Andrew Choi, the man behind St. Lenox, is an incredible storyteller and Julliard-trained concert violinist. His most recent release, 2016’s Ten Hymns from My American Gothic is a stellar example of these storytelling chops, detailing life in an immigrant family living in rural America. The album was written as a gift for Choi’s father, a South Korean immigrant.
His music is indie pop with a punch; detailing issues in our world today that some musicians might steer clear of. In today’s society, artists like Choi stand out in the music scene, flourishing in an atmosphere surrounded by xenophobic views and racial tensions still bubbling over from the 2016 election.
We chatted with Choi less about music, more about politics, and also about his experiences growing up as a first generation Korean-American. As a classically-trained musician, he had a lot to say about the technical aspect of music and how he weaves that into his music. We also chatted about racial identity and why representation is important, not just for minorities, but for society as a whole.
Modern Vinyl: To start out, I want to talk about growing up; how you first got your start in music. How did that all begin?
Andrew Choi: I was about six years old when I wanted to play the violin, because my older brother had been playing the viola. I started taking lessons with my mom, and it was going to be something that we did together. But she quit only a few weeks after we started, and just coached me the rest of the way after that.
I didn’t start singing until I was about 28, when I was in graduate school, and didn’t start writing my own music as a singer-songwriter until I was about 29 years old in Columbus, Ohio.
MV: With that, what drew you to being a singer-songwriter, as opposed to a violinist?
AC: I think it was when I started going to open mics. I originally went to an open mic in order to perform jazz standards. I’d write the instrumentals for jazz compositions onto an MP3 player with my computer, and then go to [the] open mic to sing them. This was basically because I was never able to find a jazz piano trio to sing with. Once I was at open mic, everyone else was basically a singer-songwriter, so I felt compelled to start writing my own material.
I stopped playing the violin after high school because classical music was going through a decline in the late ’90s, as the classical music industry was resorting to cheap marketing in order to get listeners. A lot of orchestras were closing. I also felt like people didn’t really appreciate classical music back then, and that people were really interested in what I was doing, because they wanted to see a child prodigy.
I still don’t think people really appreciate classical music, as a general rule.
MV: Child prodigy? Do you mean that they’d rather see a toddler who was like a virtuoso as opposed to you instead? It’s also interesting you think that people don’t really appreciate classical music, since I’ve heard samples woven into various pieces of music, be it electronic, in the indie realm, and surprisingly, even the metal scene.
AC: I think people were listening to classical music for the wrong reasons. I think people were listening to me for the wrong reasons, and didn’t really appreciate what I was putting out there. Well, the way in which indie and modern music in general incorporates classical samples is not really “classical music.” Classical music involves melodic and chord structures, and song structures, that modern songwriters don’t have the musical chops to write. I think incorporation of classical themes these days often times means “has strings” just like jazz means “has some saxophone.” But classical music means a lot more than that.
Beyond melody and chords and song structures, classical musicians are also trained in phrasing and interpretation —something that musicians these days don’t really think about that much. Modern popular musicians do have an interpretation for how they will sing a piece, but classical musicians are trained to think about maybe a dozen different ways to perform a phrase.
There’s a thoughtfulness and agency involved in classical music that you don’t have with modern pop genres. Of course, this isn’t to say that modern pop doesn’t have certain things that it does very well, and better than classical music.
MV: That makes perfect sense. Next, I do want to go back and talk about your family for a little bit. You grew up in a family of Korean immigrants. How did that help influence your music today, and how did that impact your identity in society?
AC: In terms of general identity issues, I think it helped me to gain a fair bit of independence in how I go about in the world. I think being “different” when I was younger gave me the freedom to kinda make choices for myself, even if I wasn’t doing what other people were doing.
In terms of influence on my music today, I mean, I think it’s hard for it to not have influence on my music, as I think it’s important to write from what you know.
MV: When you were growing up, do you wish there had been people who “looked” like you, or folks you could relate to out in the music scene?
AC: I decided to put my cultural background on full display in the last record — something that I thought was somewhat risky — mainly for political reasons. I think the political atmosphere made it important for me to try and put something out in the world that humanized a perspective that many people might not be very familiar with. I would definitely say so. I think it’s natural to feel that way.
And it’s not just wanting to see someone who looked like me. It’s also just seeing how society works; you become aware that there is a concerted effort to not ever have people who look like you.
MV: What I’m also curious about is your thoughts on representation being important in the scene. Do you think it’ll help encourage folks more as they grow up, and help diversify something that kind of seems almost…homogenous in a way?
AC: I do, I think representation is important in part because it helps encourage more diversity in the future. But I think it’s also important for people who aren’t in the minority — it’s good for people who don’t have that exposure to get it, because it’s an important part of growing up.
MV: Before we chat politics, I want to talk about your last record, “Ten Hymns from My American Gothic.” You created that album as a gift to your father. Politics aside, what compelled you to put that together with him in mind? Why was it so important to weave your cultural background into the record?
AC: It was his 70th birthday that year. And from what I learned, in Korea it’s important to do something big for that birthday. Ideally, I think my brothers and I would have tried to all go back to Iowa and plan something, but it didn’t work out for a variety of reasons. I felt very badly about that. So, crafting a record in his honor, and dedicating it to him, seemed like something that I could do instead. And I had my brothers help out.
MV: That’s really wonderful. Any particular reason why the 70th birthday is so important to Koreans?
AC: I mean, I have no clue except to say it’s probably an important birthday in most cultures. Really, the record was kind of birthed out of cultural ignorance on my part, resulting from generation and cultural gap. So in some ways it’s been very much a learning experience for myself — even though I also mean it to be a learning experience for others.
MV: So in a way, you also tried to reconnect with your culture through the album?
