By Michael Lello
With seemingly everything a rising singer/songwriter could want – a loyal, growing fanbase; critical acclaim; tours with the likes of Brandi Carlile and Joan Osborne; and coveted TV appearances – Vienna Teng did the unthinkable.
She walked away.
In 2010, Teng, who had already earned a computer science degree from Stanford University, put music aside to pursue a graduate degree in environmental studies and business at the University of Michigan.
“I remember this one club owner in New York who I really respect, Ken Rockwood from Rockwood Music Hall, he’s normally a nice kind of understated guy, and he just came right out and said, ‘I think your crazy,’” Teng said with a laugh, calling recently while riding from Ann Arbor, Mich., to a show in Kent, Ohio. “‘You have what so many artists want to have. You have a very loyal audience, you have a steady touring fanbase, you have the freedom to make any record you want. Why are you giving this up?’
“And I could only answer that I have to do what excites me. I’m willing to work hard or do things that are not easy and be exhausted, but the fundamental undercurrent has to be that I’m really excited to see where it goes. And I reached the point in music where I needed to make sense of my life around something else, and then music will come alive for me again.”
Teng, known for her piano-driven style, has returned to music with a decidedly different, electronic-driven sound. On Sept. 24, she released “Aims,” on which she worked with producer Cason Cooley to rekindle her passion for music by taking a totally new sonic approach.
“Whenever I sat down at the piano and played my usual introspective girl-playing-piano ballads, I actually got bored pretty quickly,” Teng said. “That was also why I sought the producer Cason Cooley, who worked with a number of artists before who came from a more acoustic, folk-based background and really helped them explore more of a pop- and electronically-driven sound as well as being a really great collaborator who doesn’t put his own stamp on it but tries to pull out what are you excited about, what do you want to do.”
So far, the reaction to her musical transformation has been positive, she said.
“I’ve been really pleasantly surprised,” she shared. “Part of the reason why I stepped away from music is I think it was really more an internal monologue than any sort of external pressure, but I sort of felt like music had become my job and I was supposed to be doing what I was doing and trying to get more attention for being the same person, and when I took a step back I realized that’s totally the wrong reason to make music.
“So I went back to being a full human being and did other things that I love, and if making music came naturally out of that. … So when I took this more pop direction, much more produced and not very piano-centric sound, I figured I may alienate a lot of people who love me for those particular things. I put out the album thinking that may be true, but I’m not going to worry about it. With that being said, maybe there’s something in how genuinely happy and joyful I was in making the album that comes across, because I’ve been totally heartened by the reaction. People saying, ‘I didn’t know that I would like this type of music, but I’m completely loving the direction that you’re going.’ So people have been very encouraging and seeing it the same way I see it, which I wasn’t expecting.”
Teng said the shows on this tour feature a mix of her piano-driven tunes as well as “reimagined” versions of the songs on “Aims,” when “there are three of us on stage with looping pedals and effects pedals and electronic instruments and creating a giant tapestry of sound.”
While Teng is currently focused on promoting “Aims,” she isn’t sure what trajectory her musical career will take moving forward, seeing that she is also interested in pursuing her post-graduate interests in sustainability and technology.
Asked if she knew she’d eventually return to music when she gave it up three years ago, she said she wasn’t sure.
“That’s a good question. This may be an overused metaphor, but I feel like if I were to consider my relationship with music a marriage, it was a time when we opened up our marriage and said, ‘You know, we’re not going to split, but we’re going to allow ourselves to spend time elsewhere and see if we fall in love, and if we fall in love, we’ll see what happens.’
“And I think at the moment I don’t know that I’ll ever be a full-time musician year after year from this point out, but I know that there will be times that I focus more on music and times when I don’t. So I think it will be a balancing act. But music is going to be a huge part of the rest of my life, that I can guarantee.”