Aiming toward joy
After a four-year absence, Vienna Teng returns to music with a bold new sound.
By Naila Francis
To remember why she loved what she did, Vienna Teng had to walk away from it.
After releasing four acclaimed albums over a seven-year career, the singer-songwriter, in 2010, decided to leave music to pursue a graduate degree in business and environmental studies. She enrolled at the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan — and emerged more passionate about both her interest in sustainability and her art.
“Aims,” her first album in four years, following 2009’s “Inland Territory,” reflects that renewal.
“I’ve been saying about my relationship with music we had become kind of an old married couple. It was very comfortable and familiar but in that everyday way you take for granted. I am back to having a torrid love affair with music,” says Teng, who plays World Cafe Live in Philadelphia on Tuesday and Musikfest Cafe in Bethlehem Wednesday.
“Aims,” released Sept. 24, is a daring departure for the singer best known for her piano balladry. Recorded in Nashville with producer Cason Cooley (Katie Herzig, Matthew Perryman Jones), it relegates Teng’s primary instrument to occasional player in a bed of electronica, percussion, strings and electric guitars.
“This was exactly the kind of challenge I wanted,” says the California native, of her new sound. “I really pushed myself: let’s create some beats. Let’s create something uptempo. Let’s see where it takes me.”
She credits Cooley’s enthusiasm in the studio with helping her bring a bold buoyancy to the songs. But there was also the influence of the pop and indie music that’s caught her ears in recent years.
“In grad school, I was living with a roommate who was obsessed with Katy Perry and Adele and Muse. I was hooked on Foster the People and Vampire Weekend,” says Teng.
She also started to develop an appreciation for hip-hop, starting with Eminem and gravitating toward artists like Kanye West, Jay-Z and Mos Def. Still, for all its swooning, expansive pop, including several tracks that seem primed for the dance floor, Teng refers to her latest project as “a nerdy album.”
It’s her attempt to make sense of issues — from Body Identity Integrity Disorder to capitalist excess — that are sometimes grim and often politically charged.
“I wrote this music partly because I had reconnected with the joyfulness of creating music but there was also a certain kind of song I needed in my life. It is hard for people working in these fields I’m venturing into,” says Teng, who will begin a full-time job in sustainability in Detroit, where she now lives, come January. “It can be easy to say I’m working so hard to make a difference and I don’t know if it’s going to matter at all. So it was important to hold the space of ‘This is an inspiring kind of life and the way I feel most alive and that’s what matters.’
“That’s the place all these songs come from, this fascination and full engagement with the world around me. That’s joyful, no matter whether the actual things I’m looking at are depressing or not.”
And so she strives for equanimity and even compassion in her portraits of corporate greed, online surveillance and everyday apathy in the face of the world’s tumult. “In the 99,” for instance, examines the Occupy Movement from the perspective of a sympathetic banker, while “The Hymn of Acxiom,” a haunting and intricately layered choral work, is both a cautionary tale of Big Data’s reach and an exploration of its religious parallels.
“I wrote it from the view of a marketing database and I wanted to communicate how even though these companies are gathering data about us — basically, spying on us — there’s this notion that we all want to be taken care of and comforted and it’s like someone is taking care of us,” says Teng. “That’s why these companies are successful. They watch our every move and then they deliver stuff. We can almost look at it as an entity that answers prayers.”
The issues may be topical but Teng’s approach to them isn’t. Consider “Landsailor,” a song she calls the album’s lynch pin that features vocals from Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket). If anyone would say yes to collaborating on a song about shipping infrastructure and its ecological cost, she knew it would be him.
“He’s a geek, too,” says Teng. ” ‘Landsailor’ does bring together everything I’m trying to understand in my own head, that intersection of capitalism and what humanity wants to become. Of course that sounds like a recipe for a terrible song, but not if you write it from the perspective of two people singing to each other who are living life on a big scale and trying to push each other to be better. That felt emotional to me. It was not just me talking on my soapbox about sustainability.”
“Aims” isn’t all about matters of pressing concern, however. Teng delves into the personal, too. She sings of grief and letting go and finding freedom in love, and reveals herself a champion for living fully and authentically.
“To some extent, I just wrote the songs that I wrote. It’s very hard for me to set out to write certain kinds of songs,” says Teng, an admittedly slow writer. “Once I have the collection, then I look at the through line. This one is definitely more about the wider world. Maybe subconsciously, I feel a certain responsibility as a songwriter to have my music not just be emotionally resonant songs about breakups and relationships but actually about something we’re grappling with more collectively, to be part of a national or international conversation.”
That same spirit prompted her move to Detroit, where even amid a backdrop of economic collapse and abandonment, she sees a stubborn potential. She’s looking forward to working with those who haven’t given up on making the city a better place to live. But for now, she’s excited to be on tour reconnecting with her fans.
“I feel so lucky that people have been willing to wait four years for another album, that they’re still here,” says Teng. “It’s pretty incredible to see this outpouring of ‘We’re glad you did what you did with your life but we’re also glad you came back.'”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer