Vienna Teng makes moves on tour and with her new album
A lo-fi drum track shuffles at a medium volume as Vienna Teng presses the record button on a looping station that rests on the top of a gorgeous, midnight black grand piano. A familiar face for Teng, Alex Wong, sits behind the piano and gazes up at her as she begins to sing a gorgeous choral melody that floats from her mouth, natural and calm. The song progresses, Wong’s piano chords stabbing through and finding their place next to Teng’s voice, which she layers with her own recorded loop. She adds to it, singing on top of herself at a higher octave and recording that to layer with herself again for the final refrain in which she hums low and deep. This is a lover’s hymn, an angelic track titled “The Last Snowfall.”
Alright, alright. I wasn’t there. I watched it on YouTube, but I wish I could have been. I, along with the rest of Sacramento, will have an opportunity to see Vienna Teng accompanied by Alex Wong when they grace our presence at Marilyn’s. Their Oct. 16 Sacramento stop will be one of many on a 40-plus date U.S. tour that will span almost 25 states. And that’s just here. Before their U.S. tour began, Teng, along with Wong’s opening act The Paper Umbrella completed a European tour as well. With constant touring, their nomadic lifestyle hasn’t quite lent itself to familiar linens.
“I counted the other day,” recalls Teng. “The most consecutive nights that I’ve spent in the same bed has been three nights all year.”
As much as Teng loves traveling, playing and meeting new people, the prospect of having some time off to focus on more ordinary things like home-cooked meals or tending her own vegetable garden are becoming more and more attractive. And when that time comes for Teng, that’s when she’s able to be creative again and find her muse that will help lead her to songs she’s proud of. Teng looks to her audience for that approval.
“If I have connected with that audience and they like what I do, then I feel like I’ve done something right because that’s the kind of music that I try to make. How do I know when I’ve made something good? When I’ve made something in such a way that the people who look for the same thing in music that I do respond to it,” says Teng.
Vienna Teng is a classically trained pianist who has heard all the comparisons. Tori Amos? Check. Fiona Apple? Check. The list goes on, and let’s be honest here; there are thousands of female singer/songwriters who play piano. Teng, a Brooklyn resident, sets herself apart with the depth and clarity of her piano melodies, mixed with the tender sound of her voice that she has the ability to take in just about any direction. Those are the facts. What’s most interesting about Teng is her interest in growth and progression. She’s not stuck in a suffocating piano-vocal world that she can’t escape from. She’s a musician above anything else, and with that comes the ability to maneuver in and out ideas on stage and in the studio. Take for example her cover of Radiohead’s “Idioteque.” Sure, it might seem too easy to cover one of our time’s most critically acclaimed bands for a little attention. Lord knows it’s been done, but if you mess it up, then there are some serious repercussions. Teng, accompanied by Wong on percussion, a violinist and a cello player tackle this song and do it so much justice that I’d almost rather listen to their rendition.
What is most important to Teng and Wong as they perform songs on stage that might have multiple tracks that are looped, one on top of the other like “Idioteque,” is that they are maintaining their musical integrity.
“I like being in a position where I can play acoustically if I have to, because you never know what situation you’re going to find yourself in,” says Teng. “Sometimes we’ll be playing a show and the power will go out and it’s always nice to have songs that you feel good about playing without any amplification. The way that I connected with music originally was always with acoustic live performances, and I don’t think that will ever leave.”
Teng began playing piano at a very early age—5 to be exact. She wrote her first piano piece at age 6 and from there she began writing pretty steadily and “fell in love with exploring the instrument.” Her classical training only fueled her fire for individuality and self-expression rather than structuring inside the confines of the interpretation of other composer’s music. She knew what she wanted. To make her own music.
“It became pretty clear that I wasn’t going to have a career as an interpreter of someone else’s music,” recalls Teng.
That love of her instrument and in the creative process has lead Teng to the point that she is at now with an extensive tour in motion and an amazing record finished and ready to show to the world. In the studio, Teng and Wong treated each track on Inland Territory as if it were its own album. One song needed two drum kits, another a string arrangement. Others were not as simple.
“There was one where Alex said, ‘I really think this song should be recorded in an old house on an old, slightly out of tune upright piano, and then we’ll have clarinets and bassoon on it.’ So we actually made that happen,” laughs Teng.
Teng was a student on this record more than anything; an apprentice who was looking to have her hand in every aspect of the creative process.
“From the beginning I wanted to know about everything,” says Teng.
And learn about everything she did. Teng was involved in just about everything that had to do with creating the album from finding and hiring the right musicians for certain songs to helping with the writing and arrangement of string and horn parts. Teng even assisted in engineering at one point. This interest in the whole process is what sets her apart from many artists who are doing similar things and makes us wonder what the next album will sound like after she’s mastered all the different facets. This is what keeps us interested in an artist like Vienna Teng; change and progression. If I were you, I’d keep my ears peeled for this one.