Talks with Vienna Teng

 

 

Vienna Teng

Vienna Teng's MySpace
Vienna Teng's homepage

 

Inland Territory

Listen to Vienna on the NPR show Mountainstage from 3-10-2009
click here.

 

Dreaming Through the Noise

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CEV:  Most of us were still playing with our toys in the sandbox when we were 5 years old but I was reading that you started playing piano around that time. How was it that you started playing piano that young and how serious was the study at that point?

VT:  It was pretty normal among the kids I grew up with, actually.  Some of them started violin at age 2 or 3.  My parents wanted to introduce us to a wide range of things very young, to see where we showed some interest.  Apparently I was climbing on piano benches as a toddler, so they figured there must be a natural affinity there.

CEV:  Were your parents musically inclined and how did they go about encouraging you to develop this talent? Was this something you pursued as a young girl or did you have to be moved in the direction of playing piano at first?  

VT:  My dad learned about five chords on guitar in college, and wrote a few songs for my mom and the kids.  My mom sang in a choir for a while.  There was a fair amount of singing around the house growing up—nothing complicated, rarely harmonies or even complete songs, but they could both carry a tune, definitely.  They've both got lovely voices.  As for piano, they signed me up for that along with ballet, drawing lessons, softball, math enrichment. 

CEV:  When was it that you started receiving formal training in music and was it something that you saw the value of right from the start?

VT:  I had my first piano lesson in September 1983, a bit before my fifth birthday.  For a while it was like learning to ride a bicycle—here's how the brakes work, this is how it should feel when the seat's the right height, now practice pedaling while looking ahead. It was all technical, drills to develop muscle memory. I grasped the concepts more quickly than with, say, dance steps, or perspective in pencil drawing, but it was still basic training, just another thing that my parents gave me to do: "Learn this. It's important."  

About a year later, I was avoiding practice and just messing around at the piano, noticing that the pieces I'd been learning followed certain patterns.  Whatever note they started on, they tended also to use the note a fifth above that a lot too.  There seemed to be a kind of gravitational pull between the first and fifth.  Then there was the fourth, which had a kind of expectant, open color to it.  I tried stringing them together in different sequences.  Some of them made sense, felt right; others didn't at all.  It seemed that every piece of music was a thread that wanted to go in a particular direction, along a particular route.  So how did a composer find the right path for a given thread?

I started experimenting.  I'd cast around until I stumbled on a fragment of something interesting, and then I'd try to tack other things onto it until the whole thing "made sense."  Those other things were all borrowed items, of course.  I lifted left hand parts from Mozart minuets and stuck them under simple melodies of my own.  When my teacher introduced me to the pedals on the piano I put pedaling in a song too.  And it evolved like that.  It's still pretty much the way I write songs: I discover something, I try to use it.  I try to figure what something wants to be.

CEV:  You started playing the piano quite young but were you just as interested in singing as you were playing the piano?

VT:  Singing came very naturally to me as a kid—I just did it because it was fun, like climbing trees or making up stories about my stuffed animals. It was part of life in general. I didn't think of myself as a singer then; when I daydreamed, it was about being a composer, conducting premieres of my new symphony or something like that. But I would sing all the time.

 

CEV:  What influence did the student run a cappella group, The Stanford Harmonics, that you sang with have in regards to your music at that stage of your life?

VT:  I sang in a jazz choir in high school too—that and the Harmonics were great music training for me.  I didn't do much chamber music as a piano student, so the singing groups were my main exposure to working in ensembles, fitting several independent parts into one whole.  As a singer you learn to be precise, to blend your voice with others.  I started to think about song arrangements then, the different ways voices can be used.

CEV:  Was it a big leap of faith when you decided to forgo your career as a software engineer for Cisco Systems and pursue a musical career? What kinds of reactions did you get from family and friends when you told them that you were going to pursue music?

VT:  You know, a lot of people seem to look at that moment in my story as a a huge shift, something that must have taken a lot of courage. It really wasn't.  I mean, I was nervous, sure—the way anyone might gets moving to a new city or starting a new job, facing a lot of uncertainty.  But I did it because the pull was undeniable, and had been for years; I'd been laying groundwork to make that leap since my sophomore year of college.  I knew I wouldn't be happy with myself if I didn't give it a shot.  Also, there weren't any real consequences if it didn't go well; I could always go back to grad school, or apply for another software position, or whatever.  

