Singer-Songwriter Issue: Vienna Teng finds inspiration in unexpected places
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WWLD: What would Lilith do? Described by besotted music writers as the love child of Frederic Chopin and Sarah McLachlan, the supple-voiced imaginary spawn of Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell, classically trained singer-songwriter Vienna Teng freely confesses she'd be nothing if not for Ms. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy and Tori Amos staples from her college days spent immersed in computer science studies at Stanford. But what of the most shadowy love buried in the South Bay native's past? Walt. As in Disney. "I think I've always been influenced by Disney musicals," Teng says with some wry humor from Brooklyn, where she moved last year from San Francisco. "At least those from the Little Mermaid and Aladdin era. Yeah, I know it's not a cool thing."
Adam's fierce first love might not approve. But as the inspiration for the feminist-centered, oft-unplugged folk-rock fest known for giving the music of Amos and McLachlan a forum in the '90s, Lilith would undoubtedly delight in the sweet, subtly elegant mixture of classical melodicism and pop chart-friendly folk on the 29-year-old Taiwanese American vocalist's most recent CD, Dreaming Through the Noise (Zoe/Rounder).
Perhaps that early affinity for Disney's protean fairy tale characters allowed Teng to imagine leaving her software engineer job at Cisco Systems, Inc. and begin playing coffeehouses on downtown Mountain View's Castro Street seven years ago. Maybe that imaginative affinity led her to build the substantial following that fills venues like the Independent and has purchased 60,000 copies of her first two albums (Warm Strangers [Rounder, 2004] and Waking Hour [Virt, 2002]), and made it easy for Teng to put herself in the shoes of, for instance, gay couples on the brink of marriage ("City Hall") and drowned victims of Hurricane Katrina ("Pontchartrain").
For Teng, music is way of fully grasping topics weighing on her mind, "a more gentle exploration than editorials or speeches": she aims to write songs she doesn't already hear out there. And next up for her forthcoming album is the challenge of crafting lyrics about global warming and suicide bombers. The latter is one number she hasn't been able to finish, she says: "The more I read about it and research it, I realize, gee, it's really hard to write about."
Still, the process of putting together her fourth full-length has been a refreshingly unrestrained experience. Teng and South Baybred coproducer Alex Wong assembled a chamber orchestra, tapping into Wong's classical percussion background, and recorded everywhere from New York City and Indiana to SF's Noe Valley Ministry and a spooky Victorian in the Mission District ("It was indeed haunted, but the owner explained it was just haunted by her old pets") just to get that eerie feel for couple songs revolving around the past. "We pretty much indulged in every outlandish idea we've come up with," Teng says happily. "The joke is it's basically two Asian American kids from an overachiever culture making an album together."
Vienna Teng performs 3:25 p.m., Sun/24, at Outside Lands ' Avenues stage, Polo Fields.