“It’s such cool and eccentric but such deeply emotional and innovative music and it’s so hard to achieve all of those things at the same time.”
Vienna Teng was expressing her admiration for another musician last week when she said that, not for a moment considering she was describing her own latest ambitious and remarkable project.
So let’s say it for her: Witness the musical rebirth of Vienna Teng with Aims, an album on which she not only brings emotion and innovation but also euphoria and intelligence.
For the singer-songwriter who has been playing classical piano since her parents signed her up for lessons almost three decades ago, Aims is a definite departure from her four previous studio albums in a career going back to 2002. And the conscious decision to go in a different direction resulted in an artistic achievement that will leave an everlasting impression.
The album, her first full length since 2009’s Inland Territory, will be released September 24 and has been years in the making. But then Teng, whose results from an IQ test taken at age 4 remain her father’s secret, has had a lot on her brilliant, beautiful mind.
“I think overall I had this strong sense that I wanted to write joyful music,” Teng said over the phone from Detroit, where she currently resides. “And I think that’s part of why I knew it would take me a long time because I instinctively write sort of depressed, melancholy music.” (laughs)
Not willing to rest on her laurels or stay glued to her piano bench, Teng parlayed her sense of adventure and thirst for knowledge into a role as graduate student at the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute, a partnership between the School of Natural Resources and Environment and the Ross School of Business.
It was only natural that during her time studying sustainability in graduate school, the songs would gradually come to her.
“Well, I have to say that this was, I wouldn’t say the easiest, but it was definitely the most fun I’ve ever had in making an album,” Teng offered. “I think that had a lot to do with the fact that it kind of came together while I was in graduate school. And I didn’t have so much riding on it. It wasn’t my life and career. ... I definitely had a lot of time to live my life and kind of let it all percolate.”
Teng wanted this to be a more collaborative process than she previously experienced in the studio.
“I have an interesting relationship with the piano because, of course, I’ve played it almost all my life,” she said of the instrument where most of her previous songs have emanated.
“So on the one hand I feel like it’s definitely the place that feels most comfortable and it also feels like the place where I get too comfortable. Where I kind of resort to the same things over and over again. There’s definitely more things I could explore.”
She vows to eventually return to a “simple” piano/vocal album, though anyone who studies Chopin preludes and composes for theater musicals (The Fourth Messenger) in her spare time does nothing simple. Now, though, it’s time to celebrate Teng’s renaissance.
Relying less on the piano (on about half the tracks) and more on producer Cason Cooley’s loaded computer of sound libraries that range from African drum beats to orchestral instruments, Teng was thrilled to enhance songs dealing with heady subjects (Occupy Movement, Body Identity Integrity Disorder, privacy issues) that will challenge listeners.
She sounds smart enough to pull it off, and offers help to those who need it. A deluxe version of the album will even include a hard-bound booklet with an infographic explaining how and when these songs got written, some as far back as 2010.
Feeling comfortable using a looper live or while writing songs such as “Copenhagen (Let Me Go),” the avowed night owl would often spend hours in front of the computer with her producer piecing together sounds that didn’t seem like electronic gimmickry.
When they hit a brick wall, Teng and Cooley also went on Spotify to check out artists such as Jay-Z, Magnet (Norwegian singer-songwriter Even Johansen), Beck or Foster the People to take them in the right direction.
If that all sounds daunting, fear not. Technological advancements for a musician are liberating, Teng believes, but she also realizes “how easily you can get lost in that, too.”
The album breezes by with a tuneful approach that blends classical gas (“Oh Mama No”), steady bursts of percussion (“In the 99"), lovesick power pop (“Flyweight Love”) and a glorious a cappella performance that’s almost all Teng (other than hitting what she called the “Barry White button”) on "The Hymn of Acxiom," which turns into an eerie reflection from Big Brother’s point of view.
Keeping her fingers crossed that her message resonates emotionally without being preachy or too heavy-handed, Teng hopes to accomplish what “really good documentary filmmakers” are able to pull off, just within “the space of a 3- or 4-minute song.”
“But then telling you a story about something that I want people to think about or that I want them to be aware of or be reminded of or see it in a new way,” Teng explained. “I think that the music that inspires me the most is the music that kind of works on all these levels. Where it’s really engaging musically and you can just kind of sing along with it mindlessly without really thinking about what it’s about. But if you care to actually engage in that conversation with it, then you find that there’s a lot of going on.”
That's a lesson Teng apparently learned early in life.
What’s in a name?
Born in Saratoga, California, to Chinese parents who grew up in Taiwan, Cynthia Yih Shih decided at the age of 12 or so to make a new name for herself. (Vienna from the Austrian capital; Teng from the late Taiwanese pop singer Teresa Teng). But even as early as 1 or 2, she said her father Mien and mother Nancy were amazed by Cynthia’s sense of rhythm and sense of pitch when she sang.
Songwriting and piano-playing soon followed as young Cynthia decided to follow in the footsteps of her father, who wrote three-chord guitar ditties that included love songs for his wife and lullabies to his two daughters and son.
Her parents, still living in the San Francisco Bay area, continue to call their elder daughter Cynthia (who will celebrate her 35th birthday on October 3 on a tour stop at the Mohegan Sun Casino) or by her given Chinese name. Except when there’s a mixup while picking up tickets at the box office where Teng’s performing. That’s when Nancy calls herself “Vienna’s mother.”
