Interview on GeekSpeak 2013-11-23

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Reileen
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Interview on GeekSpeak 2013-11-23

Postby Reileen » Sat Feb 22, 2014 3:08 am

Back in December, GeekSpeak posted a very lengthy and hefty interview with Vienna that they’d recorded before her show at the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga on November 23, 2013. You can listen to it here, but for those who are like me and usually hate listening to things (wait, that’s weird to say on a board dedicated to a musician, isn’t it), I sat down and transcribed the first half of the interview. Josephine (aaparallel) will be doing the second half, assuming that she doesn’t fall into a warp pipe in the meantime.

In this section, running from about 1:04 to 27:36, we have (among other things):

-how girliness is just another form of geekery
-the nitty-gritty of Vienna’s stage setup
-how curiosity will save the world
-“eating sadness food”

***

BEN: Vienna Teng is a singer, pianist, and songwriter in Detroit, Michigan. Her songs cover many combinations of styles including pop, folk, classical, and a cappella. I recently saw a concert by Vienna Teng and one thing that surprised me was how much she talked about being a geek. One, she writes subtle songs about topics like data privacy; two, she starts numbered lists on her Facebook page with “0” instead of “1”; and a prominent track on her new album, Aims, is called “Level Up.” And that’s what compelled me to ask her after the show if she’d be on GeekSpeak.

So, here we are! Vienna Teng, welcome to GeekSpeak.

VIENNA: Thanks! I’m excited to be here.

BEN: Excellent. So...you talked a lot on the show, during the show, before the show, after the show about being a geek — about some of your songs coming out of being a geek in these different arenas. What does that mean to you?

VIENNA: I saw a Venn diagram once for “nerd,” “geek,” and “dork” —

BEN: Was that XKCD, or...? I think I saw the same thing.

VIENNA: I don’t know; there’ve been various — there’ve been different variations floating around on the internet. So I actually don’t know if I more accurately identify as a “nerd” or as a “geek.” But I guess...to me, “geek” is anyone who really takes something to a really deep extent, and really gets very much into the details and the nitty-gritty of it, and gets very excited about that stuff, and really enjoys sharing conversations about that stuff. So I guess, like, my...you know, it’s sometimes associated with being socially awkward, but I don’t think it has to be. It can just be somebody who’s deeply, deeply interested in something, usually with some technical elements to it of some kind or another. And then I guess that kind of overlaps quite a bit with “nerd,” which is someone who can be very academic about stuff. [laughs]

BEN: Mm, excellent. Yeah, I mean, at GeekSpeak we often talk about “what does ‘geek’ mean?”, because our radio show is named “GeekSpeak.” And we have a similar definition. Colloquially, people tend to talk about being a geek as a technical thing, like, you’re in technology or you’re in computers. But I know a lot of sewing geeks, and music geeks, and knitting geeks, and gardening geeks, so...

VIENNA: I don’t remember whether I mentioned it at the show in San Francisco, but I had this epiphany recently when Jordan — Jordan’s another female musician that I tour with — and we had gone to a Sephora together, which is this makeup store in a mall. And I realized that I get the exact same satisfaction at this point from shopping for certain makeup supplies as I do shopping for music gear, because they’re basically the same kind of thing, like, one is makeup geekery and the other one is music gear geekery. So, I was realizing that like, “oh, I really want this 3-foot MIDI cable because then I can patch this harmonizer exactly the way I want it,” and it was the same thing as like, “I really need an eyeshadow smudge brush of this dimension because then I can do this one thing.” And so I realized — I felt better about being girly after that, because I’m like, “oh, actually, girliness is just another form of geekery,” like, you can really go deep with what kind of hair straightener you need or whatever it is.

BEN: Yeah, yeah, or with any topic for that matter.

VIENNA: Yeah.

BEN: Did you find the 3-foot MIDI cable?

VIENNA: I did.

BEN: You did?

VIENNA: Yeah. And so now I have my effects on a pedal board...

BEN: Uh-huh.

VIENNA: It’s like a velcro pedal board, which is much better than the arrangement I had before, because they were all loose in a bag before and I had to re-cable them every time. So now I bought the right length cable and they’re all kinda velcro’d down, and...

BEN: So you just...you velcro ‘em to a piece of wood or something like that?

VIENNA: Well, this is actually a particular pedal board design for effects pedals.

BEN: Oh!

VIENNA: And so I put my looper and my vocal harmonizer next to each other with a power supply that has, you know, the right voltage and current for each of them. And then I also have a DI for that channel all on the board, and so...

