As part of NewBeats.com’s 10th anniversary, here is an old interview with singer/songwriter Vienna Teng.
Vienna Teng: Suburban Folk Artist
By David Chiu
In mainstream Western pop music, Vienna Teng is a rarity as an Asian American singer and songwriter. But even if that wasn’t a factor, Teng’s music stands out on its own. Her orchestral, classical piano dominated sound reveal a somber, moody view of life that cover the arc of the human condition: love, death, struggle, and hope. It’s about the ordinary things that seem to barely scratch the surface but when they do, they make us see for who we really are. Add in Teng’s warm and expressive voice and impressionistic piano playing, and the music is quite arresting and lush.
A native of the Bay Area, the 25-year-old musician graduated from Stanford with a degree and worked at Cisco Systems. But music was her true vocation from an early age and wrote and performed during her college days. That period was represented on her first album Waking Hour, which was a number one album on the indie charts. On the basis of that work, she was signed to Seattle-based indie label Virt Records.
This past February Teng returned with her latest album Warm Strangers and is currently on tour to support the record. Down to earth and soft-spoken artist, she talked to NewBeats by phone about the new album, her music, and how she got to where she is.
How different is your new album Warm Strangers compared to your previous album?
This new album definitely would be part of me having a bit of experience being a professional musician. It was the first time I was working with David Henry [the album’s producer]. I knew he was a cellist and also I kind of got it in my head that I wanted to do a lot of classical instruments on the album and staying away from the traditional guitar-bass-drums driving popular music. The sound of the album is pretty orchestral and pretty acoustic, and that’s the sound we were going for which was a little different from the stripped down me and the piano sound of the first album.
Vienna, how would you describe your songwriting?
I’ve always struggled with what to call my music. To a certain degree, it’s what they call chamber folk or chamber pop because it is pretty lush. And it is based more in classical music. But I feel like the subject matter of it is like folk music rooted in the modern suburban experience. That’s sort of the perspective that I write from the universal struggle that everyone goes through kind of silently, and away from the public eye.
Does your lyric writing reflect actual experiences in your life?
My imagination has to be grounded in my own experience. I feel a good 2/3 [of the album] is completely fictional. It’s just me writing about situations that I’ve never been in or people I’ve never met. It’s about being a fiction writer. I try to create situations that feel realistic without always being autobiographical.
One of your songs, “My Medea” is a very emotional and powerful track musically and lyrically?
I wrote that song when I was going through depression for the first time. It seemed very trite to write about how I was unhappy. It really didn’t seem like I can approach it directly that way and make it a compelling song. So I started thinking about metaphors. I thought about Medea (from the Greek mythology about Jason and Medea and their adventures together) and how she was a brilliant and compassionate person but can really turn on you in an instant. That was the metaphor that I used-being this child who was at the mercy of Medea who would nurture me but can destroy me if she felt like it.
The song “Harbor,” along with “Shasta,” is one of the few uptempo tunes on the album and somewhat poppy and upbeat.
“Harbor” came almost purely out of frustration that I write slow, moody songs all the time. I laid some ground rules where I sat down that night and I said it has to be upbeat, it has to be optimistic. That came from being very pleasantly and surprised and grateful that my relationship hasn’t been weathered by my touring over the past year or so. I think it gave me a lot of admiration and appreciation for a family that have to deal with that, especially military families whose husbands and wives are shipped off to who knows where, and the courage that it takes to be there at home and say that I’m here from you. It came out of gratitude for that. So it seems like a happy subject.
Your music has been compared to Sarah McLachlan and Tori Amos in that your sound is very subdued and dominated by the piano.
For any artist, especially a new one, it is kind of a double-edged sword. To be compared favorably to an established artist is a great compliment. On the other hand, there is the hope that eventually people will just see it on its own terms. It just becomes dangerous if people think of me as a Tori Amos wannabe or a Sarah McLachlan sound alike. As long as people recognize that I am doing my own thing, then I really don’t have a problem with it.
You wanted to play music since you were a child but you studied computer science and became a programmer.
I always had it in my head to have a music career. I do remember being a kid and thinking the best thing in the world was to become a film composer and write movie soundtracks. That was really my first dream. It was really the encouragement of other people–my parents put it in my head that whatever I dedicated myself to had a good chance of happening if I was smart and passionate about it.
Do you like performing live?
I was kind of afraid in the beginning that I wouldn’t enjoy performing because I think of myself as a private person. I find performing is really energizing, and it’s actually made more so in front of new audiences who never heard me before. Because subconsciously it raises the stakes a little bit like well I have to introduce the song to them properly. If they never heard of my song like “Gravity “I have to play the way it was meant to be heard. The audiences I found are such nice people-open and generous.
What do you want people to get out of your music?
What makes me proud and happy is when I hear from people who say they really adopted a song and gave it a lot of meaning in their own lives. It just makes my day when people come up to me and say, ‘We got to know each other through your music and listen to your CDs together and now we are engaged.’ That’s the greatest thing. I originally wanted to become a soundtrack composer and then go onto being the soundtrack to other people’s lives.
Are you still amazed of where you are today?
It happens every night. At least during one song in the set, I always have this moment where I look out at the audience and realize that I am on the stage, and [think] ‘Wow I get to do this for a living!’ I am definitely in awe.