Videos by American Songwriter
It makes sense that St. Lucia frontman Jean-Phillip Grobler got his start in New York as a jingle writer – he’s a master of crafting catchy, can’t-get-them-out-of-your-head pop hooks. On Matter, the Brooklyn-based synthpop band’s latest album, Grobler delivers another set of sunny, shimmering, addictive tunes that you’ll be blasting in your car well into summertime. We chat with the South African native about Fleetwood Mac, learning to trust your ideas and how to write on tour.
What’s your typical songwriting process?
Normally I’ll come up with these random ideas when I’m walking down the street and record them in my voice recorder, and then when I have some time to make a kind of demo or sketch I’ll just do it on my laptop, or at least that’s how I’ve been doing it recently. I used to have a studio where I had all my synths and guitars and everything set up and I could [record demos] at a very high level, but I lost that studio a couple of years ago. Over time I’ll build up this library of demos that are basically taken as far as I can take them on the laptop, and then with this album, when I felt like I had enough ideas to make an album, I went to the studio with my friend Krisane (sp?) and properly recorded all the ideas. I’m not the kind of songwriter that will sit and write all the words and music at once. The lyrics are normally the last thing to be finished. It’ll normally just start with a very rough sketch vocal I’ll sing into my laptop microphone – it’ll just be complete gibberish, like ba-zzz ba-zzz ba-zzz – and there’ll be some kind of implied lyrics in there. Then, over time, as I’m thinking of the lyrics and what the song means, those gibberish words will start to reveal themselves as meaning something or being certain words. Often I’ll be talking about something that I was going through at the time when I came up with the idea that I didn’t fully understand, but then as I’m finishing off the song, it will make this bizarre, but very poignant sense. It’s really strange.
You used to work at an advertising company writing jingles. How do think that affected your process for writing hooks or coming up with those kinds of ideas?
You know, it’s funny you ask that question because I just recently was thinking about that job again. Most of the jingles you’re writing – or most of the commercials you’re writing for – are like 30 seconds, so when you’re doing it a lot, in your mind you’re thinking about how you can take a song from intro to climax to conclusion within 30 seconds. It’s just a really shortened version of what a normal song or piece of music ought to be. When I was doing that, I also had a musical project called Kites, and it was so difficult for me to switch from thinking in this very short, concise way to trying to make normal length songs. What I found was that I almost went in the completely opposite direction with the stuff that I was working on. I was trying to make [my songs] as little like a jingle as possible. Then when I left that job and stopped doing it, it took me a few years to come to the equilibrium of “Oh, I’m just going to write a normal pop song that’s three and a half minutes now.” So I think those very short pop songs are in short supply when it comes to St. Lucia, like there’s always some sort of long ambient intro or something much of the time.
What do you think is the most important lesson you’ve learned about songwriting so far?
I think the most important thing I’ve learned is not to judge your ideas too early on in the process. There are a lot of lessons I’ve learned, but that’s the one that really sticks with me. I think that’s really helped me to find a good songwriting flow. We all come up with song ideas that we immediately are like “that literally just sounds like a nursery rhyme” or “that sounds really stupid,” but what I’ll start to do is just kind of be like, “Oh, that’s the idea that I have today,” and I’ll go work on it even though in the back of my mind I think it’s stupid. I’ll force myself to take it seriously. I think in some sort of way your subconscious is almost like your inner child, and if you’re always judging it, it won’t develop into its fullest potential. If you haven’t been working with your subconscious for a while – and I think that for me, all of my song ideas come from my subconscious – I think that process of not judging those ideas you normally might think are stupid and instead running with them helps free up your creativity and removes this kind of blockage. To me, that’s definitely the biggest lesson I’ve learned. Since I’ve been doing it that way I haven’t really run into any situations where I feel like I haven’t been able to come up with any good ideas. I think sometimes you also have to shift the goal post and your perspective of what you think is a good idea, and maybe sometimes that’s a sign of growth, that you’re doing something different.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
Oh man. Definitely all the songwriters in Fleetwood Mac are some of my favorites: Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie. They were such an amazing, power-house writing group. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the band Prefab Sprout. They were sort of a new wave band from the 80’s in the UK. The lead singer’s name was Paddy [McAloon]. The first album they released was called Steve McQueen. He just wrote some of the most absolutely heartbreakingly beautiful lyrics I’ve ever heard, in a very, very British way, but really beautiful. It’s funny because I very seldom focus on “songs” when I’m writing. It’s just kind of this subconscious thing, and the people I normally look up to aren’t necessarily songwriters per se, they’re more like ideas people. For example, Kanye West. I’m very influenced by Radiohead as well – Thom York is a big one. I loved the Tobias Jesso Jr. album. He had some really beautiful classic songs on that record.
