St. Lenox – One Sheet
Ten Hymns From My American Gothic
Ten Songs About Memory and Hope
- On Vinyl – https://midheaven.com/item/ten-songs-about-memory-and-hope-by-st-lenox-lp#.VMm_jNX3-iw
- On Spotify – https://play.spotify.com/album/5rOaqykZjkxO2Ki2KtLJUV
- On iTunes – ttps://itunes.apple.com/us/album/ten-songs-about-memory-hope/id915496366
- On Amazon – http://www.amazon.com/Ten-Songs-About-Memory-Hope/dp/B00NC34WEC/
St. Lenox is the project of Andrew Choi. Choi’s journey away from, and back to music has been a circuitous one. In the mid ’90s, he was a Juilliard-trained violinist. He quit music to get a degree in Philosophy and went on to receive his PhD in Philosophy from The Ohio State University. In graduate school, he fell back into music by way of the art of karaoke, and went on to learn jazz and songwriting at dive bars and open-mics in Columbus, OH. A change in careers took him to New York City, where he now works as a singer-songwriter and a lawyer in Manhattan.
Variously categorized as “folktronica”, r&b, indie-pop and jazz, St. Lenox has performed nationally, appearing at festivals such as CMJ Music Marathon and CBGB Music Festival (playing a special showcase curated by Sonicbids) as well as Musikfest and MidPoint Music Festival, where he was designated a “Critic’s Pick” and compared in print to Cee Lo Green and Soul Coughing in CityBeat Magazine. St. Lenox appeared on Streamed Dumplings, a limited-run streaming show put on by staff at MTV, and made a brief musical appearance on the TLC show Extreme Cheapskates.
St. Lenox’s debut album, 10 Songs About Memory and Hope, has received critical acclaim, with NPR‘s Otis Hart and Dusted Magazine‘s Ben Donnelly making comparisons with the Mountain Goats. Willfully Obscure and Music for Robots invoke similarities with Rufus Wainright, and Music. Defined speaks of St. Lenox’s storytelling as reminiscent of a young Billy Joel. John Darnielle, of the Mountain Goats, has called St. Lenox a “lyricist of the highest order.” In reference to the vocals, Dusted Magazine notes that St. Lenos is “somewhere between honest tabernacle rafter-shaking and jumbo mumble”, and Moxipop observes “he sings with a trembling vigor that may be vibrating in from other dimensions.”
Prior to his career as a singer-songwriter, Andrew Choi was the 1st Prize Winner of the American String Teacher’s Association National Solo Competition for the Violin, and the 1st Prize Winner for the Corpus Christi International Young Artist’s Competition for the Violin. At Juilliard and the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Choi was a student of Won Bin Yim and Dorothy DeLay, who instructed Itzhak Perlman, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Sarah Chang. Choi was also the concertmaster of the World Youth Symphony Orchestra at the Interlochen Music Festival.
Longform Biography, for Ten Hymns From My American Gothic – by Andrew Earles
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.
Longform Biography, for Ten Songs About Memory and Hope – by James Hunter
Several years ago Andrew Choi, then an Ohio State graduate student in philosophy, found himself in Florida, where he had just delivered a paper – miserably — at an academic conference. Driving back to Ohio, his thoughts turned to karaoke. “My Columbus friends went to karaoke,” Choi recalls, “but I wouldn’t get on stage. I had never sung at all really. In church, I would hold the hymnal but just mouth words.” In Atlanta, Choi pulled his car off the interstate. “I was by myself, thinking how the conference presentation had not gone well. I noticed this karaoke bar. I stopped. I walked in. ‘No one will ever know I did this,’ I thought. I got up and sang Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’. It wasn’t the most terrible thing. I didn’t die.”
Ten Songs About Memory and Hope for the Future, the Anyway Records album debut of New York’s St. Lenox, is Choi’s singularly thrilling mix of pop-song craftsmanship, atmospheric electro kicks, rich singing, jazz freedom, and, yes, karaoke. After his Atlanta epiphany, Choi remembers, he began to master at least ten songs a week. “I’d find a deserted karaoke bar in Columbus and sing my head off. I built up a huge library. I had to make a spreadsheet of what became over 500 songs I could do. I assigned star ratings to each one.” Some tunes he favored turned out to be jazz standards; Choi loved their constructions, how these songs allowed ample room for interpretation. “The pop expectation,” he says, “where as you sing well-known songs you have to sound exactly like Bono or Pearl Jam, that’s absent with jazz.” Accordingly, he tried but failed to found a trio in Columbus. So rather than quit singing, Choi began to fiddle around with software programs and to compose and arrange his own tracks. And he started to write original songs.
All of this, rendered with charisma to burn, is precisely what you hear on an energetic St. Lenox track like “I Still Dream of the ‘90s,” which colors the recent past with current longings for flying cars, or “Just Friends,” a fluidly melodic mid-tempo ballad that insists that pop-soul lives in 2013. It is the pop music of a completely contemporary guy who has put together brilliantly everything in his past, present, and future. This includes karaoke. “So much of that, for me,” Choi says, “has to do with the idea of standards. I grew up as a classical musician. A lot of people don’t realize that classical music – all those famous symphonies and so forth – is standards. A lot of the art involved implies interpretation: You study, and teachers talk about how long you draw out notes, transition between notes, all the vibrato and timbre and volume choices. It’s learning how to wield those things to communicate emotion.” For St. Lenox, emotion starts, although doesn’t end, with Choi’s voice, an agile tenor with an undewy top-end glow. His voice is, at any rate, one reason why songs from his debut such as “That Old Time Religion” and “Bitter Pill” occupy a listener’s memory long after the tracks finish.
“The goal is to maintain some core spirit of the originals,” Choi says of the classical and karaoke that propelled him into developing his own brand of singer and songwriter. “As a violinist that was something I always loved. And then, going to karaoke and on to jazz, the underlying thing that drew me in was that comparison to the standard versions – putting your own stamp on pre-existing things.”
Ten Songs About Memory and Hope for the Future is inescapably the work of a young Korean-American who was a violinist as a kid, gained admission to the Ivy League, completed a Ph.D. in philosophy, and who now, after finishing law school at NYU, will work as a litigator in New York. But none of those accomplishments alone accounts for the album’s power. That involves another talent of Choi’s: As St. Lenox, he has figured out how to make all of that – plus cool chord changes and hot notes and killer rhythms – swing.