BEN: DI is the thing that takes the audio output from your gear and makes it so it can go into the mixer, right?

VIENNA: Right. And so it basically, I think, switches — it converts the impedance so that it matches on the sound board. I hope I’m right about that; I never really quite understood what DI boxes do. [laughs]

BEN: You know, it’s funny, I did a lot of audio stuff as well, and I didn’t quite ever get exactly what it was —

VIENNA: Right.

BEN: — but I knew it had something to do with that, so...

VIENNA: That’s sort of where my geekery ends. I’m like, “I just know that the cable that is the quarter-inch end has to go out with an XRN and things have to happen in the middle.”

BEN: Yeah, it’s a black box, quite literally —

VIENNA: Yeah.

BEN: —and who knows what goes on inside.

You use a lot of technology in your music. Can you describe, I guess, the different classes of technology? I mean, you have something that’s similar to a vocoder, and you have something that’s similar — that’s a looper pedal, and you have some effects units, so...how did you come to incorporate those into your music? Were they part of your composition process, or...?

VIENNA: Yeah, with this new album, definitely. And I think it was because I got interested in how much I could do as a solo performer, and I think that inevitably leads — at least me — to explore some of those electronic elements. Because if I have two hands and a voice, and I guess two feet, if I’m playing the piano, two of my hands and one foot are already occupied. And if I’m singing with my voice, without any effects, then that’s only one sound being made at a time. So I hit up against that limitation and started to think, well, what else could I actually do to create more soundscapes? And then I knew that guitarists and other people were using looping pedals for their instruments, so I thought, well, it must be an easy enough thing to hook a microphone up to it. And I’ve since found other artists who do the same thing. And — so I hooked it up to a looper first and then I found these fun ways of doing, like, simple beatboxing to make a rhythm, and then on top of that I could kinda go boom-pa-doom-pa, you know, and make like a bass line. And then I could stack harmonies on top of it. So I started playing with it, and I realized that it’s an instrument unto itself, you know, you can definitely figure out different ways to be musical with it and not just create the same kind of predictable loops over and over. So the looper that I use, I really like because it has four separate channels with faders, and so I can actually create different parts for different parts of the song and then kind of bring them in and out as is appropriate for the song.

BEN: And that’s on the ground?

VIENNA: Um...

BEN: The looper is on the ground, or is it on...?

VIENNA: The looper, actually — because I need it right in front of me to able to see what’s going on, I either put it on the music stand of the piano or I put it on a conductor-style music stand —

BEN: Got it.

VIENNA: — on top of my keyboard.

BEN: And then when you fade things in and out, you can use your hands, instead of —

VIENNA: Exactly.

BEN: — trying to use your toes for that.

VIENNA: Yeah. So that’s an interesting kind of choreography, too, that I end up playing certain piano parts that free up my hand for half a second so that I can [laughs] you know, change the setting on the looper as I need to.

BEN: Recently I saw Bobby McFerrin and I thought, my gosh — if you’ve heard Bobby McFerrin’s music, he is incredible, and he doesn’t use a looper. And his way of getting around it and doing it analog with no technology is by singing different parts of the different loops and then the brain of the audience basically fills in the rest of it.

VIENNA: Yeah!

BEN: So, you know, you start a beat, and then you continue the beat but you just do the tss-tss-tss

VIENNA: Yeah.

BEN: — every once in a while, and you can do that while you sing other things.

VIENNA: Yeah. And that’s an amazing kind of...it takes such amazing vocal control and capacity with your voice in order to be able to do that. So he’s just an amazing person to watch because he’s not relying on any of this technological assistance to do that stuff.

And that totally reminds me of...actually, there’s a guy named Apollo Robbins, who is a magician, but I guess he’s more like a performance pickpocket artist, that’s how he describes himself. But he actually has given a number of talks about what he’s doing and why what he’s doing works so effectively, and it has everything to do with the way people’s perception and their brains work. It’s like, once you kind of lead people down a path to expect a certain phenomenon, then their brain kind of fills in the rest of it. And then you can go off and do other stuff. [laughs]

BEN: Yeah, it’s a lot of misdirection —

VIENNA: Yeah.

BEN: — you know, you misdirect them over here, or...actually, the host of GeekSpeak, Lyle — who is not on this episode, of course — he does a lot of magic as well, and...if I watch him do the magic, I can see how he does it, because I know that he’s about to do a magic trick. But if I don’t know he’s about to do a magic trick, then yeah, my eye follows his hand exactly the way it normally would. And I don’t see it.

