ANDREW CHOI ’02 THOUGHT he’d screwed up his life. So he wrote a song about Richard Nixon.
It was 2010, and he’d just spent seven years in grad school, earning low wages and racking up credit-card debt. He realized he didn’t want to be a philosophy professor after all — and should probably go to law school instead. As he remembers thinking, “I’m going to end up getting a job at some small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere, five hours away from the biggest city, and there will be no gay people and I will die alone and this was a colossal mistake.”
In Choi’s song, Nixon appears to him in a dream: I asked him if he’d take it all back and was it hard being the president of a nation up in arms. / He said with a heavy sigh, “I got caught up in the moment.”
Choi, 42, does not sing about things that people usually sing about. His career does not look like the career singers usually have. But it did turn out OK.
His day job consists of litigation for the likes of construction firms and airlines. Meanwhile, under the name St. Lenox, he has released four albums of songs on religion, death, love, family, and the American experience, which have earned him spots on year-end “best” lists, a showcase at South by Southwest, and fans such as John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, who has called him “a lyricist of the highest order.”
Is there another attorney with a philosophy Ph.D. who has been profiled as a musician in Rolling Stone? Will there ever be?
He explains his unusual combination as the result of hard-won expertise and confidence in some realms, and necessity and failures in others. “I gotta eat,” he says, “and I want to be a happy person.”
CHOI WAS A STAR VIOLINIST IN HIGH SCHOOL, but when he arrived at Princeton, he pretty much stopped playing. “I was just really known as, like, the violin guy in Ames,” he says, referring to the Iowa town where he went to high school. “So I want something else to do after that.”
His parents had emigrated from South Korea — his father became an economics professor at Iowa State University, and his mother took care of him and his two brothers. After a childhood spent in various places around the Midwest, in a family where money was tight, Princeton was a culture shock. “There’s just a lot of wealth at Princeton that I was definitely uncomfortable with,” he says. He remembers going out to dinner and looking for the cheapest thing on the menu, while everyone else at the table was planning a trip to Cancun.
Of course, now he’s an attorney, a New Yorker, which allows him to “humanize” the experience: “I’m more forgiving.”
In his senior year, Choi suffered a mental breakdown. He felt like his mind was separating from his body. He was hyperventilating for several days. He didn’t eat for almost a week.
He’d had episodes like this before, once at music camp. It was a visceral feeling of what death would feel like. And it was connected to his questioning of his religious upbringing. If the afterlife that Christianity promises doesn’t exist, what does that nothingness feel like?
He checked himself into a hospital and requested to speak to a priest, who came to Choi’s bedside and asked if he believed in God. Choi responded that he didn’t know.
It was during this breakdown period that he called his deeply religious parents and told them he was gay. Because, he recalls, “I didn’t think that things could feel any worse.”
Death has frequently occupied his brain — at one point he didn’t fly for nearly two decades. This was after his freshman year of high school, when he commuted every weekend from Iowa to a program at Juilliard, and he thought perhaps he had used up all of his flights that wouldn’t crash.
His existential thoughts were partly what led him to philosophy. He wrote his senior thesis on Immanuel Kant and the golden rule, and his grad school application essay on Kant and sexual desire. His dissertation defended the Kantian view that it’s always rational to act in accordance with your best judgment. Kant is known to many for his strict moral precepts — for example, lying is wrong — but it’s the thinking behind them that Choi appreciated.
“He had created a system about how everything works. I think I felt some safety in that,” he recalls. Kant still informs how he thinks about ethical issues, including racism. Often he feels discussions of racism focus on, say, the offense that’s taken at a boss’s racist comment, while Choi feels what’s even more important is how that comment affects the agency of the worker who overhears it.
In 2008, late in grad school at Ohio State University, he started doing karaoke at bars in Columbus to reduce his anxiety over public speaking. Why not? When he warbled along to songs in the car, he thought he was pretty good.
He taught himself to sing by picking Erykah Badu’s bouncy R&B hit “On and On” to work on his belting and vocal control, or Billie Holiday’s slow, jazzy-bluesy “God Bless This Child” to work on vibrato and arpeggiation. He has logged more than 500 performances on a spreadsheet, where he rates how well he did from one to five stars.
Karaoke led to singing jazz standards at jam sessions; he eventually wanted to join a jazz band. Unlike most singers he was competing with, Choi was an expert in music theory and could write out the chord charts for the musicians — and he felt he could sing better than others who were getting more opportunities.
