Ten Hymns from My American Gothic
US: 21 Oct 2016
UK: 21 Oct 2016
Coming off a presidential election cycle as unprecedented and volatile as the one that America faced in 2016 couldn’t have been easy for anyone expecting the other side to come out on top. For Andrew Choi, the man behind St. Lenox, it was a whole other level of heart-wrenching: having released Ten Hymns from My American Gothic, his second album, just before the election in part as a celebration of the American spirit of community and goodwill and in part as a gift to his father for his 70th birthday, he had to compose the visual album accompanying it while dealing with the political fallout of that pivotal event. The result is a truly remarkable collection of memories, autobiographical vignettes and short musings that, combined with Choi’s music, provide a rich tapestry of what it means to be an American in these trying times.
“I wanted the visual album to be a departure from an audio album, partly because at that point, when the record was done, there was a lot of political stuff going on and I really wanted to use it as a vehicle for talking about that,” notes Choi. “Now in some ways, a lot of the videos ended up being interesting comparisons using my relationship with my family as a mechanism for talking about American political life. For me making the record itself was a kind of catharsis that I really needed.”
Just like his music, Choi’s visual album is made with the indie can-do gusto of someone who knows they have no boundaries. Lo-fi footage superposed with simple narrative text that captivates and engages showcases Choi’s adherence to the DIY spirit of all great artist debutantes. For most of the videos on this album, his filmmaking ethos comes down to recording as much footage as he can in his daily life and figuring out how to make it all come together in the editing booth.
“In a lot of ways it’s just much easier for me to just talk about what’s going on in my life,” he continues, “and I think that even before the election when I was working on the first videos there was a lot of political stuff going on and it felt important to just document things as they were happening as opposed to maybe doing something several years from now, reflecting on everything and putting it into some narrative structure with actors and all. It seemed more important to just delve into the moment.”
Even though the visual elements of his videos are tinged with an amateur’s lack of polish, Choi’s storytelling skills always shine through. The video “Conspiracy Theories” is a great example of this, Choi going on to say that “The story itself was just fantastically topical on so many different levels because it talks about trans issues, LGBT issues in general, gun issues, and then Orlando, and then the filming that day, when we decided to go to the gun range, it was on the day of another shooting in Louisiana. I guess this was just one of those other things when I hadn’t really planned on it having all these different elements, like a lot of it initially was just two people that are broadly LGBT going to a gun range to shoot guns.
“You know, that’s sort of just an interesting intersection of gun rights and LGBT issues after Orlando,” he continues. “It’s had a lot of angles that came out of it, but I guess when I was thinking the idea up and when I was asking Mimi to come with me to the range, I guess I was just trying to talk about contemporary political issues, that it just jumped out as being something that would make sense to film.”
Having done only a few short videos before setting off to make an entire visual companion to his latest album, Choi admits that it’s an art he’s still getting used to: “This was sort of a senior art project for me, I’m still learning a lot about the medium. And you know, I do have broadly good artistic skills, so I’m not afraid to just attack something and put something together.”
Talking about one of his first entries into the medium, the music video for “Bitter Pill”, a song off his 2014 debut Ten Songs About Memory and Hope, he notes how “That was an interesting first foray into thinking about video because the manager and other people were saying ‘Hey you should release some video or at least try to publicize your record.’ So I went and did that and it was a great experience since I got to talk to a director and think about how to put things together. This time I really wanted to do everything on my own.”
When asked about directorial inspirations, Choi names Michael Moore and Yasujiro Ozu, but admits that “These are people who are such masters that it’s hard for me to even say that I’m influenced by them. I don’t think it shows up in my work at all, maybe in some sort of abstract way, but I guess it’s hard for me to translate what I admire in other directors into my own work.”
Like Choi’s music, the videos get better the more times you experience them: they aren’t meant to be simply discarded after being watched as if they were just flashy packaging for the songs themselves. In most cases, Choi pairs the stories he tells in his songs with completely different narratives he explores in their videos, a feature that requires multiple viewings to unravel and take in fully.
