th) when he and his band open for Ellie Goulding at the Aragon Ballroom at 7 p.m.
Grobler grew up in Johannesburg and performed in the Drakensberg Boy Choir School, which, when not involved with extensive touring throughout Europe, Japan, Australia and beyond, stayed occupied in nature while comprehending all the core components and composers of music. This full engrossment and education confirmed just how important the craft truly was to Grobler.
“I realized how much I love music and how much I wanted to pursue it, but it's always a thing that shifts because when you're young, you have all these people telling you that you're crazy for wanting to do music seriously, especially in South Africa where a ridiculously small amount of musicians make a living out of it,” he notes.
That didn’t change his mind, however.
“Something kept me going, some kind of weird, almost possessed thing,” he adds. “But the original inclination to be a part of the choir was probably the same thing that made me decide to move to New York, or that made me want to go to school in Liverpool in the UK—a sense of wanting to try something new, and being bored with what I was doing at the time.”
This visceral sensation eventually morphed into the entrancing rhythmic band, St. Lucia, which also consists of a live ensemble of Grobler’s wife, Patricia Beranek (keyboards and backup vocals), Nick Brown (drums), Ross Clark (bass, guitar) and Nicky Paul (synth).
“St. Lucia was just a natural continuation of me making music, but in a way it was a new beginning, as well,” he says. “It was when I became completely comfortable with all of my musical influences and inclinations that the music I was making became St. Lucia. It was when I stopped trying to make what I was making sound like something other than what it is, like something made by some other artist or band that I loved. The name came about, literally, by me closing my eyes and putting a pen on a map of South Africa, and the fifth try or so was St. Lucia, which seemed to tick all of the boxes in terms of what it evoked inside of me.”
Aesthetically, St. Lucia is well-versed and across the map, much like Grobler and his upbringing.
“I'm so close to the music, and I also think of our sound in terms of all the unreleased demo's and ideas that I have,” he explains. “In a sense, I like to think of our aesthetic as something that contains a lot of conflict, both in sound and in what it evokes emotionally; the sound is electronic, but there are equally as many, if not more acoustic elements in the music. The music is happy and sad at the same time, epic and yet in a lot of way quite intimate. I'm not quite sure what it is about electronic pop music that draws me in, but I definitely don't try specifically to write electronic pop music. Maybe it just has a lot to do with the fact that I was a small and very musically absorbent child during the ‘80s.”
No matter the case, St. Lucia has proven to be an esprit to esteem with across yet another map—the musical one. The band has joined Columbia Records and Neon Gold and already established a close-knit bond.
“It's been pretty amazing,” Grobler admits. “I've heard so many horror stories about major labels, and my experiences so far with Columbia and Neon Gold have been nothing but great. Everybody in our team from both Neon Gold and Columbia have become personal friends of mine, come to every single show that we have in LA or New York, and have never been pushy with what I want to do musically. They've only supported every inclination I've had, which I can only be very thankful for.”
It’s easy to support Grobler’s inclinations, though, because of the innate conscientiousness he utilizes, often propelling him to create songs that are inevitably relatable, as well as melodically pleasing.
[My songwriting process is] completely random,” he says. “The more interviews I do, the more I understand about it. I try to only write from inspiration, without sitting down and trying to come up with ideas. I like my songs to come from somewhere that I don't understand, to just be planted in my head and to go from that. It doesn't always happen that way, but that's the way I like it to be, generally.”
St. Lucia’s latest self-titled EP mirrors Grobler’s intuitive itches with acknowledging music he truly enjoyed.
“The inspiration for the EP was, rediscovering a lot of the music that I'd become embarrassed about liking over the years, specifically big ‘80s pop music and African music,” he expands. “Also, finding the immediate nature of those sounds refreshing in a scene in Brooklyn than, at the time, seemed to be becoming more and more insular—not that I have a problem with that music; I love a lot of the bands from that scene—but something about it felt unnatural to me, at least in terms of myself doing it. The way the EP differs from what I'm working on now is that some of the stuff that's going to be on the [upcoming] album is even bigger and brighter, and some of it is a fair bit darker. What I learned from the EP process was just to not try and over-control the creation process, especially in the beginning. This obviously pertains to life, as well as music.”
Chicago music gurus will have the opportunity to intimately hear and sense this through the band’s upcoming performance, and Grobler will not only be able to create new and fond memories of his time there, but also reminisce about his previous visits.
“I did actually perform [in Chicago] a couple of times with the Boys Choir, but since I moved to the States six and a half years ago, I haven't been back,” he reveals. “I just remember it being a beautiful city with beautiful architecture, and I remember there being a lot of public architecture. I was really excited to be there when I was 15 because I was a HUGE fan of the Smashing Pumpkins at the time.”
The fondness is sure to increase, as will Grobler’s sense of where he has learned to call home and create his harmonic hypnotism in New York.
“I think that anyone living in New York is very fortunate to be exposed to a lot of different music and art and a lot of it done at the highest possible level,” he says. “Seeing that level and knowing that if I wanted to get anywhere I would need to equal or better that level has made me a better artist in general, but it can also be incredibly intimidating, and you have to learn to have a lot of self-belief to not just lie down in shame every day when you see the undiscovered and discovered talent the city has to offer.”