Spotlight on Vienna Teng
by Ming Lo
Sunday, March 5, 2006
Vienna Teng, the 27-year old singer, songwriter, and pianist, talks about her journey from tinkering on the piano at home, to part-time musician at Stanford and Cisco Systems, to full-time artist finishing up her third album in Santa Monica, CA.
Late one night in 2003, in the midst of flipping channels, I happened to land on The Late Show with David Letterman. And there was this young woman, soulfully playing the piano and singing a song she had written. I was impressed, but more importantly, so was David Letterman. “I’ve heard the entire CD, and there’s not a dud on this. You get your money’s worth here,” he said.
In December, 2005, I was talking to a client at a local television station about filming a series of one-minute interstitials profiling Asian-American artists. The series, if bought by a sponsor, would air on the local station and would simply profile the artist and their current work. For me, the choice for the pilot was obvious – Vienna Teng, the young woman I had seen on The Late Show several years back.
After many phone calls and conversations with my client, and after tracking down Vienna like a stalker, chance would lend a helping hand. As it turned out, she was in Los Angeles finishing up work on her third album, and not only that, she was staying not much more than a few blocks from where I lived in West LA. So last Wednesday, I had the rare chance to spend a few hours with Vienna while as she worked on her third album at her producer’s studio in Santa Monica.
Ming Lo: Would you give us a quick intro [for camera]?
Vienna Teng: My name is Vienna Teng, and I am a singer, songwriter, and pianist.
Ming Lo:When did you start playing piano?
Vienna Teng: I started playing piano when I was five years old.
Ming Lo:When did you start writing songs?
Vienna Teng: I started writing songs about a year after I started lessons. The first song I wrote was when I was six years old.
Ming Lo:How did you feel about music as you were growing up, how did it fit into your life?
Vienna Teng: Music was always kinda around the house, my parents played a lot of Chinese pop music and Elton John and Billy Joel and the Eagles and so on. So it was always there. But no one put a real emphasis on it, I think I was the one who really thought it was an interesting thing not only to study but then also to try doing and… it turned out not only could I spend hours working on music and lose track of time but it also seemed like I was pretty good at it as a kid. So it seemed pretty natural for me to play around with it more than anything else.
Ming Lo:How did you know you were pretty good at it, was it the way people reacted to your music?
Vienna Teng: The only reason why I thought I was any good at it was that nobody else was doing it. I played one of my original songs at a school talent show once and everyone just went crazy, like, “you wrote your own song?! How is that possible!?” And I thought, “well, it’s pretty easy, you put some notes together, and then you play it in front of people.” And that’s sorta how I got the indication of, “wow, not everybody does this or thinks that they can. So, I thought, “well, maybe this is something I can work on.”
Ming Lo:I’ve read about how you started playing piano when you were five, and how you wrote your album while you were at Stanford, fill us in on what happened in between?
Vienna Teng: I grew up studying with this great piano teacher, he taught me not only classical repertoire, but also a little bit of jazz and improvisation. The most important thing he ever did for me was ask me to listen to a song on the radio and then figure out how to play it on the piano, and once he assigned me that I was off and running and opened up this whole new world of how to actually think about music and that’s really where my song writing started and where it took off.
Ming Lo:How did you first get started?
Vienna Teng: I was a lazy piano student as a kid so I always made things up instead of learning what the notes were on the page and then that kinda became songwriting and that became recording albums.
Ming Lo:So you do a lot of learning by ear, you listen to things – is that how you process your music?
Vienna Teng: I definitely listen to music and then try to figure it out by ear. I’m a terrible sight reader, I can’t read music to save my life.
The First Album
Ming Lo:When was your first album released?
Vienna Teng: My first album, which was called “Waking Hour”, was released in 2002, and that was under the independent label called Virt Records.
Ming Lo:Andyou were at Stanford [while writing your first album], right?
Vienna Teng: I was at Stanford studying computer science after switching out of pre-med because I was no good at it.
Ming Lo:And you were working on your music between classes?
Vienna Teng: I started out thinking that I wanted to be a music minor, but then, that didn’t really work out and I just took classes for fun, like Afro Cuban music and intro to Jazz, a little bit of chamber music and accompanying German song, things like that.
When I was at Stanford I was pretty much taking everything except music. I was taking history, computer science, biology, chemistry, music was really just for fun, and I was writing songs during class when I was bored and in between studying for mid terms and the album came about very piecemeal.
