From SA choirboy to New York synth-pop star

2013-09-01 14:00

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As a soloist in the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir, a young Jean-Philip Grobler sang for a newly released Nelson Mandela at the top of a mountain and again at the opening of the 1995 rugby World Cup.

Today he is a hip and rising synth-pop star in New York, known to his fans as St Lucia.

BuzzFeed, spotters of viral trends on the web, this week placed St Lucia’s “catchy as hell” new single, Elevate, in first place on a list of “the best pop songs you might have missed this summer” and critics are touting the band before next month’s release of When the Night, Grobler’s debut album.

Most people assume the name comes from the island in the Caribbean. In fact, it comes from the lush wetlands area of KwaZulu-Natal.

Grobler’s trademark floral shirts and wholesome-but-hip tropical-geek style give life to the name.

The optimistic 30-year-old with a mostly South African accent and retro blonde fringe is chatting to me over Skype from an apartment in Brooklyn that he shares with his wife, who is the keyboard player in the band.

They make what Grobler refers to as “guilty-pleasure music” – the kind of soaring pop that emerged in the 1980s. “I grew up with stuff like Lionel Richie, Phil Collins, Duran Duran …”

It’s the kind of happy, mainstream sound that was unfashionable among the “in” crowd when Grobler left South Africa at the age of 19, and arrived in London and later New York, with an eye on an international music career.

When I ask if the classical choir training helped, he says it did, but “there came a point where I just chose to not think about theory consciously any more and just allow that to inform my subconscious ... I rely on my feelings and I just sing.”

He tells interviewers that he chose the name St Lucia by closing his eyes and putting a pen down on a map of South Africa. What if it wasn’t something exotic and tropical like St Lucia, I ask. What if it was De Aar or Humansdorp? “St Lucia was the fifth try. I was obviously not going to go with Pofadder.”

Listen to St Lucia's new song

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