Meet Vienna Teng v2.0

Vienna Teng talks with Pollstar about her new home in Detroit and how the Motor City influenced her upcoming album.

It’s been four years since Teng released her last studio album, 2009’s Inland Territory.  Since then she enrolled at the University of Michigan graduate school where she studied sustainability and earned an MBA from the Ross School of Business and an MS from the School of Natural Resources and Environment.  Add that to her computer science degree from Stanford University and you have an artist who is as comfortable around computer code, economics and nature as she is with songwriting and performing.

Teng enjoyed her time in Michigan.  So much, in fact, that she moved to Detroit upon completing her degrees.

The songstress took a different approach to the recording process for Aims, scheduled for a Sept. 24 release. Teng brought unfinished pieces into the studio, and with the help of producer Cason Cooley (Katie Herzig, William Fitzsimmons) and an all-star cast of Nashville musicians along with moments of software wizardry, turned the fragments into complete songs.

For Aims’ cover art, Teng used a colorful graphic created by Stephen Von Worley for Data Pointed in Santa Cruz, Calif., that depicted Detroit’s population changes from the year 2000 to 2010.  But Veng saw more than statistics and colors used to show people moving in and out of the city.  Instead, she saw stories that cried out to be told.

Photo: Shervin Lainez

Your new album takes up Detroit’s economic plight and the artwork is filled with graphics portraying the Motor City’s financial woes.  How did this come about?

I was writing these songs while I was in grad school in a sustainability program, but I was also in the business school as part of my schooling.  There were some students who started a group basically showcasing the cool entrepreneurial things that are happening in Detroit.  The more I hung out with those people and the more I spent time with the students in the sustainability program, I realized they’re actually fighting the same fight.  They’re trying to get people to notice, No. 1, the importance of what is going on in these places, and No. 2, there are some amazing things happening that just need more momentum and more people to kind of tune into it, and that there are a lot of things to be hopeful about in the middle of some pretty … depressing stuff.

That was sort of what made me realize that that’s the point of view that all of the songs on this album were going to come from.  They were going to be about being in love with the world with your eyes wide opened.  Figuring out how to be optimistic and how to get up in the morning being excited about what you are going to do while also being fully cognizant of how serious things are and how complicated things are.

When I saw the map it struck me as more than a beautiful individual vision. It felt like it was a picture with so many different stories in it and you had to look carefully for some of the stories.  I felt like, “Yeah, that’s kind of what I’m trying to do with my music, too.”  That’s why I did it. I asked if I could make it the album cover.  Fortunately the guy who created the image (Stephen Von Worley) said “Yes.”

Photo: Stephen Von Worley

Did you already know what the album would sound like before you went into the studio?

I never know what it is going to sound like [laughs].  I go in with some notion.  In this case I actually had even less of a notion because the songs weren’t even done. I think I finished two or three of the songs and the rest were in various states of incompletion or confusion.  One of the reasons I wanted to work with this producer, Cason Cooley, was I liked the way he talked about the process when we first got on the phone.  He said, “I really like to take some time and make a big mess. … When you and I can get into the studio and not feel like we have to be producing something that’s final. That we just get to explore and go down whatever road we [end up] going down.”

That’s pretty much exactly what we did for the first couple of weeks.  We just messed around, threw out ideas and recorded versions of things we ended up not using. That was a really fun process of discovery.

Were there a lot of remnants left on the cutting room floor?

To some extent.  And part of that was enabled by the way we recorded, which was mostly [using] the computer and the sound library. So we were able to quickly mock things up that sounded pretty big and eclectic. We could use synthesizers and string orchestras … whatever it was.  But then we could also decide the next day we didn’t want any of that and start over with the horn section.

Regarding the instrumentation, would you say this is the busiest album you have recorded?

There’s a lot of different layers that we’re trying to create. … It’s an urban landscape rather than a country pastoral landscape.

You recorded the album in Nashville. Did you ever consider recording in Detroit?