AC: To some degree. I think I more just wanted to deliberately address the idea of cultural gap, explain it and embrace it as part of an American experience to share with others. Reconnecting I think is definitely a part of recognizing and understanding cultural gap.
MV: Over the years, how has the political climate helped encourage your songwriting? I’ve noticed that most of your songs have a heavy political feel to them?
AC: I think it’s a lot like with one’s cultural background. You write what you know, and when you do that, you end up addressing politics. I’ve thought a lot about how to do political songwriting, but I’ve tended to be more hesitant about it, partly because I think it can be done very poorly.
I think a lot of political music tends to be just straightforward expressions of political statements. And I think that’s not very useful political music. Even “21st Century,” that song is more just trying to express frustration and anxiety that many people feel from being confronted with so much horror in the world, where the internet has made it so easy to be aware of it.
I’ve tried to write music that is political, in that it humanizes new perspectives that people might not be familiar with, or expresses and vocalizes sentiments that people might not say directly. I don’t want to write a song though titled “Trump sucks!” I think it’s well-intentioned, but poor political music.
MV: I’m glad you mentioned that. I was just about to ask what your thoughts were about being a songwriter during the Trump era. Do you think that’ll bring about a resurgence in musical political activism, or will it be something to divide the people even more than they already are?
AC: That’s a good question. I have a lot of musician friends that have talked about that.
MV: In a good way or a bad way?
AC: In a good way. I mean, I’m really conflicted on the issue. I think that music can be a very good tool for motivating people politically. I think that’s a very different question from whether music is good.
Do I think there will be a resurgence in music written about politics? Yes. A lot of that I think is commercially motivated as much as it is politically motivated. Do I think the resurgence will mean an aesthetic resurgence? I think there isn’t very much connection between those things.
MV: Why commercially motivated?
AC: There’s always commercial motivation to be involved in politics. Look at pinkwashing or greenwashing. There’s a balance that every musician has to navigate between music and money; I don’t think that’s simplified when politics enters the pictures.
MV: With that said, what’s your take on all of the compilations out there going to causes like the ACLU/Planned Parenthood/etc.?
AC: I think it’s good for people to raise awareness, and it’s good for people to put their music towards a good cause. Do I think the compilations are going to be on my Spotify playlist 24/7? That’s another question. But if it helps a good cause, I don’t have anything against it.
MV: I want to talk about SXSW for a little. What was it like being there this year, and part of the first-ever Asian-American showcase?
AC: It was a really interesting experience. I think it was really good that Kollaboration set up the showcase. I think a lot of the music industry doesn’t really understand the difference between Asians and Asian-Americans. So there’s a temptation for the music industry to think that they’ve “done their job” recruiting Asians to participate in a music festival — except that this reinforces the idea that America (which includes Asian-Americans) is all white.
Aside from that, the experience really reinforced the idea that making it in the indie music industry requires a lot of connections and resources — things that aren’t necessarily available to people of limited means.
MV: So in a way…it’s something that maybe screams of entitlement?
AC: Oh yeah, definitely. I feel like there’s a lot of class issues involved in indie music that people need to address more, especially where indie music is supposed to represent the young independent creative class. Something is very wrong where opportunities are only available to those with means, broadly speaking.
MV: I never really hear much about the class issues in indie music, so this is an interesting take. Do you think the industry will be able to break through that one day?
AC: No. I mean, there’s always going to be exceptions, but I think as a rule, it’s not going to. Partly because there’s so much competition in indie: we are in an era where the means for making music is democratized, but the means for publicizing music is not. That’s not changing anytime soon. Access to publicity is limited because there’s so much competition now for musicians who want to break through.
MV: How do you hope to try to overcome that?
AC: I mean, the hope is to become the exception. Aside from that, the business is what it is. Strangely, I don’t have a ton of resources, but I understand I have to find what resources I can to participate in the business.
MV: Looking ahead to the future, what’s next for you? What projects are you currently working on, and what do you hope to accomplish for the rest of the year?
AC: I’m currently finishing up a visual album [for Ten Hymns] with music videos for every track on the record. I had intended on finishing this up earlier, but I’ve never really directed music videos before, so it took longer than I had expected. Strangely, I had made the original record and released it prior to the election, thinking that the election would go the other direction. So I spent a lot of the visual album kinda making sense of the election and its aftermath.
MV: How long has the visual album’s process taken you?
AC: It’s taken me about a year. I think I shot the first video (for “Thurgood Marshall“) over the summer and released it a few months before the record release as a preview. There were a few events, including SXSW, that pushed back the schedule. It also took some time to come up with videos that I thought did the record justice.
I don’t like talking down to listeners, and I want to give people something thoughtful and complex. And I wasn’t going to shoot a bunch of videos with me hanging out with friends at a bar. Or those stylized posing shoots. The record is a lot about grappling with political strife, and if I was going to present videos, they would have to do the same.
MV: I bet you’re looking forward to releasing that to the world. It sounds like an amazing project to accompany the album. And lastly, is there anything else you’d like to add today?
AC: I think when people listen to music, people should expect that music has the ability to challenge them intellectually. And I think maybe people have stopped believing in that lately. I hope that when people listen to my music, they feel challenged.
“Ten Hymns from My American Gothic” can be streamed on St. Lenox’s Bandcamp. The album is available on red translucent vinyl through Anyway Records. Other releases, like the debut album, “Ten Songs About Memory” and “Hope,” can be purchased on the Anyway Records webstore. In June, you can catch Andrew and St. Lenox at the Nelsonville Music Festival in Nelsonville, Ohio, alongside artists like Conor Oberst, Jenny Lewis, Parquet Courts, and Emmylou Harris.