My friends thought it was great.  My family knew that music was important to me, so even if they didn't really understand it, and worried about the long odds of success, they knew I had to do it, so they gave their support however they could.

CEV:  Once you stepped away from the security of a corporate job were you exhilarated at the freedom to pursue your music full time or wondering what you needed to do next and if it would be enough to live on?

VT:  It was exhilarating to know I'd committed to that path, but mostly it was stressful.  I'm not the most self-disciplined person in the world, and suddenly I was my own boss, and a lot of the work then was purely business, not much focus on developing as a musician per se.  I was terrible at being my own manager, my own booking agent; I dreaded the tasks when I woke up each morning.  But I forced myself to do them because I knew it wasn't going to happen any other way.

CEV:  I read that your influences are mostly from the 70’s era of folk music. Was this because that is what you listened to growing up or was there something about the style of those songs, the lyrics and the vocals that you wanted to make part of your own music? Do you think that if you had grown up listening to say music from the 90’s that would have changed who you are musically or would you still have found your way back to the 70’s?

VT:  That was mostly circumstance, I think.  I only really began seeking out music on my own in college; before that it was my parents' collection, Disney movies and whatever was on lite-rock FM radio.  So I was steeped in ballads for the first eighteen years of my life.  Delicate songs with storytelling lyrics, earnest and heartfelt things.  I wander away from that territory now and again, but I always come back home.  

I think my voice also has something to do with it—I'm not a powerful pop singer, my voice doesn't have many quirks or prickly edges, no wry irony or sexy purr to it.  It's a small, clean instrument.  It's just built for the kind of music I grew up listening to.

CEV:  Having spent time playing classical music on the piano do you find those structures and compositions influencing what you might try in the writing of your own music? Does this lend a different sound to Vienna Teng’s music than what you might write if you didn’t have this background?

VT:  I do wonder what I'd be writing if I'd picked up a guitar as my first instrument.  Or drums.  Or got into DJ'ing, or something.  I'm sure I'd sound different if I'd been self-taught on the piano.  But generally I use pop song structures in my music; classical music forms are too complex and intricate, too broad in scope for the kind of three- to five-minute pieces I like to write.  I'll leave that stuff to progressive rock bands.

CEV:  I found it refreshing to read a quote from you about your musical process, “These days I'm influenced by whoever intimidates me. I hear them, I'm astounded by them, I think daily about quitting music because I'll never be able to do it as well as they do. Then I try to steal from them without imitating. A tricky thing.” Tell me how it is that you go about listening to and absorbing the music that you are amazed by and how you are able to make that music your own without being derivative or imitative?

VT:  The only trick I know for avoiding the derivative trap is to look far afield from where you are.  I will never be mistaken for Dolly Parton, or Antonio Carlos Jobim, or Radiohead or Kanye West.  But I borrow a little from all of them, and it's hard to tell because it's gone through so many filters.  As for artists who're closer to my tribe—Sara Bareilles, say, or Regina Spektor, both amazing piano-playing songwriters—I admire them, and love their music, but I do have to be more careful about imitating them without meaning to.

CEV:  Where do your songs (music & lyrics) come from? Are they from personal experience or just observing the world around you? Is it difficult to write personal songs and then sing them in front of audiences knowing that you are revealing aspects of yourself that aren’t always obvious to the casual observer?

VT:  Even I don't know where they come from when I'm writing them, half the time.  It's an odd process, a combination of voodoo and technical craftwork.  The initial seed always feels like discovery more than creation, unearthing something that's already there.  And the rest of it is manual labor.  Sifting through fragments, nudging syllables into position, singing a single line over and over for days to figure out what's wrong with it.  Often the sources of it all aren't clear until I dissect the finished song:  "Oh, that's from my conversation with Steven three months ago, and that New York Times article I read, and I was listening to that Patty Griffin album."

Once in a while I write a song deliberately—I call them Idea songs, where I start with what I want to say and construct the music and lyrics from there.  They usually take the longest.  I've done more and more of those lately, which maybe means I'm developing my craft a bit...but damn is it a lot of work!

As for revealing the personal: I've never had a problem sharing emotions and events that I put into songs.  That's why I put them into songs in the first place—I'm hoping that in that form, they'll cut through the small-talk layers and resonate somewhere deep down in another person.  I can only write about things that I'm ready to share, things I've thought through enough to shape them into words and sound.

CEV:  You said once that why you went into music in the first place was to try and write the music you wanted to hear. My first question is what is it that you want to hear in music and how do you translate that into new songs that you are writing?

