By Lawrence Ferber
Last year, St. Lenox, aka Andrew Choi, arrived on the intelligent pop-culture radar, including the websites of CMJ and VICE, with a song and video titled “Bitter Pill.” This unambiguously queer video is remarkable for its delicate and catchy electronics-driven melody, powerful and bluesy vocals, and poetic lyrics that reflect on a relationship with someone who was “a harsh and bitter pill to swallow.”
An Ohioan turned New Yorker, Choi muses that “you can’t turn a corner without running into gayness these days.” His debut full-length album, 10 Songs about Memory and Hope, entails an electronica-soaked assemblage of tales about growing up in the Midwest, the ’90s, and, of course, relationships. NPR also took notice of the album, exalting another breakup-themed song and video, “Just Friends.”
“I think, broadly, it is indie pop,” Choi replies when asked to categorize his musical output. (His stage name, by the way, isn’t a reference to any saint you’d find in the Bible: it’s a mash-up culled from the Harlem subway stop “148 St.–Lenox Terminal.” Yes, that makes him Street Lenox.)
“I’m sure you remember ‘alternative’ in the ’90s used to be interesting,” he continues. “Like Nirvana, Tori Amos. Some people will say, in ways, it’s folk music, because I tell a lot of stories that have a narrative to them. But I think in the end what I am is a singer-songwriter. Traditionally, they play with guitars, but what I do is write discreet compositions with electronics.”
It wasn’t always that way. Choi actually got his start in music during his youth as a Julliard-trained, award-winning violinist. Was his schooling at all like the movie Whiplash? “I had strict teachers,” he recalls. “In the Julliard system, many of the students are teens and younger, and they encourage you to practice six hours or more a day! I didn’t do that. A lot of kids that age get tendonitis because they’re practicing so much.”
While he was weaned on classical composers, by his teens he had made a switch to Georgia’s alternative pop/rock gods, R.E.M. These days, Choi’s songwriting is informed by both classical and “alternative” bands and musicians, from Lou Reed to Red Hot Chili Peppers. In fact, he says the lyrics for the song “I Still Dream of the ’90s” are a riff on the latter band’s style. “The Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis has an interesting way of half-rapping and telling short narratives in each verse,” Choi notes, “so this song is a whole lot of short narratives from the ’90s that tell you a larger story about what was happening back then in the Midwest.” (When composing lyrics, which he mostly sings in an almost freestyle manner, he weaves them in and around cushy beds of melody and percussion.)
Choi admits to drawing heavily from autobiography and his years in the Midwest, when he gave up music for a spell to pursue degrees in philosophy at Princeton and in Ohio. The songs “Bitter Pill” and “Just Friends,” for example, are both about a specific person he was involved with while earning a PhD in philosophy at Ohio State. (He almost attended UT at Austin, he notes). “We had been friends and kind of in a relationship for a while, but we could never really make it work,” he says. “The idea was I would find a job as professor somewhere, but we knew the chances of getting that job in Columbus would not happen and I would need to move. It was a weird relationship, because you enjoy spending time with someone but also know it can’t go anywhere in the end. It’s a weird time for me.”
While Choi’s sexuality has been a non-issue career-wise, he does admit to having experienced some racism over the years—and regularly addresses issues of racism, classism, homophobia, and other social-political topics on his Facebook page. A Korean-American, he also acknowledges the lack of Asian faces in North American pop-rock bands (LGBT-friendly Korean-American solo artist Jhameel is well worth a listen on iTunes or YouTube, by the way).
“Some of the reason behind this lack is that my generation’s Asian parents really wanted their kids to be financially successful,” Choi opines, “because many came to the U.S.A. and had to work hard to get here. My parents, both born in South Korea, tell me stories about how they had to scrape by. My mom worked at a Red Lobster, and their kid is gonna join a band? No! That’s not what happens, and a lot of immigrants come here and are aware of discrimination [against Asians].”
Fortunately, Choi seems to have been embraced by music tastemakers and bloggers (his album was released by the Ohio label Anyway Records), and between churning out tunes, he works by day as a lawyer (he passed the bar in 2014) so he is able to financially support creating his own music on a completely independent basis.
Asked if he would consider auditioning for a TV singing show like The Voice (as some already-established indie artists have done) to truly blow up on the national stage, Choi replies, “I don’t see myself doing that, partly because I think I’m a better songwriter than a singer. And I don’t think I would go very far because I’m too weird a person. I would say snide, condescending things. If I’m talking to people in real life, I can be really friendly, but they’re not going to put me on a magazine cover, like ‘this is next year’s teen heartthrob.’ I’m okay with that. I get to express things about my life history in my music, and take things that are interesting and express these to other people and give something new and meaningful to them. I could never do something like that on The Voice. I would just sing some covers!”
Check him out at https://www.facebook.com/st.lenox.
Freelance contributor Lawrence Ferber is co-writer of the award-winning 2010 gay rom-com Bear City and author of its 2013 novelization.