The New York-by-way-of-Johannesburg artist has already scored a hit in South Africa.
Jean-Philip Grobler, the mastermind behind rising synth-pop act St. Lucia, hasn't released a full album yet, but he's already topping artists like Taylor Swift and the Lumineers halfway around the world -- and has his sights set on stateside success.
Growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, Grobler toured the world with the Drakensberg Boys Choir School, and at 19, he moved to England to study at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Crafts. Post-grad, he moved to New York City, took a job as a jingle writer, saved his money, built a studio, and recorded the first songs that would become St. Lucia. Yet despite the relocation, his most recent single, "September," made quite an impression back home: during the week of Jan. 12, the track soared to the top of the playlist of 5FM, South Africa's popular Top 40 station, ahead of worldwide pop behemoths like Taylor Swift's "I Knew You Were Trouble" and The Lumineers' "Ho Hey."
"I've had pretty much everyone I know in South Africa tweeting to me and writing to me on Facebook, just saying that they're hearing it all the time. People love it and I'm a 'huge star.' Okay, well, we're traveling around America in a 15-passenger van!"
But that crowded vehicle has taken St. Lucia to some high-profile gigs lately: the band (which consists of Grobler, Patricia Beranek, Nick Brown, Ross Clark and Nick Paul in concert) is on tour with Ellie Goulding, playing mostly-sold out theaters as her main support. Previously, they opened for Two Door Cinema Club and played co-headlining gigs with Charli XCX.
Grobler's musical project received a stroke of luck when he met drummer Brown, the cousin of Benjamin "B-Roc" Ruttner of the NYC production duo the Knocks. St. Lucia eventually signed with the Knocks' New York City-based imprint HeavyRoc Music and released his first single, "The Old House is Gone," in spring 2011. Less than a year later, St. Lucia shifted to the Columbia imprint Neon Gold Records, which had released 7-inches from artists like Marina & the Diamonds, Gotye and Grobler's current touring partner, Goulding.
"We were looking for some opening slots around early 2013 and that was one of the tours that came up," says Grobler. He wanted to make a natural connection with Goulding's starry-eyed audiences: "I think that people who are young tend to be a bit more open and less jaded when it comes to pop music. I think our music does definitely has a bit of an experimental bend. But I like to think of the songs as catchy and I think that, the young people, teenagers in general, seem to be more open to that kind of thing than people in their twenties."
St. Lucia's forward-thinking pop sound is most fully realized on "September," which followed the act's debut EP in 2012 and recently received a remix EP on Neon Gold/Columbia. The song will surely be part of the band's first LP, due out this summer.
"Basically I thought the album was finished in September," Grobler says. "I sat with it for a while because... that way you can feel whether it has a lasting feel." To get that feel, he's looking to put a few finishing touches on tracks that might work as singles, as he's mentioned producers Chris Zane (Passion Pit, Holy Ghost!) and Rich Costey (fun., Miguel) as potential collaborators in that process.
Whatever his finished debut sounds like, Grobler just hopes that it won't get tossed into the "indie pop" category -- he wants to be associated alongside the mainstream stars, just as he is on South African radio. "I feel like indie music or that whole scene is starting to feel a little bit stuck," he says. "It seems that pop is where the interesting stuff is happening for me at the moment, and people busting out of the norms like Miguel and Solange. That stuff is what's really interesting to me at the moment."