september 2009

Photo by Frederick Manligas Nacino (Opusdeiphotography)
Vienna Teng on
Inland Territory: 'For some of the songs, I'm deliberately making it a little challenging for myself, and hopefully people who listen to it will not be put off by that but rather will give it the benefit of the doubt. I hope they get as much out of listening to it as I did writing it.'

Inland, Close To The Heart
Exploring New Territory, Vienna Teng Brings It All Back Home

By David McGee

I've been getting plenty of sleep, eating well and all that, and the days go by at the kind of leisurely pace I imagine most of you would envy. Yet there's this sense of depletion, like something was spent and needs replenishing. I guess I know why. More than the previous three records, I really put myself on this album. It's the truest expression so far of who I am and what I want my music to be. Which is a hell of a lot of work and quite scary, to be honest with you. But also something to be pleased with and excited about sending into the world. —Vienna Teng, 10/13/2008, 5:16 p.m., entry from

It's the sort of thing that happens when you've got more than good luck on your side. It has more to do with the alignment of the stars

It's August 20, Highline Ballroom, New York City, and everything is going Vienna Teng's way. An adoring crowd is eating up her elegant, captivating music, put off not one whit by the electronic looping device she uses on her acoustic piano or the various bag of electronic enhancements employed by her percussionist collaborator and co-conspirator Alex Wong (which indeed are enhancements only—the music and the vocals remain live throughout), and Ms. Teng is in a buoyant mood, chatting breezily between songs, laughing coquettishly at her own follies and proceeding through her set at a relaxed, soothing pace, very front porchy in its casualness, even if the music is occupying a more formal plane. Her new album, Inland Territory, is growing her fan base incrementally at every stop of her tour, the press has been justifiably rapturous, and the public performance of its songs has been near flawless and quite breathtaking in the richness of its sonic palette and its necessary corollary, Ms. Teng's emotional engagement with her material.

Even when something goes awry, breaking the set's gathering momentum, it all works out in Ms. Teng's favor, or rather in favor of the show. About halfway through the evening, in the afterglow of an exhilarating performance of "Stray Italian Greyhound," a New York City-inspired song centered on romantic anxiety with anxious music to match, Wong is fussing over his snare drum, and fussing, and fussing, until finally he looks up at the audience and asks, "Does anyone have a Phillips-head screwdriver?" eliciting a hearty laugh from his fellow artists (he and Ms. Teng are joined in a trio by cellist/guitarist Ward Williams) and the audience alike. Discreetly, a fellow in the middle of the room arises from his seat and strolls to the back of the ballroom and disappears through a door, only to reappear a couple of minutes later, marching to Wong's aid with...a Phillips-head screwdriver. Wong takes it, fusses over the snare some more, then once again asks of the audience, "Anyone have a spare snare drum?"

thumbnailSame guy leaves the room, returns with a spare snare drum. Problem solved, and the band launches into the song the audience has been requested almost from the moment the musicians hit the stage, "City Hall," a driving, pop-inflected love song inspired, according to all reports, by the legalization of gay marriage in San Francisco, Ms. Teng's home town. Before the song begins, though, Wong wonders what other blessings might be in the offing should he ask. At which point Ms. Teng queries: "How about a roast duck? Anyone have a roast duck they want to bring up here?" Which begat a conversation between Ms. Tang and Mr. Wong as what they might ask for in other cities as they travel across the land. Clearly, wherever they may land, roast duck would be a priority.

"Alex does really have a weakness for roast duck, so I thought I'd throw that out there because he genuinely would be happy if people showed up with roast duck," Ms Teng said the next day by phone, emitting a warm laugh at the memory. "Yeah, that was really a fabulous evening. It makes me grateful for having that kind of audience. I think what made it so fun for us was coming out onstage and knowing immediately that the room was with us, no matter what was going to happen."

