Vienna Teng

On the rare occasions an artist will let you hear them practicing, you may notice a kind of unrestrained honesty in their playing. It’s the kind of thing that tends to instantly reveal true musical ability, or lack thereof. Perhaps that’s why it’s so closely guarded.
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When I arrived at famous Freight & Salvage folk music venue in Berkeley, California to interview singer/songwriter/pianist Vienna Teng, I joined a handful of friends and fans listening to her warm up on a full-sized grand in the empty, wood-beamed hall. Here was more sensitivity, accuracy, and speed than I’d heard in pop piano, probably ever, from a 26-year-old escapee of Silicon Valley. This was going to be a fun interview.

But is it pop? In the immortal words of somebody-or-other, “Probably not, but what else you gonna call it?” Comparisons to Tori Amos are inevitable, and probably justified. But after only a moment, it’s clear that Vienna’s music has a sound all its own — one subtle and virtuosic enough to classify it as “classical.”

You worked for Cisco Systems as an engineer. When did that phase of your life happen? Did you enjoy it?
I started just out of college, and worked there for a couple of years. It was fun, though by the time I’d graduated, I had already decided I wanted to try doing music. But I didn’t have a clue how I was going to start, so it was a nice way of buying myself a little time.

How long have you been playing the piano?
I’ve been playing the piano since I was five, and singing in the shower my whole life. [Laughs.]

Is it your only instrument?
I’m trying to take up the guitar, and I took some drumming lessons. And very briefly tried playing the violin, until I realized that 26 is probably a little late to start doing that. So yeah, I only play the piano, unfortunately.

You went to Stanford — what did you study?
Computer science.

You didn’t take any piano lessons or anything?
I took some random music classes, like Intro to Jazz, Intro to Cuban music . . . and I was in a classical chamber music trio for a couple quarters. But nothing really serious. The most significant thing was just me messing around with the piano at the dorm.

The first thing I heard of yours was a live version of “Harbor,” which immediately caught my ear for its use of unusual time signatures, like 5/4, that nonetheless sounded organic and natural.
Right, that was kinda my goal. I’ve always been fascinated with odd time signatures, and part of the challenge for me is to not make it obvious that you’re doing anything unusual. It was actually kind of a challenging song for me. I came up with the bridge, which is in seven, first. Eventually I decided I was going to hook it up to a song in five (mostly). So I had this idea to implement. The lyrics came much later. The goal there was just to make it a happy song. I don’t write many happy songs, so it was an effort: “I know I can make this happy. I swear I will!” [Laughs.]

One review said that Warm Strangers is your first foray into lyrics written on behalf of fictional characters.
It wasn’t the first time, but we realized when we were done with the album that most of the tracks were fictional. In fact, I think “Harbor” is the only autobiographical tune on the album.

So you never went to the South, to a diner...
No — I actually had never been to the South when I wrote “Homecoming.”

But your management is out of North Carolina — Deep South Records. How did you meet them?
What happened is that my label was being distributed by a company called Red Eye, which is based in North Carolina. They had a Christmas party, and my future manager happened to be there, and somehow, my name came up.

What kind of piano did you have growing up?
It was a Yamaha upright. My parents bought it about a year into my taking lessons. They were like, “Well, she seems not to be dropping it, so...” It’s funny: I realized later that the action on that piano is really light. When I first started playing grand pianos in the practice rooms at school, I was shocked at how heavy the actions were. But I got used to them, and now when I go home and play my parents’ piano it’s like, “Whoa!” [Laughs.] Everyone keeps asking, “Can you turn it down?”

What are you playing these days, at home?
I don’t have anything of my own, is the sad thing. I tour with a Yamaha P80, and sometimes I set that up and at home. But mostly I go to my friend’s house, in Oakland — he has a Steinway grand, and he travels a lot. But I’m hoping to get a baby grand of some kind soon.

So on tour, you’re kind of at the mercy of the venue. Do you wind up using the P80, or a piano most often?
Lately, I’ve been lucky and have been able to get a real grand. Partly it’s because I’ve been opening for people who have one. But for a while there, it was pretty much the P80. I do like the P80. It travels well, and sounds remarkably similar to a piano.

There are some electronic sounds on Warm Strangers. Did you do those?
Yeah, a few. We kept it very acoustic. Just a few pads. I don’t even remember what keyboard we used.

Any thought about maybe expanding that in the future?
Yeah, I’d love to work on that a little more. I currently have a [E-mu] Proteus Keys, and my friend Jim has a Korg Electribe, and we’re talking about checking that out. So I’m just starting out with electronic sounds, but I’m interested.

Has work on a new album started?
I’ve been touring non-stop for most of this year. And finally, they’re giving me a bit of a break. They’re like, “The current album’s going great, where’s the next one?” I’m like, “I don’t know, I don’t have any songs for it yet.” They’re like, “You don’t!?” I said, “Yeah, I have to be at home to write songs.” They’re like, “Oh! We should get you some time at home, then.” So I’m looking forward to that.

So how do you like touring? Is it exhausting?
It’s actually not exhausting at all, and I have a lot of fun doing it. The main thing is, it’s weird to have your normal life suspended. I’m in a relationship, and I have all these friends around the Bay Area. After a while it feels weird that I’m gone all the time. The upcoming break will be really nice.

You studied classical music. Did you ever study jazz?
I’m really fascinated by Jazz, but I feel like I don’t really don’t understand it. I listen to it and I like it, but there’s a lot going on, and I think if I could actually play jazz, I’d be able to appreciate it more. So I took a couple lessons early this year, but . . . .

Who inspires you at the keyboard?
A lot of classical artists: Dvorak, Debussy, and Rachmaninoff, especially.

You’re a very strong improviser, unlike most singer/songwriters, perhaps, and your fans tape and trade your shows, in Grateful Dead fashion. There’s a lot of talk about this business model in music; are there any downsides?
Just that all your mistakes get recorded for posterity. I saw one of the setlists on the Web — I was covering Damien Rice’s “Cannonball” — and it said, “Track 5: Cannonball false start, Track 6: Cannonball.” And I’m like, “Oh yeah, that was the show where I completely messed it up and it was so bad that I had to stop, and like, do it all again.” I do love to improvise. In fact I try not to play anything the same way twice.

On stage, do you plug your keyboard into an amp, or do you go direct?
We go direct into the P.A. The keyboard runs stereo, plus my mic, so three inputs.

How about mics?
I’m one of those people who knows just enough to have a preference on the cheap end of things. Now when I tour, I carry my own mics around — a Shure SM86, and also a Beta 58. For recording, I’ve heard that AKG 414s work really well for piano, and of course a Neumann U87 for vocals.

Rumor has it that Vienna Teng is not your real name. Did you have it changed?
I didn’t actually change my name, I just go by a different name for music. It started when I was 12 years old. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I had this alternate persona named Vienna Teng who was a songwriter?” I just picked up that name when I released my first demos.

And now it’s happening.
Now it’s happening, which is kinda fun. But sometimes I feel really stupid because I have this naive idea that my personal friends will be different from my music life, somehow, but of course that’s not true. It’s all connected.