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(Selin Altuntur / McGill Tribune)

South African musician takes centre stage: St. Lucia on fame and the beauty of pop music

Arts & Entertainment/Music by

If you are drawn to synth-pop beats, reminiscent of 80s music, your ears would have perked up as St. Lucia kicked off their set at Osheaga. In the sweltering afternoon heat, frontman Jean-Phillip Grobler emerged on Osheaga’s Green Stage, situated at the end of a large dusty field overlooking downtown Montreal, wearing a loosely buttoned shirt and bright turquoise slacks. “It’s really hard to be up here in pants,” he quipped to the sweaty audience.

 What followed was an hour-long performance of energetic synth-pop and R&B-inspired music that fans of New Order and The Petshop Boys would enjoy. But these aren’t the only influences that are salient in Grobler’s work. After his performance, he made it clear that his upbringing in South Africa has significantly influenced his music as well.

 “I’ve never had a negative connotation towards pop music, since the apartheid government would ban a lot of subversive music,” he said. “A lot of what we got was the most harmless pop from all over the world. I never grew up with this feeling that pop was a bad thing, or that if you have a pop song you’re selling out. We have a lot of pop songs, and I just think if you have this great pop song that makes you feel something then that’s a beautiful thing.”

Grobler mentioned some of the popular South African bands he grew up with, such as Just Jinger and Springbok Nude Girls. While those artists haven’t emerged into the international mainstream, some recent South African bands have—Die Antwoord, for one—thanks to increasingly globalized platforms. 

“I think that’s the really interesting thing about African music,” Grobler said. “Before the internet, it was such an insular thing. Now, one guy, John Wizards, has been recording  with Mumford & Sons, so I feel like music coming out of South Africa is a lot hipper now.” 

St. Lucia is another prime example of the increasing presence of  South African artists onto the international stage.  Since debuting their act five years ago, Grobler and his band have toured North America and Europe multiple times, appearing in major cities and festivals alongside legendary acts like Radiohead, whom Grobler cites as a major musical influence. Despite these experiences, St. Lucia is still getting used to their newfound success.

“It’s really, really surreal, especially growing up in South Africa and watching the international music scene happen and admiring it and wanting to be a part of it. “It’s really incredible and I have to pinch myself. The fact that I can make music and make a living out of that, it’s incredible. And I’m making music I want to make, I’m not being told to make it—it’s my own thing.”

Grobler has a strong background in music and performance.  Having attended a choir school during childhood, he experienced touring internationally from a very young age. 

“I read these articles from people about how touring takes this huge toll on your life […] I know I’m fortunate that I get to tour with my wife, who plays keyboard in the band, but I can’t identify with that attitude because we really enjoy traveling to places. We make an effort to explore the place and try the food and and go on a hike or find a cool area.”

This dedication to enjoying all sides of touring developed early on during Grobler’s academic career.  “It comes from me being in that choir, from touring when we didn’t have televisions in the bus or wifi or cell phones, and you just have to stare out of the window and create something.”

When asked what advice he would give to music students struggling to find a personal sound in a university context, Grobler emphasized the importance of being happy with your own work  instead of attempting to live up to standards set by others. For students, it can be difficult not to draw comparisons with their peers; however, Grobler argues it is essential to go at your own pace and recognize personal successes.

“It’s easy to be really intimidated by people around you because their work is more popular or easy to stomach. We’re doing really well as a band but we started around the same time as Haim and Chvrches and they’re way bigger than we are now,” said Grobler. “It’s very easy for us to be like ‘oh why are we not as big as Haim? What are we doing wrong?’ but we’re not doing anything wrong—we love what we do.”

While St Lucia’s steady rise to international acclaim is still underway, Grobler made it clear that authenticity and unapologetic creativity are ultimately more important than fame. 

Find out more about St. Lucia on their website.

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