Countless musicians take up residence in New York City, but only a fraction of them are able to project their messages and music beyond the world’s busiest city. St. Lucia (born Jean-Phillip Grober), arrived in the Big Apple seven years ago by way of South Africa and with his debut full-length album, When The Night, (available now), has become one of the few to emerge from crowd. On When The Night, the multi-talented singer – who first made a four-year stop in Europe before coming to the States – has some help from his band, but it is very much a one-man show in many ways. “I play guitar mainly and then I some synths as well,” said Grober. “I have a moog and then I sing and do some percussion. In the studio, I play nearly everything apart from drums, but I program the beats initially. The only things I don’t play on the record are the brass, the more orchestral instruments.”
Here, Life+Times chats with Grober to discuss St. Lucia, When The Night and his experience thus far in America.
Life+Times: Talk about the name St. Lucia, where it came from, and who that is.
JG: Well, I came upon the name when the project was developing more and more, and it started having more of a sonic footprint or fingerprint – when it was more obvious what it was all about. What I did was I closed my eyes, I took a pen and I just put it on a map of South Africa. That was sort of how I decided to come up with the name. The fifth try was St. Lucia in South Africa. We have a St. Lucia as well and it’s kind of similar to the St. Lucia in the Caribbean because it’s tropical and a holiday destination. So when I hit upon it, it kind of felt like everything fell into place for me and it felt like that named unified the aesthetic vision I had for the project. That’s kind of a basic story of what St. Lucia is. I do most of the studio work so in a sense it’s my solo project, but it’s more than that because I worked with a lot of different people that helped bring it to its final vision. The drummer from the live show plays drums on the record. I’ve worked with all the guys in the band. I don’t mix it myself, I have amazing mix engineers.
<L+T: How did you meet the guys in the band and what relationship did you have with each other?
JG: The whole band started as a solo project, and in many ways, it still is because I spend a majority of the time doing stuff. [But] since we started playing live together, with all of the guys in the band, it’s kind of grown into this family feeling. Everyone is becoming more and more a part of what the whole of St. Lucia is. Maybe I come up with a new song and develop it in the studio a little bit, then bring it to rehearsal and we start playing around with things. Maybe it’s feels good enough to play for an audience. Then the way that the audience reacts to it, and the way that it feels in the band context, could and often does change the way the final product ends up. It’s definitely become a very, very family atmosphere within the band. Every one has their quirks and idiosyncrasies, but in general it feels really good.
L+T: What was the creative process then for most of the songs on When The Night?
JG: My creative process in general is pretty train of thought or intuition led, I don’t sit down and say, “Ok, I’m gonna sit down and write an upbeat song,” I just let ideas come to me without trying to force them out. More often than not, it will just be me walking down the street doing something totally non-music related and something will just come into my head, it could be lyrics, music, sometimes everything together. If I’m close enough to my studio, I’ll go to the studio and I’ll start working on the ideas. Some of them go further, some of them don’t; it’s the ones that keep going, that feel like there’s more to be done with them, that end up being the finished songs.
L+T: What went into making the “Elevate” record?
JG: The initial phase of that song was very easy. I came up with the idea walking around like I do with a lot of things, then I went to the studio that evening with Nick Brown, the drummer and Ross, the bass player and guitar player in our band. Basically, we just recorded what was in my head and Ross came up with the bass riff and the verse. That happened very quickly, in one evening, and pretty much the entire arrangement was there. It took me a couple weeks to come up with the end section. All of the arranging was very easy for me, what was difficult was the mixing because I had so many things going on in the arrangement. In my mind, it totally worked, but when you’re working with sound you can’t unfortunately fit everything together because it becomes distracting if there are too many elements. So, I went through three different mixes with the track, and the final person was Rich Costey. It basically took me all that time to decide what I wanted to be the main elements in the song. Then it finally all fell into place with Rich and I’m very proud of the final result.
L+T: How would you describe the sound you have? Some have called it synth-pop, but what would you call it to avoid being put in a box?
JG: For any artist to describe their sound I think is difficult because you’re not only thinking of what’s there, you’re thinking of what you imagine in the music, all of its potential, your whole background, everything. For me, it’s definitely more than synth-pop because just having been a part of the recording, I know there are probably equally as many acoustic instruments in the music as there are synths. I would say it’s like nostalgic synth-pop, with a bit of a baroque. Baroque pop I think is seen as music that has a lot of different elements in it, whether it’s brass, strings and synths. Maybe berock-synth-pop [laughs], I don’t know, it’s tough to describe.
L+T: How does it feel to have finally your full-length debut album completed and available to the public?
JG: I think for anyone that’s a creative, there’s always a lot more going on beneath the surface than it seems. Even if you’re someone like Lordes who debuted her first track [earlier this year], and is now at number one, I’m sure she has a long backstory to her whole journey even though to everybody on the outside, it seems like it was very quick. For us, it took a little bit longer, I think, than a lot of the bands that we started out with at the same level, so it feels amazing to finally have the finished project out there. It’s good to finally be able to have people reacting to a final vision or final product, and then also to be able to move past that and continue the journey and write new stuff.
Life+Times: What led you to New York, and what effect has moving to America had on you as an artist?
JG: I feel like I’ve grown so much since I move to America. I grew up in South Africa until I was 19 years old, then I went to study music in Liverpool in England and I was there for four years. What was funny was I feel like during the time I was in England, I grew a bit of a disdain for American music for whatever reason. That might have just been from being in England and the fact that often, in England, people often think the music that comes out of their country is the best. I was young and impressionable and I got that same point of view. But after moving to the States, after a few years, I realized how much amazing music comes out of the States. Another interesting thing is that when I was growing up in South Africa, part of my upbringing was during Apartheid and the government had a strong hand in everyday life. Any music that was challenging or weird to them, they would just ban, so the music that I grew up with was very commercial pop music, or just the biggest artists from various parts of the world. So when I first move to England, I realized there was all this other music going on that I never knew, and then when I moved to the States, I discovered even more amazing music that I had no idea existed. So I think first of all, moving to the States really opened my mind to a lot of different music, but also made me look back at the music of South Africa which I didn’t really pay attention to when I was growing up there because it was there. It didn’t seem special to me, what seemed special was the music that was coming from other parts of the world. Just playing with so many amazing musicians – I think people in America, New York, in particular, really operate at a high level creatively and in the amount that they work. That has really pushed me to try and do my best work in a lot of ways.
When The Night is available here.