Last fall, Ben Donnelly’s review of Ten Songs About Memory and Hope, the first album from St. Lenox, immediately got my attention. The group, headed by Andy Choi, makes pop music that’s both uncannily familiar and impressively skewed; also, as John Darnielle has noted, Choi is a hell of a lyricist. With the album out this week on vinyl from Anyway Records, I checked in with Choi via email to learn about the origins of St. Lenox, his approach to lyrics and pop traditions, and the group’s roots in karaoke and public speaking.
Throughout Ten Songs About Memory and Hope, you make a number of bold and archetypal declarations: “Give me some of that old time religion,” “I still dream of the 90s.” How much of that is a genuine sentiment, and how much of it is acknowledgement of those archetypes?
Hehe. Well, before I answer that, let me say that I’m not really a trained writer, and I haven’t studied literature or anything like that really. You know, aside from high school. So I’ll just sort of speak from where I’m coming from, and I guess just we can go from there.
I guess if by genuine sentiment you mean that I have roughly the same feelings as the original speakers of those phrases, I guess probably not. Usually when I invoke a popular concept, it’s to repurpose it in some other context and give it a kind of new life. But I guess in order to do that you have to have some kind of understanding of what the original was about. I want to express a genuine sentiment, but I don’t want to express the original sentiment. But i think the original is useful in expressing the new sentiment genuinely, and to do that requires understanding it on some level or other, if that makes sense. And both of those are different from merely mentioning or citing something or imitating it.
So, like “That Old Time Religion” was repurposing the refrain of the song through a statement a friend had made to me, suggesting that religious experience and musical inspiration were one and the same thing. So, i guess the song is from the perspective of someone who has a kind of musical/religious synesthesia, and the lyrics are kind of talk of divine and musical inspiration mixed together. “I Still Dream of the ’90s” was, for me, about putting the ’90s in a more true-to-life context than what you get through the commercialized “aw-shucks” nostalgia filter that everything gets put through these days. When people talk about the ’90s these days, you’d think everyone was wearing neon and watching Blossom non-stop. Sure, it was those things too. But there was a lot of political and social upheaval back then, and it framed things in a way that’s hard to describe. Like I didn’t know what was going on with the cold war at the time, but there was like a real palpable feeling to it ending. (Or at least this is what I remember as a child). Anyway. Yes. Repurposing archetypes. I mean, really that’s what you have to do right? Because you’re a different person, for it to be genuine you’d have to repurpose it?
What first prompted you to start making music as St. Lenox?
I was having trouble giving speeches in public, which is something I had to do as a grad student in philosophy going to speak at philosophy conferences. So I started going to karaoke to try and cure that, and given my background, I just started picking up songs pretty easily. I still have a library of about 500 songs that I can do at karaoke in a spreadsheet on my phone. Anyway, from there I started picking up jazz standards in the karaoke books, and then started going to jazz jam sessions to sing standards. For a while I wanted to be a jazz singer and tried a bit to get my own piano trio, but it never really worked out. So I started going to open-mics. I would write the backing tracks to jazz standards with chord charts from my Real Books and some shitty software, and put them onto an mp3 player, and go to open mic and sing the standards that way. The first song I sung at open mic was “Autumn In New York”, at the Treebar (then, The Treehouse) in Columbus, OH. Of course, everyone else was writing their own stuff. I didn’t want to learn how to play guitar, so I just started writing songs with software. Then I’d just show up, put the mp3 player on and sing. I didn’t really know what i was doing back then, but it felt good, and I loved hanging out with the people there, and that was enough.
Do you find yourself drawing on your background in classical music when you write these songs, or do you see St. Lenox as coming form an entirely different place?
Let me say that my classical music education gave me a lot of tools in terms of being able to listen to something and see what makes it tick. Once you learn the basics of music theory, you start to see how things are similar and different. That gives you a kind of power, because if you lack that ability, you can end up in a rut. People get in creative ruts because they feel like they can’t do anything new. But if you can see what you’re doing and understand why its all the same, and how other people are doing it differently, then you can do something different. So, analysis is a kind of precursor to creative power, and classical music has helped me that way.
Aside from that, I get inspiration from classical melody lines and chord progressions at times. You look at classical music from a chord and melody perspective, it’s just pound for pound more diverse than modern indie, so it’s worth drawing on when you can. And classical music has a greater appreciation for how chord changes present different emotional contexts that allow you to write different songs. If you’ve got a limited chord and melody set that you write with, it limits the topics you can convincingly cover. There are songs that never would have come out of me, if I hadn’t written a particular set of chords first. The chords evoke emotional contexts which bring back memories or stories that I might have hidden away and forgotten. Those are more interesting stores I think.
