‘Chamber folk” pianist/vocalist Vienna Teng has emerged from a rather unlikely background. Her formal bio describes her as “a Stanford computer science grad who was on the fast track to a lucrative career, working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. But she gave all that up to pursue her musical passions — a risky career move, but one which has paid off.” Within two years of leaving her Silicon Valley career behind, Teng, 27, has appeared on the CBS Early Show, Late Night with David Letterman, and NPR, which called her “an incredibly accomplished singer with a delicate amazing voice.”
Teng says: “I never really got out of the whole nerdy, geeky thing — that’s still my tribe. I know I’m supposed to be all cool and artistic now that I’m a musician.” She says most of her influences are from 1970s-era folk music; thus, her self-described “chamber folk” moniker.
Currently supporting her 2006 release, “Dreaming Through the Noise,” Teng appears at the Appel Farm Arts & Music Festival in Elmer, New Jersey, on Saturday, June 7, about an hour and a quarter’s drive from Princeton. The summer showcase, spanning two stages, is celebrating its 20th anniversary with an eclectic and folk-friendly lineup that includes Grammy Award-winners Marc Cohn (Walking in Memphis) and They Might Be Giants (“Boss of Me,” the “Malcolm in the Middle” theme) along with 1980s FM veterans, New Jersey’s own Smithereens and Suzanne Vega (Luka).
Also appearing are folkstress Lucy Kaplansky, Celtic rockers Enter The Haggis, all female trio Red Molly, cello drama-rockers Alfred James Band (XM Radio artist of the week), fellow Philadelphia favorite Matt Duke, New York-based violinist Christina Courtin, and the jazz-influenced Nicole Reynolds.
To celebrate its 20th anniversary Appel is offering a “20-year-olds get in for free” admission deal (with valid photo ID) that is also available to celebrators of 20th wedding anniversaries.
Teng has springboarded from the college circuit into a wider festival audience but says she still enjoys playing college shows. “It’s the way I started touring about five or six years ago and is something I enjoy doing. After a show at a college I always end up hanging out with the students. They usually show me the cool late night spot to get milk and cookies at 2 a.m. In one place in North Carolina, Davidson College, I actually got to go to a whole string of frat parties, which I didn’t get to do in college,” says Teng in a phone interview from her Brooklyn home.
“You get to talk to people at a point in their lives when they’re deciding what they want to study which in not necessarily related to what they want to do with their lives. There are a lot of questions about what your time is for and what you’re really interested in.”
It’s not every musician who can claim to be both right- and left-brained. Teng says her cranial tug-of-war is sometimes at odds with her personality. “I don’t really miss programming, but it comes up in other ways. I do enjoy creating music and performing. But I do find I get a lot of satisfaction out of booking the logistics for a tour or balancing my Quickbooks accounts for that matter. I feel bad about it sometimes because I feel I should be writing songs or out roaming the streets of New York doing drugs or something, but I’m figuring out how my accounts receivable’s balancing,” she says. “I’m more organized than an artistic type should be. It is a blessing and curse because the two sides tend to fight each other.”
Teng’s personality did fuse harmoniously, however, with “Dreaming” producer Larry Klein, who has produced for Joni Mitchell. Klein contributes minimalist production and spacious organics to the record’s 11 storyteller tracks. The album shifts gears with the seamlessness of a Lexus transmission with Teng at the wheel, taking the listener on an eclectic journey through the chapters of her imagination. Teng’s first two albums are “Waking Hour” (2002) and “Warm Strangers” (2004), which landed on three Billboard album charts. Before beginning work on “Dreaming” she says she listened to a lot of music she hadn’t absorbed before — hip hop, avant-garde chamber music, bluegrass.
“Dreaming’s” most definitive dramatic moment is “Pontchartrain,” referring to the flooded lake bordering New Orleans that suffered multiple breaks after Hurricane Katrina. Beginning with an eerie funeral march, the track conjures Radiohead-like darkness in its dissonant structure and horrifying lyrics like “Pontchartrain is haunted: bones with names, photographs framed in reeds.”
The listener waits for synthesizers and string arrangements to amplify the apocalyptic scene, but they never materialize. Instead, the track relies on insistent doomsday chords, lush classical strings, and Teng’s barely present voice — recorded and multi-tracked 32 times to create a chilling choir — to broadcast the images.
“That was the way Larry imagined the album from the beginning,” says Teng. “That was a philosophical discussion we had because I think my instincts are a little more bombastic. The rest of it was about painting particular landscapes for this voice and these stories so the resulting album was very much the way he pictured in the beginning. I definitely came around to understanding what he was going for and really appreciated that.”
Other stand-outs on the album include the humorous, “1 br/1 ba,” code known to every apartment hunter as “one bedroom/one bath.” Structured as a blues rocker, Teng laments the air conditioning breaking in 89-degree heat and the neighbors upstairs, “making sounds I never want to hear. I hope they’re just moving furniture around.”
