At ten years old, Jean-Philip Grobler was a part of history. Along with the rest of the prestigious Drakensberg Boys Choir, he found himself on the field of Cape Town’s Newlands Stadium in his native South Africa, singing the national anthem in front of Nelson Mandela (and the entire country) at the opening of the 1995 rugby World Cup. Depicted in the film Invictus, starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman, the matches represented South Africa’s first international play since the fall of apartheid, as well as Mandela’s ambitious plan for uniting a deeply divided nation. “I was still really young at that point, so I don’t think that I fully understood the gravity of it,” remembers Grobler, who got his first taste of touring internationally with the mixed-race choir. “We had just come out of apartheid and the mood of the country was still frayed, but somehow Mandela understood this World Cup would be an opportunity to bring the country together, and this almost impossible dream of South Africa becoming a rainbow nation seemed possible for the first time. It was such an emotional moment.”
Emotional moments are Grobler’s specialty. Under the name St. Lucia, he crafts the kind of high-energy, artful pop that tugs at the heartstrings as it pulls you onto the dance floor. It’s all been remarkable, but it’s also only been the prelude to Matter, St. Lucia’s second full-length release and most exhilarating collection yet. The record finds a more sophisticated and bold Grobler grappling with themes of getting older, battling with insecurity and self-doubt while balancing maturity and ambition. It’s a St. Lucia record though, so even the darkest moments are bristling with infectious vitality and hook-fueled charisma. Writing the songs, however, required Grobler to change up his process from 2013’s ‘When The Night,’ the debut album he built from the ground up playing nearly every instrument himself in his Brooklyn studio.
St. Lucia’s version of the desert is still an inviting place, though, one inspired by blending Grobler’s love of 80’s pop, R&B, and alternative rock influences into an instantly captivating concoction. Lead single “Dancing On Glass,” which was co-written with Tim Pagnotta (Walk The Moon) on a west coast writing trip, bubbles over with contagious vivacity as Grobler sings about having the faith to chase what makes you happy, even if logic and practicality tell you it’s bound to fall apart. On the heart pounding “Physical,” he taps into primal lust, while “Help Me Run Away,” co-written with Jack Antonoff (fun./Bleachers), serves as a ode to Grobler’s adopted homeland of America. The album isn’t without its progressive side, though, revealed in songs like “Rescue Me” and “Home”, whose synth lines propels the tunes through countless electronic twists and turns.
Though synth-pop has been an easy and reductive label used to categorize St. Lucia, most of the songs on Matter feature as much electric guitar, explosive percussion and complex brass arrangements as synthesizers. Nearly every track on the album contains horns and multi-part vocal arrangements, their sophistication reflective of Grobler’s lifetime of music study. But there’s nothing academic about a St. Lucia concert. Grobler and his cohorts are first and foremost a live band, with their reputation for dazzling, immersive shows fueling their rapid growth and status as global festival favorites.
That said, the days of word-of-mouth growth and being able to introduce your friends to the music of St. Lucia for the first time appear to be numbered, as Grobler prepares to hit the biggest stages of his career with his best album to date. He may have been a part of history as a child, but now Grobler’s all grown up and ready to write his own.
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