“I think the way people should approach them is that they should first be familiar with the son,” he tells us. “It’s more like a combined work in the sense that there is usually a separate narrative that the lyrics have in contrast to the video. But in the end, the reason the videos got paired with a particular song, was that there was always some common theme in both of them. And that is not something you’ll get in just one viewing, especially if you’re not familiar at all with the work. I guess that’s not a conventional way to approach music videos.
“I suppose that in a lot of ways a music video is supposed to be a promotional piece that really, for lack of a better term, just supports the oomph of the songs,” he continues. “And I don’t knock that approach to a music video, but I’m just trying to figure out what I think music videos can do. And the way I present them they’re all like in-one-go comparative literature pieces since you have the song, you have the video itself, and you have to think about what the relationship between them is.”
Choi’s head-first, knuckles-bared approach to diving into an artistic medium he has never had any experience in makes perfect sense if you know about his high-achieving maverick life. The Juilliard-trained, PhD-in-Kantian-Philosophy-holding Choi now works as a NY attorney after a grueling stint at law school. According to his own origin story, he got the name St. Lenox from a graffiti on the inside of a NY subway carriage he saw one time as he was coming back home from work. His confidence and ability to push through adversity and tough circumstances to get where he wants to be is part of what he wants to celebrate about the American spirit.
“Thurgood Marshall”, Choi’s four-minute take on law school. is where the text-over-video approach he takes in most of the videos on the visual album yields the most interesting results. “I wanted to communicate the frenetic nature of going to law school and so the video is about you getting the feeling of just being overwhelmed by a lot of stories that have a lot of stuff going on. I think you need to represent this anxiety-inducing tension that ends up being law school.
“A lot of people are very idealistic when they go into law school—I myself intended on becoming a public defender when I started, but I didn’t end up doing that,” he notes. “There’s a lot of back-and-forth between ambition and compromises that people go through when they go in. A lot of people going to law school want to change the world, a lot of them are intending to go into politics at some point, especially in NYU. So you end up with so many people with things they ideally want to do and then they all have to make compromises on the way. There are ethical and moral concerns they go through and it’s a very difficult time for everybody, so it’s that combination of despair and hope at the same time that I wanted to convey through the video.”
As someone who has dipped into the complexities of classical music, Choi is not out there to make the same old ‘relatable’ pop. His songs ooze with his personality—he sticks with sincerity and is not afraid to talk about tiny details that might not make sense to someone who doesn’t know him. With enough listenings, however, you start to feel like you do.
“I think it’s important to focus on the details, which I think a lot of songwriters don’t do much of,” he begins. “There’s this songwriter tendency to decide that the way to appeal to other people is to find some general statement—if it’s more general then more people will be able to identify with that song, and I think that’s part of the reason people like generic love songs. I guess I want to give listeners the benefit of the doubt—people listen to music and are able to enjoy it because they possess skills for empathy.
“If you want to make something that’s realistic, that involves, amongst other things, bringing all the details in. The hope is that if you provide enough realism, then the listener will be able to enter that world and be able to identify with whatever you’re talking about, and I think that’s really the way to communicate with people through music. That’s kind of difficult because as soon as you make some specific joke or anecdote in a song, a lot of songwriters get a tinge of ‘Oh, are people going to know about that and are people going to turn away thinking what you put there was a little strange?’”
Choi admits that there’s a certain valley to cross when communicating tough stories through pop music. “And it’s hard, you know? Take ‘People From Other Cultures’, which talks about my parents having war trauma from the Korean War, which I’m trying to turn into a pop song. Like I get the idea that people might look at that and think that’s sort of weird, but I believe people can look at the song, they can process it, and with the power of empathy, they can understand where I’m coming from and hopefully get something very meaningful from that. I just don’t like this theory of generality for lack of a better word, which people employ when they write because I think it ends up dumbing music down and it doesn’t explore everything music is capable of and I really want to explore that.”
Choi’s unwillingness to give his listeners an easily digestible product, his desire for his audience to engage with his material in detail and through multiple close listenings puts him in a unique position to make political music. Asking about why he didn’t include his song “21st Century Post-Liberal Blues” into the visual album elicits a musing about the type of political music he wants to make.