“I don’t think a lot of musicians would have wanted to work with an Asian person doing jazz singing in Columbus,” he says, adding: “It ends up being coded in certain ways like, ‘Oh, you know, we’re looking for a certain kind of look.’”
So he started to write his own songs, and played the accompaniment on a MiniDisc recorder or MP3 player at open-mic nights, often at the Columbus concert venue Andyman’s Treehouse, which had a tree running through the middle.
One night he met Bela Koe, who lived in town and owns the small indie label Anyway Records. Koe and his family watched Choi perform “Bitter Pill,” about the remnants of a past relationship: Walk into the kitchen and you’ll see a drawing of a man / With hearts for arms and legs stuck to the door of the refrigerator. / You had drawn the picture as a silly little gift for me …
“We were all literally in tears,” Koe says. “It’s such a powerful song.”
Eventually, Choi did indeed decide to go to law school. Besides his concern about the prospect of small-town life, he needed to pay the bills while giving this music thing a shot. So he defended his dissertation, took the LSAT a few weeks later, and got into New York University. “In some ways I didn’t want to become an attorney,” he says, “because that’s what my parents wanted me to do the whole time.”
His fellow grad student, and roommate, Kimberly Palladino ’02, recalls being surprised at the news, coming from the Ph.D. student who would hang out in white T-shirts, jeans, and flip-flops. She recalls thinking, “Andy, you’re going to be a lawyer in New York, really? You know you’re going to have to wear some other shoes.”
TODAY, CHOI LIVES with his husband, Elon, their dog Tummy, and their cats Dorothy and Lucy near the southeast corner of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, in a modern building above a combination Carvel and Cinnabon. His office doubles as a music room — there are two cameras he bought for his music videos, plus microphones, a keyboard, a guitar, and vinyl copies of his albums. One bookcase is full of Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars role-playing games. On pages of a waiter’s notebook — lined up along the wall on a track as in a restaurant kitchen — he keeps track of his pro bono immigration clients, children he’s helping to apply for legal permanent-resident status. Behind the door is his violin, which he plays from time to time.
He’s warm, accommodating, and self-deprecating, often erupting into laughter mid-sentence. “He was kind of beloved by everybody,” says his grad school friend Steven Brown. Philosophers can be critical of each other’s arguments, but “Andy was one of the people who went out of his way to tell people the things they were doing that were good and encouraging.”
As a musician, he goes by the name St. Lenox, adapted from a sign referencing 148 Street — Lenox Terminal station, the last stop on a Manhattan subway line, where he’d occasionally end up during law school after falling asleep. He liked that the name combines something meaningful and spiritual with something mundane. And he worried that if journalists came across an indie musician with an Asian name, they’d delete it. While some Asian female singers have broken out, “Asian American male musicians are almost nonexistent in indie,” he says. Choi once scoured two music outlets over two months and saw that white artists made up 95 percent of the album reviews.
NPR gave Choi’s first album, Ten Songs About Memory and Hope, a shout-out in early 2015, and raves have followed ever since. Ten Songs of Worship and Praise for our Tumultuous Times, which came out in June, was a co-release with the bigger Don Giovanni Records. “It wasn’t a tough decision,” says its founder and owner, Joe Steinhardt, who says the album has already recouped costs for the record label, which was planning to order a second pressing. Choi has made royalties, which is a feat these days. Still, after factoring in his costs, he typically operates at a loss.
Choi does what many would call talk-singing, a vocal style that the culture news site The Ringer recently declared was having a moment. “I just had too many words to say,” he says. It also springs partly from the way he talks, and from hearing prayers in church. A critic for Stereogum called Choi’s voice “one of the most striking instruments in music today.”
A big influence is classical music — when he blocks out the chords of a new song, he’s inspired by the four-part harmonies he studied while playing Bach, Handel, and Haydn. Many people tell him his voice sounds soulful. And, indeed, it was the music of the more emotional Romantic era, works by Brahms and Tchaikovsky, that he liked playing most on the violin. His teacher from Juilliard came to hear him sing at the Lower East Side bar Pianos and said the vibrato in his voice sounded the same as the vibrato that had once come from his instrument.
Before the pandemic, he would work on his songs while commuting to his law firm on the subway, listening to the instrumental portion of a piece while fiddling with lyrics. He’d perform at an open-mic night to see how a song hits an audience, where they laugh.
