Jean-Philip Grobler spent years churning out commercial jingles to pay the bills while working on the music that really inspired him.
Now Grobler's band, St. Lucia, is drawing acclaim for the lustrous synth-pop on its recent debut album, "When the Night" (Columbia), and the artist-producer says his days at the jingle factory in New York had a lot to do with it.
"It's the best thing I could have done," he says. "It forced me to write in so many genres that I never would have investigated had I not had this job: hip hop, R&B, fake metal, an orchestral thing. I never took production at university, so it was trial by fire. I was in a (lousy) little room, a junior writer when I started. I would have to write one to two thirty-second bits of music — write, record and mix it all in a day. Being forced to write in certain genres that required synthesizers, I had to learn about them. And over a couple years I fell in love with creating on them, and what I could do with them."
Grobler was born 30 years ago in Johannesburg and spent most of his childhood singing in a boys choir that focused on South Africa's traditional music.
"We were so sheltered in South Africa from the international music community," he says. "We were exposed only to the biggest acts, the biggest pop music from the U.S. or U.K. or sometimes Australia. I never knew there was an alternative music scene until I was older. The first alternative album I discovered was (Radiohead's 1997 album) 'OK Computer,' and the first time I listened to it, I didn't understand it at all. My parents got it for me as a Christmas present. I listened to it once and wanted to take it back, but the stores were all closed because it was the holiday weekend. But by the third or fourth listen, it opened itself up and I found it beautiful. I realized music can be more cerebrally challenging, not just directly emotional."
He studied music at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts in England, then landed the jingle-writing gig in New York. There he recorded music for his own project around his day-job hours. But he had difficulty nailing down a concept until he made the transition from indie-rock to synth-pop.
"When I came to New York, I was into alternative, indie, bands like Interpol, and my attitude was, 'Why would you ever want to use a synth?'" he says. "When I was a teen, discovering Radiohead and listening to guitar music, the '80s was the worst thing I could think of — contextually it felt so wrong. But there came this time in the mid-2000s to late 2000s in New York where it was considered good to be as weird and crazy as possible, and Pitchfork would give most of it a great review. It felt like a dead end to me. At that point, I started listening again to music I loved when growing up: Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, and the African music I performed in choir, as well as discovering parts of African music I never knew existed. That music spoke to me on a more primal, instantly gratifying level, and that influenced the music I started to make in St. Lucia."
Grobler took the money he saved from his jingle-writing job and invested in a small studio space in Brooklyn. He surrounded himself with instruments, and pieced together the layered tracks that would first surface on a couple of EPs, and then finally "When the Night." The most difficult part of the project was naming it. Out of desperation, he opened up a map of his homeland and landed randomly on St. Lucia.
"When I first started in the studio, I was working in all sorts of genres – everything from Spaghetti Western-style things to rock," he says. "I felt strongest about the ideas that were influenced by the '80s, with this bombastic, epic quality; this melancholy-meets-happy feeling; and a lot of rhythms inspired by Africa with this unpretentious but joyful quality. I wanted to marry that with something more complicated. I was thinking of ABBA, and how even their corny songs had these texturally rich arrangements, a sound that can't be pinned down to just electronic or just acoustic or just rock. All of those genres exist within my ideal sound.
"So after I had a group of 10 ideas that had that feeling, I started thinking about what I should call this. That's when I had the map experience. When I hit on St. Lucia, it was a place where I used to vacation as a child and it brought everything together. I had so much nostalgia associated with that, and my music had that nostalgic feeling to it with this almost tropical vibe, it all made sense."
Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBEZ (FM-91.5).
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Ave.
Tickets: $15; lincolnhallchicago.com