“I’m kind of a late bloomer,” says Vienna Teng.
Not that you’d guess from looking at the past few years. The songwriter, singer and pianist has released three critically acclaimed albums, landing her on three Billboard charts and in Amazon.com’s top ten. She regularly sells out theaters across the U.S. and Europe, fans travel hundreds of miles to catch a single show, and her opening sets for the likes of India.Arie, Joan Baez and Madeleine Peyroux end in standing ovations. Mere months after quitting her job as a software engineer in 2002, she was being interviewed on NPR and performing on The Late Show with David Letterman, who declared that he’d listened to her entire debut album and that there was “not a dud” on it. Her brand of sophisticated, piano-driven pop has been gathering accolades ever since: “seductive and transcendent” (Amazon.com), “gorgeously conceived…accomplished yet understated” (Paste), “singular among her peers” (Variety).
So why the sense of a late start?
“I’m talking about artistic maturity, not success,” Teng explains. “I feel like I’m just now settling into who I am in a lot of ways. Now I really go for the sounds I’m hearing in my head, and tackle the subjects I’ve really wanted to write about, when before I might have shied away and said, ‘I can’t do that kind of thing.’”
The newfound confidence shows. Her fourth album, Inland Territory, is a tour de force musically and lyrically, a complex and deeply thoughtful work from an artist cut loose from limitations. Recorded over five months and in four cities, with instrumentation ranging from orchestral percussion to found-object loops to polyphonic choirs, it’s without question her most ambitious work yet. The credits alone read like a “Ones To Watch” list: engineer and mixer Eddie Jackson (James Taylor, Patti Sciafla), violinist and concertmaster Rob Moose (Sufjan Stevens, Beth Orton), guitarist Kiyanu Kim (Gwen Stefani) and bassist Jeff Allen (Duncan Sheik), to name a few. Guitar virtuoso Kaki King lends her signature soundscapes to a few tracks, renowned clarinetists Ben Goldberg and Beth Custer trade fours, and fellow singer-songwriters Ari Hest, Julian Velard, Odessa Chen and Noe Venable all contribute vocals.
“It was a two-degrees-of-separation project,” says Teng. “Everyone I ever wanted to have play on a record of mine—I’d call them up and ask, and if they said yes, I’d go: ‘Great! Who else do you think should be part of this?’ So there was a kind of family feel to the whole thing. Complete with impossible scheduling,” she adds with a laugh.
To help pull off this enormous undertaking, she called on producer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Alex Wong, who performs with her on tour. “I’ve always admired Alex’s approach to production,” she says. “No matter how complex or clever he gets, he’s always serving the song, communicating its meaning. And we’ve been friends for years, so there was that comfort level. I wanted to produce this time around, but I didn’t think I was ready to do it alone, so he was the ideal collaborator: someone who knows about the details of producing a record and whose instincts I trust, but who would still give me the reins sometimes, let me learn a lot by doing.”
With Wong sharing the helm, a fresh, adventurous sound emerged from the studio. Inland Territory opens with “The Last Snowfall,” where seemingly random vinyl-record crackles emerge to form a hypnotic pattern, and interlocking choral lines soar over Wurlitzer piano: this both is, and isn’t, the Vienna Teng you’d expect from her previous work. It’s followed immediately by “White Light,” a pop anthem shot through with quirky keyboards and electric guitar, and a surprising fierceness in Teng’s voice: “If you knew it was wrong, why did you do it? You don’t know, you didn’t mean to, it slipped your mind?” Her classical piano training still shines on several tracks, especially the Debussy-like cascades in “Antebellum” and the giddy fluttering of “Stray Italian Greyhound,” this time playing counterpoint to Wong’s intricate string arrangements. Even in pared-down numbers, like the plaintive ballad “Kansas,” subtle touches—a distant wash of cymbals, elegiac horns—bring out the emotion in Teng’s vocals more vividly than ever.
The keystone of the album, though, comes halfway through the arc of this twelve-song collection. “Grandmother Song,” recorded live in an old Victorian house in San Francisco, is a raucous, rebellious tribute to Teng’s forebears, rendered with signature acuity. “No one’s gonna take care of you in that world you got yourself into,” she sings over fiddle and kitchen-utensil percussion, channeling a disapproving matriarch. “All the good boys—oh baby, they’re in grad school.” But as she recounts a life full of wartime upheaval, in an age before gender equality, cheeky parody gives way to moving testimony; it’s clear that this woman has every reason to urge her granddaughter toward education, security, a husband with a PhD. The song breaks new ground in numerous ways for Teng, a first-generation Chinese-American who previously avoided writing about her cultural heritage. “Basically I was trying to rap from my grandma’s point of view,” she jokes. “Or write a back-porch country jam, or something. I really wasn’t sure if I could pull it off! But it was the only viable way of writing about her that I could think of. I wanted to use a solidly American musical style, use that to express the force of my grandma’s personality—kind of a way to celebrate her and refuse her advice at the same time.”
She continues, “I’ve been grappling with that a lot lately: how I have certain obligations to both the past and the future, and they’re not always easily reconciled. I think it’s important to feel the full weight of history sometimes, but there’s also a place for being fearless about things…you know, being naïvely hopeful, taking risks. I’ve been given a pretty amazing life, and I’m grateful for everything it took to put me here. So now the question is, ‘How do I spend this inheritance wisely?'”
That inheritance, as it turns out, includes a global awareness as well as family biography. In the final third of the album, where another artist might relegate weaker material, Teng pulls out all the stops instead. Her imagination radiates outward, running dark and detailed. “No Gringo” uses lap steel and a loping groove to evoke a furtive border crossing in the American Southwest, while “Watershed” gives voice to geology itself:
I’ve done this many times before you
ashen sky, lightning storms
deltas to desert plains
wartime on every border…
Most unsettling is “Radio,” in which a sheltered, San Francisco-dwelling narrator imagines her local bus shattered by a suicide bomber, the city shut down by civil war. Disembodied whispers weave in and out of an insistent, off-kilter drumbeat, and atonal drones build to wails of almost unbearable intensity. “The idea is, ‘You’ve come with us this far; trust us and follow a little further,’” Teng says. “I wrote these songs for people who listen closely, who’re willing to be challenged by what they hear. It’s definitely not mood music.”
Luckily there is a reward for tenacity: the gorgeous “St. Stephen’s Cross,” a closing track that gracefully merges the album’s extremes. At times replete with swirling guitars, flourishes on tack piano and cathedral choir, other times spare and intimate, it follows a couple caught up in a revolutionary moment—“the night the wall was drowned/in the surging of that tidal crowd.” All of the recurring themes of Inland Territory are here: grand ambition and introspection, dissonance and simple beauty, powerful emotions seen in their wider context. It’s a love song, sure. A pop song, even. But underneath the pleasant catchiness, there are whole worlds contained in this brief episode of music, layers of meaning packed into a handful of words. Teng has always been a songwriter of enormous potential, and this album is that promise come to full fruition. This is, as she sings in the final verse, “an old world made new.”
A late bloomer, maybe. But it’s been well worth the wait.
Official Website: http://www.yoshis.com/sanfrancisco/jazzclub/artist/show/1234
Added by Yoshis on April 17, 2010