Interview: Singer/Songwriter Vienna Teng Explores a Vast 'Inland Territory'
Vienna Teng / Photo by Kellie Kano
LAist: You've said that your third album, Dreaming Through the Noise, is your most fictional album, and that Inland Territory is the truest expression of who you are. How did this fourth album end up becoming your most personal?
Vienna Teng: When I say "truest expression," I don't necessarily mean that it's autobiographical or that there isn't fiction in it. It's more about figuring out what statement I wanted to make, and being really active in all parts of the process. I started out as a software engineer and wasn't really involved in the arts for a long time. Paying attention to the different parts of making something artistic has been a real learning process for me. At the beginning, I wrote songs just because it was something really fun, but in making this album, I got involved in everything—from the instrumentation to the artwork. So it was kind of exhausting. (laughs)
Vienna Teng - "Antebellum"
I really owe a lot to the producer I worked with, Alex Wong, who's a good friend of mine. He believes that whenever you are creating a statement, you have to look at everything from the songwriting to the mics you use during the recording process to the clothing at your photo shoot. When we were through with the album, it really felt like I'd put much more of myself into it than I ever had before.
What does the title of your album, Inland Territory, mean to you?
Well, titles are actually the hardest part for me in terms of the album creation process. There were a number of themes in this music and I was just trying to figure out how to unite them all. I was thinking about my family history and how there were all these events that essentially set up my existence. Maybe I don't think about them or are not even aware of them—they're hidden in plain sight.
This was also the first album where I started thinking more about political things, which was not something I had delved into too deeply before, so I wanted to give some sense of that kind of awareness. And of course, it's also a very introspective album with some very personal stuff on there. So when I put all of those things together, I thought it should have a title that included the word "inland." I also wanted something that would conjure up maps and exploration. Basically, Inland Territory was the title I came up with that I didn't hate. (laughs)
What was the greatest challenge you faced as you produced this album with Alex?
I think the hardest part was putting my ego aside, because it does get kind of tricky when I'm trying to do something I've never done before and I don't know whether my opinions are valid at all. We would have discussions in which I'd feel like the song didn't sound right, but he said it sounded fine, or vice-versa. During these times, I wondered to myself, "Am I trying to get my way because it's my album and it has to be done my way, or am I actually blind to what the right answer is because someone else thought of it?"
What were you most proud of production-wise?
I'm proud of the fact that it's a really eclectic mix. I've always enjoyed albums that are all over the place—in a good way. And the songwriters I've admired most like Paul Simon, Billy Joel and Tori Amos just have such a range. You can tell that they're capable of writing in all these different styles, and it's just a matter of what they choose to carve out as their identity for any given album. I really like the idea of an album where it can be rock one moment then chamber pop the next, or some songs are intimate while others are really big and epic. That's really what we were after, and I am pretty proud of how that part turned out.
Vienna Teng - "Grandmother Song"
What was your inspiration for "Grandmother Song"? Did the rhythm drive the songwriting process?
That song came from the idea of writing about my grandmother, but I wasn't sure how I was going to pull it off. I decided that I wanted it to be expressed in a very American style of music. I toyed with the ideas of blues or jazz, then gravitated toward a backyard stomp kind of thing.
I had moved to New York a few months before, and as I was walking down a busy street and people were rushing by, it kind of created this environment for me to want to write something rapid-fire. I ended up walking really fast, trying to keep pace with everybody, and that provided the rhythm for it.
What does your grandmother think of "Grandmother Song"?
My grandmother doesn't really know it exists yet! She doesn't speak much English, so I think I would have to present it to her and tell her I wrote the song from her point of view, and then give her a translation. We haven't actually had that conversation yet. I'm kind of afraid of what her reaction will be, but I think she might be OK with it.
That was something that grew out of a musical fragment. I had just bought this looper and I was playing around with layering sound. I started out with a rhythmic pattern and then put a piano part over it and sang a few wordless vocal things. The whole thing somehow sounded Southwestern to me—not exactly spaghetti western—but something about it suggested deserts and sagebrush. So I started to come up with a story set in that kind of place.
