I found out about St. Lenox through Chris. Korean Indie had put a spotlight on him and his music around the time he was releasing his second album, “Ten Songs About Memory And Hope.” When I took a listen to his upcoming album I was slammed in the face by the sheer power of jazz-inflected vocals speaking the language of folk. St. Lenox sings in earnest of his lived experiences, which is something I always personally respect and appreciate in musicians. His upbringing in the midwest as a Korean American, his life as an attorney in New York, and everything in between that spans from training to be a concert violinist at Juilliard to a Ph.D in philosophy, lends to a uniquely rich perspective to tell stories from. His next album, “Ten Fables Of Young Ambition And Passionate Love,” will be out this Friday, September 28.
It’s been a little over 4 years since we last spoke with you. You were finishing up with law school back then, what have you been up to since?
I’ve since graduated and am working as an associate at a big law firm in midtown Manhattan. I released a second record in 2016, which focused on Korean-American perspectives. It got a fair bit of praise from a number of outlets, including Stereogum and Salon, and a mention in Time Magazine. I had a flirtation with a notable label, which will remain unnamed. Since then, I’ve continued my day job and worked on the follow-up to that record, which is this new record “Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love.”
You’ve been all over the place leading up to your current life (Julliard, Ph.D., law school…). Was there an urge to continue to make music in spite of (or perhaps because of) changes in your life? What do you think motivates your creative drive?
Ah, I mean, I have at least three albums of additional material waiting in the wings. And by the time I’m putting out the next album, I’ll have another album of material I’m sure. I think songwriting is a great form of self-expression and I think there’s a need to have Asian-American musicians putting work out there, because it’s disruptive to American thought and American biases.
Separately, I have my own creative aspirations to put out a catalog of music that serves as a diary of contemporary American life. I think it’s important to have artists write about what’s going on around them – not just politically, but even just day to day things – because it’s a kind of bookmark that people can look back on and remember and learn from. And I mean, what a time to be alive, right? I have a unique set of musical skills to try and bring these stories to life, so it makes sense to do what I can when I have the time.
So I mean, I think it would be a waste of my time to do that indie-investment-band-business-model thing that’s so popular these days and write passably pleasant music and worry about production and branding, wear costumes pretending I’m from the 1900s Midwest and sweat over my social media persona. I hear what’s going on in indie music and it’s a lot of bands worried about maximizing streaming royalties by releasing passable regular material. If I’m going to do it, I need to have fairly well-defined artistic goals. If I didn’t have that, it would be a better use of my time to just be an attorney.
Tell me more about why you decided to make this album and how it actually came to be (when did you even find the time to write and record the songs?).
I’m turning 39 the day after the album release. I wanted to write a kind of sendoff to myself for my last year before I turn 40. A kind of tribute to young living. I should admit that I generally think of a lot of indie music as being sort of YA or young-adult literature, and sometimes I use it as a kind of derogatory term, because it leans heavily on these basic drives – young ambition and passionate love. And I think that a lot of that music just kinda talks down to young people. But maybe it doesn’t have to. So these are songs that pass through a lot of the same themes, but maybe provide something less condescending.
What are the biggest themes you write about with your music? Has that changed for this album?
The themes are probably whatever is going on in my life. In some ways, I don’t think it’s good to write with a preconceived idea of what the themes are going to be. Life just sort of happens to you, and you have little control over what those themes end up being, right? So the best I can do is just keep writing and writing and writing, and after the fact I can look back at the collection and start to organize confessions and anxieties, and see where the patterns are. So in that sense, nothing has changed for this album, at least procedurally. Maybe now I’m looking back and seeing patterns relating to youthful living because I’m getting older – and that explains why this album is coming out.
There are different, intersecting identities I can sense in your music. What has it been like to be you? What are some of the factors that you think shaped the themes you focus on with your music?
What has it been like to be me? Oooh, can I tell you it’s pretty tough being me. I mean, of course in some sense I’m doing fine. I have a great job. I get to do something creative. But in another sense, it’s tough being me. Everyone I know hates everyone else I know. The attorneys and the musicians. The New Yorkers and the Midwesterners. The Koreans and the gays. The Gen-Xers and the Millenials. White people and people of color. The academics and the attorneys. The social justice folks and the attorneys. The conservatives and the attorneys. I’m just saying I get stuck in the middle of everything. Maybe that’s why I have to make music.
What would you like listeners to take away from this album?
I want them to approach it like it’s something that takes time to understand, like it’s something that will reveal new information on repeated listening. I want them to get the lyric sheet out and read it, and think about where I’m coming from. I want them to think about the music and the melody lines and the chords and think about how it relates to what’s being said. Frankly, I want them to look at some of the videos, and think about how the narratives in the video relate to the songs. There’s a lot to piece through and think through, and I don’t think I can give the take away to the reader just by summarizing it. But as a kind of prefatory comment, I think the listener should know that they’re not going to get it immediately.
Do you have a favorite song on this album, or one that means especially much to you?
Maybe “First Date”. I don’t think from an artistic perspective it’s necessarily the best song. But I think it best captures for me the feeling of being hopeful about love.
What’s next for you now? Do you plan to visit Korea sometime? Are you planning a next album?
It may be some time before I visit Korea again. I’m not planning on it, but I’m also not not planning on it. I just have a lot of projects going on, but I’m sure I’ll go back. The next album, I already know a number of songs that will be on it. I think it’s going to be titled “Ten Prayers for the Living and the Dead.” It’s about death and religion.
Do you have any last words for readers of Korean Indie?
I think I’d just say to keep listening to Korean indie music, in whatever shape or form, and keep sharing it. Because I think people are starting to get it.