Tuned In to Vienna Teng

January 28, 2010 9:40:24 AM PST
She shares her name with the Austrian home of Mozart and Beethoven. And she herself studied classical piano from the age of five. But there's nothing old-world about the music of Vienna Teng, whose Zoë/Rounder Records debut brings to mind artists as diverse as Tori Amos, Simon & Garfunkel and Radiohead.*Not so long ago, being a singer-songwriter was merely a hobby for Teng, a Stanford computer science grad who was on the fast track to a lucrative career, working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. But she gave all that up to pursue her musical passions - a risky career move, but one which has paid off. The 27-year-old has already released two critically acclaimed independent albums: 2002's Waking Hour and 2004's Warm Strangers, which landed on three Billboard album charts and reached #2 on Amazon's best-seller list. She's appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman and toured widely, opening for such artists as Shawn Colvin, Joan Osborne, Patty Griffin, Joan Baez and the Indigo Girls.*

How does a Silicon Valley computer specialist take the plunge into becoming a singer-songwriter?

I think it started with playing piano from when I was a pretty early age. I started playing piano when I was 5, and started writing songs when I was 6, but I think always thought of it a pretty impractical pursuit until about midway through college when I realized that maybe medicine was not what I really wanted to do, and neither was computer science for that matter, and I thought I wanted to make a go of it, I wasn't really sure how, so I guess being a computer programmer was my way of waiting table, you know, a kind of quicker way maybe [laughs].

How would you describe your sound?

It sort of depends on the context. Live, I like to describe it as "Chamber-Folk", because I play with a cellist, and a violinist/violist, both of whom are classically trained, and I took classical piano when I was growing up, so there's a bit of a classical, chamber music sort of sound to it, but it's definitely folk music /pop music.

You've been recording music professionally for nearly a decade, how is the music on your latest album, "Dreaming Through the Noise" different from your earlier work, and what was the inspiration for this album?

"Dreaming Through the Noise" was pretty much the first album I wrote when all I had to do was write songs, everything else was sort of written under duress of one kind or another, like I was procrastinating over either homework or some kind of software project. It was really nice, I got to explore a lot of new things, and I've been playing with a band for the first time, so I think I learned to leave a little bit more space for other instruments and I start taking jazz piano lessons so that was an influence as well.

What's going on in your head right now, before a performance? Any pre-show rituals?

I actually don't. I think the less I think about the fact that I'm about to go on stage and play for people, the better, so usually, I like to stay distracted, you know, whether it's by talking with band mates, or being outside throwing a Frisbee around, or, actually the thing I really enjoy sometimes is listening to whatever artist is playing before me, and so, tonight I get to go out and sing with David Berklee on the last song.

Is David performing for this show only, or is he on tour with you?

He's been on tour with us a couple of days out of this tour. Unfortunately, he can't join us for the whole thing. We'd kind of like him to, but it didn't work out.

Do you remember your first public performance?

It must have been some kind of piano recital, like a classical piano recital, when I was child, probably when I was 6... might've been my first one.

Which do you prefer, the LIVE performances, or crafting an album in the studio?

I think I enjoy both processes. I think songwriting is my favorite part of the process, but that's the most painstaking one. I would say LIVE is the most enjoyable one right now, because when you're on a tour for 6 weeks, obviously you get to try some things from night tonight, and change things up a bit and let the songs evolve in a really organic way. I also enjoy being in the studio, but I think I have yet to do it in a way that's completely me, you know there's a lot of other factors to take into consideration, so the day that I get to spend as long as I want in the studio, for as many months until it's exactly the way I want it, which is probably a dangerous proposition anyway, but the day that I get to do that, that may be my favorite thing.

After having just recently finished a European tour, how are those audiences different than from those in the States?

