Having bounced around the globe over the past few years — from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Liverpool, and to Brooklyn — being evicted from a recording studio that was transformed into luxury condominiums wasn’t much of a hassle for Jean-Philip Grobler, better known as synth-pop musician St. Lucia. Grobler and his live musicians, which include his keyboardist-vocalist wife, Patricia Beranek, have been on tour for months and haven’t had an immediate need for a studio replacement, anyway.
“The ironic thing is that we actually live in a luxury condo, so it’s kind of like it served us right,” said Grobler, whose band performs two sold-out shows at the Independent Wednesday and Thursday, February 5th and 6th. “We have nothing really to complain about because we had…five good years there.”
Grobler, 30, grew up in suburban Johannesburg. He was too young to feel the direct effects of apartheid and how Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and ascension to president changed that country.
“You go to the shopping mall on the weekend, and the cinema, or whatever. But there was also this undercurrent of extreme poverty as well that kind of goes along with it,” Grobler said. “So there would be shanty towns and stuff like that. It wasn’t that different from someone growing up in America, but there were other parallels that made it different, like going on safaris.”
When he was 10, Grobler told his parents that he wanted to attend the renowned Drakensberg Boys Choir School in a rural, mountainous region of the country. His family let him go for five years, in part because while they were not musicians by trade, they came from an artistic background. His father taught language, and his father’s mother was a radio personality and actress. His mother made documentary films. Her grandfather was a choir singer.
At the school, Grobler learned everything from classical music to African rhythms. He also got his first taste at traveling the world with the choir, and seeing music from a global perspective.
“I just felt music very deeply — it did something to me that no other art form did,” he said. “Some people identify themselves with a song or one place. I’m very fortunate to have been able to see a lot of different places and realize that everywhere is pretty similar in many ways, but also quite different.”
Grobler’s education continued in Liverpool, where he studied music for four years and met Beranek. She ended up in Brooklyn first and met Neil McLellan, the artistic director at music production facility The Lodge, which helps with music licensing for TV and film and produces commercial jingles. After Grobler freelanced for McLellan, the producer offered to bring him on full-time.
“New York was never a place where I imagined myself ending up,” Grobler said. “I had a little bit more of a romantic idea of living on the Mediterranean or Europe somewhere.”
The perks included the ability for Grobler to work on his own music. And in 2010, St. Lucia was born. The act, named not after the Caribbean island but a nature and wildlife reserve in his home country, is purposefully lush, layered and oftentimes richly dense with dreamy imagery.
“(The name) is the idea of somewhere exotic and somewhere you can escape to…maybe you have some nostalgic memories at that place,” he said. His music finds a balance between synth pop and more mainstream formats, not unlike M83, one of Grobler’s influences.
St. Lucia released two EPs and signed with Neon Gold Records, co-run by MS MR vocalist Lizzy Plapinger. His first full-length album, When the Night, followed last October. Teaming up with his now-wife, as well as friends Nick Brown, Ross Clark and Nicky Paul, Grobler took his music on the road.
Now on his second headlining lap around America, Grobler is finding his fan base has grown significantly. Not only will he see packed audiences in San Francisco, but many of the largest markets sold out within minutes.
“Our first show was two-and-a-half years ago,” he said. “We’ve been developing our show for a while. Obviously, these things are accelerating a little faster now, which is nice. I feel like we are prepared.”
Just as he has been doing since he was 10 years old, Grobler is traveling the world; this time, with his wife at his side.
“In the beginning, it was difficult because we were so used to having our space,” he said. “Learning how to be with each other all day every day — but not really be together, if you know what I mean — took us a while to get used to that. But we’ve really embraced it. We get to see the world together with our whole new family around us.”