A few times he’s asked a guitarist to help record his songs, but otherwise it’s just Choi in his apartment, with his instruments, his voice, and the computer. He likes the freedom of solitude. He doesn’t need to leave home. He doesn’t need to coordinate schedules. He can do as many takes as he wants. He doesn’t have to depend on studio musicians who might not be giving it their all. To appease his husband, who teaches fourth grade, he tries not to sing past 10 p.m.
Virtually every song is autobiographical; his second album, Ten Hymns From My American Gothic, feels especially so, exploring his relationships with America, Korea, and his parents. “People from Other Cultures” tells of his mother’s experiences during the Korean War, and how they made her a strong person in the way that he feels he isn’t. You know when she was just a young one / she saw the U.N. soldiers firing back on battlecruisers in the distance? / It makes you feel a little stupid talking back to her.
The album was a 70th-birthday gift for his father. “I think it was a way of talking with him in a way that wasn’t talking with him,” Choi says, laughing. “Just: ‘Here you go!’”
“I don’t agree with my parents on a lot of what they think,” Choi adds, “but we maintain a good relationship.”
The fourth album, from last year, deals with religion head on. Choi grew up going to Lutheran and Methodist churches but drifted away as he entered adulthood. “It takes a little while to realize that like, oh, wait, they don’t like the gays,” he says. He’s a questioning person — but his interest in the questions also helped lead him to philosophy.
Choi wanted listeners to think about religion’s impact on their lives. But he wanted to avoid the trope of “the bitter ex-religious person who’s very snarky and just like, ‘Oh, those religious people, they’re such hypocrites!’” “The Great Blue Heron (Song of Solomon),” for instance, is his way of presenting how a gay relationship can be part of a religious conception of the world: I remember hiking in the Black Hills / with my maps and your sense of direction / walking about amongst God’s creation / just like Adam and Eve in the garden.
On that trip to the Black Hills area in South Dakota, Choi and his husband visited an underground research facility used for experiments involving neutrinos and dark matter. He’d heard about it from Palladino, who’s now an associate professor of physics at Oxford University, and who loves the song that the visit prompted, “Superkamiokande.” “He got a really accurate view of how I think scientists find this beauty in the natural world that is somehow holy,” she says — the way science feels like a higher calling.
Choi says that much like how the spires of cathedrals point upwards to inspire, he was moved by how neutrino detectors are searching for objects billions of light years away.
As he sings: I know that you will find what you were looking for, up in the heavens above us.
CHOI HAS BEEN WORKING on his fifth album, which will likely contain 10 songs about labor, including “Lust for Life,” a song about socialism, inspired partly by his time as a low-paid Ph.D. student.
There are impediments to becoming more popular. He’s been courted by other record labels, but they wanted him to tour — and for a lawyer, it can be hard to get time off. But even if he had enough money and paid off his law school debt, he wouldn’t quit the firm. He has found fulfillment in his pro bono clients and unexpected intellectual stimulation. He enjoys reading judges’ opinions and trying to figure out whether his argument will be consistent with their thinking — it’s similar to what he did as a philosopher. Plus, he says, “I think it’s important to maintain some groundedness, just knowing what people are going through to have a working life.”
There are other ways one career informs the other. Thurgood Marshall, don’t you let me down, ’cause I want to be inspired and mystified by the law, Choi sings, in a song that’s about the Supreme Court justice but also “about people going through law school depressed,” he says.
And “Arthur is at a Shiva” stemmed from a party Choi attended as a summer associate, where a lawyer had just returned from participating in the Jewish mourning ritual: Hey Arthur don’t look away! / No need to hang your head in disarray / You know that it’s just a change, yeah / I’ve heard that it’s just a change. The song moves on to characters who seem strikingly at peace with death.
Choi released a video for the song that shows him not singing or playing his keyboard, but in the kitchen making bread. A subtitle states, “I took up baking as a survivalist skill given the impending anarchist free-for-all that was sure to overtake the nation in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.” Choi chews contentedly.
The subtitles later display the recipe for Choi’s “Great Fractal Challah,” which combines the traditional Jewish loaf with an Asian milk bread, reflecting his own multicultural household. At the end, he muses about having children one day.
Music, religion, death, humor, and family, braided together.
“I’ll tell you some stories and then we can think about it,” he says of his songs. “And if that moves you in a position where you’re less stuck on this one conviction over here, then I think that’s probably a good thing.”
Zachary Pincus-Roth ’02 is a features editor in the Style section at The Washington Post.