I did think about that. Some people did ask, “If you’re so passionate about Detroit, why not make the album in Detroit?” Honestly, it was just because I happened to use a producer [in Nashville].  His studio was there and his whole network of musicians is there.  I tend to end up, location-wise, based on who I am collaborating with.  The graphic design for the album was done by Skidmore Studio which is in downtown Detroit.  That was fun.

How are you going to take this sound on the road?

[laughs] Well, my touring crew got together for rehearsals a couple of weeks ago and both the musicians I’m touring with have the same question.  They’re like, “You want us to try and recreate what the album sounds like?  Because we can do that. We’ll just have to have some tracks that we play back from the album.”

We pretty quickly figured that we didn’t want to do that.  We actually wanted to take the challenge of trying to translate this live and not try to replicate what is on the album.  So there are some parts that we are playing that are the same melodies but might be reimagined for three people on stage with a lot of instruments surrounding them.

You just did some solo dates.  Other than some of the obvious factors, such as lower costs, what are some of the other advantages of touring solo, when it’s just you and your piano?

I really enjoy different modes of performing live.  The benefit of touring solo, No. 1, I feel like I’m much more in a living room with the audience and that we can kind of make it up as we go along.  In the summer when I was playing the solo dates, I would generally come out without any setlist.  So I was playing, maybe, the first couple of songs that I figured I wanted to open with.  There were certain songs I wanted to get to.  And the rest of it was taking requests and asking them why they wanted to hear some songs. … There’s a greater looseness to it and I feel it’s much more like hanging out.

What I like about playing with a band, obviously, is that you get so much to work with, musically. It’s a little more of a structured show. You can heighten the theatrics of it a lot more and make it not just an intimate casual experience but something more epic. I really enjoy that, too.

I think that what we’re going to do on the fall tour is give people a little bit of both. There will be times when we’re surrounded by loopers and effects and creating all these big sounds and there will be other times when there will just be me on stage for a couple of songs or the three of us harmonizing with a guitar, sitting on the edge of the stage or something. We’re hoping to give people a range of experiences.

How versatile are the musicians in the trio? Can they turn on a dime and pull something out from your catalog of songs or perhaps take requests?

One of the guys, Alex Wong, he and I have known each other for years.  He and I toured together playing my music for a few years. So he’s certainly capable of that.

The other musician, Jordan Hamlin, she’s somewhat familiar with my music and she’s pretty quick on her feet.  I imagine at some point we just might throw something at her and watch her eyes get really big and she’ll probably play something beautiful on her first try.

What are your touring logistics like?  Do you travel on a bus? A van with a trailer?

We’re going to be in a Sprinter van. It’s nice. It has a cargo area built into the back and you don’t have to haul a separate trailer that someone can unhitch and drive off with in the middle of the night. It’s also more fuel efficient, it turns out, than the 15-passenger vans out there.

A lot of the articles written about you over the last few years talked about your student days at Stanford University when you studied computer science. At that time you were composing music and distributing it on campus.  Was there a specific point or event that made you decide to pursue music instead of computer science?

I do remember. It actually reached back as far as high school. There was one piano lesson I had with my teacher.  A really great teacher. I actually hadn’t been practicing that week.  The lesson began badly because I played the pieces and he stopped me and said, “It sounds the same as it did last week. You really haven’t made any progress. There’s no point in my giving you a lesson on this stuff. I’ll just tell you the same stuff I told you last week.”

Of course I was already kind of shamed-faced at that point.  [He said], “Let’s use the time to talk about something else.  You’re starting to think about where you’re going to go to college, what you might want to do with your life and I just want to ask you what aspirations you have.”

It ended up being this life-changing piano lesson that had nothing to do with the piano.  But that was actually when I first spelled out and said out loud to somebody else that I wanted to be a songwriter. My homework that week, in addition to practicing like I should have, was to write out a whole roadmap of every dream that I had.  Don’t rule out something that you think wouldn’t fit into one life. Maybe you can go to medical school, maybe you can be a novelist … but whatever it is you want to do, write how you’re going to get from here to there.  The milestones that indicate you’re making progress and how you are going to get to those milestones.