Ming Lo:How did your first album come about?
Vienna Teng: My first album came about because people were starting to complain that they had nothing, no recordings to listen to. I was in college and playing for my friends just in the dorm and people would say, it would be nice if you had a CD, so we started making a CD.
On the Late Show with David Letterman
Ming Lo:Can you tell us a bit about your appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman?
Vienna Teng: I got to be on Dave Letterman’s show in early 2003. That came out of nowhere. I got a phone call saying, “We may need you to go to New York… on Monday.” And it turned out I was going to The Late Show to play one of my songs. I don’t really know how all that came together. The rumor is that Dave Letterman heard a broadcast on NPR about me and decided to make a phone call to see if I could come in and play on his show.
The Second Album
Ming Lo:So after Stanford, you worked at Cisco?
Vienna Teng: After graduating from Stanford, I went and worked as a software engineer at Cisco Systems for two years. Basically saved up my money and worked in my cubicle and dreamed of the day I could quick my job and become a rock star [she laughs].
Ming Lo: You’ve said that songwriting is very similar to software design, I think that’s fascinating.
Vienna Teng: Songwriting is strangely similar to software design in some ways. The inspiration part is obviously very different but when you get down to the actual craft of it, a lot of it is looking for the most elegant way to do something, how to use the tools that you’re familiar with and using them in the most appropriate way, but also in an imaginative way, so the process actually uses pretty similar parts of my brain.
Ming Lo:How did your second album come about?
Vienna Teng: I wrote a lot of songs for my second album while working at Cisco, a lot of daydreaming about the lives of different people, especially people travelling, which is kinda what I envisioned, what I fantasized about doing. It was recorded after I played a couple of TV shows and had gone on tour in support of the first album and so it was a nice break to go to nashville and actually be in a studio for six weeks and put together an album all in that little bit of time.
On Writing Music
Ming Lo:If you had to describe why you write your music, or what it means to you – why you do what you do?
Vienna Teng: I write songs partly to explore ideas that I have about seeing the world not only through my perspective but also through the perspectives of other people. I also write to work out feelings that I haven’t sorted out, and I also write because I really just love the experience of sharing something with somebody. I find that playing music live is a really great way of just cutting through the small talk that you have do to get to know someone, because if you write a song that really connects with them, you already have this kinda fundamental understanding of each other, and that’s when the conversations get really interesting. I really like talking to people after a show to see what kind of connection we’ve made.
Writing songs is a very interesting experience because I write for myself but then I send them out into the world and they end up becoming important to somebody else, and that’s the beautiful thing about it. That’s why I do it, I think.
Ming Lo:How have people reacted to your music?
Vienna Teng: Hearing people’s reaction to my music is amazing, the idea that somebody would buy two copies of my CD so that they could give one of them to a friend and say, “you have to hear this.” That’s just an amazing feeling. That’s really how I’ve gotten any success so far.
Some of my favorite emails are interpretations of my songs that I hadn’t imagined. People are so creative with the way that they incorporate music into their lives and that’s just endlessly fascinating to me.
About the Music
Ming Lo:How would you describe your style?
Vienna Teng: Some people would describe my music as chamber folk because it’s played with classical instruments but it’s sort of folk, pop, music.
Ming Lo:Looking back, would you say that your albums had a theme, a message, something you were trying to express?
Vienna Teng: My first album Waking Hour has a blue cover and it’s very introspective, very diary like, and that seems to fit somehow. My second album is more of a white cover, and it’s a little more sunny, I guess, there’s more exploration of other people’s lives, it’s more extroverted.
Ming Lo:Any preliminary thoughts about your third album?
Vienna Teng: This third album is interesting. I’m 27 years old but I’m already thinking ahead to when I’ll be 45. A lot of them will be written from the perspective of middle age, the idea of what happens when all the fireworks and the romance and the adventures are over, what kind of interesting stuff happens when you have the house, when you have the family, what do you think about that then, and I’ve become really interested in that lately, a lot of the songs come out of that.
Ming Lo:Is there something you want to achieve, have you thought about where you want to go from here?
Vienna Teng: I’ve been pretty lucky so far. I really have the life that I want. I get to pursue something creative and try to be as good as I can at it and miraculously I can still pay the rent, and that’s all you can ask for.
Ming Lo: That’s great. Is there anything else you want to say?
Vienna Teng: No, I think those were definitely better questions than average [she laughs].