Andrew Choi, who makes and performs music as St. Lenox, grew up in Ames, Iowa where he juggled high school and training as a concert violinist via Julliard. By the end of high school, music was in the rearview and Choi would go on to get his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Ohio State University in Columbus, OH and then finish law school at NYU. Now living in New York where he is a practicing attorney, Choi began making his own music a few years ago after acquiring his doctorate at Ohio State, the seed planted when he took up karaoke, first as a way to combat nervousness he had over impending speaking engagements in the academic setting. This lead to many solitary hours logged in the assemblage of original music, which Choi began performing live at open-mic nights in Columbus, usually backed only by his own recordings. Long story short, Choi’s performances of original material eventually found Bela Koe-Krompecher, longtime proprietor of Columbus’ Anyway Records, in the audience and a rapport was initiated around the future release of what would become 10 Songs About Memory and Hope, the early-2015 debut full-length by St. Lenox.
An album that can pierce through whatever walls the most jaded, cynical, and soul-bereft listener might have erected against the effectiveness of powerfully emotive music, St. Lenox’s debut was a fully-realized opening statement, as opposed to one defined by some “future potential” margin of improvement. It’s impossible to ignore Choi’s skill at, say, taking a once-shared dwelling and honing in on how the otherwise invisible familiarity of a once-shared dwelling becomes a scorched earth of emotionally-catastrophic triggers for the one who must remain there after the relationship dissolves. The music, written and meticulously-assembled entirely by Choi from the ground up, provides a traditional and topical sonic backdrop that melds perfectly his voice and highlights everything that has to be said. The debut garnered some genuine coverage by NPR and nice words by the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle (plus the array of Internet outlets that picked up on the aforementioned) seemed to put St. Lenox on the map, along with a handful of stand-out music videos drawn from the album.
This brings us up to St. Lenox’s sophomore effort, Ten Hymns From My American Gothic, an album that further bolsters the fact that Andrew Choi is a contemporaneously rarified musician who can create a stylistic framework immediately identifiable (as St. Lenox in this case) but be able to helm it with such skill and inspiration that it is highly unlikely he’ll ever make the same album twice or even repeat himself in any capacity (unless doing so as a calculated artistic device). Whereas with its predecessor, 10 Songs About Memory and Hope, no one could be faulted for having the traditional “break-up album” takeaway from what might be the most untraditional break-up album in the history of the form, Ten Hymns retains the same intimacy and attention to emotional detail while the themes tackled, against a more upbeat musical canvas it should be noted, are topical, permanent, and all-around bigger-picture fare.
“This year is my father’s 70th birthday and I wanted to illustrate my American experience as a second generation Korean-American. That’s the first half of the album, which I call ‘Domestic and Regional Politics’. On the second half of the album, which I call ‘International Relations’, the songs actually address my parents and are based on my relationship with them,” says Choi.
The underlying theme of major life change that requires physical relocation begins with album opener, “Fuel America”, which draws from a distant moment in his past when he first left hometown of Ames, Iowa to study violin at Julliard in New York (“get ready because I’m going to New York City to chase the American super-dream!”) on weekends during his freshman year of high school. The overall mood continues on the upswing with “Thurgood Marshall”, a song that jumps some distance into the future to offer up Choi’s personal hero and beacon of aspiration he chose while enduring what law school and practicing the law itself does to one’s psyche. “That song is about my optimism, idealism and hope about the law. The experience of law school can be soul crushing and it’s good to have a hero and something that offsets the regular thoughts of ‘Am I still a good person?’”
There’s the pretty acoustic guitar backbone of “The Public School System,” and “Nixon” examines Choi’s take on that president’s life after he was forced out of office. Closing the first half of Ten Hymns is the horn-driven “Conspiracy Theories”, an unexpected trifecta of vignettes about the songwriter’s experiences with three individuals of the survivalist variety, unpacked sans the condescending or sensationalist tone with which these folks are usually approached. Side two, and the second half of the album, starts with “You Don’t Call Me Anymore”, which is loyal to the admitted influence behind its sound. “This was my attempt to write an R.E.M.-style jangle-pop song. They are a big influence from a compositional standpoint … they are very astute students of pop.”
About “Korea” Choi offers, “My parents were born in North Korea but had to move to the South due to the Korean War. With a lot of older Koreans that had to go through this there’s a big sense of longing for what they had to leave behind and now cannot visit.” Continuing on that topic, “What I Think About When You Say South Korea” reflects upon “my alleged home country that I’ve only been to once.”
The safety blanket provided by metaphor and other abstract lyrical devices is not the domain of St. Lenox. Wildly opposite the type of lyrical content that might inspire expositional tropes like “what’s great about the lyrics is that each listener can get something different out of it and apply it to their own life” (an excuse for the artist to write about nothing) or born of “I scribbled the lyrics onto my hand right before going into the vocal booth” situations. On its own, the matter-of-factness and efficiency of language could recall musical artists and writers as disparate as The Wedding Presents’ David Gedge, Raymond Carver (minus the detachment), the previously-referenced Darnielle, or Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat. But we’re soon into the realm of what is perhaps St. Lenox’s signature calling card: The clarity and unavoidable intensity of Choi’s vocal delivery is a sort of modernized torch-singing most noticeably informed, on the surface, by vocal jazz as well as the singing style of Michael Stipe, for a get-in-and-get-out attempt at summing up something complex in simple terms.
Ten Hymns from My American Gothic is the type of personal, thinking person’s pop album built from layered repetition and with authentic, melodic construction made up of timeless hooks rather than just melody itself, and of course, lyrics that will resonate with a wide scope of listener demographics.