If you could collaborate or co-write with anyone, living or dead, who would you choose?
I always think about some of my favorite, classic artists like Kate Bush or Fleetwood Mac. If they ever wanted to recapture some of their heyday in some kind of way, I would love to make another great, epic Kate Bush album or make another great Fleetwood Mac record. It’s always interesting to me how, in the music industry, you very seldom have an artist who is older and is still really at the top of their game and is producing their best work. It’s strange because you definitely have that in [something] like architecture, for example. A lot of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous and revered buildings were made after he was 80-years-old, which is crazy. That would almost never happen when it comes to music. I often think, “Why should it be any different?” Why can’t an older musical artist make a really, really great album that speaks across the age lines in some kind of way? I’d love to do that at some point.
What’s a song on this album you’re particularly proud of, and what’s the story behind it?
I’m proud of all of them, but I think the one I keep coming back to – and that was actually the most difficult to finish – is “The Winds of Change.” There was something about that song from the moment I came up with it that really spoke to me [about] something deep about life that’s very difficult for me to explain or put into words. When we were recording, it was very difficult to mimic the feeling that I had when I was making the demo. Sometimes when you write something, there’s something about that moment you write it that feels so magical and almost so perfect in itself that it really feels like everything else you do apart from that is trying to play catch up. But you also know that the demo in its demo form does not sound good enough to be finished. You’re always recording this thing, and that isn’t right, and then you record that thing, and that isn’t right. We mixed [“The Winds of Change”] from start to finish like five times as well. We were mastering the album, and I was like, ‘the mix isn’t right.’ So we went and mixed it three times more after the album was actually mastered, so then we had to master [“The Winds of Change”] separately. That was definitely the most difficult by far, but it was difficult because I had such a strong feeling about it, and I didn’t feel like the reality of what it was while we were finishing it was catching up to the way I felt or the way I imagined it in my mind.
What advice would you give other songwriters about learning how to write on the road?
I think for me, the biggest thing was changing my idea of what is ideal. I just see it with so many people, where you build this castle around you of, “For me to write, I need to be sitting in my living room with a light at this perfect angle with the special kind of tea that I really love that inspires me, and I’ll have this one book open on a page that has a photo…” I think as we go through our lives, we become more particular about what we do, and in many ways that imprisons us. I think what you have to do when you’re writing on the road is embrace the new and embrace the imperfect, and almost use that as a tool that helps you grow. You might not be able to achieve the exact results you want at the time, but maybe you’re recording an idea or a song on a park bench in some random park somewhere and there’s something really, really cool about that imperfect sound. Maybe something happens that inspires a part of a song. There are also so many times of the day where we waste time and have negative space where we’re just like, “Ugh I just need to relax,” where we could just spend 10, 15 minutes doing something – writing a little bit of something. I think it’s often like putting money into a piggy bank. It seems like you’re doing not enough work at the time, but over time it adds up to something actually quite substantial if you keep doing it.
What do you think is the most perfect song ever written and why?
Oh man, whew. To me, the song that I keep coming back to – and I don’t think, technically speaking, it’s necessarily a perfect song because it doesn’t have a chorus – is “Gypsy” by Fleetwood Mac. I don’t know, there’s a certain magic in that song, for want of a better word, that is difficult to quantify or describe. I just really feel like I’m connecting with the deepest parts of Stevie Nicks’ innocence and the deepest part of her self in that song. I can just picture exactly what she’s describing. The way it’s framed and the production and how minimal and beautiful and innocent it is. Yeah, that would be my vote. Or what about “Happy Birthday?” Well say my first choice is “Gypsy,” and my second choice is “Happy Birthday.”