The idea of illegal immigrants trying to sneak across the border came to mind. I didn't want to write about being a Mexican woman trying to cross the border or something, because somehow that felt inauthentic. But then—not that this is any more authentic—I thought, "What if this were reversed and Americans were trying to sneak into Mexico in the future?" That's kind of how it came about.
Which song off the new album is the most fun to play live?
It changes, but at the moment, I'd say there are two songs that are really fun to play. I'm touring with Alex and we have a new member of our band named Ward Williams, who plays cello and electric guitar. It's fun to create these different sonic palettes among the three of us. Alex has this cool setup where he's playing a lot of acoustic percussion instruments, but he's also running them through some effects, so they sometimes sound electronic.
One song I enjoy touring with is the one Alex and I wrote together, "Antebellum." It's this big, epic, romantic ballad with all of these piano flourishes that are really fun to play live. It's like, "Watch me play lots of chords with all 10 fingers!" (laughs)
The other song, which was kind of surprising, is the last track on the album, "St. Stephen's Cross." I remember when we first started rehearsal, I said, "I don't think we're going to play this one. We'll just run it through and see how it works, but I don't really think it'll work live." Even when I wrote the song, I saw it as being a really good framework for a studio production. But we ran though it, and it was one of those songs where we basically reimagined it from the beginning. It doesn't sound like the studio recording anymore. The excitement of coming up with something new around the same structure—and then realizing that it works and that it's a lot of fun to play—was a nice surprise. It's always cool when that happens.
In the past, you've mentioned that you often compose music over time and return to work on songs again and again. How do you know when a song is done?
I've found that songs sometimes have their own opinions. There are songs that I'll finish and they'll just sort of look at me and go, "Uhh, I don't think so." And I'll say, "What do you mean? You have a verse, a chorus and a bridge. What else do you want?" And it's like they're saying to me, "You figure it out."
But then sometimes there are songs where it's the opposite. Like in the song "Augustine," there are just two verses and two choruses, and there's not a whole lot to it. I kept looking at it and thinking, "Are you sure? You don't really seem like you're a song yet." And it kept saying to me, "I'm done. I think three minutes is all I have to say."
It's kind of interesting that there's this feeling that's often contrary to my own conscious intellectual idea of what makes a complete song. The song just tells you what it thinks, then you send it out into the world and hope other people agree.
I love that "Stray Italian Greyhound" could refer to both romance and politics. Did you write it before or after the election?
Before. I wrote it right around the time President Obama announced his presidential run. At that moment I had this thought of, "Wow, this guy has really good ideas and seems to have a really good heart that will hopefully not be corrupted by politics."
You don't see people like that very often, so I found myself thinking, "I really want to help make this happen." It was such a scary feeling, because being cynical is so much easier. To find myself crawling out of that negative space and suddenly wanting to be part of change that might have a chance of success—it felt a lot like falling in love with someone but not being sure if they liked you back!
I love the callback reference to your song "Harbor" in "Stray Italian Greyhound."
Yeah, it's either lazy songwriting or cleverness depending on how you look at it! I was looking at that line thinking, "Well, I have used that before, but maybe it'll be cute."
Vienna Teng / Photo by Kellie Kano
I do, actually! I made a list of them at the time, because I was very pleased with myself whenever I finished one. I think I wrote my first song at the age of six. It was a short piano composition called "Church Song," and I was trying to write something that reminded me of a church organ.
Maybe someday you can release an album with reimaginations of your early work.
I was just thinking that might be fun. Some of it would be really embarrassing, because I did go through really long period where I was very melodramatic. Even if they were just piano compositions, all the song titles were really emo, such as "Sorrow's Melody" or "The Mists of Time."
I know that you enjoy unplanned sets where you only know the first couple songs you're going to play. When did you first experiment with improvisation?
I think it really came naturally out of not wanting to practice piano. Then when I first started playing gigs in general, I don't think I had setlists anyway. It's always been kind of my default mode in terms of performing live. I like the idea of being comfortable enough in a song where, if I want to take it in a somewhat new direction, I can do that.
With other musicians on stage, it does take a while to build up that kind of communication and trust in order to do that, so our sets are a little more structured on this tour. But every now and again, we try to do something clever.
What's your favorite instrument that you don't play?
It would probably the three other instruments in my band—percussion, cello and electric guitar. If I had to choose one, it might be cello, because I think that'd be a lot of fun.
