The last few weeks have seen a whirlwind of press surrounding the groundbreaking new album from Japanese Breakfast, much of it plugged into the waning weeks of AAPI Month and the publication of Michelle Zauner’s memoir written through the lens of her Korean-American identity. While this certainly feels like a step in the right direction for Asian-American representation in music, literature, and culture, it also draws attention to the fact that it’s a pretty uncommon occurrence—and that when an Asian-American artist does receive the recognition they deserve, it’s hard for Western media to frame it without relying heavily on their Asian heritage to spin the narrative even when that detail is unrelated to the artwork being discussed.
This is a fact that Andew Choi seems highly aware of as he ushers his fourth album as St. Lenox into the world. With the highly unorthodox, uniquely spiritual, and pipe-organ-heavy Ten Songs of Worship and Praise for Our Tumultuous Times arriving this Friday via Don Giovanni, the Korean-American songwriter has been a much needed voice of support for the Asian-American legacy of indie rock, with the new record reaching similar emotional heights as those achieved by The Hold Steady and The Mountain Goats (“St. Lenox is so good and should be massively famous and revered,” John Darnielle has quipped, as noted in the record’s press release). It didn’t seem like much of a chore, then, for Choi to assemble a powerful playlist of his peers’ music to hammer home the point that Asian-American artists have earned a spot at the forefront of the contemporary indie scene.
“The hypothesis of this playlist is that Asian-Americans are, in fact, the rightful inheritors of the American indie music tradition,” he shares. “Consider that prominence in indie music has become more and more synonymous with connection to privilege and popularity, and a familiar sonic sheen that clashes with the very idea of ‘independence.’ Consider, also, that as a rule, Asian-Americans as a group have put up with decades of rejection by American popular culture, and also have a dizzying set of musical backgrounds and skill sets to bring to the table. Looking at it from that perspective, it’s hard to see why Asian-Americans shouldn’t be considered at the forefront of the indie music movement.”
Listen to his playlist below, and scroll on to read about his connection to each song and artist. You can also pre-order the album here.
Jane Lui, “Good Night Company”
I first heard Jane in 2010 when she released the very excellent and still-fresh-today track “Good Night Company.” I was just beginning to think about writing music myself, and hearing this track was quite inspirational in thinking about the possibility that perhaps I, as an Asian-American, could become a singer-songwriter.
Surrija, “Almost Time”
Jane would later go on to write under a new name, Surrija, and it’s been exciting to see the direction that she’s taken over the years. As it happens, Jane and I have never met in real life. That was about to change with the arrival of [the play] Cambodian Rock Band to New York City in early 2020, but due to COVID-19, our personal acquaintance has been postponed!
Jordan Singh, “Like a Knife”
I know Jordan from the open mic systems of New York City where we both have used the community as a place to allow our musical thoughts to develop and grow. This track has a genuine rawness to it that always piques my interest. As someone who’s grown a little tired of the polish that indie music has come to fully embrace over the last decade, I am always interested in music that has that quality of newness to it.
ThunderStars is the project of Erik Kang, who used to perform as part of Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s. We know one another through the music scene in Columbus, Ohio, though both of us are now Columbus expats. There is a sort of bizarre tendency that people have to interpret Ohio music through the lense of straightforward white indie rock. Hearing tracks like this, it’s worth reflecting on that bad habit and giving artists of color from Ohio a closer look.
Debbie Chou, “The Cut”
Oftentimes tracks that incorporate throwback elements are over-produced within an inch of their life. I appreciate the restraint in reference on this and other tracks from her COVID-era EP, The End of Our Time. Debbie and I know one another from the New York City music scene.
Kickstart the Sun, “Sleeper”
I have only been recently acquainted with Justin Kunkel, who sings lead vocals for Kickstart the Sun. But I was more than happy to check out a fellow Asian-American singer from Ames, Iowa. As with Ohio, there are broad tendencies to interpret Iowa music through the lense of a white salt-of-the-earth Americana-ness. Hearing Justin’s flexible, and at times operatic, vocals throughout Nightmareland, however, I’m hopeful that people’s perceptions of Heartland music will change over time.
Sunken Cages, “Dal Lake”
Ravish Momin and I have been fans of one another from afar for some time, and we have had interesting conversations and shared thoughts with one another over the years about the music press, and especially the treatment of white versus non-white musicians as it pertains to non-Western music. Much of Ravish’s work incorporates acoustic sounds with electronic music, building up a kind of catalog of non-Western sonic references that is both heady and visceral at the same time. I don’t have much musical background in percussion and drums, so I find his approach to non-Westernism through rhythm and percussion fascinating.
Reonda, “Girl and the Sea”
I met Reonda when we both performed as part of the first official SXSW showcase for Asian-American musicians put on by Kollaboration in 2017. The event was sorely needed, because the American music industry still to this day has a bad habit of using foreign Asian acts to fulfill Asian-American diversity standards. The end result of this practice is that it equates Asian-ness with foreign-ness (and American-ness with whiteness). Why not book both foreign and American Asian acts? Anyway, I enjoy the way in which Reonda takes being laid back to the extreme—a more interesting and reinvented version of Cowboy Junkies, in my opinion.
May Cheung, “The Departure”
May is Canadian, but has lived and worked in the United States long enough for me to include her on this list. I know May through a collective of musicians in New York City called Big City Folk. I enjoy listening to May, in part, because we share a background in jazz vocal study—a phrasing tradition which I feel is slowly fading in American popular music culture, especially given the now-standard inclusion of heavy-handed Auto-Tune in modern vocal performance.
Wind Meets West, “Technicolor”
I think about Wind Meets West in the context of a new batch of musicians that is highly production-oriented and production-skilled—a trend which has changed how I’ve thought about indie music. In some ways, this is the natural result of the democratization of music production technology, which is becoming increasingly more affordable, allowing more and more people to create highly polished music. In some ways, that polish feels very un-indie, but also maybe the accessibility of the tools makes it the most indie thing possible?
Ali Aslam, “Photocopy”
What strikes me as fascinating is how a virtual kitchen sink of sonic references somehow morphs itself into something that to me has the feel of a Bruce Springsteen record, overlaid onto an EP about heavy American concepts. I know Ali via the Big City Folk scene, where I’m used to hearing him sing solo or accompanied by acoustic guitar, so hearing him in this context was a nice change of pace.