Educating Vienna

Why singer-songwriter Vienna Teng walked away from her music as a way to love it again

Singer-songwriter Vienna Teng—a bird of many different feathers.

Singer-songwriter Vienna Teng—a bird of many different feathers.

Photo by Shervin Laine

Catch Vienna Teng on Friday, November 22, at 7 p.m. at Assembly, located at 1000 K Street. Tickets are $25-$50; see for more info on the artist.

For Vienna Teng, the journey that led to the making her newest album, Aims, was an unusual one.

“This was the product of three years of stepping away from music,” the 35-year-old singer-songwriter explained. “I spent three years [doing graduate studies] in a sustainability program, so I was immersed in bigger issues than just me and a boy.”

Indeed, when listening to Teng’s album, it’s clear the songs possess more of an outward focus rather than an internal one. “Landsailor,” for instance, examines the increasingly transient nature of life as people relocate with greater frequency, while songs such as “In the 99” examine the effects of not being part of the world’s obscenely rich and privileged class.

Still, in spite of the record’s meaty subject matter, the content is largely juxtaposed against lively music. For Teng, who performs at Assembly in downtown Sacramento on Friday, November 22, this proved crucial.

“I wanted to write an album I was excited about musically that would also be about topics I was excited about without making them be terrible songs,” Teng said with a laugh. “I felt like it would be easy to write very bad, overwrought political songs, so I was trying to figure out how to make an album that’s intriguing, fun and engaging and not too heavy-handed.”

Adding to the challenge was the fact that Teng had precious little time to write any songs before heading into the studio—in fact, most of her material was still incomplete when it came time to record.

“I was up to my ears in classwork, so I didn’t have enough free time to really write an album,” said Teng. “I came in with three or four songs fully done, and the others were fragments. It was new for me to go into the studio with that much being incomplete.”

Normally, she added, this might have brought about much anxiety.

“Because this was out of necessity, I thought, ’Well, this is what it is this time, so I’m going to embrace it and trust that something cool will happen,’” she said.

The cool factor of Teng’s album goes beyond its music. The cover art for Aims is a colorful infographic charting recent migration patterns in Detroit, where Teng, who was born in Saratoga, now makes her home.

“I [found] this map of Detroit, and it shows a lot of population change that’s bad,” Teng said of her art choice. “A lot of people moved out in the last 10 years. But if you look downtown and in a couple other neighborhoods, people are actually moving in. It’s a really complex story, and this map tells that story really well.”

It also adds a bit of mystery, she said.

“The [album art] doesn’t tell the entire story … [but] it gives you an idea of how multilayered things are,” she said.

And the Aims experience proves Teng’s love of music is multilayered, too: The artist said she was able to walk away from her music and then actually come back to it with a greater passion than she had before.

“Grad school rekindled my romance with songwriting and music,” Teng said. “I felt like I had settled into a marriage with music when I was doing it full time, where I absolutely loved the life I had, but it definitely was a full-time gig that had all these pressures.”

Now, she said, she approaches music with a renewed appreciation and focus.

“To step away from [music] for a bit and [then] be able to say, ’I make music because I have to, because I want to, because I’m in love with the creative process’ … was really amazing.”