Interview with Andrew Choi of St. Lenox
St. Lenox brought their unique blend of classical background, love of Pop music and telling stories and philosophical aesthetic to Nelsonville Music Festival, this year. Read on to learn more about lead singer and St. Lenox mastermind Andrew Choi's motivation, music and more in our interview, below:
Hold the Note: So I know it says “Brooklyn” on your Facebook info, but I know it also references Columbus, and Iowa…
Andy: So I lived in Iowa for many years. I lived in Sacramento for a year, too. I lived for a year in Toronto. But mostly Iowa, Columbus…and now New York. And a little bit of Cincinnati.
HTN: So you consider them all your home cities?
Andy: I do. They’re all different. Iowa is really where…that’s where I really grew up. I spent most of high school and my elementary school years there. I was in Missouri for a little bit, but that was up until first grade. I have some memories of that, but not much beyond that. And Ohio was where I started taking up music again.
HTN: Is anyone else in your band from this area?
Andy: Yeah, Nick Fed is from Cincinnati. He lived in Columbus for a while. That’s how I first interacted with him. He expressed interest in playing in a band when I came back to Ohio to perform…and I said “if you’re interested, that’s like, 95% of what I need” (to make this band work).
We started discussing our theories on success, doing things yourself and doing things on a small (or no budget)…
Andy: Yeah, I’m looking at this last year…I got an excellent review from this guy in PopMatters. I literally just Tweeted him. I said “I know you just wrote this article about The Shags, I like what you wrote. I think you might be interested in my record”. He gave me his email. I sent him the record. A few months later he listened to it and told me “I’m really loving this”. And you know what? I didn’t put any money into this. I just messaged someone and said I wanted them to spend a little time listening to (my music). And if you can do that, you can get peoples’ attention.
HTN: And to me, it wasn’t that hard for you to take a second and personalize that message to him.
Andy: No, it wasn’t.
HTN: But that’s one thing I think that really shines about your songwriting, is that you’re paying attention. Just listening to your music, it felt like there was life in your ability to pay attention to things that were around you.
Andy: I go to open mics a lot. I like to hear people writing. It’s surprising the extent to which people feel like they need to write a hit. They get these ideas that the hit sets some type of generic emotion, it has a belting chorus…I think the issue is, people don’t believe they have personal experiences that are important and beautiful. And because of that…it’s not like I looked at my life and went “Oh here are some interesting details that will go viral”. It’s more (for me) about “here are some things that are really important to me in my life. I’m gonna tell you about them. I can tell you about them in detail because they’re personal experiences.” I think the problem is, a lot of the ways people write music and music videos is, (it’s like) they’re actually talking down to people and calling them stupid. And you’re (as the artist) saying I don’t think you have the capacity to understand a story I want to tell you…But I think also, people are really afraid of expressing something that’s personal to them. There’s a safety in “there’s this thing that I know works”-in using something because you know it works there. It’s like a defense mechanism.
HTN: It can be very vulnerable to write about something that’s so personal to you.
Andy: But then you perform it live in front of people. And this is why I got to open mic nights so much. You perform it live in front of people, and you can tell when you’ve gotten “that reaction”. ‘Cause you’re telling your personal story, you can figure out how to make it accessible. That’s what being a musician is about. But when you’re able to take that experience and make it accessible, you can find that at an open mic and say “Ha! I have a song now”.
I think people have limited ideas of what music can give to them. And I think especially on an emotional level, people think there are certain things music can do for them. Because of that, people aren’t as adventurous about writing. They don’t realize there’s a bewildering amount of emotional space that you can give to (the listeners) by writing. My law school friends, some of them have this idea that the “peak” that you can have as a writer, is to write a song that goes viral, or becomes very popular. The thing is, that’s an evaluation that’s not even on an emotional level, or on a writer’s level. It literally conforms. It’s saying “this is what music is for”.
HTN: It’s interesting, because you have the added benefit of having a little philosophy background, don’t you?
Andy: Yeah, sometimes I wonder if it’s a benefit. (We both laugh)
HTN: You also are a classically trained violinist. You can hear it in some of your note progressions.
Andy: There’s this conception of classical music where…they say classical, they mean it has strings in it. And when people say “jazzy”, it has a saxophone. In classical music writing, there are melodic progressions that have to do with the way people write melody. That’s not all of it. There’s ways of writing notes. There’s ways of writing chord progressions. There are ways of thinking about phrasing as a method. You can write classical music with a guitar and no strings. Classical music isn’t about strings. There’s so much in classical music that has to do with melody writing, chord progressions. I try to draw on those things to some extent. It’s difficult because pop (music) is a very different animal. And you can’t just sort of smoosh them together. You have to think about how you do them from a melody and chord perspective. The easy way to do that, to squish them together is to say “Here’s a pop song. and I’ll put in a string section”. That’s not classical music. There are certain bands that will have a violin in them. That’s not classical music. But I’m glad you say that, because it’s a writing (thing). (With) Mozart, could have taken any instrument to play, and it would still be classical. And I don’t think people understand that. Jazz is a little different. People will say if it has a little sax in it…or if it’s got seventh chords, people will say it’s jazzy.