How about the vocoder? Or the vocal harmonizer?

VIENNA: Yeah, so there’s a really fun unit that TC-Helicon makes — I hope I’m pronouncing that correctly — they have a whole series called the VoiceTone, and I use one called the Harmony-M. And I really love the different settings it has on it not only because it’s fairly realistic and intelligent, but because it’s so versatile. So there are a couple that I call the “cheating automatic” modes where you can set it to just harmonize with you, and then you play chords on a keyboard and it’ll just sorta follow you around [laughs] in the right key. So that’s kind of magical. But it also has settings where it’s more like a vocoder, where it’s just reproducing, with your voice, any notes that are on the keyboard. And you can also have other settings where it will just sing an octave below or an octave above you. And so I like using a mix of all those different settings throughout a song to “multiply” my voice in ways that I can’t do otherwise.

BEN: That’s wonderful. You described it in the concert as the “Imogen Heap” pedal...

VIENNA: Right! [laughs]

BEN: Which — it really does sound like that. Actually, it inspired me to do a Google search for open source vocoders, and it turns out there actually are open source vocoders and open source looper pedals. So if any of you listeners are out there and geeky and musical and wanting to try it, the open source pedal is called Mobius 2 and the vocoder is called Vokoder, spelled with a “K,” so I’ll put those links on the show page.

So I wanted to ask you about the song that you use the vocoder most prominently in. It’s called “The Hymn of Acxiom” — can you describe, a little bit, what that song is about? ‘Cause I found your description very interesting when I saw the show.

VIENNA: Yeah! I was playing with this vocal harmonizer and realized that I could make an entire choir out of myself, and thought it would be interesting to write a song that was more...appropriate for a robotic choir, you know, not just a regular choir. And at the same time I was also reading a lot about data privacy and about surveillance and just in general how much marketing data is collected about consumers and our purchasing habits. And I was also in an MBA program at the time. So I kind of have both the mainstream person’s reaction to it as well as the marketing MBA person’s reaction. So on the one hand, this stuff is really creepy, like, it’s really creepy that these companies are basically spying on us in order to collect information and sell us more stuff. But on the other hand, I also felt, like, we’re all consenting to it, you know, we know that it’s happening and we consent to it and I — we actually appreciate it and respond to it when we have products that are more tailored to what our true patterns of consumption are. And I wanted to write a song that sort of captured the ambivalence of that in myself. And so I wanted it to be a beautiful song that was also creepy. [laughs] And hopefully I achieved that effect by arranging it the way that I did.

BEN: Yeah, well, it got stuck in my head for days [Vienna laughs] so I think the beauty was successful, and the creepiness was successful too. We talk a lot about data privacy on the radio show, and so just being in that space very frequently and reading about it and yet, at the same time, knowing that everyone’s consenting to it, it’s a very interesting predicament that we’re all kind of in.

VIENNA: And what’s interesting is that I did an internship at Facebook one summer and got to hear Mark Zuckerberg talk, as he does every Friday to all the employees, and...I really came to believe that the leadership of that company honestly believes that it makes for a better world. Like, they’re not really in it to cynically make a lot of money — they really believe that the more people share and the more we’re able to use all that data and invent more tools to analyze it and do stuff with it, the better the world will be. And...it was somehow comforting to realize that they’re going about it idealistically. Even if you may disagree with what you think it’s gonna lead to.

BEN: Yeah.

VIENNA: So I thought it was interesting that all this stuff that’s playing out is actually, in a way, a battle of philosophy and ideals. [laughs]

BEN: Yeah. I wanted to ask you about something else that I heard you talk about at the concert, and that’s curiosity as a motivator.

VIENNA: Yeah! I think that one of the things I’ve realized is going to [laughs] save the world, as it were, or save civilization, is if people continue to be curious about why things are the way that they are, and...wondering if it can be different, but also just having kind of a natural fascination with what is going on under the hood, what is going on behind the curtain. And I think increasingly, especially since I’ve been a sustainability student for the last couple years, so much of it has to do with really understanding, what is the cost? Like, what is the process that things go through in order to come to us in this convenient, packaged, friendly form? [laughs] And if you actually get to look at the full chain of events that leads to that, are you okay with it? Or do you have an idea for how it can be done better? And I think that the more people engage in that, and the more that I engage in that, the more exciting and good the world becomes. And I think it’s more the willingness to stay blind to stuff that is the dangerous part. And I think asking questions and making sure that it’s okay and encouraged for all of us to ask questions is a really huge part of what I am hopeful about with the world. [laughs]

BEN: You were talking about studying business, and you were talking about studying environmental studies, and you were talking about working at Facebook...how does this all fit into your “arc,” I guess? Could you give a quick summary of the last ten or fifteen years for you?