VT:  I want to hear music that's adventurous, but that still has a kind of elegance and warmth to it.  Something both familiar and surprising.  I want words that flow and whose meaning maybe escapes you on the first few listens, but that reward you when you do focus on them.  That's what delights me in the music I love most, and that's what I strive for when I'm writing.  I don't know how often I succeed, to be honest.  I don't usually want to hear my own music unless I'm working on it, or performing it.    

CEV:  Tell me about your first CD and how it felt to have your music out there in the public forum for listeners to hear and to comment on. Was this an encouraging experience when it came to motivating you to move your career forward and look to the next release?

VT:  I was so grateful that things came together so quickly with Waking Hour.  I got a lot of lucky breaks early on, which made touring and recording and generally an existence as a full-time musician an easy assumption.  We'd found my audience.  I could stop worrying about how we were going to things off the ground—it was already in the air, and all I had to do was figure out how to take it higher.  


CEV:  How important are the musicians you work with in regards to challenging you to live up to your own potential as a musician and a lyricist?

VT:  The musicians I work with now are all better trained than I am, play a wide variety of musical genres, and often they're songwriters or composers in their own right.  So I definitely feel pressure.  I'm always fighting a kid-sister complex, feeling like I'm out of my depth.  Working with this caliber of musicians is one of the most rewarding and one of the trickiest things that I've gotten to do.  It's a joy to write with them in mind, trying to craft songs that will be enjoyable for them to play, something they'll want to be involved in.  A joy and a tall order.

CEV:  How do you deal with all of the peripheral activities that are associated with promoting your music such as the photo shoots or making the videos, or doing endless interviews etc. Is this simply a part of the choice you made when you chose to be a performer?

VT:  I don't mind most of the peripheral stuff.  I wish I were better at it—I'm not a natural in front of the camera, and a lot of my interviews strike me as dull when I hear them back.  But none of it is a burden. I learn a lot from those experiences. Photography and videography and music journalism are art forms too, and I enjoy collaborating with anyone who's good at what they do.

CEV:  Has your Taiwanese heritage played a part in your compositions and the styles that you write in? 

VT:  Whenever my parents listen to new songs of mine, it's always about the melody.  "That one's good—the melody's nice," or "I don't hear a memorable melody here."  Their favorite Mandarin pop songs all have strong vocal lines.  Maybe that criteria of parental approval has some subconscious influence on my writing; I don't know.  I think the well I draw from is pretty American/European overall.

CEV:  You’ve appeared on quite a few national shows but tell me about your experience of performing on the Letterman show and how that brought you to a very large national audience. Did this make your name a little more recognizable to listeners all over the country?

VT:  Here's the funny thing about this life: you really don't know what's going on out there, so far as people's perception of you.  You can do research—scour blogs and comments online, look at sales reports—but it's hard to say how awareness and popularity develop exactly.  I was pretty green when I played Letterman; I'd never performed for more than a hundred people at that point, much less gone on a well-known syndicated TV show.  I stuffed myself with as much bravado as I could manage, and pulled it off OK.  I don't know how many people remember me from that one night; if they do, they probably remember a girl who looked thrilled to be there and played her song a little too fast, and nearly missed Dave coming over to say congratulations when it was over.  I'd love another shot at it now, six years later.

CEV:  How do you feel about your live performances? Is doing your music live something you look forward to after you have written a bunch of new songs that you want to share?

VT:  The immediacy of playing live is addictive, for sure.  I love feeling the audience's energy.  The stage is usually a comfortable place for me—I like creating something together with a roomful of people, showing them how the songs they care about are in fact living, evolving creatures.  But I'm currently at a point where I'm dissatisfied with myself as a performer...I want to play different instruments, get my chops up so my band can be more spontaneous, lose myself entirely in the moment when I'm playing.  I'd like to thrill and entertain and provoke thought in people.  There's a little bit of that in the shows now, but there's so much further to go.  It's that "queer, divine dissatisfaction" that Martha Graham talked about, I guess.

CEV:  Where are you headed next with your music? Are you still feeling the pull to keep moving in new directions? How will you get there?

