August 09

Perfect Strangers Interview – St. Lenox: Indie Music’s Renaissance Man

Photo Courtesy of An Rong Xu.  Print Version of the Article can be obtained at: https://perfectstrangersmag.com/

 

St. Lenox is the singer-songwriter alter ego of Andrew Choi, who also happens to be an attorney in commercial litigation; the holder of a doctoral degree in philosophy (with a focus on Kantian ethics); and a former concert violinist who studied under Dorothy DeLay at the Juilliard School.

His songs contain a fertile mix of personal memory — moments of heartbreak in Harlem, for example, or the delicate dilemmas of the immigrant experience — and wide-ranging sociopolitical commentary. Standout track Thurgood Marshall is a tribute to the U.S. Supreme Court’s first black justice, written from a law student’s perspective.  By the time St. Lenox reaches the soaring chorus —Hey, Thurgood Marshall, won’t you help me out— it’s also a personal plea for guidance and a gesture of solidarity, one that cuts across boundaries of time, space, and race.

His music videos —small-budget, but elaborately conceived— provide additional showcases for his eclectic concerns. Fuel America takes the viewer on a tour of independent music venues in NYC closed due to surging rents, and the establishments that have since taken their place; People from Other Cultures juxtaposes scenes of the singer’s mother cooking bin dae duk and seaweed soup with documentary footage from the Korean War.

With his ability to craft and belt out catchy melodies and layered lyrics —think references to tiger moms, conspiracy theories, public schools, and more — St. Lenox is one of the most distinctive voices in pop music today. We talk to him about what’s missing from the pop landscape, how he’s trying to fill that gap, and why auto-tune can sometimes be a good thing

PS: Your last album, ‘Ten Hymns From My American Gothic’, was dedicated to your father in honour of his 70th birthday. And one of the album’s most poignant moments is when the song People from Other Cultures turns out to be about your mother. How did your parents respond?

SL: I think my parents come from a very different musical tradition, and aside from our shared understanding and appreciation of classical music and oldies, there isn’t that much overlap. I remember when I was in high school, and my dad walked in while I was playing Alanis Morissette, just as she screamed the word ‘fuck’ on You Oughta Know, and we had a classic generation gap moment with that.

I’m writing what can most broadly be called indie-pop, but more so I’m trying to write ‘the new music’.  It’s aimed at listeners who are comfortable with music eliciting new emotions, and in that sense, the record isn’t meant to draw an emotional reaction from my parents at all. It’s aimed at the public, and intends to use a new musical language to talk about new subject matter — which in this case is about my parents. It’s also cathartic for me.  I’m just happy that they know that I wrote a record about them, because I want them to know that I love and respect them. They don’t need to understand my music, just understand what I’m intending, and that’s enough for me.

PS: Do you think there’s a certain spectrum of emotion which is relatively absent from popular music?

SL: Music has a lot of different ways it can draw out emotional reactions from people — different melodic lines, different chord sets, chord transitions, lyrical patterns, pronunciation, etc… These are different ‘dimensions’ that you can play around with to communicate a variety of different things to listeners. At Juilliard, they teach you how to think about volume, timbre, speed, intonation, note entries and exits as different ‘dimensions’ along which you can play around with the sound in interpreting a piece. But as a writer (and someone who writes songs with words) you have even more freedom to play around with music, because you aren’t working with a pre-existing piece that someone else has written.

A lot of successful music comes from writers who explored a lot of that ‘space’ created by those dimensions, and found the right music that fit what it was that they were trying to express. There’s lots of choices available to musicians as to how they decide to write something or interpret something – and when you hear a good musician or writer, you can hear those choices and tell if someone has been thoughtful about that or not. Of course, when you try and present new ideas to the audience, there’s a good chance that finding appropriate music to express those ideas will require venturing into some new musical space.

I do think there’s a huge spectrum of emotions absent in today’s popular music. Some of that is just a function of popular conceptions about what music is ‘for’. Some of that is just a plain lack of music education in general. …Some of that is the increasing role of money in determining winners and losers in the indie scene. Speaking in broad brushstrokes, the music scene is now such that everyone’s music is apparently critically acclaimed, and everyone is apparently releasing masterpieces, and everyone is apparently classically-trained, and everyone’s music is apparently Bowie or Dylan-esque. But it turns out if you want to actually move people, you have to have some facility with the basics, and that requires a lot of humility and dedication and honesty.  I can use the term ‘classically trained’ or ‘classically influenced’ and a thousand musicians will raise their hand and say it applies to them, but if we sit down and have a conversation about a Brahms Sonata, it will turn out that they don’t have much of anything to say about it at all. They thought of it as a marketing term. But it actually has some connection to being able to interpret certain kinds of melodic lines, and being able to cognise a variety of types of chord changes.

And that’s too bad, because when you have facility, you have freedom, and when you have freedom, you have power as a writer.  I bring this all up, because what happens is that it turns out that when writers and performers lack that facility, they end up writing stuff that sounds exactly like a worse version of what they already listen to. And then it’s no big surprise that music tends to not be adventurous, and no surprise that a huge spectrum of emotions are absent in today’s popular music.

