The lead singer of the Brooklyn-based band St. Lucia, Jean-Philip Grobler, got his sense of rhythm from his childhood in South Africa and his unwavering optimism from within. For Here Magazine Issue 6, he shared his travel philosophies and favorite packing tips.
Step inside Jean-Philip Grobler’s Brooklyn apartment and it immediately feels like you’ve been transported someplace far away: African masks, Mexican tapestries, and Indian elephant carvings line the walls, along with hand-drawn sketches from his wedding day. It’s a world of Grobler’s creation that is at once inviting and private—much like the music he makes with his band, St. Lucia.
Music has been part of Grobler’s life for nearly as long as he can remember. He attended a choir school in South Africa, where he was born, and studied music at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts before moving to the U.S. in 2006. His band’s debut full-length album, When the Night, was released in October 2013. Following a second album, Matter, and a worldwide tour, Grobler took a step back, reexamining his songwriting process as well as his relationship to music more broadly. Hyperion, which was released in September 2018, features a gospel choir and references to the gun control debate. It’s a much more personal record, according to Grobler, but rather than navel-gazing, he invites listeners to come inside the music, to question today’s world alongside him, and consider his optimistic look at the future.
Tell us about your general packing philosophy.
I went to a school called Drakensberg Boys’ Choir when I was growing up and we traveled all over the world on tour. All my musically formative years were in South Africa—we’d practice two hours every day, and we’d also do cultural exchanges with a local Zulu school. They would teach us songs. I feel like that really developed my sense of rhythm. My school was also really intense about us being neat with our packing—we’d have classes on how to fold shirts, and they would literally inspect our bags. From that, I picked up the philosophy to be really tidy. When you go on tour, you’re very limited with what you can take, so I’ve come up with this very neutral outfit, where everything works together and is interchangeable, like a few good pairs of jeans from A.P.C. or Levi’s, then white, black, and graphic T-shirts (my favorites are H&M), and a couple of good jackets that work with everything.
How do you get to know the places you travel to on tour?
Food is absolutely one of the main ways we understand a city. It’s really interesting how it’s changed since we started touring six or seven years ago. In almost every city now there’s some local chef who maybe was working at a crazy restaurant in New York for a while, and then decided to move back to his hometown and discover the local farms and work with local producers and stuff.
Do you feel like that exploration informs your creative process?
Yeah, totally. If you go to Italy and you have a meal with wine from that region, you experience this microcosm of the world that is very localized and completely unique. That always inspires me to think about what I have to offer by just being myself and not trying to be cool or like any other band. It maybe sounds pretentious, but it’s like, “What is my terroir?” What can I offer to the world?
How do you maintain the creative process on tour?
I think what’s interesting is that the best creative stuff comes out of moments when you’re not focusing on being creative. For me it’s always hardest when it’s like, “Right now, we’re not touring, we’re making the album, and I’m meant to be writing songs.” When you’re on tour, you’re in an environment that is not at all conducive to doing that kind of thing, but somehow that frees me up because I’m not trying to be perfect. I always come up with tons of ideas on the road, and it is interesting how travel and being uprooted can allow you the space to be creative in ways that you might not be in the perfect studio with the perfect instruments. I’d say most of the music that ends up on our records comes out of those situations. Maybe I’m just watching a movie. There’s this one song on our new record called “Next to You” that I probably wrote half of in my head while I was watching 20th Century Women. It’s almost like when you lose something and you look for it, you can’t find it, but then when you’re making coffee, you see it out of your peripheral vision because you’re not focusing on it.
How do you balance that inspiration-collecting while still doing the work?
I think it’s two different processes. There’s the spark and then this fire starts that you have to contain or else it just goes out. My biggest problem is that I sort of have musical diarrhea, like I think for this last record I wrote seven hours of music or something crazy, and then the problem is deciding what are the 10 or 11 tracks that are going to be on this record? I guess you just have to be disciplined. You have to work at it a little bit every day, and not every day is going to be great. Probably most days are not going to be great, but then all together it creates something.
How is Hyperion different than your previous albums?
It feels to me like a very emotionally generous record; it’s very romantic and positive. We didn’t try to iron out all the kinks, you know? There are a lot of imperfections in it, but I think it’s often imperfections that make something endearing—when something’s too perfect it doesn’t hit you as deeply. So, to me, it’s getting closer to my eventual artistic goal of really trying to embrace who I am and who we are as a band.
Where does that positivity and romance come from?
I think from me as a person. I think I naturally gravitate towards being optimistic about things—and a lot of art today is pessimistic. There’s not a lot of stuff that celebrates beauty. It’s not even a conscious thing, but I always want people to listen to my music and feel inspired, like anything is possible. I think it’s the duty of entertainers to present a possible positive version of the future.To make something that’s beautiful and inspiring—not ignoring the challenges of the present, but presenting it in a way that’s like, being a human doesn’t necessarily have to mean that you’re destroying the world, it could mean that you’re maybe making it better in some kind of way.
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