VT:  I have a new album coming out next year (2009); we're just finishing up recording it now.  When I was writing the songs for it, they seemed to separate into three distinct groups, which was interesting.  One is more rock: drums, guitars, a little grit, and the lyrics are more grandiose in scope.  Another is a kind of chamber-pop song cycle about a relationship, from giddy to despondent to resignation and cautious hope.  And the third is a handful of folk songs about family and family history.  It's a pretty sprawling project, the most complex album I've ever made.  One of my bandmates and close friends, Alex Wong, is producing it with me, and a lot of musicians we admire and collaborate with are on it.  I'm sort of terrified for it to come out, because I'm so excited and proud of how it's shaping up, which is always a vulnerable place for your ego to be.
(Editor's note: see EPK below for more details on Vienna Teng's latest album Inland Territory)

CEV:  Watching your EPK for Inland Territory you mention that the album name comes from the idea of setting out to explore new areas similar to looking at a map and plotting out a journey. Do you see Inland Territory as exploring new horizons in terms of your own music, your life and what you expect from yourself? Will your fans see you as stepping out from your comfort zone on this album and will they see some new sides to Vienna Teng that hadn't been out there on display before?

VT:  I really hope so.  I'm grateful to have fans who not only let me explore new ground with each album, but actually look forward to seeing where my music goes next.  Sometimes it's out of both my comfort zone and theirs at first, but they always give it a fair hearing, which I appreciate!  There are a lot of things on this album that required me to take a deep breath and just go for it, whether it was writing about difficult topics or singing in a new way.  And of course there's the diversity of sounds, a lot more sonic adventurousness and ambition—credit for that goes to producer Alex Wong, who did some incredible work on this record.

CEV:  I really enjoyed the song The Last Snowfall. The voices just blend so well and allow the listener to float along with the lyrics and the melody. Tell me about the creation of this song and the voices you recruited that allowed you to create such an ethereal feel to this song.

VT:  I've noticed that I tend to lead off my albums with the "gift" song— the one that comes easiest, that opens the gate for others to be written.  I wrote The Last Snowfall in one day, intertwining voices and all.  Some of it came from humming on the subway.  It's a simple

thought: reframe everyday experience so you can see that it's precious, sacred even.  Then when we were sequencing the album we realized that all the songs are about that, in a way, and The Last Snowfall was the one that said it most directly. 

I had particular singers in mind as soon as it was finished, all of them songwriters as well: Noe Venable, who has this wonderfully wise sound to her voice; Odessa Chen, an ethereal soprano; and Ari Hest, with his warm, resonant baritone.  Alex had the idea of recording us all live in a church, which was a lot of fun.

CEV:  I think that one of my favorite songs on this album is Stray Italian Greyhound and it is not only the lyrics that grab me but your delicate vocal styling and the orchestrations and the wonderful piano playing that shines so brightly on this palette of sound. Tell me about what inspired you in writing this song and what it is that you would like listeners to take away from the lyrics as it relates to the ups and downs of life that we all face?

VT:  I'd been thinking about those times when you start to believe in something, start to get excited and hopeful, but you can't or don't want to admit it yet.  Around that time Barack Obama launched his presidential campaign, and I saw it happening all around me: people trying to talk themselves out of this immense optimism that he brought out in them.  Cynicism is a much safer place to live.  But there are times when it's worth taking a leap of faith, even if it doesn't turn out as you expect, even if you might get hurt.  I wanted to write a song that was equal parts anxiety and exhilaration.

I love Alex's orchestration on this song: the strings, the drums, the little electronic sparkles.  The vocal was actually one of the more difficult ones to get right—we recorded the whole thing and then scrapped it, because it felt too clean, too poised.  Then suddenly I got the idea of ticklishness, singing as though there was someone poking a feather at my bare feet or something, like I was laughing against my will.  It sounds silly, but it really worked.

CEV:  Tell me about the role that Alex Wong played in helping you to realize this project and how he helped hold together such a wide variety of musical styles but still allowed it to breathe as a collection of songs that speaks of Vienna Teng and her musical journey so far.

VT:  I met Alex years ago at an open mic, where I fell in love with a song from his previous band, The Animators.  I've always admired him as a musician; he approaches everything with a producer's ear, always listening to the song as a whole, whether he's playing drums or writing a woodwind arrangement or coming up with lyrics for a second verse.  With this album I wanted to dig deep into the production process, but I didn't feel ready to take it on all on my own, so Alex was the ideal collaborator for me—he gave me room to realize a lot of my own ideas and try my hand at directing sessions, choosing players, composing for other instruments and so on, but there was always someone who actually knew what he was doing!  And because we had this familiarity, this shared sense of what we like in music, I could trust his instincts, even when we were getting pretty far afield from what I'd done on an album before.

