St. Lenox is musician based in New York and Ohio. He has an amazing gift for writing lyrics that evoke way more than they directly say. He's a lawyer and a classically trained musician and has been called out for being great by all kinds of legit music people lately. He also has a new record coming out soon.
Your record has “memory” in the title, and a lot of the lyrics are about the visceral weight and pull of the past. The 90s, old relationships, growing up in the Midwest, and then escaping and looking for a way to turn the page are all big storylines in those songs.
Did you set out to write those kinds of songs as a group with a theme, or did it just come together that way and you labeled it after the fact - and do you have a way to describe what you’re writing about that’s more effective than just saying nostalgia?
I put together albums in a somewhat different way than other artists do, in that I have a library of maybe 120 songs or so at this point, which I’ve written at different points over my tenure as a songwriter, reflecting on different points in my life.
With the songs that I’ve written, I’ll just kind of curate amongst the collection instead of trying to “write” an album from scratch, if that makes sense. Many of the songs on the last album (Memory and Hope) were written at a transitional point when I was moving away from Columbus, OH, and moving to New York to go to law school.
It was a difficult point in my life – I was ending a variety of relationships, but also ready to transition to a new place – that general feeling is where the title for the album came from. Anyway – not all of the songs came from that period, but when you curate songs and look at them from a distance, you can start to see various ways in which songs you’ve written at different times relate back.
So, “To be young again” was a song I wrote in New York, reflecting on my time in Iowa, and how I wanted to get out of that place. That’s also a song about transition, and memory – though I’m remembering what it’s like to be young, and singing about a time when I wanted to transition out of Iowa. I like the idea of putting together albums by curation, because I wouldn’t be able to necessarily put together that album of songs if I had set out to more intentionally write an album.
That’s interesting, how do you know when it’s time to put together an album out of that large collection of potential songs?
I think at this point, the answer is “as quickly and as soon as possible.” With all the songs I’ve written, it takes a while to be able to release all of that. (Though, of course, not all of the songs are “release worthy”).
But I’m at a point where I have to release things as quickly as possible, because I’ve been a more consistent writer, and I’m still continuing to write.
Your new single (21st Century Post Liberal Blues) is totally about the present, as a contrast to the record, and the video is a great summary of what I think the last year or so has felt like to a lot of people with all these things just there, all the time. It’s not a song or a video about issues, per se, it’s more about the sudden pervasiveness of issues - is that correct? What do you think is going on where all of sudden this stuff feels so impossible to escape from?
Yes, that’s correct. I don’t believe that activist music is very effective when it’s preachy and tries to direct people very deliberately about particular issues. I think there’s a responsibility to talk about this stuff as a musician.
But as a writer I think it’s better to direct people to emotions and feelings which indicate various values and their importance, as opposed to telling them directly what to do. So, in that song I wanted just to capture what I think is a kind of angst, caused by people being inundated with visual depictions of violence and racism – acknowledging the feeling of being confronted by what’s going on these days, but also being kind of helpless in terms of knowing how to deal with it. I think a lot of people feel that way – and in some ways it’s a good feeling. Letting people think about it, by pointing to it, can get them to make productive decisions about what to do about it. Much better than simply telling people what to do.
I mean, terrible things feel so pervasive now because of social-media – that’s sort of a new fact about the world, that we’re confronted very aggressively with how terrible the world is. I don’t know (or won’t say) what the best way is to confront that (at least in song). But I can point to it, and let people reflect on what’s happening, in a way that acknowledges how they feel – and maybe that can help them move past their feeling helpless. I don’t know if that makes sense.
So you’ve been called out by NPR, the Mountain Goats, Noisey/Vice - is it kind of wild to suddenly have your name and your songs be highlighted by places like that? Does it change your relationship to how you see what you’re doing to go from being this guy making music to this guy making music that NPR loves and that John Darnielle is gushing over the quality of the songwriting?
I mean, from a day to day perspective, no. I think about songwriting a lot, and I know that I do very good (sometimes even great) work, when I put my mind to it. In that sense, getting any kind of recognition isn’t something that really changes my relationship with my own work. It’s more just that it helps give me signposts that I can present to other people to help them change how they relate to my work.
I chatted with Mr. Darnielle a bit last year, and the thing that I told him – which took me aback for a second – was that it felt good to hear his words, because maybe my friends would respect my work more. And when I think about how I felt, it makes you realize that the music industry and consumer base is very fucked up. The fact is that people have a difficult time separating music and status, and that it takes a very honest and thoughtful ear to be able to hear something and determine, on its own merits, that it is a good piece of work.
Obviously, Mr. Darnielle is a great writer, and it helps provide me some confirmation that I’m headed in the right direction, when he’s able to give me an honest listen and likes what he hears. On the other hand, I also need signposts, to help signal to other people that I’m worth listening to – even friends and classmates – and it’s been a great help in that respect. I am regularly written off by strangers and friends alike and that can be a lonely place.
You don’t work as a musician full time, correct? Or at least you didn’t for a long time? That’s a super self-aware comment on the way the validation is helpful - I’m curious if there’s any struggle for motivation or to take your work seriously during the times when maybe that type of feedback wasn’t coming in?
I’ve never worked as a musician full time – though I worked as a classical musician in some sense, very heavily, as a kid up through high school. Regarding motivation – I don’t have any struggle for motivation, because the art form has its own internal logic and drive to it, that makes pursuing it motivating for its own sake.
It’s why when you talk to other songwriters – the good ones are people who like to talk about (and can talk about) songwriting. They talk about songwriting because they can see and understand the value of what they’re doing – and they’re good because good songwriting requires having that perceptivity.
I almost moved to New Orleans a few years back and then at the last second I didn’t end up doing it. Now, when I hear the New Orleans reference in places like your Greyhound Bus Song (Incidentally, I took a bus there to pick out an apartment) or on one of Sun Kil Moon’s tracks where he mentions New Orleans, I have this weird immediate attachment like that’s one of my places even though I only ever went once and never ended up living there. Does that make any sense or am I a crazy person? Your songs make me think you might know.
I also went to New Orleans just once – before the Hurricane. It was the last year of college or so – a very long time ago. I remember taking some pictures there and, in fact, did a number of paintings about the graveyards in New Orleans when I was there.
I understand the attachment to it. I think, maybe more so than any other city, New Orleans felt like a completely different world. You go to a lot of cities in the United States, and I think you always viscerally understand that you are in a metropolitan area of a big American city – a feeling that sort of anchors you to reality.
At least when I visited New Orleans, it was like the city swallows you whole, and you are in some alternate universe completely. I don’t know if that’s why you felt attached, but that’s what makes me remember it.
I’m a terrible person. I don’t listen to that much, or read too many books.
- Remains of the Day
- Taxi Driver
- Annie Hall
- Life’s Rich Pageant – R.E.M.
- Automatic for the People – R.E.M.
- Mamushka: A Cookbook – Recipes from Ukraine & Eastern Europe
- My New Orleans: The Cookbook (by John Besh)
Do you have any rituals associated with your work? Any daily patterns you lean on or habits that are important?
You mean rituals associated with songwriting? No, not in particular – unless you count my actual job as a ritual. I think having a job outside of music is important. Because you need life experience to have substantive things to write about.
Otherwise you go down that horrible path of only being able to write about being a songwriter. And nobody likes that. Imagine if all songwriters were just songwriters and nothing else – we’d have the worst music scene ever. You need songwriters to reflect the diversity of experience that you see in real life, so that songwriting can have the capacity to talk about real life.
Jobs are a part of that, and that’s why they’re important.