VIENNA: Sure. Yeah, I do follow kind of a weird path — I sometimes joke that I have long-term ADD. [laughs] So, when I was in college, I ended up majoring in computer science, sort of much to my own surprise as much as anyone else’s, and...I did it mostly because I kinda wanted to know what was going on under the hood of all this stuff that I used, at least a rudimentary knowledge of that stuff. And then I worked as a programmer for a couple of years at Cisco, which was basically a faster way of waiting tables while I saved up for my music career. [laughs] And then I got really lucky and got signed to an independent label and was able to become a full-time independent musician, so I released albums and toured around and did all that stuff for several years.

BEN: That was early aughts, right?

VIENNA: Yeah, so that was 2002 that I left Cisco. And then around 2009-2010 was when I started to feel the itch to get back into academia and to switch gears again. And I’d already known for a long time that I wanted to study something else, that I wouldn’t really be content to do just music for decades at a time. So I’d been checking out a bunch of different programs and got to go to one talk by this guy, Amory Lovins, who was promoting this book called Natural Capitalism, basically talking about the notion that business can really participate very actively in revolutionizing society for the better in terms of environmental and social responsibility. And that was the first time I’d ever heard of any notion that business was a force for good. [laughs] Of course, it’s much more mainstream now. But I really liked that idea because I don’t like protesting, I don’t like angrily shouting at people. And I know sometimes that’s necessary, but it’s not really my personality.

So I got really interested in sustainability through Amory Lovins and the stuff he was writing and talking about. So I really wanted to devote some part of my life to it, and ended up going to grad school for the last three years to figure out how I’m gonna contribute in that field. [laughs] And that’s still very much a work-in-progress, ‘cause obviously I just got kind of a crash course, survey course in sustainability topics there.

BEN: Have you found any throughlines between business and sustainability and music and programming?

VIENNA: I have! I’m trying to think if this actually extends to programming, ‘cause programming is a little more of like an abstract problem-solving kinda thing. But I did come to this weird realization in school that — both at the business school and at the environmental school — a lot of the classes I was taking ended up coming down to exercises in empathy. Which was totally fascinating to me and something that I didn’t really expect. But I’m studying environmental policy and regulation as well as negotiations around environmental issues, was also studying all these breakdowns and climate change negotiations, and at the business school we were talking about marketing, we were talking about strategy and, you know, organizational behavior and stuff like that. And I realized at one point that all of it was making sense to me because I’d been spending the last several years as a songwriter trying to stand in other people’s shoes and to write stories from their point of view. And I was like, “Oh! Actually, this is just a — this is like a tool that’s actually, since it’s like [a] modular skill that you can just kind of like apply it to all these different places.” And to a certain extent, I guess programming — to tie that in — especially interface design has so much to do with that, right, the notion of, like, what is gonna be intuitive to someone else and what’s going to feel natural to someone else. Which is not necessarily what’s natural to me, because I am looking at it from this other perspective of knowing all the inner workings.

BEN: Yeah, you know all the features.

VIENNA: Right.

BEN: But how are users going to discover the features without reading the manual, which no one wants to do?

VIENNA: Right, exactly! And so, I found it so interesting that empathy ended up being this huge underpinning of so many of the different things that I’m attracted to and interested in.

BEN: I wanna talk a little bit about ecology and, I guess, how you’ve tied that in with your musical tours. I know that you were tying it in with your previous tour in certain ways. Can you talk a little bit about that? And I’m also interested in some of the pros and cons. Like, why were you doing things for your other tour and you aren’t doing them for this tour, and vice versa?

VIENNA: Well, I tend to think of myself as a useful litmus test for whether a behavior will go mainstream or not. [laughs] Because I’m fundamentally kind of lazy. And if something’s inconvenient enough or enough of a pain, or not just generally accepted enough, then I eventually won’t stick with it. And so when I did this tour in 2007, I thought I would experiment and call it — I think we called it the “Green Caravan” tour, where I was just gonna try and do anything that was financially viable and also that had a significant impact in terms of being better for the environment. So the couple of things that I figured out is like, well, if we route the tour so that we don’t have to fly at all, that’s actually a huge thing ‘cause ground transportation, especially if you’re carpooling, is much better than going by air. And obviously going by train would be even better. But that was...not practical.