That said, I guess I’m a lyricist too, so that’s got to come from a different place. lol. You know where the St. Lenox name comes from – I was sitting on the subway and misread the station name “148th St. – Lenox Terminal.” For me at least, the name has to do with finding meaning in ordinary mundane things. I think modern society makes people deeply unhappy with themselves, and it makes people hate the ordinary things around them. I can’t fix society. But I can write a song about ordinary things and people, and if I do a good job, maybe I can reveal how ordinary things are meaningful and important and good. I think that’s where I come from lyrically.
There’s a lyrical nod to the Midwest in “To Be Young Again.” How important is it–and, to a larger extent, geography–as an influence on the songs that you write?
Well, at the time I was writing some of the songs on the album, I was in the process of moving from Ohio to New York. I think a lot of the Midwest references were kind of an expression of pre-emptive homesickness. In “To Be Young Again”, the reference was more to illustrate some of the irony of growing older. I’m speaking proudly now of a place, that at the time I wanted to leave. But the song is also I guess about addressing my own moral failings. I was writing the song around the time that Occupy Wall St. was starting to get big, and I never actually participated in any of it. I was inclined to think of protest as a sort of young man’s game, but maybe I could be a part of it if I could tap into some of that energy again. I guess that’s what had gotten me to think about my teenage years in Iowa. If that makes sense.
Sorry, to answer your question. The thing is, I couldn’t really tell that story or express how I felt without talking about my own years growing up in Iowa. I think so many songwriters have the instinct to strip out that detail because they are worried about making their work accessible, but I think you have to fight that. For me at least in part, that involves referencing geography. But I mean, I think that’s how a lot of people think. People identify with their surroundings, and sometimes this can be a source of pride, sometimes it can be a chip on their shoulder, sometimes it can be a source of shame. And it frames a lot of how people see themselves and others.
When did you arrive on the album’s title?
Lol. It was originally going to be an EP called 5 Songs About Memory, which consists of those first 5 songs. Bela (of Anyway Records) liked it a lot and suggested making it a full album, so I went out and recorded another 6, with one that got left off for concept reasons. So the first 5 songs look at the phenomenon of memory from a variety of perspectives. The last 5 deal with hope. I think at the time I was still going through a transitional phase with my move to New York, and I was simultaneously barraged with memories of the past, and hope and anticipation for the future. So I guess I wanted to try and recreate the feeling of that.
Just as a related note: In the grand tradition of R.E.M., the vinyl record has sides with names, in this case “Memory” and “Hope”, which is something you wouldn’t know from the digital download.
Do you see the image of the Space Shuttle on the cover as corresponding to both memory and hope?
So, funny story. When I was in elementary school, our class participated in this competition to try and name that space shuttle. (I believe it was the one that replaced the Challenger shuttle, actually). I don’t remember the name our class submitted or what name I came up with. But that’s the shuttle! I saw the picture, and it brought back some of those memories. That said, for me it is a kind of visual depiction of the last track on the album. The album ends with “It’s Better Than That (Genjutsu Kai)”, a kind of preposterously grandiose statement of hope, and I think that photo fits how I feel about that last song.
The single for “That Old Time Religion” first appeared on Bandcamp almost a year ago. Have you been working on writing anything new since completing Ten Songs?
Ah, I already have songs for maybe the next five albums written already. Lol. I’ve been writing music for about 5 years maybe, and at this point have maybe 120 songs that I’ve written? I continue to write at a pretty regular clip. I usually have about a dozen songs that I’m working on, at different stages of completion. It’s nice because I have a big library of songs at my disposal and I can craft an album through a process more like curation. I think it gives you more freedom as a songwriter too, because you don’t feel any pressure to write music for a particular album. You just write about whatever, and then go back through the library to look for patterns. So I have them grouped into rough themes more or less. Ten Songs About Memory and Hope is just the first grouping to be put out. I’ve always thought it was strange that bands would seemingly like put out the first 5 songs they wrote. I don’t get that. I think i’m going to continue using the “Ten Songs About” format for naming albums in the future. I think people need to write full-on concept albums more often, and I’m happy to state proudly that that’s what I’m aiming for in the title. Right now, it’s looking like the next album, which I’ll try and record soon is called Ten Songs About Domestic and International Politics. I would like to have it released by around this time next year.
Another Easter egg related to this, lol. If you get the vinyl copy, it comes with a lyric sheet, which contains the original numbering system for the songs. The 120 songs referenced each have a number based on when I wrote it, so you’ll know how early or late in my career I’ve written the song. This one seems to have stuff from all over, though I don’t have the numbering system in front of me right now.