With Inland Territory, Ms. Teng has made sure many rooms will be with her in the future. Her fourth album marshals both the intellect and the heart of her previous three long players and brings her eclectic influences to bear on the soundscape in a seamless mesh of disparate styles—folk, pop, jazz, rock co-mingle with austere, discrete small combo arrangements and bustling, rock-fueled workouts with a dollop of electronic effects and exquisite, Alex Wong-arranged strings throughout. Her voice is a remarkably pliant instrument, capable of both intimate, Madeleine Peyroux-style whisperings, tantalizingly restrained, Sarah McLachlan-style cooing, and forceful, gospel-fueled belting (at the Highline, during her closing number, "Grandmother Song," Ms. Teng led the audience in a foot-stomping, handclapping celebration that turned the place into a tent revival, with her soaring, assertive voice elevating above it all in an impressive display of vocal muscle. She is a willowy lass, this Vienna Teng, born Cynthia Yih Shih, but do not mistake her lithe carriage as revealing a weakness of soul or spirit.) and she uses it, with striking assurance of its nuances, in order to infuse her lyrics with deeper shades of subtextual revelation. It would be difficult to single out one example over another of the essential connection between her vocal approach and the stories she's telling, but one common technique she uses to powerful effect is the repeated chanting of a key lyric—usually a song title, such as "Whatever You Want," from her Larry Klein-produced 2006 album, Dreaming Through the Noise, or "Radio" from Inland Territory ("it's just the radio, darlin', just the radio")—until it becomes an incantation, and says more about her characters' state of mind than could be contained in a multitude of expositional lyrics.

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'City Hall,' Vienna Teng at the Living Room, NYC: On Vienna's part, 'a bit of conscious desire to be a little subversive' in a song inspired by the legalization of gay marriage in San Francisco. Her point was not to celebrate gay marriage in particular but the love of two people who want to make a commitment to each other. 'It made people think about how straightforward it can be sometimes,' without regard to gender.

One question you could ask any working musician is "Do you prefer working in the studio or playing live?" I think all musicians have a preference when it comes to studio vs. live, even if they enjoy both, and will be happy to share their reasons. It goes to the heart of why they play music, the aspects of the art they're drawn to, their particular identity as a creative person.

For me...I am, at heart, in the studio camp. There's something thrilling about the process; it's a kind of hunt, a patient stalking of elusive quarry. You lay out the most enticing environment possible, then wait for the Form of the song to come wandering through. It's a deliberate, painstaking process, with none of the immediacy of live performance. But the ego tends to disappear more easily too. There's a purity to nailing a take and having the engineers nod assent: all you get is the taciturn "I think that was it-one more for safety," instead of the rush of applause and autograph lines. You know you're doing it for the music and not to impress anybody. You just want the music to be right. —Vienna Teng, 7/15/2008, 1:31 a.m., entry from

thumbnailProduced by Ms. Teng and Alex Wong, Inland Territory is an authentic coming-of-age work of art in which Teng mates personal history and social conscience to the wealth of musical tools at her command, including textures crafted from classical, pop, electronic, rock and folk sources, these buttressing arrangements framing her own rich piano and soft, airy, expressive voice. In an astute portrait of Teng published in the Boston Globe this past December, correspondent Andrew Gilbert properly noted the tripartite structure of the new album, in its song groupings focusing on intimate personal relationships, the upheavals of family history and topical themes torn from the headlines, you might say. The music is nigh on to intoxicating: co-producing with Wong, Teng shows a deft hand for dynamics and ambiance in the ascending and descending passages of arrangements, deploying strings and horns with a masterful, subtle touch, as exemplified to striking effect in the restrained beauty of both in the poignant ballad, "Kansas," which seems always to be teetering on the edge of explosion but keeps pulling back to a gentle hum, tantalizingly so. And she's not afraid to inject some sly wit into the proceedings, lyrically and, certainly, instrumentally—think of the familiar clip-clopping oboe figure in "Another Life," not an unfamiliar classical device but in this instance, in a song depicting her ancestors' struggles with authority in mainland China, picking it up from Tchaikovsky's "Chinese Dance" in the "Nutcracker Suite" is a clever comment on the subject matter, and makes for a mesmerizing contrast to the five-note (Chinese scale?) piano figure tumbling around in the piece along with a passing taste of Dixieland-style hooting clarinet lines to boot. In "Antebellum," you have to hand it to her for regarding a failed romance with brittle, wistful acceptance and generosity of spirit, while admitting to a fallout of epic dimension, the principals beyond any measure of reconciliation, and confirming, at last, that love is indeed a battlefield (what did Pat Benatar know, and when did she know it?), to wit: "Our Antebellum innocence was never meant to see the light of our Armistice Day."

