Until recently, singer-songwriter and pianist Vienna Teng was based in erudite Ann Arbor, Mich. But earlier this year she transplanted to Detroit — same state, totally different experience. She talks about that, below, along with other major shifts, such as a day job. But the musician, who first appeared on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” a decade ago, is still committed to thoughtful and innovative songcraft. New album Aims (her fifth studio project) was recorded in Nashville with producer Cason Cooley and moves in decidedly pop and electronic directions. Teng’s current tour brings her to The Altamont Theatre on Friday, Oct. 11. 8 p.m., $20 in advance or $25 day or show.
Xpress: In your comments about the cover art for Aims, you talk about your recent move to Detroit: “With the work I do I could live anywhere in the country, and I choose to live here.” What about the city draws you in, and have you been there long enough for it to impact your music? How do you think Detroit impacts or plays a role in your art?
Vienna Teng: I’ve only lived there for a few months, but I’ve been visiting and working on projects there for the past two years. Becoming aware of Detroit’s complex story, especially meeting the people who choose to call it home now, had a lot to do with the tone of this album. It’s for people who have been through a lot, but still get up in the morning excited about the world, who keeping looking for good work to do and friends to help them do it.
You also say, “I live in a city that reminds me, daily and vividly, of what it means to live bravely in a daunting world. This is where I draw my inspiration.” — to me that sounds like an expression of what it is to be an artist and to not follow a prescribed life path; to live off the map. Do you see any such correlation between your physical space and creative space? There’s definitely a connection between my surroundings and where my creativity goes. I like that Detroit isn’t an easy place to live, that its vitality isn’t obvious, that I have to pay attention and give of myself for it all to make sense. And I like being with people who go about life that way, noticing beauty and potential where others haven’t yet, and creating the world they want to see.
I understand that, for this album, you went into the studio with unfinished fragments of music and then crafted them with your producer. What was your experience of that process instead of writing songs by yourself? And what inspired you to take that approach? I’d been working on a musical theater project for the past few years (The Fourth Messenger, with playwright Tanya Shaffer) that was a crash-course in letting go of all my preconceptions about how songs get written! So I wanted to try being less solitary with writing songs for my own album as well. “In the 99” started as a jam session with friends; I asked songwriter Glen Phillips to write some of the lyrics for “Landsailor”; and Cason was great at piecing my musical fragments together into a coherent song. It was a lovely thing to trust that I didn’t have to do it alone, that the songs would be better for having other people’s ideas woven into them.
I’m fascinated by the idea of “The Hymn of Acxiom” — sacred music in the age of Facebook and Google. It’s a gorgeous song, with voices serving as instruments, which harkens back to choirs. Was the song originally a cappella? And what role do you think sacred music plays in today’s society — relevant? Necessary? I was listening a lot to choral composer Morten Lauridsen, obsessing over his harmonies, and I was also playing with a vocal effects pedal so I could sing really low notes. The idea of a song living at the intersection of technology and spirituality came out of that combination.
People sometimes read The Hymn of Acxiom as a straight “surveillance is creepy” message, but personally I don’t feel that black-and-white about it. The gifts of technology are pretty miraculous. Big Data really is helping us understand some amazing things about our world. So I did genuinely want the song to be beautiful. I think we can find something awe-inspiring and troubling at the same time. Sacred music reconnects us with our sense of wonder and humility — maybe it can help us grapple with hard questions too.
I’m curious about your sustainability studies program — is that something you want to pursue in addition to or instead of music? Do you a see a link between songwriting/performing and sustainability, or have your studies reshaped your music career in any way? I’m going to be balancing the two from here on out. After this tour, I’m starting a Monday-to-Friday job in Detroit, but they’re going to let me take some time off each year for music. I do wonder sometimes how I’m going to juggle both successfully. But then I think of my artist friends who have families, and it seems like a similar scenario. If they can pull off having kids and a creative career, I hope I can keep making music and also have an office job working on environmental and social issues.