By: Mark Triana
It’s not unusual to see someone leave her high tech job these days to seek out new adventures. But how many of them wind up performing on the Late Show with David Letterman less than six months later?
By the time San Francisco-based singer/songwriter/pianist Vienna Teng, 25, quit her full-time software engineering job at Cisco Systems in 2002, she had signed with independent label Virt Records and was preparing for her full-length CD release, Waking Hour. A few months later, she was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition, made her network television debut on the Letterman show, and was followed around by a camera crew from CNN for a prime-time profile. With her graceful melodies and evocative lyrics, Vienna has garnered critical acclaim and a rapidly growing legion of fans throughout the world. Her days are now filled with interviews and sold-out performances. Needless to say, it has been an abrupt shift from her cubicle days.
But in truth, the jump from code warrior to full-time musician had been a long time coming. Vienna began taking piano lessons at age 5, studying classical composers like Bach and Chopin. Far from being pressured into studying music, however, Vienna asked for piano lessons on her own. While she delved fully into classical works, leading her to even take on the name of Vienna after the Austrian city of composers, she was drawn more to the act of improvisation, and in expressing the ideas that were emerging in her own imagination. She wrote her first song at age 6, and had an album’s worth of instrumentals composed by age 16.
The evolution from hobby to full-time job happened gradually, as an appreciative audience began forming around the music she created while attending Stanford, where she graduated in 2000 with a degree in Computer Science. “I realized how much my songs could affect people – that they had some value. People wanted to hear them and wanted to make them a part of their lives.” Her first “concerts” were impromptu events, consisting of curious students gathering around the dorm lounge piano as she played and sang. They started to recognize her songs – and to request them. Bootleg tapes and MP3s of rough recordings circulated around campus. People started asking when the CD was coming out, which led Vienna to record Waking Hour when she wasn’t attending class or studying.
Vienna returns with her much-anticipated sophomore release, Warm Strangers, on February 24. The album is a diverse collection of lush, melodic songs, incorporating Vienna’s classical background and folk sensibilities within a contemporary pop framework. The album was produced by David Henry (REM, Cowboy Junkies, Josh Rouse) and mixed by Roger Moutenot (Roseanne Cash, Guster, Joseph Arthur). Whereas Waking Hour, written during the high school and college years, was mostly autobiographical, Warm Strangers marks Vienna’s bold leap into fiction. Orchestral and acoustic landscapes, using everything from string quartets to slide guitars, provide an inviting sonic backdrop for her short stories of love, death, struggle and hope. In describing Warm Strangers, Vienna notes, “We pass through each other’s lives so briefly that it’s easy to think of the people around us as mere objects, cold and removed. Writing songs is my way of breathing warmth into them. Attempting to tell their stories, however fictitious the results, reminds me of our common humanity.”