BEN: Not easy to carry drums and things.

VIENNA: Yeah. And what was interesting about it was I researched a number of things that sounded sexy that we ended up not doing because I couldn’t really tell whether it was gonna make a difference or not. So running the van on biodiesel, it ended up being impractical to run it on 100% biodiesel. And so I was figuring out how — we finally got permission to use, like, B-10 and B-20, which is like ten or twenty percent biodiesel. So it was kind of like...marginally helpful. And then I started to look more into biodiesel production, and especially if you make it from corn, it really doesn’t help. [laughs]

BEN: Yeah, it depletes the soil —

VIENNA: Yeah.

BEN: — and a lot of times there are fertilizers that use...

VIENNA: Exactly. And then, even if you are making biodiesel from other sources like switchgrass or from some other things, there are all kinds of complications tied into that. So ultimately I felt like, this is not actually a useful — it’ll be just a token gesture and for us to feel better about what we’re doing, and I would rather not do that sort of thing.

I did ask the whole band to use reusable bottles ‘cause I read something about bottled water and the plastic waste and the transport of bottled water, so we weaned ourselves of that, which we still do. And then someone actually suggested that I try being vegetarian, and then I went and looked into all of that and was like, oh, this actually makes a huge difference, like, the things that I eat, the fewer animal-based products that I’m consuming, that actually has a huge impact on my carbon footprint. So I tried being vegetarian for the whole tour and it was...occasionally challenging [laughs] but for the most part was fine. And so I started to try and change my habits to be more and more vegetarian after that.

BEN: That’s excellent. You had occasional moments, though, where you did not want to be vegetarian?

VIENNA: Well, I sometimes refer to certain circumstances of trying to be vegetarian as “you have to eat sadness food.” [laughs]

BEN: Ahh.

VIENNA: Which is like, you end up at a Denny’s because it’s the only thing open, and everyone else is having chicken fried steak and a burger or something, and I’m like, well, I guess I’ll have the iceberg lettuce, with corn syrup Italian dressing on it. It’s like [laughs] this is not really food, maybe I’ll have French fries. But, you know, that’s also changed a lot, even since 2007. So now you can get amazing veggie burgers everywhere, you can get [laughs] really interesting vegan and vegetarian options in all kinds of restaurants. And I think in the meantime, too, a lot more people have read more books or seen documentaries about the food system, and I think everyone’s a little more open to, you know, going meatless once or twice a week or something like that.

BEN: Mm-hmm. Oh, I had an interesting social interaction question.

VIENNA: Mm-hmm?

BEN: So, “Vienna Teng” is not your given name...I’m interested, generally, on how you navigate that space. Like, do you generally go by “Vienna Teng” in your everyday life, or do you go by your other name, and how do you negotiate that space with people who you might wanna bring from one name to another?

VIENNA: Oh, man, that’s a great question. It’s weird. It’s definitely weird. There are times when I wonder why I came up with that name at all.

So, my legal name is Cynthia Shih, and I went through college with that name, and I was mostly just using “Vienna Teng” as a stage name for writing songs and releasing them. So when I started touring and making friends who knew me as Vienna, that was an interesting thing. And I do remember I was in a relationship with someone who met me as Vienna, and at one point I explained that my legal name was Cynthia and that Vienna was a name I used for music, and which would he prefer to call me by? And so he thought about it and he’s like, well, I’d rather call you Cynthia because that feels, somehow, like the true “you,” or something like that, or the “you-who’s-not-just-the-music” part. So that was that relationship. But then I was actually in another relationship after that where, again, the person met me as Vienna and said, you know, you’ve always been Vienna to me, so I would rather just call you that. [laughs]

So...I don’t really know how to negotiate it, is the short answer. And I usually leave it up to people to call me whatever they feel is most appropriate, or that feels right to them. And sometimes it’s a little weird. And at this point the people who are closest to me in my life switch — seemingly effortlessly — back and forth depending on the context. So if they’re seeing me at a show, they call me Vienna, or if we’re writing music together, they call me Vienna, and if we’re hanging out with my family, then they call me Cynthia. [laughs]

BEN: So for you, is it just a matter of two aliases to the same “you,” and it doesn’t matter which you come from? [Vienna laughs] Or do you perceive it differently?

VIENNA: That’s funny when you say it that way. I’m like, oh yeah, are they pointers to the same...

BEN: [laughs] To the same [unintelligible]?

VIENNA: To the same memory block...? Or, yeah, or are they actually, like, one is actually a function that calls the other, I don’t know, um, but... [laughs]

BEN: Redirected from Vienna Teng!