HTN: I really enjoy paying attention to what you were saying in your music. And there were times (while listening) where it would feel a little spoken word-y to me, and then it would go in and out of that. And it just feels refreshing and exciting.
Andy: I’m glad. I mean, I have no idea what I’m doing.
HTN: Who does?
This is gonna be a slight jump, but in your videos, I felt like I was hearing more of an electronic influence than what was here (at Nelsonville).
Andy: There’s some songs I write as studio pieces. For me, writing it is really an exercise in crafting a piece. So I’ll like the way a studio piece sounds. “Just Friends” is a piece I would consider a studio piece. I’m gonna try and figure out how to make that into something that works for me on stage.
“Nixon” I could probably turn into a live band format. It’ll still have the instrumental bit. There’s a lot of pieces where I’m thinking about it more as a studio piece or a live piece for certain music theory reasons. There are some tracks (I’ve written) where it’s “chord progression, chord progression, every quarter note a chord progression change”. And it’s very difficult to have musicians play on top of that. And sometimes for reasons like that, there are pieces that don’t make it to a live format. Sometimes in smaller settings, I’m freer to do a lot more where I just have a drummer with me (as opposed to a full band), because they (simply) drum on the beat. I have a set that’s geared more toward an acoustic feel. Because I’m a writer, I’m going to write more pieces that work acoustically (now)…you get in these patterns, and in order to break out of a pattern sometimes you have to switch it up, and sometimes for me that means switching up the instrument.
The very first song I performed (at Nelsonville this year), that was a studio piece. But then I figured out how to make it more acoustic.
HTN: I always like to ask: If a stranger were to see you perform for the first time, what do you hope they would tell their friends about you and your music?
Andy: I think the first thing I want people to come away with is that I’m a storyteller, telling interesting stories. I think of myself as writing music, as a songwriter. But in terms of the music-the instrumental chords and melodies-that’s all in service of telling the story for me. I pick melodies because I think that they have a tendency to evoke emotions that have some correspondence to the story that I’m telling.
HTN: So the (lyrics) writing is first, for you?
Andy: Sometimes in the process of writing, I’ll use a melody to sort of get there or to come up with ideas to write about. But I’m not going to actually present something until I’m like, “Here’s an anecdote I can tell, that I can express in words”. It’s a matter of finding the right music to express the words. But yeah, I want people to think of me as a storyteller. I want people to think of me as a writer. I don’t hate this, but one thing I dislike…sometimes I’ll go perform, and someone will tell me I have a great voice. I should of course be happy when somebody likes that. But I think you’re missing the point. Like this last record. The point of it, amongst others, was to provide an empathetic touchstone to be like “Oh, here’s a starting point to where I can begin to understand the immigrant or first or second generation point of view”. I’m giving you a place to start for that by telling you stories about my life, or my interaction with my parents, or my interactions growing up in the United States. That’s the whole point of the record.
HTN: And randomness: How do you know Matthew Silver?
Andy: Matthew Silver and I…I don’t know how long he’d been doing performance art before, but we know one another from open mic. He had done some open mic nights at a really great place called GoodBye Blue Monday. He had been doing performance art there. I was doing stuff in the underground music scene at the same time. I get that a lot of what he does is crazy, oddball stuff. But he’s also an artist. I respect that. It’s the reason why, when I was trying to come up with a video to do, I wanted something that had some aspect of the artist scene in New York. And I thought obviously I should ask him. It wasn’t until after the video, where I’d said “Hey Matt, would you like to do this? I’ll pay you some money. It’ll be a really simple idea.” Afterward, I was talking with my manager and he told me he has millions of hits on YouTube. We just knew each other from open mic. He’s a great guy.
HTN: Any news stuff? Any musical news?
Andy: June 23rd, I’m supposed to release a double CD (both records). And there was another track I recorded in between the records that will be included on that. Combined with that, I’m releasing a visual album, which will be the first visually written, performed and directed visual album ever. It’s the rest of the music videos for the rest of the record. I don’t have huge expectations. I’m not a trained director. But I’m gonna send it out to some film festivals and if it appears anywhere, I can say “10 Hymns from American Gothic” played at “X”. I can put film and music press alongside each other (PBT??). Visual albums will be coming out the wazoo in the next few years.
HTN: So does that mean each song has it’s own video?
Andy: You could do it that way. I think plausibly another way is if you come up with a film that spans the record and has to interact with the music in some meaningful way. I think that’s an important part of it. …I think I’ve created something that will be unique. It’ll be something that expresses a lot of thoughts that I have, and that’s all that it needs to be.