So I actually had to write it out.  First, I researched where the open mics were in my area. Then I went to the open mics and signed up.  It was that detailed. That really did change my life in terms of actually thinking music was a real option.  I think my parents sort of rued the day they let me have a piano teacher like that.  And college was a matter of making sense of that.

Do you see any similarities between writing songs and writing computer code?

I have found some parts of it to be very similar. Writing songs in general is obviously a bit more mysterious.  I’m not sure what magic it is that makes a song really work and have a life of its own. There are pieces of it that are very methodical.  You have a certain pattern, a certain rhythm in a melody.  You have something that you want to communicate and you have to figure out, like, “What are the words and syllables that are going to fall in the right way that will actually communicate both what I mean and have the right feel to them? And how do I take that rhythmic pattern and repeat it in the next line and make it build the right way?”  So there’s a lot of craftsmanship to it that also feels similar to trying to write elegant code.  A lot of puzzle and problem solving.  “OK. Now that I’ve committed to this part, then this other part has to look a certain way. But there are still a few different elegant ways to do it.”

And a lot of times you’re also dealing with deadlines and limitations.  Sometimes you can’t write the code that you really want to write because the platform you’re basing it on doesn’t let you or someone else’s code is already [there] and you have to incorporate that, somehow.  Writing [songs] is much the same way.  It’s like, “Well, this would be a great place for an intricate nylon-string guitar solo but I don’t play nylon-string guitar.  Given the fact that is not going to happen, what else is possible?”

What other instruments do you like playing other than piano?

I have had a long journey getting somewhat proficient on guitar but I really enjoy writing songs on guitar now. It’s kind of fun. … Using loopers and other vocal effects has become one of the powerful instruments I play.  I started playing a looper hooked up to my microphone a couple of years ago and that’s really expanded what I’m able to do live in creating harmonies, creating rhythms and patterns that I can bring back in some ways throughout the song.

And that has influenced the way I write, too.  A couple of the songs on the new album actually were sketches that started out with me recording with my looper and then trying to figure out how to build a song on them.

Do you focus on one element when writing, such as melody or lyrics, or is it more like multitasking in that you’re working on words, lyrics, rhythms and patterns simultaneously?

I realized, even after all this time, I have no method at all when it comes to writing.  I feel like I’m a begger that can’t be a chooser because I write very slowly.  Whenever things come I just try to roll with however there seems to be momentum at the time.  Sometimes I’m sitting at the piano and singing nonsense lyrics and the nonsense lyrics coalesce into real words and that’s a matter of me not over-thinking it too much and making sure I have a recorder going so I can keep singing whatever is coming off the top of my head.

And other times it’s much more celebrant. I sit down and sweat over words for days at a time. And at the end of the day I’ve realized I’ve written two lines that I like and the rest of it is terrible and I just have to come back the next day.  And sometimes it’s just music for weeks and months on end with no words at all.

Songwriting seems like such a solitary experience.  When you’re with other songwriters, do you and your peers ever complain to each other about the difficulties of your profession?

I think everyone has a different experience with it.  I have friends who say they hear melodies all the time and that they’re always hearing songs. Sometimes the challenge for them is to make sure they are somewhere to document all of the music that’s in their heads.  That’s not my experience.  My experience is going through long dry spells of not hearing anything.  Actually, sometimes it only comes when I sit down and force myself to practice or just to come up with stuff even though I don’t feel inspired.  Somehow, working through the lack of inspiration leads somewhere interesting.

Some people definitely write more collaboratively than they do anything else.  My friend Alex, I think does most of his songwriting as collaborations with other people where you’re sitting in a room and actually talking to them about what you want a song to be.

That’s another new thing for me with this album.  Some of them are collaborations, songs I wrote with other people in the room trying to figure it out with me.  I think it took me a long time to realize that it was possible.  I have thought of [songwriting] as a solitary thing, something I’m very protective about.  Realizing that it doesn’t have to be that way, that I can have a song I’m very excited about and bring it to another person without having ideas of how it’s going to turn out.  [Then] play around with it and see what happens.

