A native of Lincoln, Nebraska, singer and songwriter Karen Choi is currently on her second go-round of living and performing in St. Louis. Her first stint was about a decade ago when she was enrolled in graduate school; about three years later, her husband's job brought the family back to town.
So what has changed in the intervening years? For Choi, who is about to release her third collection of songs, the city's folk and country scene appeared to bloom upon her return.
"I am not sure if this is just my experience, but I found it to be a lot more friendly to the Americana genre when I came back," Choi says. "I don't think I was very plugged into the music scene back then, but coming back there were a number of musicians working in that umbrella term that catches a lot of music. It felt like maybe there were more opportunities."
Some of those opportunities came through the friendships she developed with other performers and scene-makers: Beth Bombara helped Choi navigate the do-it-yourself world of self-releasing music, and John Henry helped her get some opening sets at Off Broadway. But it was a long-ago meeting with engineer and producer Tim Gebauer that led to the creation of Choi's latest, Lost County.
"Oddly enough, eight or nine years ago I met him at an open mic at Music Folk, and I remember we met and chatted about his studio," Choi recalls. "We went our separate ways and I ended up working down in Nashville. We had a reconnection at a show I opened, and that's what led to doing this project together."
Gebauer is perhaps best known for using his Electropolis Studios to record Le'Ponds' records, including last year's Lean To, and he has worked on projects by Sleepy Kitty and Spectator. Choi says that she was drawn to Gebauer's spare aesthetic and a more theoretical approach to recording. Having made her first record in Nashville, where the producer's choices and session players' pedigree could often be intimidating, working with a stripped-back palette suited Choi.
"Some of my favorite records are sparse and minimal, and I wanted that for my music," she says. "I knew that Tim would not want to take me in the direction of a big country record. I've noticed that if you have a little twang in your voice people want to put you in a certain box. I love old-timey country music, but that doesn't mean I want this sleek, overproduced sound."
"In the studio I am always dialing things back, asking for more space and more room," Choi continues. "I knew that Tim was going to be even more conservative than I was. He wanted all the space for the record, and that was a big choice to keep things open and spacious."
Choi's voice and acoustic guitar take center stage on the EP's six tracks, but from the outset one can hear the way the instruments push air around the room. Opening track "Hand to Hold" slinks along on an oily, slapback guitar riff and some nearly rocksteady organ accents before settling into a more traditional Americana groove. Working with some of the same musicians that she regularly gigs with also helped the vibe of the recordings; here, the core band comprises Tony Barbata on drums, Stephen Nowels on bass and Nick Dahlquist on electric guitar, organ and backing vocals.
Much of the EP walks in a ruminative space, but the final two songs touch on loss, regret and acceptance, and both are drawn from Choi's family tree.
"I often say that anything is up for grabs, but 'Clear Lake' is absolutely autobiographical," Choi says. "I wrote that song rigth after I finished my record in Minneapolis — I got snowed in and stuck in a town in Iowa. They closed the interstate. I woke up the next morning and my locks were frozen." Due to the storm, Choi had to miss her grandfather's funeral, a loss she transmits keenly on the song.
A similar kind of loss — the death of her grandmother — inspired "Monarch," the EP's final song. "It's hard to write a song about someone who has died without it being cheesy," Choi says. "It took me a while to capture something that is heartfelt without being trite."
Both of these songs hit close to the bone for Choi, and while she is often able to set emotion aside during a performance, her more autobiographical songs can sneak up on her in concert.
"I've only played 'Monarch' live once," Choi says. "Sometimes the experience of performing can surprise you. Without notice, sometimes they'll just hit you and you become emotional on stage."
Now that Choi and her family are settled back in St. Louis, she is happy to have a truly local album to share, made close to home with musicians who understand her vision. "When you're a singer-songwriter and making albums, each one needs to be different than the other ones," she says. "I wanted something that sounded a little more raw. I was really interested in having an accurate depiction of what I do onstage."