PS: Which do you think is the most adventurous track from the album? What kinds of risks are you most interested in taking as a singer-songwriter?

SL: People From Other Cultures is in some ways a pop song, based on the general sound. But its subject matter is war trauma, immigration, and generation gap. In terms of subject matter, it’s non-traditional for a pop song, but on top of that, I think it has a different approach too. The tendency for pop writers is to take a serious subject and write a maudlin tune, accompanied with vocals filled with emotive ‘tics’. Here, I took a different approach to let the chord changes lead the listener to the right emotion, and instead of filling the vocals with emotive tics, I washed it with a bit of auto-tune because I didn’t want it interfering with the power of the chord progression.

I don’t know if this makes sense, but there’s a characterisation of the movies of Yasujiro Ozu — that Ozu has a habit of cutting away from crying or joyous scenes. You’d expect it to detract from the emotional power of a film, but I think if you watch a movie like Tokyo Story or the like, you’ll see that his films are emotionally very powerful. I think the idea is that certain obvious types of emotional expressions can pull the audience away from a more important observation. Seeing a sobbing woman, say, you’re drawn to sympathise with her immediate pain — but maybe that detracts from a fuller appreciation of her situation, which is better handled through narrative structure. I tried to use auto-tune to similar effect — because I don’t want the audience to focus on how sad I might be, but instead have them focus on the storytelling.

Thurgood Marshall is a non-standard pop tune, partly because I’m trying to combine melody with free-verse delivery. I’m sure there are other people that have done it, but I must have picked it up from going to church when I was younger. There’s a kind of free-verse singing that’s done in certain parts of the service, where they have to fit sentences into a selected melodic line, but they’re not provided with an exact rhythm. A lot of the songs that I write have a substantial amount of lyrics, but even then they are usually set to a somewhat demanding rhythm of eighth and sixteenth notes — Fuel America, for instance.

PS: You’re of Korean-American heritage, with a multidisciplinary background in philosophy, music, and law. Has this given you any particular insights into the music industry?

SL: I think all of it has probably affected the way in which I interact with the music industry. I think doing graduate work really helped in terms of providing focus and vision as a writer. There’s a general academic standard that if you write a paper, the paper should satisfy twin goals of novelty and substantiality — you have to write something that provides a new idea, and the new idea has to be valuable enough to be worth publishing. The idea is that you need to justify why it is that you’re writing or publishing a paper — why does this exist?

It’s a standard that I think never really took hold in the music industry, I think mainly because the ‘why’ question is answered by commerce, or self-interest I guess? I think the academic standard is something that I aspire to when putting together a record. As a philosopher, you spend time thinking about what the state of the literature is with respect to a subject, and you write your dissertation when you examine that literature and propose a new idea that somehow goes beyond that in a meaningful way. Musicians don’t really do that. But you know, placing yourself in that context and thinking about what you’re doing in relation to the literature — I think it goes hand in hand with the concept of developing a focus and vision.

Would you believe I found law school to be a really suffocating experience as a musician? It’s an atmosphere of extreme privilege and social stratification, and I ran into quite a few people who felt it was their position to put me in my place as a musician of colour. Did I get anything out of that? I think it’s a lot like how the music industry works. The music industry has layers and layers that make it enormously difficult for underprivileged voices to get heard. I was at SXSW last year, and the thing I really noticed was how rich and connected everyone was. People think nothing of dropping tens of thousands of dollars on buying press or marketing materials. And that money opens doors for people in the indie music industry. And those opportunities are just flatly not available to many of my musician friends. And isn’t it a terrible world where even if you work your fingers to the bone almost nobody will ever hear you, because someone else’s parents can casually drop ten grand on shiny music videos and you’re still trying to pay rent and tip the bartender? Anyway, I think law school maybe prepared me for that, because it works much the same way. If you watch the music video for Thurgood Marshall, every single one of those stories about law school is true.

Being an Asian-American in the music industry has been challenging. On the one hand, there is obviously extreme discrimination in entertainment in general. There is still effectively a race ban on Asian-Americans in lead roles in Hollywood. Emma Stone and Scarlett Johanssen knowingly portrayed originally Asian or half-Asian characters in recent movies. On the other hand, I think a lot of the emphasis by the Asian-American community has been placed on trying to create traditional Top-40 radio pop stars. I get the motivation, but I think it stems from insecurity. And I think it creates a difficult atmosphere for Asian-American musicians who are trying to just forge their own path as artists. I have aspirations to be considered one of the great American songwriters — think Leonard Cohen or Stevie Wonder or Joni Mitchell or Elvis Costello. And, strangely, I think that isn’t where a lot of attention is being focused these days.

PS: What’s one of your favourite places in New York City?

SL: There’s an open-mic on Mondays at a bar called The West in Williamsburg.  The bar staff are a lot of writers and music and film people, so I feel like I’m Ernest Hemingway at El Floridita — I used to have nicknames for the bar staff there: Raymond Carver, Fellini, etc… I think people need a place where they feel relaxed and can workshop material, and that place works for me.