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Vienna Teng - "A mixed tape full of songs"

For several years, Vienna Teng has worked as software engineer—but from early childhood on, there was something else calling for her: She started to play classical piano at the age of five. Since then she studied and took lessons. And music was always a part of her life.

Vienna Teng

Finally Vienna Teng decided to quit her software job and gave a professional career as a singer/songwriter a chance: "I just wanted to try it, because I knew, if I live my whole life without trying to be a professional musician, it will ever be a regret of mine.", she explains and adds: "I just got very lucky, that it turned out to be a good decision." Recently Vienna Teng published her second album, "Inland Territory" , which has landed on solid pop-ground. However pop with some rough edges—Teng loves it a lot a to experiment and to defamiliarize what could otherwise be mainstream.

Carina Prange talked to Vienna Teng for Jazzdimensions.

Carina: You started playing the piano at the age of five. In which way is classical piano helpful for the music you play nowadays?

Vienna: I think, my background in classical piano obviously very much influences the way that I play the piano. Because piano is really my only instrument. Everything begins with the sort of classicly influenced piano playing, like all of the music kind of begins from there a lot of the time. I think also, I developed a deep appreciation for complex music by studying of course composers like Mozart, Beethoven and Bach and later on Debussy, Rachmaninov and so on.

So I think, when I decided to start writing pop music, I still wanted to use some of that complexity. And so even in simple songs I am always trying to have different layers to everything. A lot of the songs on the new album actually have a couple of different sections—almost like different movements—which of course is very common in classical music, too. So, the influences do show every now and again.

Vienna Teng

Carina: You called your music "chamber-folk"—how would you describe its essence in a few words?

Vienna: I would describe my music as pop music, that "has wandered a little bit". So the songs I write are essentially pop songs. There is usually a chorus or some kind of repetitive thing. And the songs are relatively short, but the arrangements are all sorts different genres. A little bit of jazz, a little bit of country, a little bit of folk—a little bit of rock sometimes. And sometimes a little bit into modern music. Some experiments with dissonance and with different, strange instruments. Sometimes there is a little bit of almost hip hop influence...

But most of the time it stays within pop and just draws it's influences from elsewhere. Also I guess the quality of my voice is sort of central to the music. I have a voice with a particular quality and so I think, the stories I tell come from partially feeling like I have the right voice to tell these stories. It's usually a very introspective story telling, kind of perspective. It's not often, that there is a lot of really raw emotion, there is just a lot of contemplation on the things and observation.

Vienna Teng

Carina: Another look back: When and why did you become sure that starting a career as a musician was the right and only thing to do?

Vienna: I don't think I ever knew that! (laughs) I think, I took a guess. I went to the school for engineering and then I worked as a software engineer. The whole time I was thinking, music was something that I had to try. I did not know, if I would succeed or whether I would be able to make the music that I thought I was capable of making. Or whether anybody would want to hear that music!

I think, I just wanted to try it, because I knew if I lived my whole life without trying to be a professional musician, it will ever be a regret of mine. I just got very lucky that it turned out to be a good decision.

Vienna Teng - "Inland Territory"

Carina: Would you say that being a musician requires a special attitude or a certain style of living?

Vienna: I think, that there are certain qualities, that someone needs in order to enjoy being a musician. You have to like traveling. You have to be okay with changing your environment all the time. And remarkably I would say you actually have to have a little bit of business sense, too. Because it's not like working for a company, where your salaries are determined and it's always clear what you have to do. In a lot of ways you are in charge of determining your own direction.

So you really have to be disciplined about knowing what you want to do. About what ressources you need to do it and who you can work with to best do that. And then also learning to work with and communicate with lot of different people. And I guess you also have to enjoy talking about yourself! (laughs) Because sometimes in interviews there is a lot of that.

Carina: You once said you are always looking for the "perfect pop song" combined with an "unexpected amount of depth". Where does this depth come from? Own experiences? Or from listening intensively to others and watching intensively what they do?

Vienna: Ah, I think, that that depth comes from being an educated listener to a wide variety of music. And then being able to appreciate music that is maybe not as prone to success as some other.

And also I think it comes from really—on the side of the song!—it comes from really good songwriting. Because the best songwriting isn't so complicated that it looses the listener. But it's able to say very complex things in simple words and using simple musical ideas.

Carina: You defined many of your songs as "internal monologues". Is that still the case and could writing songs be compared to writing a diary and then later on crossing out names of friends and too personal feelings?

Vienna: Well, there are many different styles of songwriting. I think, I have moved away from that a little bit—the internal monologue song has become a little less in my repertoire. I am more interested these days in what I call "short-story-songwriting". Where I, like a short-story-writer, am trying to make a very dramatic impression with a character and with a setting, with a mood and with kind of a story. Without filling in all of the details the way that you would for a longer novel.