“What I don’t like about a lot of political music is that I think it can be too straightforwardly proselytizing,” he states. “I know that after the election there have been a whole bunch of songs that people have written, that are basically restatements of campaign cheers, stuff like ‘Trump sucks’ in song form. I appreciate what that does, I think it has a function, but I don’t want do that. I do like the song [‘21st Post-Liberal Blues’], and I don’t think it engages in the same sort of shouting of ‘Trump sucks,’ but I do think that it’s more in that direction. I wanted to express the general despair that I think a lot of people have in an age where they have so many different mediums and formats telling them how terrible the world is with that song.
“I’m not saying that that’s a bad thing,” he continues. “I think it’s a good thing that that’s coming out, but at the same time a lot of people I talk to feel very frustrated because now they have these many ways showing them how the world is going wrong, that they don’t really know exactly how to do anything about. It’s a very unique kind of anxiety that we have now than in any other time in history. So really the song was just giving life to that feeling so that it might give them some way to move on and maybe go do something else. But I do think that the song, and the video even more so, were a bit more on the nose than what ended up being on Ten Hymns from My American Gothic. It just ended up being left over on the cutting floor, as it were.”
Having started as St. Lenox in open-mic nights as a way to become more confident when standing in front of an audience, Choi now sees his music as much more than an exercise in self-confidence: “I felt motivated to include the political aspect in my music because I haven’t been able to do that outright in my main career. You know, I still do pro bono work and whatnot, but in many ways, I feel bad about not being able to do public interest work.
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“Also, when you’re doing music you have to express how you’re feeling and in a year that’s had so much going on, it’s really difficult to not really say something about that. In this case, I already had a group of songs that were already related to these concepts of Americanism and my relationship to my parents, so it felt necessary to do something that was politically oriented. It’s difficult to figure out exactly how to… You know, it’s not a public service in just the same as being a public interest lawyer.”
One of the major themes of Ten Hymns from My American Gothic is Choi’s relationship to his parents—North Korean natives who fled south during the Korean war, crossing the Pacific shortly after and finally settling down in Ohio. The album was in part written as a gift to his dad in celebration of his 70th birthday. “In a song like ‘What I Think About When You Say South Korea’, the song is all about me trying to go back and uncover some history about my parents, and in particular, my dad, so I think that, at least in the narrative of the song, it may bring me some kind of meaning in terms of understanding my dad better.”
His relationship with his dad is intertwined with the broader way he approaches authority, a theme explored in the video for “Nixon”, which recounts a rather horrible experience Choi had with members of the clergy during the Women’s Rights March in NY after Trump’s Inauguration.
“For me, ‘Nixon’ signifies a different approach to authority,” he starts. “So ‘Nixon’ is about me going back and looking at this former president of the United States. I’d written that song shortly after the movie Frost/Nixon had come out. After watching it I didn’t come to love Nixon as a person, but I think I had made somewhat of a too strong judgment of him. The song is really about me rethinking the political judgments I’d made in the past. So with the music video, that was also about rethinking an approach to authority, in this case, it was my relationship to god and my dad. While I became less judgmental of Nixon, I became more judgmental about god because of what these priests were doing.”
The one truly funny video in the visual album, which shows Choi trying to busk in a NY, being incessantly interrupted by a scantily dressed whacko is paired with what at first sounds like a heart-breaking love song. Hearing Choi describe its inception makes everything much clearer: “I always give the titles of the videos retroactively and the title of this video was ‘Stories I Should Tell My Mother’. I was thinking about it in the context of two people who aren’t talking as much as they used to or as much as they promised to. The song was originally written for a friend, but I felt the context of the record made sense as a song about my relationship with my parents. The way I had conceived of it was that I wanted to send my mom something like a postcard, because the song is full of these interesting anecdotes that happened in the protagonist’s life that he wants to tell the other person and I guess I wanted this to be another one of those anecdotes that I wanted to tell my mother at some point.