Is there a feeling of anxiety or self-consciousness the first time you play a song for someone?

Definitely.  I feel like sometimes songs have different personalities.  Some that just emerge already pretty self-confident. Then there are others that take forever to find their footing or sense of self-assurance.

One of the songs [on Aims], “The Hymn Of Acxiom,” pretty much from the moment I finished it, I think [the song] felt like, “People are going to respond to me.  Yep!  I’m good. People are going to respond.”  And they have, which is great.

And there’s another song that actually ended up being the opening song on Aims called “Level Up,” which is kind of ironic because the whole song is meant to be this pep talk and the tone is very self-confident and a kind of a call to action.

Liner notes on your advance press says, “Welcome To Vienna Teng 2.0.”  Exactly what does this upgrade entail?   Are we upgrading from 1.0, 1.5, 1.6?

I think my going to graduate school was a pretty clear demarcation, I guess.  So I probably was at version 1.8, 1.85 or something like that.  This definitely feels like a new relationship with music that I have now. It’s a lot more open.  I definitely opened up the whole mysterious songwriting process, recording process and everything else to total strangers or people I hadn’t worked with before.  There’s been a lot of that from the Kickstarter campaign for my music video to total co-writing all these different songs to including submissions from Facebook.  That’s been me embracing my 2.0 in the way I write music. It’s been really fun.

I think the other part is … I felt like what I had to write has to come from a joyful place.  I didn’t want it to come from a place that’s melancholy or even just brooding contemplation.  I wanted to push myself to really write things that have this hopeful attitude and tell stories that are about something bigger than me looking into my navel.

Considering the Detroit-aspects of the album, was it hard to be in that joyful place when writing the songs?

No and I think that’s what I really want to communicate with this album.  Living in Detroit and meeting people in Detroit is actually where I found this joy I’m writing from.  Because these are the people who have taught me that you can be surrounded by things that are really hard and actually find a lot strength and hope in each other and in what you believe in.  And noticing things other people may not notice.  I think having that sense of wonder and that sense of we’re in this thing together and we’re having fun doing it.

What gadgets or devices do you rely on?

I’m actually surprisingly only medium tech-savvy given that I majored in computer science.  I can make myself at home as long as I have change of clothes, a toothbrush, some contact lens solution and my iPhone and my Apple computer. Which at the moment is my MacBook Air.  I think my iPhone is the thing I rely on most. That’s the device that has internet access no matter where I am. Location-savvy so it can tell me what’s around me.  Pretty much from the moment I became an iPhone user, I realized how you can live your life without something and from the moment you own it you’re like, “I don’t know how I ever lived without this thing?”

Do you use the record feature for whenever the muse strikes?

I do.  I use a number of different apps.  There’s one called FourTrack which I use to sketch out quick things when I’m on the move, when I want to have multiple voices and multiple instruments. Other times for more simple things I use the voice-memo function or I use the SoundCloud app and then immediately post it for someone else to listen to.

Looking back at your journey so far, if you could give that high-school/piano student Vienna Teng any advice, what would you tell her?

Mostly I would tell her it’s going to be a great ride. It’s going to be a lot of fun.  I recently met with this songwriter who’s kind of starting out.  She asked me, “What are the mistakes you made along the way or what do you wish you had started doing sooner?”

I guess if I were to tell my younger self anything, it would be to embrace all aspects of  your place in the music business … because you’re going to have to care about them one way or another.  It’s better that you have the natural curiosity about them rather than being dragged kicking and screaming or to ignore them at your peril.  The biggest thing I had a resistance to when I was young was the idea of having to have an image. It was like, “I don’t like the idea of photo shoots.  I don’t like the idea of having a look or having to care about my album look or logo or whatever.  It shouldn’t be about that.”

But I’ve come to realize that that is actually a big part of your statement as an artist. It doesn’t come naturally to me and it never has. 