And I think, pop songs can do that, too—where in three or four minutes you establish very clearly a certain mood or setting and the way that a person is feeling or thinking about things. And I really got interested in writing from points of view that I have never actually experienced personally! (laughs) Mostly because I think, I am pretty curious about the world and I haven't experienced that much. So I really think it's important for me to try and imagine the perspective of others. Because it gives me a lot more empathy and a lot more reason to look outward and not focus on myself so much.

Carina: If you compared your new album "Inland Territory" to "Dreaming Through The Noise", what would you pick as the main similarities and differences?

Vienna: I would say, the similarities are maybe in the general songwriting style. "Dreaming Through The Noise" did have a pretty eclectic mix of songs. The main difference though is that the production is very different. For the last album I worked with Larry Klein, who has a very strong aesthetic. He likes albums to have a very cohesive feel from beginning to end, using a lot of the same musicians, a lot of the same singing style, a lot of the same kinds of like piano playing techniques. So in that sense it made for a very coherent album from beginning to end.

But this time I wanted to try and go the opposite direction! Put each song in it's own world and have the album be a collection of all these different worlds. So from one song to another you may have a very quiet song with a choir and some strange crackling vinyl noises. The next song could be a rock song, the one after that have a string orchestra (laughs) ... I liked the idea of making a kind of "mixed tape album".

Vienna Teng

Carina: Some months ago you celebrated your 30th birthday. What did change with the new decade in your life?

Vienna: Well, I have been joking about it! Because my friends told me, that turning thirty was easy and turning 29 would be the hard part. Because when you turn 29, you spend the whole year with "my God, I am turning thirty!"

I actually felt very good, because for most of the year I was 29 I didn't feel worried at all. I have a pretty amazing life. I get to do what I want to do. And I get to work with and meet a lot of wonderful people. And I basically live in a little world of positivity. When I perform, it's a joyous location. When I am working on music, it's satisfying. I really have no complaints.

So turning thirty wasn't very scary and I just sort of looked forward to what else might happen. I'd really say one thing though: I have noticed that I have started forgetting words to old songs! (laughs) Now when I perform... Sometimes I don't plan the whole set and I ask the audience, what songs they'd want me to play. And sometimes they'll request a song from my first album or my second. Or maybe an old song that I didn't put on any album! And I find that sometimes right in the middle I forget the words... (laughs) Which didn't use to happen!

So I think, part of turning thirty is starting to accept that people do get older inevitable. And people start to loose things that they had when they were young. And to learn how to do that gracefully, I think, is the big lesson of the next decade.

Carina: You are born in California and your parents are Taiwanese with Chinese roots. Does it make a big difference in the USA to have an Asian appearence? Do similar problems occur as if you were Afro American?

Vienna: I cannot speak for all Asians, but I have never encountered anything that I would say is "negative racism", because I looked Chinese. I think, that the stereotypes associated with Asian Americans tend to be "more positive than negative". Apparently there is the perception that we work very hard, that we study a lot in school, that we become doctors and engineers. I think, sometimes those stereotypes can be limiting, but it's not necessarily bad. We don't face a lot of problems because of it.

If anything it's the perception within the Asian American community, that sometimes causes some friction. Because even within my own family for me to become a musician was very controversal. Because it's not a respected profession in Chinese culture. So I think it was difficult for some members of my family, especially like my grandmother, to really accept that this was what I chose to do with my life.

And I think, that there are a lot of young Asian Americans, who encounter that kind of pressure much more strongly than I did. If anything, it's the older generation of the Chinese and other Asian groups who may be preventing or inhibiting young people from going into the arts. And not the main culture.

Vienna Teng

Carina: Your hidden track from the album "Warm Strangers" you sang in Mandarin. To speak more than one language and to be part of different cultures, in which way does that widen the horizon?

Vienna: I think that it's good—and that I was automatically born with a kind of "global perspective". Because already within my own family there were two cultures: The American culture and the Chinese culture.

I think I always had an understanding of there being a lot of diversity in the world. And a lot of different ways of looking at things. So I think it's good to have that kind of perspective. And also my family was pretty aware of political events in history. So I think it was good to have that kind of emphasis, too. To grow up with a sense that it is important to be aware of these things!

Carina Prange

CD: Vienna Teng - "Inland Territory"
(Rounder Records / Universal 06011 4311252)

Vienna Teng im Internet: www.viennateng.com

Universal Music im Internet: www.jazzecho.de

Fotos: Pressefotos

© jazzdimensions 2009
erschienen: 21.4.2009
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