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Vienna Teng: One to Watch for on the Music Charts
An Interview with Musician/Singer Vienna Teng
by Jeannie Cuan

Vienna Teng on the cover of her new album, "Waking Hour." To listen to samples of Vienna's music, visit her official website at

With a name as musically-inspired as Vienna, you envision a musical talent that embodies everything associated with Vienna, Austriaó the worldís capital of classical music. Local Bay Area singer-songwriter and pianist Vienna Teng certainly doesnít disappoint. Her music, a blend of pop, rock and classical, has a somewhat Sarah McLauchlan/early Tori Amos/Enya-like quality, yet it is whole-heartedly and distinctively Vienna. With a pure voice, expressive lyrics, and graceful fingers on the piano, which reveal her classical piano background, her music is refreshing and inspiring to the soul and spirit.

I first heard of Vienna Teng through a friend who stumbled into one of her live performances at Palo Altoís Borders Books & Music. He raved about her talent and was extremely impressedó not only by her amazing voice and musical talent but also at the fact she graduated from Stanfordó so I was curious. I was later given her CD, Waking Hour (Virt Records), and upon hearing the first chords and then her beautiful voice I was captivated and became an instant fan. I found her music calming and lyrics intelligent. There is not a single song on her CD that fails to touch you at the core of your being.

Early January, I attended one of her local performances at the cozy Dolores Park Cafť in San Francisco, and experienced Teng live at the cafťís monthly ďSan Francisco Songs,Ē which showcases local songwriters. Let me just say, sheís even better live. I wanted to get to know this young, up and rising musician better.

So, a week after I saw her perform live, I had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Vienna. In she walked to the same cafť with a book on environmental economics in hand for some leisurely reading after our interview.

Teng, 24, a Bay Area-native, began taking piano lessons when she was five, and music has always been a part of her life. She graduated from Stanford University in Computer Science with a minor in History. Upon graduation in 2000, she was a software engineer at Cisco before deciding to work on her music career full-time.

I know you quit your job at Cisco last year to pursue a career in music. How was it you decided to do that?

By the time it happened, it was a long time coming. I actually decided in college that I was going to try and pursue a music career. I just wasnít sure how since much of it is up to chance. So what I did in the meantime was study other things. One of the things I did was major in computer science, and I took a software engineering jobó partly because it was kinda cool, but mostly because I figured it was a good job to have while doing music. You get the evenings to play shows, and it pays well enough to cover for the music career. So basically at that point it was waiting to get enough of an audience, to sell CDs, and to get enough attention from someone in the industry to make the jump.

VirtRecords found you and contacted you. How did that happen?

It was actually a really cool, um, fluke in a way. I was getting reviewed by online sites and so I guess they were looking for new talent in a lot of different ways and discovered my music, went to my website, found my mp3s, decided they really liked my music and found out I produced a CD. So they contacted me, I gave them my CD, and they sent someone out to come to one of my shows in Mountain View.† And so they decided, together with the CD and the live performance, they liked what they saw. Itís sort of an unusual way for it to happen.

How did your family and friends react when you decided you wanted to pursue a music career?

My friends were really excited Ďcause they thought, you know, hereís one of my friends who doing something really unusual, and they get to live vicariously through me and my adventures. They donít have to play inside coffeehouses in the middle of nowhere, but they get to hear the stories about it.

My parents, they were happy for me because they knew it was something I wanted to do for a while. They were playing the parental role and sat me down and asked, Do you have a plan? How are you going to do this? When I sat down and answered their questions to their satisfaction, they were like, cool, go for it.

How has it been so far?

Itís been a lot of fun. Itís been really cool Ďcause the reason why I decided I wanted to do music full-time was that I wanted to be able to, you know, really throw myself into itó really find out how it worksó and itís definitely been that. Iíve met a lot of songwriters along the way and got to travel to a lot of different places. Itís kinda neat because when I go to a new place as a musician I get to actually meet people because people come to watch the show, having fun with friends. Itís like making new friends everywhere I go.

They only thing thatís really weird is that itís such an ego-centric profession. ĎCause when you work a job itís usually not about you. Itís about like the project or itís about something else. Having everything centered around me is a little weird. So, itís something I have to get used to. So I tell all my friends to, like, smack me upside the head if I start getting arrogant (with a chuckle).

How is it adjusting to that?

It hasnít been difficult. Itís not like Iíve become a rock star yet. Um, but it is kind of interesting to have a day consist of, like, on the one hand selling myself to whatever market Iím playing to, or on the other hand doing interviews where people are asking questions and itís always talking about me. So I try to get out of that by hanging out with my friends and seeing what theyíre up to and also reading or listening to other stuff, you know, just get out of the whole self-centered thing.

Growing up did you think youíd pursue a music career?

Growing up I thought itíd be fun. I mean, I fantasized about it all the time. I just didnít think you could make a career out of it per se. Um, and it was mostly a matter of being able to play my music for other people and see what of reaction I got. And in college it started gathering momentum. People really wanted to hear it, and really wanted a recording of it, and wanted to hear when I was playing a show. So it was mostly from the encouragement from other people.

When youíre writing music, what inspires youó the music youíve written so far and the music youíre working on?

Itís all sorts of things. Sometimes theyíre diary entries, sometimes itís when Iím feeling really down about something or really excited about something. A lot of the times itís really listening to somebody elseó what theyíve been through, what theyíre going through, and trying to empathize with that.