CEV:  Judging from what I saw on your YouTube EPK when it talked about the creation of Grandmother Song you had a good time. Did you have a process in mind for how you were going to record this tune or was it pretty much a learn as you go once you got the singers and musicians together? How did that alter what finally ended up on the album as compared to what might have been if you had done it in a more traditional studio setting?

VT:  At their best, producers are architects of spontaneity—they create the right environment, bring in the right people, and let the magic happen.  Grandmother Song is one of those songs that had to sound loose and live in order to work as a recording, so I wanted to try leaving some things up to chance.  The singers only rehearsed with me for an hour or two, so some of what they did they made up on the spot, or came out accidentally.  We were recording in a family's house on a Sunday afternoon when they had friends over, so we recruited all of them to clap and stomp along, also with minimal rehearsal.  Recording live in one room also meant that the performance had to be a single take, no editing, which put everyone in a kind of OK-we-really-have-to-go-for-it mentality.  We had a fabulous time.  I'd love to record like that more in the future.

CEV:  Was there anything about the locations themselves where you recorded this album that contributed to the final ambience of the songs as they appear in this collection? 

VT:  Definitely.  The little church where we did The Last Snowfall was warm and full of light, which is how we wanted the song to sound.  

All the history and vitality of that old Victorian house where we recorded Grandmother Song and In Another Life—I think you can hear that energy in the performances.  Some of the studio settings made a difference too.  I recorded the vocals for Watershed by myself, in pitch darkness, at Alex's place in Brooklyn, which was the only way I could do something ridiculous like singing from an entire planet's point of view.

CEV:  Was it easier for you to record a "mix" album like this or do you find it easier when you are dealing with a collections of songs with a common theme and a recurring emotional message?

VT:  It's certainly a more complicated process to make this kind of album.  Every song is a recording project unto itself.  But as a listener I enjoy the mix-tape effect that comes out of it, and hopefully others out there do too.

To some extent the variety is out of my control, since I write slowly and usually want to put any song I'm happy with onto the next album. Certain songs emerge from particular phases in my life, and usually they don't have a single recurring theme or emotional tone.  I guess I'm often going through many things at once.

CEV:  Will you be going out on the road and performing songs from Inland Territory live during 2009?

VT:  Yes, into 2010 as well.  Alex and I perform as a duo—it's wonderful to have the producer of the album playing it live on the road.  He assembles a different setup for his percussion and effects for every tour, according to the songs we're playing and how he's re-arranged them.  This past spring we added a cellist/electric guitarist, Ward Williams, to the mix.  It's a joy to play with two musicians who bridge the classical, folk and pop/rock worlds so comfortably.

CEV:  Any thoughts you'd like to share on Inland Territory that you haven't been able to speak to during the interviews that you have conducted up to this point?

VT:  I love the visuals that accompany the album.  Conventional wisdom goes that an album sells better with a photo of the artist on the cover, at least for singer-songwriters, but I really wanted the cover to be a work of art unto itself.  October Illustrations (Shannon Stamey) did a wonderful job creating that image, on very short notice at that.  And Kellie Kano is my favorite photographer to work with so far—her photos are somehow true-to-life and have this heightened romanticism to them at the same time.

CEV:  Did you have a set group of musicians that were with you the whole way on Inland Territory or did it vary from song to song and style to style? Was that easier or harder for you?

VT:  Alex was the one constant in the process, along with the engineer who recorded and mixed the album, Eddie Jackson.  We called on a lot of different friends for different songs—Kaki King worked her guitar magic on No Gringo and St. Stephen's Cross, jazz clarinetists Beth Custer and Ben Goldberg played on In Another Life, and so on.  Most of the musicians came in for a day or two at most.  I enjoy working that way because you have a lot of freedom in the kinds of sounds you can create.  But next time I'd like to try opposite: put together an ensemble, rehearse the songs, maybe take it on the road first.  Then play it all together in the studio, live, make the whole album in a week or two.  But it all depends on what the new songs require.  

That's what I've learned: you have to ask the songs what they want to become, and do your best to carry out their answer.

CEV: And with that I want to thank you for working on this interview when you could find the time while you were out on the road and for sharing with the readers of CEV your thoughts about your career in general and especially about your latest release Inland Territory. Great having you be a part of Cutting Edge Voices. Good luck and may each of your new projects be an exploration of new musical territories.