Halfway through Inland Territory, this child of an immigrant Taiwanese family, a Stanford grad with a bachelor's degree in computer science and a two-year tenure as a Cisco Systems software engineer, chronicles a time of generational conflict in her family, which happened to be spurred by her decision to forsake the supposed stability of her Cisco career for the tenuous life of musician. Such internecine warfare is nothing new; it was old even long before Vernon Presley told his young son Elvis, "I never met a guitar player who was worth a damn." We know how that one worked out. In "Grandmother Song," backed by an energetically protesting fiddle sawing away, along with ensemble clapping and hooting, and percussive stomping, Ms. Teng declaims her grandmother's perfervid response to her granddaughter choosing music over the supposed sure thing awaiting a college graduate, this sung from the perspective of one who crawled through all sorts of personal and political wreckage to get to the free world and build a better life for her descendants. Teng attacks the lyrics with the relish of one delighting in her Elvis moment of having been proven right in her choice, but there's nothing vengeful or sarcastic in her attitude-she's honoring Granny's legit worries rather than rubbing an artist's growing acclaim in her elder's face. Might this have been the case a few years ago, when the comely Ms. Teng was unknown and unsigned, with no press clips to call her own, no gathering of converts to snatch up every seat at her concerts here and abroad? No matter—it sounds real now, and it comes without bitterness or smugness, but rather with a grace born of self-assurance. Thus the attitude informing the whole of Inland Territory, which ranges from the somber, piano-based, hymn-like album opening meditation on the passing of love, "The Last Snowfall," to the bristling, wah-wah infused rock of "Radio," to the scintillating folk and classical elements fueling the fire of "In Another Life," to "St. Stephen's Cross," in which a soothing, jazz-tinged piano ballad intermittently gives way to a crescendo of eerie, wailing guitars, tumbling piano lines, and disembodied choir voices swirling in the arrangement's ether, as Teng coolly captures the inflamed emotions of a couple caught up in the fervor of revolution—"they were there the night the wall was drowned"—and striving to make order of chaos, until they embrace each other anew in freedom's fresh glow. There is also a continuation here of an internal spiritual dialogue Ms. Teng is having with herself; it began on her second album with the self-explanatory "The Atheist Christmas Carol" and now reoccurs on "Augustine," which seems more an embracing of faith than a denial of same—"Lead me now/I understand/faith is both the prison and the open hand/bells on low on high/will you ring for Augustine tonight?" is but one verse of this quest in song for meaning and purpose. (Introducing "Augustine" at the Highline, Ms. Teng noted the voluminous emails she has received from fans, "wondering if I've finally seen the light," but added, "truth is, I don't know what the song is about.")

Going beyond herself and her family to look at the world at large, Teng adopts a somber, reportorial tone against a churning backdrop of military drums, churchy piano, electric guitar riffing, ascending and sputtering horns, restless handclaps and plaintive, moaning background voices shadowing her own as she surveys the unfeeling, everyday discrimination immigrants face ("No Gringo"), the lyrical twist being that the immigrants in this scenario are actually Americans trying sneak into Mexico; "Radio," the album's penultimate track, starts off as if it's going to be a lighthearted dance number with someone beating out a whimsical, insistent rhythm on a glass (maybe a triangle?) and Teng cooing in her come-hither voice, "It's just the radio, darlin'/just the radio/just the radio in your runaway imagination/just the radio/we could turn away to another station." The fun ends there, as Teng coolly describes a suicide bomber exploding a backpack bomb on a San Francisco bus ("it came from nowhere/on the 38 Geary, a girl with a backpack of shrapnel and wire") and the ensuing horror of blood, glass and an erupting civil war, all delivered with a disarming blend of dispassionate detail and freaked-out delirium, as a wah-wah guitar coils around the mix, voices whisper and moan unintelligibly with Teng's and the drums rumble a jittery, anxious rhythm. At the halfway mark the song phases into a second movement, a dreamy, rather R&B-inflected ballad passage commencing over a sultry organ riff, "Sing me a love song, dear," until revealing itself to be the hoi polloi's conventional wisdom: "C'mon, it'll never happen here/oh, no, we are not some third world country/this is not some third world country," before the tumult begins anew, Teng cries out, "I held him for as long as I could," the wah-wah and drums heat up again, and out of the maelstrom we return to where we began—"it's just the radio, darlin'/just the radio"—but it's a different, more malevolent world now and the radio, just the radio, darlin', is an instrument of terror.

