Andrew Paynter

She shares her name with the Austrian home of Mozart and Beethoven. And she herself studied classical piano from the age of five. But there's nothing old-world about the music of Vienna Teng, whose Zoë/Rounder Records debut brings to mind artists as diverse as Tori Amos, Simon & Garfunkel and Radiohead. "

Not so long ago, being a singer-songwriter was merely a hobby for Vienna Teng, a Stanford computer science grad who was on the fast track to a lucrative career, working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. But she gave all that up to pursue her musical passions - a risky career move, but one which has paid off. The 27-year-old has already released two critically acclaimed independent albums: 2002's Waking Hour and 2004's Warm Strangers, which landed on three Billboard album charts and reached #2 on Amazon's best-seller list. She's appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman and toured widely, opening for such artists as Shawn Colvin, Joan Osborne, Patty Griffin, Joan Baez and the Indigo Girls.

"People used to ask what kind of music I played and I never knew how to answer that," says Teng. "I work a lot with classically trained musicians, but most of my influences are from 1970's-era folk music. So now I call it chamber folk." Produced by Larry Klein (Madeleine Peyroux, Joni Mitchell), the album is chockfull of memorable songs that together form a landmark achievement for this bold new talent.“There’s a lot of music out there about what it’s like to be young—all those extremes of emotion, foolish romantic things people do,” says Teng. “I’m more interested in what goes on underneath when there is no drama, when people decide to be grown-up about something.” She adds: “Maybe it comes from talking to my parents, and learning about the tragedies and difficulties they shielded me from when I was younger, and just being amazed at how they’ve handled things with such grace.  So I realized that as people mature, they still have dramatic lives; they’re just often invisible from the outside.  A lot of these songs are interior monologues.  They’re stories about being brave, quietly.”

The album opens with the moody reverie of "Blue Caravan," about an imaginary romance, and closes with the touching intimacy of "Recessional," which contains the album's title phrase in its observational lyrics. In between, the San Francisco-based singer-pianist serves up a veritable treasure trove of compositional gems, from the gypsy-like, café feel of "I Don't Feel So Well" to the breezy, country-tinged euphoria of "City Hall" and the sultry jazz of the autobiographical "Transcontinental, 1:30 a.m.," about a late-night misunderstanding with her boyfriend. "City Hall," one of several songs on the album which was inspired by events in the news, came about after San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom announced in February 2004 that same-sex marriages would be recognized by the city. The deeply moving "Pontchartrain," meanwhile, arose from the tragic news of the flooding of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. The song's haunting effect is sealed by lush classical strings and a chilling choir sound created by Teng's voice recorded and multi-tracked 32 times.

Teng compares her work with Klein in cinematic terms. “I was the screenwriter and the lead actor, while Larry was the director, calling the shots” she says. “He’d give detailed descriptions to the musicians of what we wanted to realize the vision that we’d come up with together, and translate it in a way that I wasn’t able to.” She continues: “During the recording process, I’d sit next to Larry, watching the dailies, in effect, making sure the script was coming to life the way I originally hoped. It worked out beautifully and Larry was very generous, curious and open minded throughout it all.”

Together, Teng and Klein assembled a stellar cast of musicians for Dreaming Through the Noise. Teng brought in two artists with whom she'd previously toured: cellist Marika Hughes and violinist/violist Dina Maccabee. From that association came Mark Orton, who provided string arrangements for the album, and violinist Carla Kihlstedt, both alumni of Tin Hat Trio. Teng and Klein agreed that they wanted drummer Jay Bellerose (Paula Cole, Suzanne Vega). Klein added David Piltch, a renowned bassist best known for his work with Holly Cole, Lizz Wright and Sophie B. Hawkins.

"Musically I really wanted to stretch myself," says Teng. "I figured, I'm taking off a whole year just to write, there's no excuse for coming up with the same old stuff. I listened to a lot of music I hadn't absorbed before, like hip hop, avant-garde chamber music, bluegrass - anything to get out of that familiar headspace. It all filtered way, way down when it came to writing." She added: "But every song on this album has something that I haven't tried previously, whether it's using the piano or my voice in a different way, or changing up the chords and song structure. I wanted to experiment and surprise people, but also keep that emotional truth, not just be clever for cleverness' sake."

Teng has won accolades as much for her soprano vocals ("smooth and sophisticated," says the Washington Times) as for her lyrics ("smart and introspective," observes the Philadelphia Daily News). Meanwhile, the San Jose Mercury News calls Teng "a child of Chopin and Sarah McLachlan." With songs as powerful as the stirring folk ballad "Whatever You Want" and the gorgeous, string-laden "Now Three," it's easy to see why. Chamber folk or classically-influenced pop, Vienna Teng's music is simply one of the most enchanting new sounds around.


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