A little over a week ago, one of the music PR people who regularly sends us music to review sent over the debut album of an artist we’d never heard of, New York-based Andrew Choi, recording under the moniker St. Lenox. As you may have noticed if you saw our resulting piece last week, we were pretty impressed. Really impressed, actually. And in that very excited because it was something weird that we’d never heard but really really liked kinda way. We got in touch with Andrew shortly thereafter and he graciously agreed to give us a little bit of his time so we could find out more about the mysterious, crooning bird that s St. Lenox. As you can tell, we talked right before the reportedly catastrophic blizzard was about to hit in NYC.
raven + crow: First thing’s first—are you prepared for the coming massive, historic, city-breaking blizzard?
Andrew Choi: Yes. I have at least a year’s worth of food supply and necessities to deal with most worst-case scenarios.
Smart man. I’m actually really jealous. It’s kind of overcast here in Los Angeles, which is pretty traumatic for most of the population, so we’re with you in spirit. So, can you tell me a little bit about how St. Lenox started?
Really, I’m just a karaoke singer. I studied karaoke the same way that I approached classical music. Classical musicians spend a lot of time paying attention to details and phrasing. They study the classics, listen to a variety of interpretations, and think about how to interpret existing songs and make them their own. Of course, since you’re dealing with the classics, you also learn a lot about song composition. As I moved over from karaoke to jazz, and then open-mic, I took a lot of that experience studying American Pop and the Great American Songbook into my own writing. I was familiar with the idea of singing to tracks from karaoke, and I guess that’s why I started writing in the way that I did. I basically write the karaoke tracks and lyric sheets to my own music.
Wow. Honestly, these songs do have that voice overtop of more buried karaoke feel. Cool approach. This is the first album you’ve released, right?
Yes. I mean I released a sort of preview EP that contains 4 of the songs on this album about a year and a half ago. About a year ago I also released an EP of covers, just to work on some of my orchestration and sampling skills.
Well the album’s really really really fucking good. Like I originally wrote when it was sent over to us, there’s something just beautifully off-kilter about the whole thing—the lo-fi production paired with your powerfully unique voice. It’s one of those records that just blew me away. And I feel like the melodies have this eerily memorable quality to them, like they’ve been in my subconscious forever. Can you talk a little bit about your writing process and what inspires your melodies?
It really just depends. Sometimes I’ll start out with chords. Sometimes I’ll start out with a melody. Two things about melody writing: I think too many songwriters are unwilling to write certain melodies, because the melodies evoke certain emotions that they’re uncomfortable—it feels too cheesy or awkward, and it makes them pull back. It’s like when you’re a teenager and your parents hug you when your friends are around. There’s an awkwardness there and you pull away. But really, it’s a missed opportunity. You have to go for it full bore.
The other thing is that with American Idol and its ilk, people have gotten really self-conscious about their voices. They feel like they can’t put their voices out there and present themselves as singers unless they sound like Beyonce or Evanescence. But you don’t have to sound like them to be a singer. My voice is super weird sounding, I think. You know, there’s this R.E.M. song, from their horrendous album Around the Sun called “The Ascent of Man”. It’s not a great song, but you see Michael Stipe just belting like a soul singer. It’s awkward, but it’s pretty awesome. People should embrace that they can be singers (as opposed to just lyricists who hit some pitches) and go for it, even if they don’t release a pristine laser beam of destruction every time they open their mouths, like Amy Lee does.
Great point and, yeah, that really shows in your songs. It’s such a unique sound + pairing—was that a deliberate move or just…natural for you playing music?
I mean, the production is lo-fi because I was actually not rich living off of a graduate student salary for so many years, and I didn’t have lots of money to put into recording. I paid about $600 to make the album, including the cost of instruments, hardware, software and mastering. I think people try a little too hard for things to be lo-fi sometimes. Lo-fi is an opportunity to concentrate on songcraft and dispense with the process of ornamentation—it’s a similar aesthetic to acoustic performance. It means a lot more than just recording on a 4-track, or putting an album through a lo-fi tape filter. I don’t understand trying to imitate a lo-fi sound—that’s concentrating on production in a tedious way that only appears casual. Like intentional bad-hair day. I don’t know whats up with that.
I missed that holiday. I did read somewhere that you were some sort of childhood violin genius, but I hear zero violin on these songs; it’s mainly somewhat downplayed electronics + keys underneath your belting. Do you think there’s a common language in your mind though as far as writing music and having that early foundation in playing it?
I was the 1st prize winner of the American String Teacher’s Association (ASTA) National Solo Competition, for the violin, at their 50th Biennial competition. I defeated a girl that was lent a very expensive Stradivarius.
There is zero use of solo violin on the album. Some general synthy-sounding strings on “The Greyhound Bus Song” and “Pop Song 2012”. I personally think that writers have not figured out a good way to incorporate it. The violin is an enormously expressive instrument, but people these days just use it to play Americana period pieces, or obnoxious “orchestral” backgrounds for Pomplamoose videos. It isn’t given the respect it deserves, and as of now I haven’t figured out how to incorporate it in such a way that gives it that respect, and I probably won’t until I figure that out.