Asked if Inland Territory would be the assured work it is without her and Wong having passed through the Larry Klein workshop on Dreaming Through the Noise, Ms. Teng, who speaks in a clear, direct, commanding voice in conversation, answered without hesitation. "I don't think so," she said of the producer whose credits include albums with Joni Mitchell and Madeleine Peyroux. But she added quickly as to how each of her previous three albums were training grounds for Inland Territory. Given that fact, nevertheless, she said it was instructive "to see how flawlessly he would imagine the sound he wanted to hear and then know exactly the musicians to call and exactly the way to summon that sound into reality. And also the way that he would trust his musicians. He had developed a relationship with some of the musicians, like Jay Bellerose and all those great folks. So when he got them in, he would pretty much lay out what he had in mind and knew that they were comfortable enough with him that they could trust their instincts. The music that came out was just tremendous and I thought"—she laughs—"I gotta learn how to do that!"

The tripartite structure of Inland Territory was less by design and more by what emerged in Ms. Teng's new batch of songs. Because of the clear lines of demarcation in topic and sonics, she considered releasing not an album but three EPs. It was Wong who put it all in perspective and convinced her the album would, in essence, find its voice.

"There were some personal songs that seemed to want a more orchestral sound," Ms. Teng explained, "and then there were these sort of family history and history in general explorations, songs that seemed to be a little more folky; and on the other hand there was this straying almost more in a rock direction, a little more electric and electronic and definitely political in a way that surprised me (laughs). So the combination of all those things meant that when Alex and I sat down and listened to the demos, I remember saying something like, 'Do you think I need to write more? Because these songs are sort of like all over the place.' It was really great working with Alex, because he has a very eclectic sensibility. So his first thought was, 'Well, no. If it's you and me working on this album all the way through, our sensibilities will come through and that will be the unifying factor. And every song can be what it wants to be.' So it was good to get permission from him to let the songs follow their own path."

Last week in New York was a good one: two songs that've been stalled since last summer finally decided that they want to be finished. Or get to the 90% mark or so, at least; I think the remainder will fall into place when we start in on production. Four or five others are coming along as well, and hopefully will be presentable by March. They're like fiercely independent preschoolers, these songs, you want so much to just tie their shoes and spoon-feed them their cereal and get them out the door already, but no, they have to do everything themselves, discover their own methods, stumble and backtrack and try again and get their fingers all grubby, and you know it's better this way, they'll be stronger for it in the end, but boy is it frustrating when you're running late for work and one of them is still in his PJs with toothpaste all over his forehead...—Vienna Teng, 2/11/2008, 6:15 p.m., entry from

In the press material accompanying the album's release, Ms. Teng is quoted as saying, "I wrote these songs for people who are willing to be challenged by what they hear." To the question as to whether she said this because she had been challenged by what Inland Territory became, she answered in the affirmative, adding, "That's a very good way of putting it.

"I think we come to music, or we listen to music, for different reasons," she added. "There are some albums you listen to because it puts you in a very particular mood, just the sound of it and the voice and the quality of the instruments. Then there are other times when you listen to an album because it's doing something that you're not quite sure you like but it's fascinating. And then there are other times when they seem to be a vehicle for stories you are either drawn to or even repelled by but feel you ought to know about. At least I feel that way. And so, for some of the songs, I'm kind of deliberately making it a little challenging for myself, and hopefully people who listen to it will not be put off by that but rather will give it the benefit of the doubt. I hope they get as much out of listening to it as I did writing it."

