In the Greenwich Village area of Manhattan, on East 13th Street, there’s a place called Karaoke Cave. Jimmy Fallon makes an occasional appearance, and Katie Couric held her bachelorette party there. Andy Choi comes in frequently, every other night sometimes, but not for the crowds. He hopes it’s empty.
Most people go to karaoke bars and envision themselves singing the hits to a throng of fans. Not Choi. He wants to be alone so he can deliver tunes at full-throated volume, to prep his vocal cords. Others fantasize about life as a pop singer on that stage; he goes there to prepare for it.
His story starts in Ames, Iowa, where Choi excelled at the violin from a young age before studying at the acclaimed Cincinnati Conservatory of Music when he was in seventh and eighth grades. He was a first-prize winner for the violin at the American String Teacher’s Association National Solo Competition in 1996 and served as the concertmaster of the World Youth Symphony Orchestra at the Interlochen Music Festival. He trained at Juilliard on the weekends in high school, flying back and forth from Ames to New York City.
And then he quit.
He became disillusioned with classical music as he prepared to shift toward college and a professional career. He felt the form was dying, so he attended Princeton and got a degree in philosophy instead. After Princeton, he moved to Columbus to seek his doctorate in philosophy at The Ohio State University.
As part of his graduate work, he had to deliver papers at academic conferences, which was difficult because public speaking caused him anxiety. One such presentation in Florida went particularly poorly, and during a stop in Atlanta on the way home, he came across a karaoke bar. He decided to face his fear head on. He got on stage and sang Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” He made it through. He wasn’t terrible.
“Once you get past that—where you are just okay with looking like an idiot in front of other people—once you get rid of that, you can really do anything up on stage,” Choi said. “It’s really sort of freeing and wonderful.”
When he returned to Columbus, he began going to karaoke nights all around town—the more deserted, the better. He learned songs by the dozens, eventually mastering more than 500. He didn’t approach karaoke like most people, like a chance for pop star imitation; he drew from his classical roots and used it as a chance to showcase his unconventional personal take on the songbook.
“All of the music already exists,” he said. “Your job is really to interpret it, and through the act of interpretation you are putting yourself into the music by bending or sort of twisting the music the way that it reflects who you are.”
He was particularly drawn to jazz for its improvisational approach to the catalogue of standards. Choi tried to form a piano trio, but it never came together. He began seeking open mics to hone his newfound passion, starting with Andyman’s Treehouse (now The Tree Bar). He used a software program called FruityLoops to create rearranged adaptations of other musicians’ songs and recorded them to a Sony MiniDisc player, which he plugged directly into the bar’s audio system. Then he sang over his revised backing tracks.
Treehouse regulars and open mic musicians responded well to Choi’s curious twist on the format and encouraged him to work on his songwriting skills. He began building his own unique repertoire of soulful indie pop while he finished his doctorate in philosophy from OSU.
After graduation he changed course again—leaving the Midwest for life as a law school student at NYU.
Choi attended NYU for three and a half years. He continued composing songs on his computer, dubbing his musical project “St. Lenox.” As he struggled with ambivalent feelings about leaving Ohio and moving to New York City, his recent relocation and recollections of his Midwestern youth emerged as common themes in his songwriting. He recorded a five-track EP about the transitional phase he was going through and sent it to Bela Koe-Krompecher from Anyway Records in Columbus. Koe-Krompecher liked it and suggested recording more songs for a full release, which eventually became St. Lenox’s first record, 10 Songs about Memory and Hope, released in January. The music sounds ultramodern yet familiar, like the spot on the radio dial between two stations where genres intersect through the static.
One item appears to be conspicuously absent from the album: violin. Perhaps a sample of it is buried somewhere, but none of the instrument itself. It’s an unexpected choice for a former phenom, akin to Adele putting out an instrumental mixtape. It shows ample confidence in the distinctive texture of his vocals, and especially, a willingness to succeed or fail based on his talent as a songwriter.
For now, he’s still promoting the first album by scheduling shows when he can, which became more challenging about six months ago. That’s when he graduated from NYU and became a fulltime lawyer.
I called him on a Monday night, 9 p.m., and he answered in the foyer of the Manhattan law firm where he works. He’s a lawyer by day, and also by night, and he’s a pop singer somewhere in the stolen moments in between.
Lately he’s taken to arriving to his shows in the same suit he wears to work, a gimmick inspired by people telling him he should dress up for the stage. He confessed that he has no idea what the costume of a singer should be—a funny hat perhaps? It’s also a statement: he never stops being either the singer or the lawyer. Even the name St. Lenox is a bastardized version of a subway sign (148th St. – Lenox Terminal) at a stop where he used to wake up on the train during his endless and indistinguishable days and nights as a law school student. Pretending he isn’t one of those two identities doesn’t make him more of the other, and if he begins dressing otherwise doesn’t it become more artifice than art?
“Once you get past that—where you are just okay with looking like an idiot in front of other people—once you get rid of that, you can really do anything up on stage.”
And so he spends most of his time working in Manhattan, and he composes new songs when he can, and then he goes from the law firm to his second job at karaoke bars to prepare for upcoming live shows. During the week leading up to the gig, he heads there as often as every other night to warm up. He belts at the Karaoke Cave, just all belting, aiming his tremulous, powerful voice toward the back of the room.
At the beginning of May, he released the entire instrumental version of 10 Songs about Memory and Hope to the public for free. He encouraged people to use its tracks for remixes and bring them to open mics on an MP3 player for their own performances. He doesn’t want to evangelize, but he believes in open mics and the sacred art of karaoke, and their cultural value as forms of expression.
Maybe someday a fan will reinterpret his instrumental album in a similar fashion to how he began. That fan may stumble into Karaoke Cave on a star-crossed night—and there will be St. Lenox, singing R.E.M. or Counting Crows, but not sounding at all like Michael Stipe or Adam Duritz, and not even trying to. He’ll perform like only St. Lenox can. Maybe that fan will get on stage after him and sing one of St. Lenox’s songs. And hopefully it will no longer sound anything like his own.
All the music already exists, it’s only waiting for a new voice.