Brooklyn-based musician and songwriter Jean-Philip Grobler performs under the handle St. Lucia, the name of a subtropical vacation spot in Grobler’s home country of South Africa.
The sun-and-sand connection suits Grobler’s synth pop, the first notes of which immediately transport you to somewhere happy and 1980s-pop-inflected.
Beneath the surface ebullience lies musical sophistication. Layer upon layer of electronic and acoustic instrumentation support Grobler’s emotive vocals, which are reminiscent of Erasure singer Andy Bell’s, but without the dramatic highs.
Grobler’s songwriting reflects a sharp melodic sense honed formally at South Africa’s Drakensberg Boys Choir School and England’s Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts and less formally via Grobler’s onetime day job as a New York City jingle writer.
Though airy, St. Lucia’s music is not air-headed.
“With all that nostalgia, St. Lucia could easily feel derivatively bland,” Christopher Kompanek wrote in his Washington Post review of St. Lucia’s 2013 debut LP “When the Night.” “But Grobler’s keenly crafted melodies and layered production propel the genre forward rather than wallow in it.”
On the road, St. Lucia becomes a five piece that includes Grobler’s wife, Patricia Beranek, on keys and vocals. The band performs tonight at Sacramento’s Assembly nightclub.
We caught up with Grobler, 30, by phone last week before a St. Lucia gig in Salt Lake City. More eager than many young musicians to acknowledge his influences, Grobler comes across in an interview much the way he does in song – as bright and expansive.
Where did your love for ’80s music come from? You were just a kid then.
I was born in 1983, so my very early, early memories were around that kind of music, like Phil Collins and Lionel Richie. It was before I had developed my own kind of musical taste, for want of a better word. So I’d like to think that the guilty-pleasure quality of our sound comes from those formative years. That music just got under my skin. I wasn’t thinking too deeply about music at that point. (laughs).
But your music also sounds contemporary. Who are your contemporary influences?
The first album that opened my mind to alternative music was Radiohead’s “OK Computer.” That kind of started my journey of listening to more alternative or left-field bands. ... Basically what I am sort of doing (with St. Lucia) is marrying this kind of guilty pleasure and big, joyful sound with something more complex.
You worked as a jingle writer. Did that job affect your own music?
In many ways, doing that job was almost more beneficial than going to music school. When I started, I had just finished music school, (and) I didn’t take production as part of my course. This (jingle-writing) opportunity just kind of came up through a family connection, and grabbed the bull by the horns (in) learning on the job.
I was forced to write and sort of mix and master two 30-second pieces of music per day. A lot of them were in genres I was completely uncomfortable with. I took it upon myself as a learning experience, to really spend time with all that music – to learn about the sound and the production techniques, and be as authentic in my approach as I could be to those genres.
When I started that job, I was heavily into the indie-rock world. To me, using a synth was just unthinkable. (laughs). But with that job, I was forced to take an open-minded approach. There were a couple (of synthesizers) in the studio that no one was using, so I took them and gradually fell in love with what I could do with them.
Would we recognize any of jingles you worked on?
There was one pretty big Hampton Inn campaign – a cover of a Beatles song (a sped-up, heavily rhythmic “With a Little Help From My Friends”). And then there were tons of smaller commercials, for Tums and all sorts of things.
In general, it was a very positive experience. But I got a bit burned out, because it was so much work all the time. But it served me well.
Will Daft Punk’s recent Grammy success and mainstream stardom open up opportunities for other electronic-based artists? Or is their music part of a different subgenre?
They have been successful for a really long time, and they definitely broke ground for a lot of electronic artists in that they brought electronic music to the general consciousness of the American public.
The only thing is that sometimes, when a genre becomes too much in the mainstream, that’s almost kind of the death signal of that genre. People stop listening to that music ... because it becomes the kind of music that gets thrown at them.
It’s like with me, for example. I like (Daft Punk’s) new album, (but) I didn’t think it was as amazing as everybody else did. Just the fact that it’s everywhere made made me less inclined to want to go and listen to it. For me to really get into music, I like to feel that it’s kind of my own discovery.
A lot of music fans feel that way.
It’s a selfish thing. (laughs).
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.