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Vienna Teng, 'Whatever You Want,' World Café Live, January 21, 2007: One common technique she uses to powerful effect is the repeated chanting of a key lyric—usually a song title, such as 'Whatever You Want,' from her Larry Klein-produced 2006 album, Dreaming Through the Noise," until it becomes an incantation, and says more about her characters' state of mind than could be contained in a multitude of expositional lyrics.

Those who take time to study Ms. Teng's lyrics, which can be as clever in their wordplay as they are poetically seductive, will likely be unsurprised to learn of her citing Paul Simon as a major songwriting influence, with special affection reserved for Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan. Simon, though, is the gold standard.

"I listened to a lot of Simon and Garfunkel when I was growing up, and I was really struck by how Paul Simon's songwriting was so eclectic but so distinctly himself. He could write in almost a doo-wop style, he could write in this art song-orchestral style, or like in later work like 'Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard,' influenced by South African township music and Brazilian percussion, could just sort of explore all these different things and still sound distinctly Paul Simon. The way he would craft his words is just brilliant to me. So his songwriting set the standard I've been trying to live up to all my life.

"Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan are both beautiful female musicians, very different in their style and in their songwriting. I listened to them a lot when I was in college, right when I was coming into my own songwriting life, and I think a lot of the way I sing and the way I play the piano has a lot to do with them."

It's easy then to draw a line from these literate, sometimes topical songwriters—certainly topical relative to personal politics, if infrequently topical relative to social issues—to Vienna Teng and especially to her work on Inland Territory. The song "Watershed" is a stirring scenario of a world in ruins, of a pattern of destruction that has repeated itself over time. In fact, reading Jared Diamond's books, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed brought Ms. Teng to the vision she articulates on "Watershed" ("I will unsettle the ground beneath you/send my waters ashore/creep into your bed/find you in every corner"). The aforementioned "No Gringo" is a fresh take on the immigration debate, the irresistibly catchy "In Another Life," though not strictly a topical song, does reference a coal mining disaster, the march on Tiananmen Square, and possibly the Civil War (it's not mentioned outright, but the timeframe seems right); even before this album, on Dreaming Through the Noise, was "City Hall," also mentioned above as being an outpouring stemming from the legalization of same-sex marriage in San Francisco. So there is a pattern here, however slight or unformed. Having opened these doors, is her decision to address these issues tied to a sense she feels about a songwriter's obligation to speak to her own time? Her interesting and revealing answer is that these were subjects that were on her mind as she began composing new songs, subjects that instigated the thinking that led to new songs, without her ever consciously sitting down to specifically examine, say, immigration. Ever articulate, she can speak to her methodology, but the nuts-and-bolts of the creative process are hardly inseparable from the soul of the artist doing the trench work of composing. That is, the creative tools are always at hand; the soul who employs them is constantly evolving, and finding expression in song. Still—

'A lot of these songs just make themselves known to me that that's what they want to be; what I struggle with after that is to try and pull it off as well as I can.'

"My answer for why those things ended up in songs is simply that that happened to be what I was thinking about that made its way into lyrics. There's no conscious desire that I feel I need to write songs about this topic, or this is who I want to be as an artist. It wasn't so conscious as that. For 'Watershed' I had come up with this melody, with sort of slow, dirge-like music, and I thought, Well, what is this? Then I started singing the lyrics, 'While you were this I was still this,' and for awhile it was a person while you were off in Europe I was here at home, just throwing things out there. And eventually this voice came from reading those Jared Diamond books, it just sort of seemed like that's what it wanted to be. It kind of scared me at the time—I don't think I can write from the point of view of the ocean; I don't think that's a good idea!—but a lot of these songs just make themselves known to me that that's what they want to be; what I struggle with after that is to try and pull it off as well as I can. And the fact that there are a lot more of those on this album just comes from what I happened to be aware of. And I attribute that a lot to being in New York. There's a certain world awareness here, at least among the people I've been spending time with; there's a little more than I've been used to before."