I've noticed a really distinct difference between European audiences and American ones. The biggest difference is that they respond really strongly to different songs. I remember playing in Germany for the first time, it was a showcase in Berlin, and I played this one song, "Pontchartrain", which is pretty much the weirdest song that I have, I guess, it's sort of slow and long and has different sections, and there's a chorale in the middle, and there's a lot of dissonance, a sort of creepy long song that demands a lot of attention, and that one got the biggest response by far, which was really surprising because in the United States it seems most people are kind of like, cock their heads and go 'that was interesting'. So I think maybe there's a little more of a history to listening to music in general, but classical music in particular which demands a longer attention span, I think.

Tell us about your approach to songwriting, and when do involve other band members?

My approach to songwriting is basically whatever works [laughs] you know I don't get the inspiration to write very often so I feel like I have to take what I can get, and unfortunately,actually, I only seem to be able to write in solitude. I would love to be someone who collaborates really well with other people, but I seem to not be able to get anything I'm happy with unless I sort of lock myself in a room and work on something and bring that, you know, with the final lyrics and the final chords, whatever to other people, and then we work on the arrangement of the song.

Do you compose all of your songs on the piano?
So far, that's been the case. There are some songs that I've composed acappella, like when I've been driving in the car, I think of something and then I picture it in my head, but most of the time it begins with me going to the piano, and trying to play around with some ideas.

Is this when you think of the other tones and instrumentation?

A lot of the times I remember to leave space and I think something happens here that isn't voice or piano, you know, but it's usually pretty vague, and I rely on other musicians to sort of help me imagine that. In a very rare case, I'll come up with a specific bass line, or a very specific melodic thing that has to be played by some other instrument.

What's in the near future for Vienna Teng?

[Laughs] I've been thinking about this lately that with all the touring and the album release, and traveling around all of the time I actually spend more time doing sort of logistical, managerial things than actually working on writing and I would really love to go home and sit in front of the piano again...for fun you know, make friends with it again.

Can you tell us more about your involvement with Habitat for Humanity?

Absolutely, yes, I think sometime last year when I was doing a lot of touring, it occurred to me that really at the end of the day it felt like a very self-centered endeavor, you know you're getting up in front of people and asking them to love you, you know, night after night, and it started to feel a little strange, especially because the thing I really wanted to do before I turned to music was to go into medicine, and to be useful to people. So, of course it's not quite like going all the way back to medical school, but I felt like when we travel through all of these towns, like whenever we can, maybe we should try to contribute something to those communities, and after a lot of research it turned out that Habitat for Humanity was by far the best way to sort of breeze into town, be there for a day or two, but do something that may actually have a lasting impact. And all of the affiliates have been supportive, really accommodating, and really excited to have us, so it's been great.

How do you relax, aside from the music?

[Laughs] I think I relax by reading books I guess. I used to go hiking a lot, my family is a kind of a big outdoor family, and so every summer we like to go into the desert or into the woods, and I think that's my way of having a change of pace.

Have you had any support or run into any barriers being an Asian-American artist?

One of the things I've been grateful for is feeling that I never encountered any barriers whatsoever being Asian American, and I think that's actually a sign of the times in a way that people can fully embrace music for just what they hear and whether they like the songs. I will also admit though that I've gotten a lot of support form the Asian American community, partly because what I'll do is an anomaly, especially having started in a kind of engineering/tech background and having sort of moved to something more artsy and creative - for lack of a better term. And there are times when I feel a little bit uncomfortable, because I feel like it's almost an Affirmative Action kind of choice, people come up to me and say "Wow, I've never seen an Asian songwriter before, I definitely have to support you and tell all my friends" so that's something I've always felt a little funny about, but at the same time, that's something that's not really in my control. The thing I really love is when they hear a song on the radio, and they don't know it's by an Asian American woman, you know, who came from whatever background, they just like the song. I think that's the purest form of connection you can have with somebody, and that's really what I strive for, more than anything. And I'm not writing for a particular audience, or for people of my background, or anything like that. I'm just trying to write a song that speaks to me, and speaks to people who loves the kind of music that I do and whatever creed race or orientation that appeals to, that's the audience I'm looking for.

Interview- April 13, 2007 minutes before her Sellersville Theater Performance

(From Vienna Teng's Official Biography- click the link to read)