St. Lucia’s meticulous Jean-Philip Grobler takes his time
No one can accuse Jean-Philip Grobler of rushing things, especially after he sheds some light on the creative process behind St. Lucia’s eponymously titled debut EP. The six-track outing was released in 2012, but the songs weren’t exactly whipped off overnight.
“I’m definitely meticulous,” Grobler (aka St. Lucia) says with a laugh, reached at a Boston tour stop. “There’s no hard and fast rule in terms of how long something will take. But I’ll say a general rule is that I’ll start something and be all excited in the beginning, but then I get to the point where I become stuck about what to do next.”
And when the South African–raised, New York–based musician says “stuck”, he’s not talking about being stumped for a long weekend.
“Generally, I’d say that, from start to finish, most songs take about a year,” Grobler reveals. “With a song like ‘Closer Than This’, which is on the EP, I first came up with that idea in 2008. I bought this new synthesizer and found this sound that was really inspiring, so I recorded it. About three years after I first came up with that idea, I was trying desperately to finish another song, but couldn’t come up with the verse. I was like, ‘Maybe if I take another verse from another song…,’ and then suddenly I became really excited about ‘Closer Than This’. I then ended up finishing it in two days, after having a blast of inspiration.”
There are enough gold-sounds textures and gorgeous layering on St. Lucia to justify all the fuss. Grobler comes on like a man nostalgic for a time he never knew, his songs built around sunshine-sweetened synths, girls-on-film guitars, and new-romantic vocals that suggest more good days than bad. The grey skies and grind of January getting you down? Cue up “Paper Heart” or “Before the Dive” and get transported to a world where happy hour centres around Yellow Birds and anchored-in-azure-waters yachts.
It’s lush-sounding stuff, and Grobler notes that the mixing process was every bit as painstaking as the writing process. His hope, however, is that people lose themselves instantly in his work, which he’s happy to have classified as feel-good ’80s synth pop. That approach to business initially made him a bit of an oddball in New York.
“At the beginning of St. Lucia, there was an element of ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’ ” Grobler admits. “There was an amazing indie scene in New York for, like, 10 years, and still is now. As much as I love a lot of bands from that scene, something in me found what they were doing a little unnatural. It seemed like a lot of bands were doing it just to try and be weird.”
Don’t mistake his feelings about Brooklyn’s hipsters for a dislike of guitars and all they stand for, though. St. Lucia isn’t Grobler’s first foray into the music business. He’s done time playing guitar in conventional rock bands, with the list of records that reshaped his world topped by Radiohead’s Kid A. From there he eventually landed in New York at a company called the Lodge, which specializes in writing and licensing original music (under tight deadlines, funnily enough) for television and movies. That’s when he discovered his love of synths.
You’d think that might also have taught Grobler to speed up his work with St. Lucia. Nothing doing, however. The project—which expands to a full band live—saw him toiling away on a full-length for most of last year. As for how things are coming along, the best description is, predictably, slowly.
“It’s pretty much done,” he says of his forthcoming full-length. That, however, is quickly tempered with “We’ve been in the mixing process for a while, trying out different mixing engineers and different versions of things. We’re still doing that with a couple of songs.
“I thought the album was done in September,” Grobler adds with a laugh. “But when you start living with it for a while, you suddenly start thinking things like ‘Maybe this needs to be mixed in a slightly different way.’ ”
Clearly, the man isn’t about to be rushed.
St. Lucia opens for Ellie Goulding at the Commodore Ballroom on Tuesday (February 5).