"Actually," she continues, "'Radio' was inspired by listening to NPR when I was out in San Francisco, when I was still living there. I was driving around, it was a sunny day, you have the hills and the ocean, just this very idyllic scene, and here I was listening to the radio and it said, 'Today a bomb went off on a bus in the Palestinian occupied territories and killed seven people and wounded 20 more. So-and-so does not claim responsibility. This person is condemning it.' And then they moved on. It was a very short news piece. And somehow the incongruity of that, of what was in my windshield view and what I was hearing on the radio just mentioned in passing, really struck me. And then I started thinking about, What if I put myself in that situation? It wouldn't be a mere news story, obviously; it would be incredibly traumatic and very painful, and I'd be caught up in all this chaos that I have no experience with, living in the sheltered life that I do. So somehow that thought stuck with me for awhile and said, 'Let's write a song about it.' And I'm thinking, Really? I don't know if I can. But that's what ended up happening there.

"And 'No Gringo' also began again with the music, which somehow sounded southwestern to me, then I thought about trying to put myself in the shoes of someone trying to cross a border illegally. Somewhere along the way it occurred to me to tell the story backwards of Americans going into Mexico rather than the other way around. You get the sense it's about sneaking across the border, but hopefully then it eventually hits the listener that it's actually, like, 'Well, maybe in some future time we're not going to be the world's superpower and we may be scrounging for any work possible.'"

Vienna Teng performs 'Antebellum' from Inland Territory, live in Dallas, TX, with Alex Wong
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Only with "City Hall" will she admit to "a bit of conscious desire to be a little subversive." At the same time she points out the song as being not about the legalization of gay marriage but rather a love song to "two people who are so ecstatic to finally get to make official their commitment to each other. And I have heard since then that for some people it's had the desired effect after they've heard the song of saying, 'Oh, this is so sweet, about two people getting married,' and then they realize, 'Oh, wait, it's about two very specific people getting married as a result of a very specific thing,' and it made them think about how straightforward it can be sometimes, when two people really love each other and want to make a commitment to each other. Which is sort of the point I was trying to make."

Consider, too, the following exchange about "Augustine" and those fan emails inquiring as to whether the artist has "seen the light," even though she's still uncertain as to what the song is really about.

Are you an atheist? You did, after all, record "The Atheist Christmas Carol."

Vienna: Yes, it's true. That one, I have to say, is partly the fault, or credit, whichever way you want to look at it, of the producer David Henry. Because I said, "It's kind of an agnostic's Christmas carol, or sort of a secular Christmas carol." And I had given it the working title "The Atheist Christmas Carol," so that's how he had written it on his sheet, and he said, "Aw, I think you should go with 'The Atheist Christmas Carol.' It's much more succinct, snappier." I said, "Okay, fine." What's funny is he's a Methodist, and he actually would go to church twice a week. So he obviously was a man of faith and thought it ought to be called 'The Atheist Christmas Carol.'

"But to actually answer your question. I was not raised with any religious faith, and at this point I don't see myself committing to any particular faith either. Mostly what I am is a curious student of a lot of different religions. I think the one I feel most kinship with at the moment is Buddhism, simply because it's not actually a deistic religion; it's more of a practice and I think leaves room for a belief and acceptance of a lot of other ways to end up at the truth, whatever that may be. So I have gotten a bit into meditation, thanks to Ward Williams, actually, in the trio. He's been practicing meditation for a long time. Been great to pick that up from him.

Coming after "The Atheist Christmas Carol," then, is "Augustine" maybe a further exploration on your part of the nature of spirituality? Was that part of your thinking?

Vienna: It was, really. When I wrote the lyrics I was drawing on this interesting moment I had in college when we were assigned "The Confessions of St. Augustine." I remember most of the people in my class were not that taken with it. But for some reason I remember pacing around the hallway reading it one afternoon, and coming very, very close to understanding what it was like to have a moment of conversion, a moment of making a leap of faith. Somehow the way his writing described what was happening with him was really moving to me, and so I think when that song ended up suggesting the whole idea of Augustine to me, I thought, I should go back and try to tap into that feeling or that glimmer that I got way back then.

