Jenny Choi:
Sweet and Fierce Indie Rocker


With a string of national tours and the release of Sanawon's first album Jenny Choi carves a niche for Asian American women in the indie rock scene.

by William Nakayama


Sweet and Fierce

o make a living playing indie rock is a rare feat. Jenny Choi may well be the only Asian American female who can make that claim. She's the vocalist, keyboardist, "programmer" and cellist of Sanawon, a two-person band that has been touring U.S. major metro areas for the past two years, playing colleges with Asian organizations and clubs for trendy teens, some of whom aren't old enough to drink. It beats the "shite" out of teaching high school English, Choi will tell you. That's how she was earning a living until late January of this year when Choi went full-time with Sanawon.


      Choi's love of words like "biotches" and "shite" makes her sound grittier and edgier than she looks. In person she's the cute, petite product of a Corean American family in a comfortable Chicago suburb. But like most indie rockers, Choi identifies with the gritty realities of urban survival. One of her blog entries links street-people B.O. to her own after a few days of birdbaths in public restroom sinks while on the road.
Tiny Airplane
Some tracks on Tiny Airplane are reminiscent of early Blondie.

      Jenny Choi is fierce in her aversion to those stereotypes that shackle small and cute Asian American women to sexual commodity roles. Despite a photogenic face, Choi shuns what she calls “hoochie” shots, photos that seem to trade on her sex appeal. The jpegs she makes available to the public were all taken during performances. Sanawon, the name she chose for her band, means “fierce” in Corean. As a mattter of fact, Jenny Choi sees herself as a warrior and her music as bullets fired at objectionable images of Asian women as docile, materialistic, clueless sex objects.

      That's why the songs on Sanawon's first album are a surprise. They aren't the harsh, discordant anthems to rebellion one associates with indie rock. They are ballads about the twists and turns of young love. All ten tracks were written by Choi. The lyrics are impressionistic and emotive. “He says, I am the empty sail, I am... I am the empty sail tearing through candy stories chased by the hungry and the broken,” goes the eighth track (“The Fix”). At their best, Choi's lyrics are evocative. At their worst, they tend to be obscure.

      “Pieces of scattered glass reflect carbon covered lies that I chose to bury inside in the dirt of all my worry and spite,” goes “Pretty Horses”. A couple of the tracks also get bogged down through lack of structure. (“Best Worst Thing”, “Scary Movie”).

      Several of the ten tracks are carried nicely by melodies whose fundamental romanticism is muted with just enough aloofness to escape sounding sugary. Choi's vocals are cool and crisp, just sweet enough and just jaded enough to evoke the young Debbie Harry of Blondie. The drums by Phillip Stone lay down enough pace and changeup to round out the strong tracks and tow the weaker ones that get lost at sea. All in all, Tiny Airplane is a first album that raises expectations of future entry into the mainstream pop charts.

      We asked Jenny Choi to become reflective as Sanawon prepares for a tour that will include shows at Central Michigan University (April 11), Southern Methodist University (April 13), Univerity of Illinois at Chicago (April 25), followed by UC Riverside, Cal Poly Pomona, UCLA and a number of clubs in California, Arizona, Utah and the Midwest (May 4-21).

Goldsea: Are you the new Blondie?
Jenny Choi: I am probably one of many who wish I kicked ass as hard as Deborah Harry, but I'd have to do some hardcore leg squats for the next trillion years to even come close.

GS: What do you see Sanawon as contributing to the Indie music scene?
JC: I am hoping that I can help bring a new voice to the indie music scene by keeping my songwriting as honest and sincere as possible. I am writing through a lens that is still quite underrepresented in indie music today.

GS: Do you know how much sweetness and romance there is in your songs?
JC: Hmmmm....... I would like to believe that I am romantic about the human experience. Although often times I seem to come from a jaded or cynical perspective, I do retain an inherent sense of optimism and idealism about the best things in life.

GS: Isn't it considered unhip among the indie crowd to be sweet and romantic?
JC: When I consider romanticism in other types of art, for example films such as "After Life," or "Akira Kurosawa's DREAMS"...I don't know what the point of putting out amazing art at all would be. That takes huge precedence over the hip factor any day.

GS: Who wrote the songs on Tiny Airplanes?
JC: I did, beeyaaatch!

GS: How long did it take to produce the album?
JC: That's a good question. The bulk of it occurred between October and the end of December, but I conceptualized much of the arrangements while on tour in August. The road can be a very cleansing way to unclutter your thoughts and to be creative.

GS: When you say "programming", does that mean the arrangement?
JC: I have a workstation keyboard, so yes, a lot of the arrangements you hear are parts that I wrote on my keyboard and recorded on my own. PAGE 2

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“Although often times I seem to come from a jaded or cynical perspective, I do retain an inherent sense of optimism and idealism about the best things in life.”


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