“She’s like, ‘It’s such a funny thing to say because it’s not what we named you,’ ” Teng recalled of such an instance.
Cynthia never did legally become Vienna Teng, but both names feel authentic to her even today and are used almost on an equal basis. She said the latter “felt right for music specifically. And I think I started out thinking it was some type of disguise, a stage name I could hide behind in some way. But thinking about it more recently, I am genuinely this person.”
On the move
Teng admits “this person” sometimes makes “impulsive decisions.”
Like moving to Detroit.
Not the type of career move one would expect a West Coast-raised musician with classical tendencies to make. Especially after hearing from fellow MBA students in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that the prevalent view about the Motor City today is as “this dysfunctional city with huge empty buildings everywhere and it’s like this post-apocalyptic place of failure.”
Those same students helped Teng keep an open mind as she got involved in several projects beginning in 2011, including working with a group that recently was responsible for bringing a Whole Foods store to the area.
Her courtship with Detroit, she joked, was “almost an arranged marriage kind of thing” since she knew little about it after years of living in the Bay Area and, more recently, New York.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be like Chicago or San Francisco or Portland or Denver, where you can kind of just move in and immediately find lots of ... a cool neighborhood to live in with lots of stuff going on,” Teng said. “But I did start to just meet people and I just really liked everyone that I met because they had a certain, I don’t know, a certain ethos about them. A sense of, ‘I’m here to contribute something. I’m here because I care about the whole community. Whatever I’m doing is part of a bigger cause, even if it’s just opening a store or going to my job, but then participating in things happening in the city.’
“So there’s a lot of civic pride here in a way that I haven’t experienced in other places.”
Now a map of Detroit by Stephen Von Worley visualizing population changes from 2000 to 2010 is the Aims cover art. This infatuation may be more than a passing passion.
Teng isn’t a homeowner yet (“I’m currently enjoying paying less in rent for more space than I ever have before,” she said, laughing), but one day plans to be.
“Yeah, I’m having a great time here,” she said. “And I have to admit, part of the appeal is when I tell people I’m from Detroit, it’s immediately interesting to them. (laughs) It’s definitely a conversation starter.”
Paying it forward
Teng takes extra steps to show how much she appreciates her fans, not only getting into discussions on Facebook and trading tweets on Twitter but also eliciting help for a heartfelt intro to the deliciously sweet “Flyweight Love.”
Asking for submissions to record various voices for an intro to a song that celebrates “unconventional relationships,” Teng was inspired by the “poignant interviews” heard on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Voices of Old People” that led into “Old Friends” on 1968’s Bookends.
Now some of her friends — new and old — are giving back by literally buying into what she has to offer.
With recording in Nashville completed, a Kickstarter campaign to make a music video for the album-opening “Level Up” was launched August 13 with a modest $20,000 goal. Her presentation was as inspirational as the song, with motivational lyrics that speak volumes:
Everybody here has loved and lost,
so level up and love again.
call it any name you need.
call it your 2.0, your rebirth, whatever —
so long as you can feel it all,
so long as all your doors are flung wide.
call it your day #1 in the rest of forever.
The project was funded on the first day during a Teng plane ride.
Additional stretch goals were met that will allow her to make concert debuts in China (where she visited only once with her father when she was 11), and first-time visits to Australia and the Philippines during 2014.
“I think the generosity and the magnitude of that is still sinking into me,” Teng said, knowing there are fans throughout the world — including an Australian backer who donated $5,000 — just dying to see her perform.
First, though, America gets to catch her act. The plan is to film the Lawrence Chen-directed video in New York the weekend before her massive fall and winter tour begins on September 25. Performing instrumentally dense Aims songs live as a trio will be a challenge, Teng concedes.
Two friends, both talented multi-instrumentalists, will join her. Alex Wong, who produced her previous album, cowrote and sang on “The Breaking Light,” a peaceful piece with sounds of chirping birds that are actually real. Nashville’s Jordan Hamlin, who studied classical French horn but also plays bass and electric guitars, accordion and more, is so versatile that she tours with an assortment of artists that have included the Beach Boys, Etta James, Missy Higgins, Michael Bolton and Brandi Carlile.
Teng said the first thing they asked was: “How close do want this to sound to the album?”
While using loopers and other effects to develop the performance, Teng said they’ll “re-imagine” the material but wants “it to be a really live experience where people can see us building the whole thing from scratch.”
Just another case of the reward exceeding the risk. Call it preaching to the Vienna choir, who will benefit from all this, too.
With almost 1,500 backers raising more than $82,000, Teng is amazed by the public vote of confidence that validates her role not only as a musician but also as a human being.
“The idea that there’s a community of people out there who just like what I do and want me to keep doing it, whatever that is,” she said. “So definitely it made me extremely humble and grateful to have the audience that I have. I hope it’s not unusual but it feels unusual to have, in some cases, total strangers caring about how your life is going and what you want to be doing.”
The comments Teng delivered so eloquently about Blake at the top of this article were in response to a question about her entertaining online Q&A bio, where she states, “These days I’m influenced by whoever intimidates me.”
In this interview, she also said of Blake: “It’s kind of rare to have so much universal respect for somebody but it’s definitely well-deserved, in my opinion.”
Those are deep thoughts, even for a woman sharp enough to rebrand herself as Vienna Teng 2.0. With an album that Aims to please, she undoubtedly will be the one to praise.