Aiming For Her Level Best

In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, singer-songwriter Vienna Teng talks college, her heritage, and her latest musical effort

We’ve all heard the run-of-the-mill before-they-were-famous stories that musicians like to dust off their resume of accomplishments (and downfalls). Usually, there’s the fast food chain worker tale, with million-bucks-a-week earners fondly reminiscing their days of living under minimum wage. Once in awhile, we get a slightly more interesting variant to the rags-to-riches trope, like living in a car until nabbing a record deal (looking at you, Jewel).

But graduating with a computer science degree at Stanford and working full-time as a software engineer before pursuing a music career is unheard of. Unless, of course, you are songstress Vienna Teng.

“By the time I graduated with my degree, I knew that I was going to work at it for a while, but basically, it was a faster way of waiting tables until I [could turn music into a full-time career],” Teng — the stage name of Cynthia Yih Shih — said.

For the past four years, however, her music had been put on hold. A self-professed nerd, Teng took a hiatus from music to attend graduate school in business and environmental science and sustainability at the University of Michigan in Detroit. She returned to the studio this year to record a new album “Aims,” released Sept. 24.

“Coming back to grad school is definitely a very different experience from my undergrad experience, where I have a music career already, and if I set up a web-streaming concert then there will actually be a couple hundred people who will tune in,” Teng said, whose fans recently quadrupled her Kickstarter campaign’s goal of $20,000 to fund a music video and an international tour.

Earlier this summer, she kicked off her “Aims” tour in Del Mar, but almost half a decade is a long time for a musician to be away from the stage. As she arrived at an Ann Arbor venue, Teng humbly joked that she may forget how to perform some of her songs.

Needless to say, there’s no doubt that her musical delivery is anything short of her potential. Aside from her famed use of a cappella and innovative live-looping (as demonstrated in her Eminem-Ben Withers medley) which are staples of her onstage performances, Teng’s latest album will introduce her newfound love for Detroit. The ode to her time in graduate school reveals an unprecedented eclectic, vibrant side to her music.

“I used to call my music ‘chamber folk,’” Teng said, recalling the Dvorak-influenced sounds of her earliest records. “It features a lot of classical instruments, so it’s definitely more rooted in that music. With [“Aims”], I’ve been describing it more [as] ‘pop’ or ‘indie pop,’ and now I mention it there are obviously some electronic elements to it.”

Although her genre crossover has proved a great contrast to her past hits, like 2002’s Baroque pop “Gravity,” Teng’s new electronica pop sounds won’t be booting out her beloved piano in favor of synthesizers anytime soon, given that her lifelong classical education in piano was what drove her to pursue a music career.

“When I was in high school, I had a really great piano teacher who one day had me write down all the different dreams I had … [and] the goals and strategies for achieving them. It was … life changing. One of the things I wrote down was, ‘I want to be a performing musician, a composer.’ … By the time I got to college, I really wanted to make that happen,” Teng said.

However, Teng also promises that her tour will highlight a genre switch.

“The new set is so dense and complex and electronically driven,” Teng said. “[But] there will also be moments with just the piano [so the audience can] feel like they remember the kind of thing I used to do.”

For years, Teng’s aspirations seemed like a pipe dream at the time to skeptics, including her Taiwanese parents.

“It was a cultural struggle for them, because they were like, ‘Well, we don’t know artists and entertainers,’” Teng said. “It’s taken some time for me to introduce them to the idea that creative people aren’t all crazy, and they’re not all people who are oblivious to financial reality.”

Though her family’s discouragement didn’t deter their daughter from the path of a music career, Teng also attributes her personal interests as well as the content of her signature literate lyrics to her parents’ influence.

“I think that it’s important to my parents that their kids be intellectual in some way and to present themselves as intelligent, empathetic human beings,” Teng said. “So I think that it does come across in my music that they instilled that in me. It is something that I genuinely want to communicate: […] there’s also something really important to look at in the wider world and to be involved in where humanity is going and to figure out what my place is in it.”

Certainly the sort of intellectual discourse that Teng strives to achieve in her songs branched into all aspects of the making of “Aims,” including her decision to use a map depicting population changes in Detroit — her home during her musical hiatus — for the album’s cover art.

“When I look at that map, … there was the notion that that map looks like so many other things, [such as depicting] some people who are really trying to work together across Democrat-Republican lines,” Teng said. “Also that map [made me think] this accounts for a lot of things that are going on in the world right now. You can look and first [think], ‘Wow, there’s a lot of bad stuff going on.’ It can seem like [the people of Detroit] should just give up. On the other hand, you can look closer and say, ‘You know, people are really fighting their way to stay on top of [it].’”

Indeed, this describes her message in “Aims” in a nutshell. Teng sings in her latest single “Level Up,” “Begin again/ Dynamite the dam on the flow/ … / Lord, we are all cinders/ From a fire burning long ago/ But here it is the knock knock knock of your own heart that matters.” The Renaissance woman’s novel approach to music and her vision to shape the world into a better place makes her a standout — not to mention that she may be the only musician who knows how to use “sustainability” in a sentence several times coherently.

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