“And a lot of it I didn’t plan to happen,” he continues. “You kind of take what’s happening and work with what you have. Matthew Silver, he’s this great performance artist who appears in the video with me, at the moment the “chicken dance line” comes out, he had this rubber chicken, and he did this gesture towards the camera and I was like ‘Oh my god, that’s so weird it happened.’ I was really happy because with that song I was thinking about humor in the context of video and I think it turned out better than I had thought it would going in.”
Choi’s identity of being a child of Korean immigrants is another key theme he explores in his music, but he seems disappointed in the way the media has portrayed this facet of his creative output. “I think a lot of minority kids or kids of immigrants coming to the United States definitely have difficulty with that in the sense that being different on its own is, for young people, generally not considered an asset,” Choi laments. “I think a lot of children of immigrants and minorities go through a period around high school or college, when they figure this out. I think that I got to a point where I started to appreciate it as an asset. I guess my surprise, in the video, as I was thinking it through, wasn’t just the idea that being a minority or being different itself could be like an asset, but even beyond that.
“I’ve had reviewers who had written about the record talking about it like ‘Choi struggles with his identity and being from someplace else,’ people who think of it as me struggling with my own identity, which is a very strange way they’re presenting me, and this is coming from liberals. I’m surprised that people are still presenting this idea that you are from someplace else and thinking I must have so many issues with my identity as a result, and that it’s such a horrible thing, and this is from modern-day liberals talking about this record. And I understand the idea of minorities having difficulties in a place where they’re different, like I occasionally get people yelling at me on the street, people saying racist remarks, and I get that those are difficulties, but they’re not difficulties that I have with my identity, that’s difficulties other people are creating for me. People confuse the idea that someone goes through some struggle, as a minority in this country, with this idea that their identity is somehow tainted in some way and that they have to cope with it internally. When I was reading a few reviews of the record I was a little off-put by what I perceived as this idea that because I was from someplace else my identity was somehow problematic in some way.”
In the video for “Korea”, the screen is split halfway into a top and a bottom part. Both halves show Choi walking around Koreatown in NY, footage seemingly cut and pasted from the same film reel. This way the video seems to emphasize how people view him as being internally split between his Korean-immigrant and his American identities, while in reality he is perfectly fine and whole inside.
No matter what the latest hate-filled Twitter diatribe POTUS might’ve gone on, no matter how hard things might start to seem, Choi’s music and his videos belie a message of hope. The front cover of Ten Hymns from My American Gothic features him sitting in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, while the back cover of the record shows him shuffling along in front of the shimmering golden façade of the entrance to Trump Tower.
The video “When I Return” shows Choi walking between the two, a journey with which Choi wants to transmit a message of hope: “The way that I envisioned it was that I was walking from a place that’s very negative and terrible to St. Patrick’s Cathedral which to me, barring what happened in the Nixon video, still represents a very hopeful entity in my daily life, in the sense that it’s literally a few blocks away from where I work and I go by it at least a few times a week.
“And regardless of my own religious inclinations, one thing I really do like about religion is that it can be very hopeful, and so I wanted it to be a very hopeful feeling that I was giving people from the back of the record to the front, to this inspirational building. You know, these cathedrals, the way they’re constructed is that their spires point up to the sky as a hopeful gesture towards God. I was really thinking of the context of the election, just being really, really down about it, but I have a lot of hope that in 2020 we can have a change and move things forward again. I just wanted to provide that feeling to people.”
With this visual album finished, Choi is already on his way to his next creative endeavor, asked about his directorial aspirations, he tell us that “I’m going to be trying different approaches in the future. I’m going to move away from documentary-style stuff, partly because I’m definitely going to shoot as many music videos for another record. I’ve already started working on the next record and I want to expand my skillset as a director, which falls amongst other things, maybe having a more cohesive director’s narrative, probably working with actors and really thinking about composed shots and shifting perspectives –- I’m also probably going to be moving away from the split-screen thing as well, I think I’ve played that out for a while. No more running-text, at least not in the exact same way. I really think about this as an opportunity for me to learn about video that I never really had when I was a child, so I really want to try as many different things out as I can”.
Thankfully, the deluge of negativity that seems to be currently gripping the world has not gotten to the heart of Choi’s Ohioan can-do attitude and St. Lenox looks poised to make the best of these trying times.
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