The work-up to release day has Jean-Philip Grobler on edge. Two days until he frees his second St. Lucia album into the wild, Grobler is manning the phones late into the evening. He’s simultaneously involved in a Skype interview with a journalist while monitoring dozens of incoming texts between his wife (St. Lucia keyboardist-executive producer Patti Beranek), and his band’s tour manager as they coordinate when and how to retrieve their gear from storage. “Last one!” Beranek hollers from another room.
“This week has been insane, and we are barely able to spend any quality time together,” adds the 32-year-old native of suburban Johannesburg, South Africa.
An appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon began the final stretch leading up to the Jan. 29 release of sophomore album Matter (Columbia Records). Halfway through the performance of lead single “Dancing On Glass,” Grobler jokingly removed a designer sweatshirt with the image of Sade in profile, wearing red lipstick, to reveal a T-shirt with the same image—it was a dare from his manager, a way to keep things loose. The following week, Grobler, Beranek, Ross Clark, Nicky Paul and Dustin Kaufman had to practice for two Matter release shows. Winter Storm Jonas would get in the way.
“When we ended [rehearsal], there was the notification that all nonemergency vehicles had to be off the roads,” he says. “We had to walk five miles across Brooklyn in the crazy, deep snow to get back home. It was kind of romantic in a way. But I was definitely tired carrying my laptop and my backpack after that.
Creating a follow-up to 2013’s lush, layered When The Night required Grobler to step out of several comfort zones. He met the first hurdle when he lost the ability to tinker in his favorite studio, a three-minute walk from his and Beranek’s Brooklyn condo. The building the studio was located in was itself being turned into luxury condos, and the eviction notice came as the band went onto the road.
To this day, he gets wistful looking from his bedroom window and seeing the former studio, a decaying industrial building that gave him access to all of his instruments at a moment’s notice, housed his production team and allowed him to watch The Dap-Kings work next door. It’s where Grobler felt safest making music.
“The toilets were horrendous,” he recalls. “And one day I went to the toilet and I heard someone in one of the stalls shaking the door and going, ‘Help! I can’t get out.’ I was like, ‘Dude, just turn the handle.’ He turned the handle and came out, and it was Bruno Mars. So yeah, I saved Bruno Mars from dying in a Brooklyn toilet stall.”
Once St. Lucia began touring full-time, Grobler realized he wouldn’t have access to any studio. If he wanted to complete a follow-up in sooner than five years, he would have to embrace writing on planes and buses.
The next wall he broke through was collaborating with others. Previously, he had written all of St. Lucia’s songs by himself and played nearly every instrument in the studio. He had all of the new songs done in January 2015 and had begun recording when Beranek urged him to try something different by flying to Los Angeles and participating in writing sessions with Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff, Tim Pagnotta (whose credits include Walk the Moon) and production trio Captain Cuts.
“It was something I’d kind of always been against doing because it felt like a cop-out to me,” Grobler says. “That’s what you do if you’re an artist and need the radio hit.”
But he also realized that he needed to embrace new creative processes if he was to grow as a musician. He looked at the two-week project as something he could halt at any time. Pagnotta has a songwriting credit on “Dancing On Glass,” and the Antonoff collaboration is clear as day on “Help Me Run Away.”
Grobler’s bandmates also contributed to the creative process on Matter. St. Lucia is still a solo project because he has final say over the direction, but the songwriter, whose first job out of college was writing jingles, realized not using Clark’s, Paul’s and Kaufman’s professional jazz expertise would be a mistake.
“The reason I decided to become a solo artist in the first place was because I always felt that the results that I got from working as a team where everyone had equal say…ended up with compromised, watered-down results,” he says. “The downside to [being the solo creative force] is it’s very easy to repeat yourself.”
Designing the artwork for what would later become known as Matter—titled by Beranek after Grobler failed to come up with a name of his own—was nearly as much of a challenge was the music itself. The fashion, design and architecture lover partnered with Denmark fashion house Soulland to create a theme that fed the album artwork, merchandise and stage design.
“We came up with this idea of all these people in a room, with different things going on, very much influenced by some Fleetwood Mac covers—Tusk has this insert where they’re all in this weird room,” Grobler says. “We wanted to have personal objects from our lives. The two masks we have hanging on the wall in our living room. The two bottles on the wall at the bottom right are bottles my dad gave me as a gift.”
Other items, such as the curled-up cat and the wolfhound, represent opposing forces within all people.
“The cat represents the desire to hide or curl up in a ball and forget about the world, and the dog or wolf or wolfdog represents the wild animal in all of us that desires to be free of constraints and run free in the wild and drink from mountain streams and hunt deer,” Grobler says.
In the same way the two animals conflict and oppose each other, Grobler writes songs that cover opposing and conflicting forces and represent “the beautiful diversity of life.” Though the 11 synth-pop, R&B and dance tracks on Matter may come across as glossy ‘80s bubblegum pop, they are personal to Grobler and reflect mature themes like doubt and aging. “Dancing On Glass” is about having faith in logically impractical goals. On “Rescue Me,” Grobler contemplates over the life-and-death fears that cross his mind as he sometimes drifts to sleep. “Game 4 U” questions a longtime relationship with two people who are temporarily drifting apart.
“You start wondering if that thing is right for you, still,” Grobler says.
Beranek wrote the opening piano riff of album closer “Always,” and the two co-wrote the rest. Up until it was written, Matter lacked a closing statement; a period or exclamation point. Grobler calls it their Thelma and Louise moment.
“The end of the album is these people driving as fast as they can off a cliff,” he says.
Listen to St. Lucia perform “Closer Than This” from his 2012 Daytrotter session in the player below.