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The Suburbanite
  • Vienna Teng ‘Aims’ high with new album

  • Four days after the release of her new album, singer/songwriter Vienna Teng will perform with a trio featuring multi-instrumentalists Alex Wong and Jordan Hamlin at 8 p.m. Sept. 28 at the Kent Stage, 175 E. Main St., Kent. Barnaby Bright will open the show.

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  • Studies in contradiction often make for the most interesting of artists. Vienna Teng, and her latest release “Aims,” are no exception. The album is her first full-length release in four years, and it’s a marked musical departure from her previous four efforts.
    “There was a very specific reason (for the time gap) — I went to grad school and that definitely slowed things down,” Teng said. “And I do work glacially slowly. It sometimes takes a year or a year and a half to write a song. So with grad school, there were a lot of things percolating but not a lot of time to sit down and finish.”
    “Aims” will be released Sept. 24, and Teng will perform with a trio featuring multi-instrumentalists Alex Wong and Jordan Hamlin at 8 p.m. Sept. 28 at the Kent Stage, 175 E. Main St., Kent. Barnaby Bright will open the show.
    In 2010, Teng announced to her fans that she had been accepted into the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, where she recently received an MBA from the Ross School of Business and an MS from the School of Natural Resources and Environment. While on the surface the move might seem somewhat counterproductive to a rising musical career, its resultant impact on Teng’s art made all the sense in the world to the singer.
    “I have been active in (issues surrounding) environmental sustainability for a long time, but I didn’t want to just want to recycle and write bad songs about it,” Teng said. “And it renewed my relationship with music; Writing songs had become what I did — my job.”
    That job began, ostensibly, when Teng — a Taiwanese-American born in Saratoga, Calif. — was 5-years-old and began playing classical piano. Born Cynthia Yih Shih, Teng took her stage name “Vienna” from the capital city of Austria and “Teng” in homage to famous Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng.
    The circuitous route to four critically acclaimed studio albums and one live release began with a self-recorded collection at Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) which Teng simply intended to distribute on campus, where she was pursuing a degree in computer science.
    After graduating in 2000, Teng worked as a software engineer for Cisco Systems in San Jose but continued to write music and perform in her free time. In 2002, she signed with Virt Records and quit Cisco Systems to focus on her musical career, with a number of her self-produced recordings included on her debut album “Waking Hour.”
    Teng’s first major national exposure was on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition in January 2003, followed shortly thereafter by CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman. She since has made appearances on the CBS Saturday Early Show, CNN’s NewsNight with Aaron Brown and The Wayne Brady Show. She also has opened shows for Joan Baez, Shawn Colvin, Joan Osborne, India.Arie, Brandi Carlile, Sarah Harmer and Marc Cohn.
    Page 2 of 3 - “Waking Hour,” peaked at No. 5 on the Amazon.com bestseller list, and its follow-up, “Warm Strangers,” reached the No. 2 spot on Amazon.
    In 2006, Teng signed with Zoë/Rounder, releasing and touring heavily behind Dreaming Through The Noise and Inland Territory. The latter won the ninth annual Independent Music Awards “Vox Pop Vote” for best Folk/Singer-Songwriter Album.
    While returning to the studio after grad school was a no-brainer, Teng said she continued to wrestle with how to convey “all these big ideas” present in the bits and pieces of compositions collected over the past four years in a manner befitting her naturally emotive style.
    “I was trying to figure out how to make these ideas I’d been fleshing out during grad school personal,” she said. “Like with the song ‘In the 99’ — it started with a rhythm, and I had been hanging out with some friends and we came up with the refrain, which is about the Occupy Movement. There is a lot of very conscious hip-hop out there, so I started to listen to that a lot, and this was my attempt to write a hip-hop-type song with the images and elements of what is on my mind.”
    The conveyance of imagery over rote elements of standard pop songwriting, as it turned out, was more important to her fans than what instruments and equipment she and producer Cason Cooley brought into the studio for “Aims.”
    “I posted things on Soundcloud and invited people to give their opinions,” the normally musically guarded Teng said of but one of a number of new approaches she took in the recording of “Aims.” “I knew I wanted to work with (Cooley). He is a very good collaborator, and we had all these pieces. He said ‘that is great — some are finished, you have specific ideas about some, and some are just fragments. Let’s just get in the studio and make a big mess.’ ”
    Surprisingly, Teng said, the approach resulted in the most fun she has ever had in the studio.
    “Not that recording is a painful process, but I have always had the same feeling about my albums – ‘it is what it is, it’s the best I could do, I hope you like it,’ ” Teng said. “With this one, I actually sent out an email saying I am ‘indecently proud of’ this recording.”
    That sense of reckless adventure has extended to the live show where Teng and her three-piece band will be painting on a much more complex palate than her past solo-piano outings.
    “It will be fun, and there will be a lot of multi-tasking,” the deceptively deadpan Teng said with a chuckle. “My audience is used to the folk-acoustic (setting), so I have thought about whether this crowd is going to be open to electronic sounds; or will they accept them in the head more than the heart? Because we want to make an emotional connection.”
    Page 3 of 3 - For more information or to hear Vienna Teng’s music, visit her website www.viennateng.com