There seems to be a theme of technology in your career. You were discovered online, you've embraced social networking and of course, you were a computer programmer before you became a full-time musician. Do you still write code for fun?
You know, I don't write code for fun as much as I used to. I do occasionally look at my website and redo some of the PHP, which usually ends up breaking something. So I wouldn't say I'm a programmer anymore. But I have noticed that some weird fussy technical part of my brain still needs exercising from time to time. Since I've started focusing on music, I've taken an unhealthy interest in accounting. I find it really satisfying to balance my checkbook and do my taxes, so it must have something to do with that part of my brain!
When you compose music, does the feeling you get when you finish a solid chorus relate to the feeling you got when you wrote a line of elegant code?
Oh yeah. They are very similar feelings, so that's a great observation. I think that building anything you feel is well constructed, even if it's installing something in my apartment and knowing that it's solid, is really quite satisfying.
Have you always been a Mac person?
I have, but that's mostly by default. My mom works at Apple and she's been there for the past 20 years or so. We always had hand-me-down Macs around the house, so that's the platform I grew up on.
Do you use GarageBand to record on the road?
I do. It's a great tool for songwriting, because it's easy to record stuff really quickly and then add backing vocals or some other track. Or if you just need a stand-in drum part, you can drag in some loops. It's really fantastic.
Alex thumbed his nose at it initially, saying, "Well, I know how to use the professional programs, so I don't need GarageBand." Then I pointed out how easy it is to do arrangements in it, because you can enter MIDI notes and drag them around and assign different instruments to it. Then when you're done, you can just convert it to sheet music. That's often saved us a lot of trouble, such as when he was staying up all night writing some woodwind arrangement and the clarinetist was showing up in a couple hours.
Vienna Teng - "Gravity" (from the album "Waking Hour")
Getting back to something you mentioned earlier in this interview, I know that Paul Simon is one of your idols. Have you ever met him?
I haven't. I'm thinking that maybe now that I'm based in New York, it might happen someday if I can finagle it.
What's your favorite Paul Simon or Simon & Garfunkel song?
It's a song off The Rhythm of the Saints and it's called "Further to Fly." I don't necessarily think it's his best song, but for whatever reason, it connected with me really deeply at the right point in my life. I think it's written in 5/8, which kind of gets to the music geek in me. He makes it sound so easy. Plus the words are classic Paul Simon poetry.
Other than accounting, do you have any hobbies?
Well, I guess there are two main things at the moment. First, I’m a bit of an armchair economist. I got really interested in economics after I graduated from college and was kicking myself because Stanford had a pretty good econ program and I never took one class there. I've since come to realize that so much is tied to those concepts and they're so easily misunderstood because a lot of them are counterintuitive.
The other thing I really like to do is cook, because it's my way of knowing that I'm home and not on the road. I'll get home and immediately pull out the baking pans, go shopping and cook a dinner for everybody.
What's your favorite dish to make?
I have a thing about Southern food, so my favorite thing to make is probably friend chicken with biscuits and collard greens.
Speaking of things that are green, I love the fact that your tours are so eco-friendly and often promote various charities. Would you mind speaking to that a little bit?
Since the big tour in 2007, we've been trying to keep our tours as green as possible. On this tour, almost all of my merchandise has been converted to eco-friendly materials. The t-shirts are Fair Trade organic cotton and we have these really cool EnviroSax totes. And I really wanted to release the CD in some kind of sustainable packaging. I'm proud of my label for finding this stuff called Repak, which is made from recycled paper materials.
Charity-wise, on this tour we're supporting this group called the Polaris Project. It's a really smart organization that combats modern-day slavery from all these different angles.
I know you often stop by LA when you're on tour. Do you have a favorite restaurant you like to visit when you're in town?
I don't know LA all that well, but I do love this vegan restaurant, Real Food Daily, in Santa Monica. When I was recording Dreaming Through the Noise, I randomly decided that I was going to be a vegetarian. I basically agree with vegetarianism in principle but I don't have the willpower to do it long-term. I've just been trying to do it in short stretches, and that was one of them. So when I was recording that album in Santa Monica, I probably went to RFD five times a week. I love their bacon cheeseburger!
Thanks for speaking with LAist, Vienna!