Although she’d been writing and performing music for years in her native Lincoln, Nebraska, it wasn’t until Karen Choi had moved to St. Louis that she began to feel like her music was special, that it was something she ought to be doing with her life. And even though her life was getting busier and more complicated in St. Louis — not only was she a grad student at Covenant Theological Seminary, but she was also a new mother — music had become a relentless desire. It was more than a mere phase; Choi had come to realize that music was her preferred form of expression. It was how she best processed and communicated the stories and truths that were important to her, a realization that stayed with her even after moving back to Lincoln.
Choi grew up around music. Her father played in a bluegrass band, and she learned music by first playing his guitar. Subsequently, she’s always been drawn to folk and Americana music, and cites Over The Rhine, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, and Gillian Welch as influences. When I asked her what draws her to that style, she said that it’s the simplicity. Folk music can be nothing more than a singer and an acoustic guitar, and that simplicity lets the singer get out of the way so the story and lyrics can do their thing. Such simplicity also lends itself to the music’s timelessness.Choi says she likes a little bit of melancholy and a little bit of twang in her music, and that’s immediately obvious on ‘Paper Birch’.
As Choi puts it, you want to be writing lyrics that have something of a timeless, tried and true feel to them. Some of the songs on Choi’s 2012 debut, Paper Birch, available free to Christ and Pop Culture members, certainly have the feel of time-honored classics despite their newness. For example, “Old River Roll” with its mournful pedal steel and meditative lyrics (“Empty we came, bare we go to the grave/The old river rolls on, poor sinners to save”), and “Single Malt Soul” with its swagger and soulful backing vocals. Choi says she likes a little bit of melancholy and a little bit of twang in her music, and that’s immediately obvious on the aforementioned songs.
As for the stories in Choi’s songs, they can come from anywhere. She writes a lot of her music in her living room, surrounded by the laundry and other mundane details of life. But the beauty of art is that something written in such a normal setting can still have a universal, even transcendent appeal and connection. That connection can sometimes be humorous. One of Paper Birch’s highlights is “Tangled”: a slow-burning torch song that sounds like it was recorded in a smoke-filled jazz club, “Tangled” chronicles a love gone wrong — something that elicited a particularly strong affirmation of “I hear that!” from woman that was obviously done wrong at some point — during one of Choi’s shows.
Sometimes the connection is a bit subtler and more sublime. On “Minnesota Sky,” Choi yearns for a world of wonder, purpose, and natural beauty, and sings “Hey sweet Minnesota sky, teach me to live before I die/Seduce me with rhyme and your loose sense of time/Sweet Minnesota sky” while backed by playful mandolin and shuffling drums. And sometimes the connection is explicit. Paper Birch’s final song is “Will You Be,” which finds Choi alone with her acoustic guitar and harmonica, asking simple questions: “Will you pour my wine when the day is done/Will you still be there at life’s setting sun/Will you be, will you be my love?” Simple questions that nevertheless touch on the most important aspects of life: love, trust, faithfulness.
Choi recently finished her second album, Through Our Veins, which will be released on March 4. Full of twang and melancholy like its predecessor, Through Our Veins finds her delving even more fully into Americana music, and exploring what it means to be part of something bigger than yourself — be it family, relationships, or God.