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Teng, Vienna

Vienna Teng

Singer, songwriter, pianist

California-born singer-songwriter-pianist Vienna Teng has drawn numerous comparisons from journalists attempting to characterize her style—comparisons not only to other female singer-songwriters like Sarah McLachlan and Tori Amos, but also to classical composer Fréderic Chopin. Teng studied classical piano from age five until she finished high school. After her graduation from Stanford University, she caught the public's attention with her graceful, intricately accompanied original songs. She has released two albums on the Seattle-based Virt label and has appeared on CNN, The Late Show with David Letterman, and National Public Radio's Weekend Edition.

Teng was born in 1978 in San Jose, California. Vienna Teng is her stage name, taken at age 12 to honor the Austrian city that was home to classical composers Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms; her birth name was Cynthia Shih. Teng's parents, natives of Taiwan, came to California to work in the San Francisco Bay Area's technology industry. She got some early exposure to the art of the singer-songwriter when her parents started listening to records by Carole King, James Taylor, and Simon & Garfunkel in order to improve their English skills. "It was sophisticated stuff—'You read your Emily Dickinson and I, my Robert Frost,'—that's not simple English," Teng recalled to Joel Selvin of the San Francisco Chronicle. "It was a tradition that was taken with the poetry of words and with the idea that lyrics should say something."

Piano lessons also helped push Teng in the direction of a musical career. Many Chinese-American parents in California require piano studies of their children, but Teng asked for them on her own after trying out pianos at the houses of family friends. Her parents "didn't force it on me at all, and they never scolded me into practicing," she told Marian Liu of the San Jose Mercury News. Teng was a talented pianist, and for a while she dreamed of a concert career. She also began writing popular songs at age 10, and two songs she wrote while a student at Saratoga High School later showed up on her debut album, Waking Hour. After graduating from high school and enrolling at Stanford, however, she decided on a pre-med program.

That decision brought Teng to a crisis point. "I realized that I was not meant to be a doctor," she told Liu. "I thought I had the personality. I really love affecting people in a deep and personal way. But I realized music was another way to achieve the same effect." Teng began performing in her Stanford dorm, which had a piano, and friends encouraged her to get serious about music, distributing mp3 copies of her songs around campus. She switched her major, not to music, but to computer science, "a good way to save money for the music," she told Liu. An audio engineering student named Eric Miller recorded some of her songs for a class project, and Teng developed the nucleus of what became her first CD, Waking Hour.

After graduating from Stanford in 2000, Teng got a job as a software engineer at computer giant Cisco Systems and started taking classical voice lessons, "which amounted to paying $40 a week to be told that I was doing it all wrong," she said in an interview posted on her website. She started performing at parties and coffee houses around the Bay Area. The early version of Waking Hour that she offered for sale found a thousand enthusiastic buyers over the course of a year, and she began to focus on developing her musical career. Miller helped Teng develop a website, and she began putting files on free mp3 distribution websites. She moved into an apartment in San Francisco's up-and-coming Mission District.

Her songs, mostly romantic or narrative pieces drawn from her life at Stanford, resonated with young audiences. Asian Americans, too, flocked to her shows. "I didn't want to be billed as an Asian-American artist, but it is undeniable," Teng conceded to Jon Bream of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Asian Americans do come out to my shows in numbers that the promoters say they've never seen before." She added a Taiwanese folk song called "The Green Island Serenade" to her shows, and included it as a hidden track at the end of her second album, Warm Strangers.

Entrepreneur Michael Tarlowe, a former financial analyst bitten by the music bug, heard one of Teng's recordings on the Web. "I was floored," he told Selvin. He flew to see her perform in Mountain View, California, signed Teng to his new Seattle-based Virt Records label, and released Waking Hour in late 2002. Teng quit her Cisco Systems job, taking a 50 percent pay cut, and embarked on a schedule of nationwide touring. She expected to put in years in the trenches, but success came quickly. David Letterman heard National Public Radio's Weekend Edition profile of Teng, and invited her to appear on his show in January of 2003. Waking Hour skyrocketed to the top ten in sales at online retailer Amazon. One of her songs, "The Tower," written about a Stanford roommate who nurtured other students but cracked under the weight of her own unmet needs, was used on the NBC television series Ed.

With her second album, Warm Strangers, Teng made a bid for mainstream success. She worked with producer David Henry, who had formerly worked with alternative groups REM and the Cowboy Junkies, creating a sound that backed Teng's lilting voice and piano with a variety of lush sounds ranging from guitars to orchestral strings or a string quartet. Teng and Henry collaborated on a radio-friendly anthem called "Hope on Fire." But mostly, Warm Strangers featured Teng's distinctive originals, this time with a storytelling emphasis. "Passages" was a haunting song written from the perspective of a woman who has died in an automobile crash, while in "The Atheist Christmas Carol" Teng made an unusual contribution to the seasonal repertoire.

Warm Strangers landed Teng on the CBS television Early Show and the Wayne Brady Show, and it peaked at number two on Amazon's sales chart. Most important, it brought Teng to the attention of larger live audiences, who began to focus on her low-key but virtuoso music-making. She opened shows for Joan Baez, Patty Griffin, and the Indigo Girls, and in January of 2005 she performed at the 4,500-seat Ann Arbor Folk Festival in Michigan. Teng has continued to absorb new musical influences. "I try to keep my ears open to all kinds [of music]," she said in an interview quoted on her website. "I think Eminem is amazing. I can get high off of [classical composers] Josquin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Miles Davis hurts my brain in a good way." Another new influence was the sonically ambitious rock music of Radiohead. As Teng worked on her third album in 2005, expectations ran high for the young performer who had managed to find a place for her years of piano lessons in the music of today.

For the Record …

Born Cynthia Shih in San Jose, CA, 1978; daughter of Taiwanese immigrant parents; took stage name Vienna Teng in recognition of the role of the city of Vienna, Austria, in classical music history. Education: Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, bachelor's degree in computer science, 2000.

Cisco Systems, software engineer, 2000-02; performed at parties and coffee houses in San Francisco Bay area; signed to Virt label; released Waking Hour, 2002; released Warm Strangers, 2004.

Addresses: Record company—Virt Records, P.O. Box 9142, Seattle, WA 98109-0142. Website—Vienna Teng Official Website: http://www.viennateng.com.

Selected discography

Waking Hour, Virt, 2002.

Warm Strangers, Virt, 2004.

Sources

Periodicals

Register-Guard (Eugene, OR), May 14, 2004, p. T4.

San Francisco Chronicle, April 8, 2003, p. D1.

San Jose Mercury News, July 30, 2002.

Seattle Times, March 5, 2004, p. H4.

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), October 17, 2003, p. E4.

Online

"Changing Her Tune," Stanford Magazine, http://www.stanfordalumni.org/news/magazine/2003/novdec/show/noteworthy.html (May 20, 2005).

"Interview," Vienna Teng Official Website, http://www.viennateng.com (May 17, 2005).

"Vienna Teng," Virt Records, http://www.virtrecords.com/viennateng/bio.html (May 17, 2005).

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