The more I decided it was going to a fun project for me to learn about it and try to become good at it, I’ve been nourishing it. That’s why this album has been so fun. I totally embraced the idea that the album artwork should have a concept and the photo shoot should have a concept.  That’s actually been a part of what it’s always been about. It’s fun approaching the whole album release like an art project.

Photo: Shervin Lainez
“I sit down and sweat over words for days at a time. … And sometimes it’s just music for weeks and months on end with no words at all.”

Upcoming dates for Vienna Teng:

Sept. 25 – Evanston, Ill., SPACE
Sept. 26 – Ann Arbor, Mich., The Ark
Sept. 27 – Ann Arbor, Mich., The Ark
Sept. 28 – Kent, Ohio, The Kent Stage
Sept. 30 – Northampton, Mass., Iron Horse Music Hall
Oct. 1 – Boston, Mass., Royale Nightclub Boston
Oct. 2 – Norfolk, Conn., Infinity Hall
Oct. 3 – Uncasville, Conn., Wolf Den
Oct. 4 – New York, N.Y., HighLine Ballroom
Oct. 5 – Blairstown, N.J., Blairstown Theatre
Oct. 6 – Annapolis, Md., Rams Head On Stage
Oct. 8 – Philadelphia, Pa., World Cafe Live
Oct. 9 – Bethlehem, Pa., Musikfest Cafe At ArtsQuest Center
Oct. 10 – Washington, D.C., The Hamilton
Oct. 11 – Asheville, N.C., The Altamont Theatre
Oct. 12 – Durham, N.C., Carolina Theatre
Oct. 13 – Decatur, Ga., Eddie’s Attic
Oct. 15 – Koblenz, Germany, Cafe Hahn
Oct. 16 – Karlsruhe, Germany, Tollhaus
Oct. 17 – Kaiserslautern, Germany, Kammgarn
Oct. 18 – Freiburg, Germany, Jazzhaus
Oct. 19 – Stuttgart, Germany, Theaterhaus
Oct. 20 – Nuremberg, Germany, Hotel Maritim
Oct. 22 – Helmbrechts, Germany, Burgersaal
Oct. 23 – Dresden, Germany, Lukaskirche
Oct. 24 – Leipzig, Germany, Peterskirche
Oct. 25 – Kassel, Germany, Staatstheater Kassel
Oct. 26 – Worpswede, Germany,  Music Hall
Oct. 27 – Bernau, Germany, Ofen Bar
Oct. 28 – Hamburg, Germany, Fabrik Hamburg
Oct. 29 – Neustadt, Germany, Schloss Landestrost
Oct. 30 – Heppenheim, Germany, Cafe Bistro
Oct. 31 – Mainz, Germany,  Frankfurter Hof
Nov. 1 – London, United Kingdom, Bush Hall
Nov. 7 – Austin, Texas, World Theatre
Nov. 8 – The Woodlands, Texas, Dosey Doe
Nov. 9 – Dallas, Texas, The Kessler Theater
Nov. 11 – Phoenix, Ariz., MIM Music Theater
Nov. 13 – Los Angeles, Calif, Largo
Nov. 14 – Livermore, Calif., Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center
Nov. 16 – San Francisco, Calif., The Independent (Two shows – 6:30 & 9:30 p.m.)
Nov. 19 – Portland, Ore., Mississippi Studios
Nov. 20 – Seattle, Wash., The Neptune
Nov. 22 – Sacramento, Calif., Assembly
Nov. 23 – Saratoga, Calif, Carriage House Theatre
Dec. 4 – Nashville, Tenn., The Basement
Dec. 5 – St. Louis, Mo., Old Rock House
Dec. 6 – Lawrence, Kan., Lawrence Art Center
Dec. 7 – Tulsa, Okla., The Vanguard
Dec. 8 – Cedar Rapids, Iowa, CSPS
Dec. 10 – Minneapolis, Minn., Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant
Dec. 11 – Denver, Colo., Soiled Dove Underground
Dec. 13 —  Albuquerque, N.M., Outpost Perf. Space
Dec. 14 – Salt Lake City, Utah, The State Room 

Please visit for more information.