But you still don't know what the song is about?

Vienna: I still don't, really. (laughs) In a way, I don't know if I really got it right. What I imagine is that when people come to God in that way, it must be much more about God than about themselves, and in this song it's still much more about "Lead me now" and "now I understand, this is what I'm doing." I thought, It's probably not really about that when it comes down to it. So maybe it really is about something else.

Vienna Tang performs 'Kansas' from Inland Territory, in San Francisco, CA, January 12, 2008
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The other significant departure here for Ms. Teng the songwriter are the songs referencing her family history and familial conflicts, "Grandmother Song" being the most outspoken of these. Its story is told from the grandmother's point of view, of her telling her young granddaughter not to throw away her good education, her good job or prospects for marriage and security for a life in music. The celebratory arrangement seems to evoke her exasperation at Ms. Teng's chosen path and the certainty of her point of view—unless it's meant to celebrate what the artist has accomplished in the aftermath of her decision to turn away from the corporate life. It was only six months later, after all, that she was on national TV, performing on Late Night with David Letterman, who proclaimed of her first album: "There's not a dud on it."

"I guess it was supposed to be both," she says of the song's setting. "It's sort of an instinctive decision. I think more than anything I wanted to write from my grandmother's Chinese point of view while setting to very American sounding music, and my point of view would be in the music, and her point of view in the lyrics. I think that was what I was going for, and I did want her to come across as very strong, very opinionated, and it seemed like having this rapid-fire back-porch stomp thing would get that across."

And grandmother's take on the song?

"I don't know if she's come to a show when I've performed it, but she certainly has heard of it. My aunt came to a performance recently, and fortunately she was quite tickled by it, thought it was great. She went home and told my grandmother all about it, and then the next phone call with my grandmother, she said, 'So I heard you wrote a song about me!' I said, 'Yes, I did.' She said, 'I heard you put a lot of my thoughts into it. That's good.' So at least second hand she approves."

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Vienna Teng, 'Grandmother Song,' at the Dosey Doe, Woodlands, TX, Feb. 18, 2009: 'I did want her to come across as very strong, very opinionated, and it seemed like having this rapid-fire back-porch stomp thing would get that across.'

As sanguine as she is in discussing "Grandmother Song" and the history informing it, Ms. Teng is not dismissive of what her ancestors endured in their long journey from China to Taiwan to America. She admits this could be the beginning of a deeper musical and personal exploration into her Asian roots, but she does not need to do any digging in order to appreciate the sacrifices others have made in order to secure a better life for her.

"Growing up we did get a fair amount of that history. It's one of those things that when you're a kid you want to be anywhere but there and you want to run out and play. But now that you're older you wish you'd paid attention. My grandmother used to tell very long stories about her life as a child in China, fleeing to Taiwan with my grandfather, building that whole life there and raising her four children. It was difficult-there were a lot of tragedies and it took a lot of courage to get through a lot of that stuff. In the last few years it really has occurred to me how much I owe her and how much I owe everyone in my family for enduring and for getting to this place where one of their grandchildren could decide just to run off and do music. That I would actually have that luxury."

As for the future, Ms. Teng admits no longing to return to the corporate life she had at Cisco Systems, but does miss academic life and might take it up again. Not to worry, fans—she sees such a move as part and parcel of her growth as a musician.

"I would love to go back to the university, because I really did love that environment. I think that's not too far out of the realm of possibility in the next few years. I may suddenly send out an email to my list saying, 'Hey, guys, taking a sabbatical to go back to school for a second. I'll be right back.' I feel like there's so much more to learn and so much that would actually feed the music as well."

I think a little too much these days about significance, relevance, exposure, access, steep pyramids in a shrinking industry. If one is serious about having music as a career, one has to keep an eye on these things. But as for being an artist and storyteller, or being a person rooted in some kind of community, if not a single geographical place...that requires a different kind of focus. More about listening and being present, day after day, year after year. Trying to do more of that right now. — Vienna Teng, 6/3/2009 at 1:21 p.m., entry from

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