Itís sort of interesting because, as a person and as a friend, I donít necessarily always provide comfort or support as other friends may, but I feel sometimes my friends are really moved and surprised by the way I can express what theyíre going through in the songs that I write. So thatís my own way of doing it. Then there are other times where Iíve read too many novels and I start making up my own storiesó about people Iíve never met before or heard of, things Iíve never been throughó and try and see where it goes.

So what does making musicó the process of making musicó mean to you?

It sort of means two different things because for me personally, itís a cathartic outlet of sorts. I play it because it feels good to play it, and I get a lot of joy out of creating musicó both playing other peopleís music and then coming up with my own and experimenting. Itís kind of like an intellectual challenge a lot of the times. But the other half of it, more the reason why Iíd rather do it for a living than rather just having it as a hobby, is the fact that I can affect so many people when I do it well. And I think thatís the reason why music is important to me, in the sense of doing it as a career, because I can see how it affects people, how it can be a friend to a person when they really need it.

How does it make you feel that you impact and inspire others?

Itís really a great feeling, Itís the reason why I do it. It does feel a little weird because itís separate from me as a person. A lot of the people to whom the music means so much, Iíve never met before and they doní know me, but itís almost as if Iíve created something that is like a person or an entity.

What musicians do you admire or impact your musical style?

In terms of lyrics, I think that a lot of lyricists mostly from the 60ís and 70ís, like the folk singers-- people like Paul Simon of Simon & Garfunkel, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell. Those are people I really admire for the fact that they write poetry and turn it into music, and it all still works. In terms of music, I guess it depends on who I happen to be listening to and affects me. I think itís definitely nice to hear artists like Elton John, Tori Amosó people who use the piano as the central instrument. Because I was a piano player and I didnít hear really a lot of piano music in popular music, Iíd hear these people and be like, woah, it can be done.

Does being Asian American impact on your music?

Iíve often been asked that. No, I donít think that I do it in a conscious way. For better or worse, I grew kind of feeling more American that anything else. And I feel like I write from maybe the Californian-American experience more than any particularly Asian theme.

Being Asian American, have you had any obstacles or opportunities open to you because of that fact?

I havenít had any hardships, certainly. I feel very lucky that way. But I do feel that the Asian community has been really supportive of my music and my music career. I guess because itís sort of unusual, and in that sense, I think that a lot of people from the Asian community coming to my shows who wouldnít normally come out listen to live music at a coffee house. So it is a new audience in a lot of ways. Iíve been really grateful for them for coming out to listen.

Thatís the thing. My friend who told me about you was struck by the fact that hereís this talented Asian girl who is out here performing in Borders in Palo Alto, pursing a music career. He was really impressed.

Thatís really cool. There are a lot of factors that make it possibleó partly being that my parents are supportive, rather than being like, you canít do that, you have to go to medical school or something. I think like maybe they secretly harbor that well, if music doesnít work as a career, but theyíre not saying anything like that.

It seems like youíre doing really well and itís been successful.

Iím hoping that itíll work out.

So with you your debut CD, Waking Hour, and the songs written, were they written prior or something specifically for the CD?

I think the most recent song was written 2000. And some songs date back to like, I donít know, í94. It is a collection of a lot of songs I wrote though high school and throughout college. Itís sort of a collection of songs I wrote along the way.

Do have any particular favorites on your CD?

I donít know, I think that it depends. Like, Iíll work on one for a while, and Iíll sing it differently at a performance and then Iíll like that one better for a while. But in terms of actual favorites, I donít think there are any.

When I was at your performance on Friday, there were some songs I heard that werenít on your CD. Are these songs you wrote since your debut CD was produced?

At shows that I playó sometimes theyíre pretty long, like 2 hours longó I go through everything on the CD and I actually go through as many songs. The other half consists of songs Iíve written since then. I definitely have enough material to do another CD.

So you have plans to do another CD? Is it in the works?

Yeah. I havenít started any recording yet, but theyíre planning to start this year some time.

Thatís great! Lastly, what do you have planned in the upcoming months?

I will be on tour a lot for the first half of the year. Iím going down to Southern California, to the East and then to the Southwest and Iíll end up in Austin. I play a couple of gigs here and then Iím back for like a week. Then Iím flying over to the East Coast, and Iíll be playing there from New England down to Atlanta.

So when you look at that schedule that you have, how are you feeling?

Itís really exciting actually. I mean, I will miss everyone at home certainly. And itíll probably been the longest time Iíve been away doing something. Iím really, really looking forward to it. The last time I went on tourÖ Every time I go on tour itís lots of fun. You get to meet all these people and hear theyíre stories, and have adventures of your own, like crashing on people couches, and braving the taxi system in New York. You know, all the good stuff.

Well, I wish you all the best success! Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.

Thank you.

Vienna Tengís debut CD, Waking Hour, is currently available at local Bay Area Borders and Tower Records in the Bay Area,, and on her website, Since our interview, Teng has been featured on National Public Radioís Weekend Edition (1/12/03), and her song ďTowerĒ was heard playing in the background of a scene on an episode of NBCís ďEdĒ (1/15/03). And most recently, she made her television debut on CBSí ďThe Late Show with David LettermanĒ (1/20/03). She is definitely one to look for on the music charts.


AsianConnections would like to thank Jeannie Cuan and Vienna Teng for their time and effort.

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