“City Hall,” in its unapologetic country bliss, celebrates a couple who, after 10 years, finally make the 500-mile drive on a February holiday to City Hall to tie the knot. The scene is complete with pizza and donuts being handed out outside. It is one of several songs on the album which was inspired by events in the news, and came about after San Francisco mayer Gavin Newsom announced in February, 2004, that same-sex marriages would be recognized by the city. Teng designates it as the crowd-pleaser live. “We do that at the end and people clap along. It’s my one happy song. We try to end on a happy note.”
She says she is not naturally prolific. In a followup E-mail to this interview she writes: “Writing songs for a living means I’m always foraging for ideas, tucking thoughts away for future use. But they come from everywhere — the city I live in, books, magazine articles, conversations. And other musicians, definitely. Great live shows and records influence me a lot. Sometimes I just start ripping off a song of someone else’s that I really like, then try to cover my tracks.”
Teng, who graduated from Stanford in 2000 with a bachelors in computer science, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Both her parents work for high tech companies in Silicon Valley. She studied classical piano from the age of five and has been described by the San Jose Mercury News as “a child of Chopin and Sarah McLachlan.”
In the fifth grade she added jazz theory and composition. Her teacher nurtured her interest in songwriting by making her transcribe pop songs by ear then create her own piano arrangements for them. She says she learned voice “mostly through a jazz choir and an a cappella group in school and doing coffeehouse gigs early on.”
Teng has opened for such artists as Appel headliner Marc Cohn, Joan Osborne, Joan Baez, Patti Griffin, and the Indigo Girls. She enthusiastically admits as an opener, she’s had the closest connection to Cohn. “I got to play with him over a span of a few years. By the end of that, my bandmates and I were getting up during his encore to sing backup vocals for him and just kind of hang with him and his band afterwards. He actually took the time to stop by my dressing room one time after ‘Dreaming Through the Noise’ came out to say ‘good work.’”
She says opening for Joan Baez “was pretty incredible. I mostly remember walking past her dressing room not wanting to go in unless I was invited, of course, and she happened to be doing yoga at the time. It’s pretty impressive she’s doing yoga after all this time. I hope I’m that flexible if I’ve had that long of a career.”
Teng also enjoys a thriving fan base in Europe. “Zoe/Rounder, the label I’m on in the U.S., is distributed by Univeral, and sent my CD over to the European division thinking it might be of interest to them. Turns out it was, much to my good luck. It’s really cool because I’ve done a bit more of a grassroots career here in the U.S., starting out touring in a compact car, mailing out my own CD orders, then working with a small independent label, then larger. It’s a pretty different approach the way they’re doing it in Europe. It’s fun to get flown out, including a separate airplane seat for the cellist’s cello. We have a tour manager and a sound engineer, radio interviews. It’s actually pretty impressive/embarrassing that they interview me in my native language in their country. We also get to play these beautiful halls, these orchestral spaces. If the shows do anything but sell out the promoters are very apologetic. It’s a very foreign thing to me, no pun intended.”
Music management is not the only culture shock she has experienced. “The thing I can’t get over is the endless selections of meat and cheese. I did not know there were so many permutations to be created and presented. I always have to go on a vegan diet when I get home. but it’s fantastic, we enjoy ourselves.”
Teng is also balancing a circuit-overloaded schedule, taking a break from recording her new album to play the Appel Fest. “I’m pretty excited about this one. I alternate between super excited and terrified, because this is an album I’m co-producing. I haven’t co-produced or produced an album since college so that was a kind of different deal. I have Rounder Records’ recording budget, a whole network of musicians and engineers, and I’ve gotten to watch (producer) Larry Klein work. I feel like it’s time for me to thrust myself into the pilot’s seat and see what happens.” Rounder Records, based in Burlington, MA, is one of the biggest independent record labels in the U.S., with over 3,000 titles.
The recording is being staggered in three locations: San Francisco, southern California, and New York, with three separate songs recorded in each. “It’s an ambitious project that may get out of hand — in a good way,” she says.
While touring and recording are major commitments, her most ambitious project ahead is social entrepreneurship,” or as she puts it, “applying capitalism to charitable or non-profit goals. I’ve gotten really interested in that recently and crossing my fingers, I might get to go to South America or Africa this fall to volunteer for a couple months. I’m not sure how this is going to work with music but I want to develop those two things in parallel.”
Parallels are a suiting theme for Vienna Teng: singer, songwriter, producer and volunteer, always balancing the creative with the pragmatic. With socially conscious endeavors ahead, the Appel Music Fest may be a rare opportunity to enjoy Teng live for some time to come.
Arts and Music Festival, Saturday, June 7, 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Appel Farm Arts & Music Center, 457 Shirley Road, Elmer. 20th annual day-long music festival. Also, crafts fair and children’s village. $40 in advance; $45 day of show. Free for children 12 and under with an adult. 800-298-4200. For directions and information visit www.appelfarm.org/festival/index.html.