I once heard that the violin’s so beloved by so many people because it’s the closest in tone + range to the human voice. So I could see that battling sonically with singing. Back to your existing style though, I feel like both your lyrics and singing are so blunt and direct, in a really awe-inspiring, gripping way. Who are some musicians who either inspire your work or who you just dig?
I’ve always been a big fan of R.E.M.—they always knew how to write songs, using the fundamentals. Of course, later on they would incorporate different instruments and whatnot. They were very good at setting scenes and telling stories, and writing characters. I’ve enjoyed listening to the Mountain Goats too—actually I feel embarrassed about this, but I never listened to them much until about a year ago. My law school roommate is a big fan of theirs and played some of their stuff for me back then. There’s an experimentation with how lyrics go onto the page that I admire.
Really though, I don’t listen to that much music anymore. I think the market has been crushed with what I’ll call “nominal songwriting” that I don’t really have the time to navigate through. I spent some time listening to modern indie darlings, and it was kind of a big letdown. I’d rather go to karaoke and see someone do something awkward and live. Or listen to stuff that my friends do. There are some great songwriters in NYC and Columbus that you can find just by going local and doing a bit of exploring. Niall Connolly and Ray Brown in NYC, and Joe Peppercorn (of The Whiles) come to mind. Two of them are or have been open-mic hosts. You want to find good stuff, go to the host of a popular open-mic and they can steer you to some good listens.
How are you liking it there in New York, by the way?
It’s great! It’s a great big lonely city. Hmm.
Whereabouts are you?
I live in Clinton Hill. Probably the fastest gentrifying area of NYC. I’ve got a few songs in me, yet to be written, about that.
Ah, yeah. We were in Park Slope + Carroll Gardens for ten years. Brooklyn’s changed a lot in that time. Favorite thing about the city?
If you’re willing to put the time in to find it, you can find it.
And you’re working on your doctorate in philosophy there, right?
Ah, no. I finished my PhD about three years ago. This past year I finished getting my law degree from NYU. I’m now working at a big law firm in midtown Manhattan. I’m officially getting my license in about a week.
Ah, see, I was going to get all dickish parent and ask you what you plan to do with your philosophy degree, but philosophical lawyer sounds winning!
Philosophy allows insight into the logical structure of the universe. That can be useful.
So, St. Lenox—is this something you just plan to do on the side or a one-off album or none of the above?
I have at least 5 albums of material already written. The next album will be better recorded, though I’m not going to go for high polished production. I’m just going to try and make it a bit less harsh in terms of the sound. By the time I’m done with those, I’ll probably have another 3 albums written by then.
Oh, awesome. I was afraid this was a one-time thing. It sounds like John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats has been singing the praises of your album since he came across it. Have you had a chance to reach out to him at all? Seems like a lot of the people who have heard it have heard it directly or indirectly through him.
We had a cool conversation in private. It was really an honor to talk to him. For me, it was nice because I think people tend to focus on my voice, when I want people to recognize me more as a songwriter instead. Also, I think I have lots of classmates from school that didn’t really respect what I was doing. So, it felt good to have some kind of validation out there like that. Not that I needed it for myself. But you know, I had friends that just initially assumed I was terrible, or classmates that would try to give me “pointers” on songwriting. It was awkward and created a distance to be in that situation.
In any case, I’ll probably try and contact him again in the future, just for advice. Like a lyricist uncle or something.
That’s awesome. So, you’ve got a really distinct visual treatment on the few press photos and promo materials I’ve seen to date, kinda deliberately pixelated or like they’re being viewed through an old TV—what’s the idea behind that?
I didn’t have a lot of disposable cash, even in law school. I had to take the pictures myself, and that was the best that I could do. I think most of it is an HDR filter of some sort? I really don’t know what I’m doing. I just press buttons. Beep borp boop.
I mean, I think it kinda follows through with the sound. And the album cover—am I correct in thinking it got changed up at some point from a dark landscape to an 80s style rocket lift-off?
The original cover was a dark landscape of a silo in Iowa. It turns out the picture was so low-res that the printers wouldn’t use it. Which was super embarrassing on my part. Because I have no idea what I’m doing. I mean i’m a musician fer chrissakes. What do I know about that stuff. And it pushed back the release date, which is sort of how the digital/physical release dates got mixed up. It was all my fault, but it’s because I have no idea what I’m doing. I like writing songs and making music. I don’t know how to do this other stuff. I’m learning though.
The new cover, it was one of a few pictures from NASA that was high-res enough to use as an album cover. It also happens to be the shuttle that my elementary school class named, in a big national competition to name the successor shuttle to the Challenger.
Oh, that’s kind of awesome. But seriously, man, next time you need a hand on the graphics end of things, let me know. That stuff, I know.
So are you planning to play out to support the record at all?
I will be playing some shows, with backup. It’s sort of a combined tracks + live instruments + voice affair. We’re working out the kinks. I’ll probably be following the “Live Rehearsal” tradition of R.E.M. (circa Accelerate). I have a college show that I might be working on soon, and try some visits to Boston, Philly and D.C. over the next few months.
Well let us know if you make it out here to LA. Finally, spirit animal?
It turns out, I am my own spirit animal.
Best response to that question yet. Thanks, man!