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Songstress Vienna Teng is proud to be a new Detroiter
How enthusiastic is Vienna Teng to be a new resident of Detroit?
Enough so that "Aims," the California-born singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist's first new album in four years, sports a map of the city on its cover.
It's not just any map, however. The image on "Aims' " cover is what Teng calls "a visualization of population changes from 2000 to 2010," showing large chunks of empty land and a combination of egress from the city and movement towards downtown. But Teng -- who moved to Detroit in May after completing her graduate studies at the University of Michigan's Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise -- doesn't think it's all bad news.
"I'm fascinated by how many stories are in there," says Teng, 34, who resides on the third floor of a house in Detroit's Indian Village, though her landlords allow her to keep her piano on the first floor. "On one hand you can look at it and go, 'Right, this is Detroit. Everybody is moving out and it's collapsing.' But what's interesting, when you look closely, is you see all these people moving into different areas. You can see more complex, and positive, stories happening.
"That's what I was trying to achieve with the album, too. I'm trying to tell you the stories of things you think you know about, but when you illuminate them there are lots of different things going on in any place you might want to focus on."
Teng, who was born Cynthisa Yih Shih in Saratoga, had well-established her artistry prior to taking time off to go back to college. She started playing piano at age 5 and sang with the a capella Stanford Harmonics while studying computer science at the university -- where she also started recording her own songs at the Center For Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). She was a software engineer at Cisco Systems for a couple of years but quit to pursue music full time after signing her first record deal and putting out her first album, "Waking Hour," in 2002.
After three more releases Teng was ready to shift gears -- "Going back to school was something I always knew I'd do," she notes -- but she did continue performing during her time at U-M, including an appearance at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival. She also kept writing songs, and she feels "Aims' " 11 songs are a fairly direct result of her studies.
"I think it's sort of a strangely natural outcome of having spent a couple years in grad school," explains Teng, who earned an MBA. "Partly I got to step away from music and, in the best of ways, turn music back into my hobby and doing it just for the love of it, without needing it to pay my bills or stand for all my success as a human being.
"So that was really liberating, and I think the joy of that comes through in the music."
And, Teng adds, that joy came from immersing herself in some fairly dark places.
"Studying sustainability, I seemed to be looking at a problem where there's a lot of bad news and uphill battles and figuring out how to grapple with that, emotionally," she says. "I wanted to write songs that are ambitious and about big ideas but are also about real people. That's sort of what became some of the guiding principles when I sat down to write."
"Aims" is, in fact, Teng's most straightforwardly and unapologetically pop album, blending rich melodicism with fully realized sonics. Co-producer Cason Cooley was a major factor in that, says Teng, who also collaborated with Toad the Wet Sprocket's Glen Phillips on the track "Landsailor" and fellow California troubadour Alex Wong on "The Breaking Light."
"(Cooley) has this sense of fun and joyousness when he comes into the studio," she recalls, "and we ended up using a lot of electronic elements and more drums and percussion and less of my acoustic piano as a sonic palette. It really was the most fun I ever had making an album, and I hope that comes through."
Teng heads out this week on an North American trek that has dates booked into mid-December. Meanwhile, she's also working on a musical theater project in the San Francisco Bay Area called "The Fourth Messenger," which is based on the life of Buddha. It's been in motion since 2008 with a prototype premier earlier this year that's led to revisions.
"To be honest," she says with a chuckle, "if I'd known it was going to be a five or 10-year journey, I might have thought more about doing it. But it's been great -- difficult, but great."
All of that is conspiring to keep Teng away from her newly adopted home town, but Detroit will still remain her primary roost for the time being.
"I don't have plans to move anywhere else," she says. "What I hope is that as I spend more time in Detroit I'll find out more what my particular contribution can be." Right now, Teng adds, she has "a dream" of opening a community building for classes and events related to music and sustainability.
"There's always an interesting combination of people I meet -- from Detroit or people who move there from elsewhere, a mix of Detroit natives and excited newcomers. I feel like, in a way, I have the benefit of coming into it wide-eyed and naive. I haven't lived through some of the really hard things; I can see evidence of it, and I hear the stories about it for sure, but I don't come to it in the same way as people who have been here a long time, and so I see the opportunity and the positives, and I'm hoping that will make me a good contributor to the city's future."
Vienna Teng performs at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Sept. 26-27, at the Ark, 316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor. Alex Wong opens Thursday's show; Barnaby Bright opens on Friday. Both nights are sold out. Call 734-761-1451 or visit www.theark.org.
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