By Bella Savignano | December 19, 2022
St. Lucia is happiness personified. Spearheaded by South African multi-instrumentalist Jean-Philip Grobler, the project blends pop, disco, and traditional African music into a sweet, bubbly, and irresistibly danceable cocktail. It’s impossible not to feel the groove, a timeless symphony of silky synths, pulsing drums, and saccharine melodies that resonate deep down in your soul.
A musician from the jump, Grobler began singing seriously at the age of 10 and never slowed down, later shifting from the choir to his own indie rock-leaning project, which was admittedly an attempt at harnessing the long-established indie-rock cool factor. It wasn’t until St. Lucia, the project he started with his wife and bandmate Patti Beranek, that his music fully represented his identity. That freedom to follow the feeling, allowing his music to emanate from whatever whim or glimmer of inspiration, gives St. Lucia’s music a “magical life of its own”, a soul and spirit that can’t be manufactured or falsified.
This quality is ever-present on the duo’s newest record, “Utopia”. The album takes inspiration from the farce of the mystical utopia, exploring the notion that perfection is never possible because perfection is different for everyone.
“The magic lies in the balance of your ideas bashing up against opposite ideas and you getting better and wiser because of that. We need other perspectives, because we all have limited points of view. The album is an exploration of that concept along with some other things,” muses Grobler.
On a bitter, torrential evening in New York City, we headed to Brooklyn Steel for a dose of sunshine from the duo and their accompanying band. The live set was indescribably magical, a physical manifestation of their lush reverie. A vivid rainbow arched the width of the stage, with glowing lanterns and verdant tropical plants setting the scene. It was a world outside of Brooklyn, an illusion that would be hard to dispute as a facsimile of sonic and aesthetic utopia, and it was the perfect backdrop for the ebullient set. The band played two nights to a sold out crowd, an expansive sea of eager fans ready to blast off at the sound of the first synth riff. It was electric, an hour-long jaunt into disco paradise.. The train ride home was spent with squeezed-shut eyes, dreaming of re-entering St. Lucia’s paradisal fantasyland.
We caught up with Grobler and he kindly answered a few burning questions for the groovement:
How’d you get into music, and how was St. Lucia born?
I’ve been doing or making music pretty much as long as I can remember. I grew up in South Africa, and when I was 10 years old I went to The Drakensberg Boys Choir School which was kinda Hogwarts but for music in the mountains of South Africa. We did 2 hours of choir practice every day, went on multiple tours per year including international ones to the USA, Japan, Europe etc, and it was there that I started my first band. I remember having like 4 albums planned out ahead of me even at the age of 12, so yeah, I guess I was a relatively early starter. From there I moved all over the world, studied music in Liverpool, England at LIPA which is where I met Patti, and then in 2006 we moved to NYC where I worked as a composer for a music house. I did that for a couple years, all the while working hard on my own music as well. It was after I left my job at the music house that St. Lucia was born.
How would you describe the music you make?
There’s definitely a strong ‘retro’ element to what I do, but it’s not out of trying to be retro. I’m just inspired by the way records were made in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, and the way that technology was influencing the music. Of course there’s also very human feeling music being made now too, I’m not denying that, but from my perspective I just love the randomness and feel that playing real analog synthesizers and real keyboards and recording real percussion and drums gives to the music. Anyway, I’ve gone pretty off topic here but let’s just say that I would describe my music as alternative pop with a bit of a retro styling.
Your music has always been super danceable, but this record seems to lean into a disco groove more than ever before, especially on Rocket On My Feet (my favorite track!). What inspired that, and what’s been inspiring you/your music recently generally?
Well, funnily enough “Utopia” was really influenced by me doing a lot more DJ sets. There was just something about coming out of the pandemic where nobody could be together, and then doing these DJ sets where you’re essentially just trying to make people dance and have a good time. It felt almost like a holy duty, like these people NEED a release from what they went through and it’s my job to make them dance and sweat so they can release it. So there was something in that, the sort-of weight on my shoulders as an artist to give people a good time that brought out the disco in me.
What does Utopia mean to you? (Both the album and the concept!)
It’s funny because I recently realized that almost all of our albums have names that have multiple meanings, but it’s something I actually aim for without realizing it. Utopia is interesting because when you really get down to it, a Utopia is actually a kind of hell. Pretty much every example of people striving for Utopia in history have turned out horribly, and that’s because a Utopia is a one sided paradise. In many ways, the real Utopia is in the balance between opposing ideas and points of view. The album is an exploration of that concept along with some other things.
How do you pronounce your songs “()” and” )(“? And what’s the story there? Are they connected?
There’s no real pronunciation of that, it was never really meant to be a word, but over time we’ve been referring to them as Two Moons 1 and 2, because the parenthesis look like moons.
What’s always on your rider, and what’s your pre-show ritual?
Wine and tequila, haha. Over the years my pre-show rituals have become less and less, because I’ve found the more I can treat a show night just like any normal night the better my voice is and the more relaxed I am in general. I feel like sometimes if you build a show up into this big thing in your head you sorta stiffen up, but if you just relax, have a glass of wine, chat with your friends (in this case bandmates), iron or steam your shirt all is well in the shell.
Imagine your dream gig: where are you playing and who is on the billing with you?
We actually had some version of this happen to us a few years ago when we played Parklife festival in Australia. It was a traveling festival, so we hit all the major cities, and our bill was Flume, then us, then Charli XCX, Citizens, Chairlift, Tame Impala and ending with Robyn. And every day we’d hang out with all of them backstage and after the show, it was kinda nuts. But I’d probably add to that billing some of the classics like Fleetwood Mac (RIP Christine McVie), Radiohead, U2, Phoenix, Nine Inch Nails…I could go on.
What can we expect from you next?
We’re working on finishing a bunch of music that we’ll be putting out next year. A lot of it was actually made even before most of Utopia was written and recorded, it’s sorta our pandemic record, a little more 70’s, a little more melancholy, but we’re excited about it because a lot of it is pretty different from anything we’ve done before.
📸: shot by Sabrina Steck