Sessions: Vienna Teng

Vienna Teng

Where did you record this album?

Kind of all over the place.  In a lot of studios that my producer, Alex, found. We got a lot of great deals on these little studios that normally do smooth jazz, but they had this beautiful grand piano. Then, we did some of it in just an old house, actually, in San Francisco. Some of it we did in a studio in New York, and some of it we mixed in this other friend’s studio in L.A. So, it was kind of all over the place.

Do you have any sort of home set-up?

I don’t actually have a home even. [Laughing]. Well, I looked at my tour schedule and I’m like, ‘You know what, I don’t want to being paying rent just to be around for two days out of every month’. So, I have a storage space in New York and that’s about it. I just float around.

I bet that feels very liberating.

It is really liberating because you can kind of be anywhere and not feel that you should be somewhere else or that you need to be getting back somewhere. There’s no place to check up on.

When you start touring in the fall, will you take the band out again?

We’re going to do a duo for the fall, so me and Alex will travel.

So, is that just like renting a car and just going with it?

Pretty much, yeah, I have always traveled pretty light. This spring tour that we did just a couple months ago was the most extravagant I think I’ve ever done just, like, as a headliner. We rented one of those great Dodge Sprinter vans with the cargo bay in the back and it had wifi.  It was pretty cool. We were taking Ben Solee and Alex’s band The Paper Raincoat and it was just an amazing time; a bunch of great musicians and great people, all of them up for whatever. We would see a sign off the side of the road, out in the desert in the middle of nowhere, and we would just be like, ‘hey, lets go try and eat there, in that town; whatever they have. So, we pulled off and Ben saw this sign for the Fire Department’s annual or monthly pancake breakfast and he was like, ‘let’s do it’.  So we ended up making friends with the whole fire department of this little desert town. We had all kinds of adventures.

You have been in Nashville for about a week. Do you like it?

I do; I mean, I like green. I like trees and grass.  I really like Southern food. So, I’m having the meat and three’s everywhere. I’m really big on the Copper Kettle on Granny White, and when I was recording a record here David Henry took me to Calypso Café a lot. Another place where David Henry took me was that one little Mexican place that would sell popsicles.

So, will you play something for us?

Well, seeing as there is a great photo of Dolly Parton right behind me. I’ve always wanted to meet her because I have this one song that I was basically trying to rip her off in order to write it.  It’s a San Francisco song, and it’s about February 2004 in San Francisco, which, as you may or may not know, is when the mayor decided to recognize gay marriage. So, I wanted to write a song about it without being overly political about it. It seemed like the best thing to do was to attempt to write a country song about it. And just see how it came out. It actually has seemed like it has the intended effect because people will get into it. They are like, oh what a beautiful song about two people who really love each other and then they read more into it, which is kind of the point I was making.  So, here’s hoping. This is called “City Hall.”

How long did that song in particular take you to work out?

Songs have this long gestation period for me.  This one I had the idea of writing it since February of 2004. I didn’t know how to write it. So, I kept writing all these lyrics trying to tell the story, and I never really got it where I liked it.  I think it was in October of 2005, basically a year and a half later, I thought, oh maybe if I listen to Dolly Parton a lot then…and once I had that in my head it just took a couple of days.

When did you cross the barrier from covering other artists to branching out into your own?

I guess that would be since I started playing music. I was five when I started piano lessons and when I was six I started to write little piano pieces. Already, I was trying to do my own thing. Partly because I didn’t want to practice other peoples stuff and also because I just like the idea of creating something new, even if it is just some simple little thing. It actually made learning other people’s pieces more interesting because I felt if I learned some cool thing a composer was doing then I could try and use it.

Do you feel like your writing process has changed as time goes by?

I think that every time I write a song it’s like starting at zero, all over again. I don’t know how it’s done. Every time I think I have a method, it’s this step and this step, but generally songs don’t like to follow those kinds of rules, in my experience. They’ll get stuck at the weirdest times. I just have to do whatever it takes, kind of, to get around it.  Sometimes it’s something as orthogonal as going to watch a movie that has nothing to do with the song, but something in the movie will somehow trigger the way to finish it. It seems like creativity is always kind of like that. You just have to stay open to all sorts of different stuff and just hope that one thing over here will spark something over there, and they just combine in your head for some strange reason. I think after that inspiration aspect comes in, then, there is the question of whether you have developed your own craft enough to know what to do with it. So, I run up against that sometimes. I have this cool idea and I’m not actually good enough to write it, to pull it off. So the question is, well what do you do with that?

Vienna Teng 2

Who is your influence for some of the dissonance in your sound?

There is the one composer named Oswaldo Golioev who is a Jewish Argentinian composer. His music is a really interesting mix of Jewish tradition and Argentinian tango. It’s a sort of interesting mix of stuff. So, I was listening to him and to some wacky pieces. I don’t really know a lot of that music, so I just asked for suggestions.  Lately, I’ve been digging into ’80s stuff.

When you’re on the road, do you still take time to pick up CDs or do you download stuff?

I was having this I live in the future kind of moments because I have an iPhone now. I have an iPhone 3G. So, I’d be barreling down the highway, like Highway 81 in Virginia, and I’d be streaming Pandora.  Every time I would come to a stop, I would just add an artist I like and create a station from them and just listen to song after song of stuff that was in that universe. Then, maybe, I would stream a radio show like This American Life.

These tracks were recorded live by Steve Martin at the American Songwriter office in Nashville, Tenn.

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