VIENNA: Yeah, redirected! I think it began as...”Vienna” began as a construct, and it was because I wasn’t brave enough to break from the mold that I thought that I had to fit into, of going to medical school and getting an advanced degree and just sort of generally being on a more conventional life path. I didn’t really know how I was gonna break out of that, but I knew that I wanted to. And so I think I created this sort of “alter ego” who was braver than I am [laughs] and already had made her mind up about doing something. So there were journal entries in high school and in college that I think I still have lying around that say something like “Vienna needs this to happen,” or “She is real and she will have her time” kind of thing.

But these days, since I’ve actually gotten to live that life, they feel much more like they’re just two names for me, like the real “me.” So it’s been really interesting how I started out with this alternate personality that I wanted to make real, and that over time it has become real and it kinda has become a part of me.

BEN: So that’s worked for you —

VIENNA: It really did.

BEN: — in terms of giving you the confidence that you needed in a particular situation or something?

VIENNA: Yeah, definitely. I think there is something really useful about giving something a different name, because like somehow...it’s like dressing up in a different costume. [laughs] There’s something about it that gives you the courage to inhabit it much more than if you feel like you have to take “you” yourself, as you are now, and walk forward into that.
Last edited by Reileen on Wed Jan 28, 2015 11:10 pm, edited 2 times in total.
"You've made us swear our souls to you
And blamed us for your poisoned grace."


Reileen van Kaile
http://www.voxgraphicastudio.com

chigaijin
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Re: Interview on GeekSpeak 2013-11-23

Postby chigaijin » Sat Feb 22, 2014 9:42 am

Wow, thanks, Reileen! I've got a special spot for anything about her name(s)—my story-mind loves anything to do with names and identity. (I asked a similar question in a private Q&A, and got a related-but-different answer.)

Also,
BEN: But how are users going to discover the features without reading the manual, which no one wants to do?

...if you're having this problem, there's a good chance you're not designing your software well. ;-) And
VIENNA: That’s funny when you say it that way. I’m like, oh yeah, are they pointers to the same...

You haven't lost all your programmer yet, Vienna!

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Re: Interview on GeekSpeak 2013-11-23

Postby cmooreNC » Mon Feb 24, 2014 7:44 pm

Thanks very much for the whole transcript. It was a great read! :D
Chris

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Re: Interview on GeekSpeak 2013-11-23

Postby Michele » Tue Feb 25, 2014 1:53 am

Thanks for the hard work transcribing! This is a great interview, one that asks the type of questions I like asking about, so it's great to have her answers accessible this way. I'll see if I can help fill in the technical mumbo-jumbo that may have been unclear...

BEN: [laughs] To the same [unintelligible]? - resource

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Re: Interview on GeekSpeak 2013-11-23

Postby aaparallel » Wed Feb 26, 2014 9:58 am

Reileen's post made me nervous, so I knocked out Part 2 of the interview today. Didn't want to leave people hanging for too long... I apologize for the inconsistencies with Part 1's impeccable formatting and editing.

In this section:
-Sorry, she's not Katy Perry
-Learning code is awesome
-Creative Commons is awesome
-Makeshift karaoke boxes
-Doing stuff for free

***

BEN: How do you feel… whatever fame you have, as a musical artist how do you feel that it influences the choices you make in terms of maybe how much time you spend doing music vs. other things or responsibility to fans vs. letting them just be and you release what you release whenever you release it?

VIENNA: Yeah, that’s a great question. I do feel a certain responsibility to my audience, but I also feel really, really lucky in that I think my audience, people who care about me as a musician, have said to me, “We want you to live your life in the way that makes you most happy,” and that’s an amazing gift, because there are definitely people who were bummed out that I went to grad school, and kind of disappointed to hear that I wasn’t going to be a full-time musician from now on, but I also got this indication that “We understand why you’re doing it. We understand that you’re doing it because this is right for you, and that we will trust that the best music that you can make will come out of you making the right choices for your life in general. We don’t want you to be sacrificing yourself to give us songs, you know?” And that’s a level of perception that I don’t know every audience [laughs] of every artist has, so I just feel really lucky that that’s the message that I’ve gotten, that people more than anything want me to live the life that I’m excited about, and that if I keep making music that is inspired by that, that they’ll want to listen to it.

BEN: What do you think that’s a function of? Do you think it’s the size of your crowd, like if you had ten times more people following you, or a hundred times more people, maybe they wouldn’t be as empathetic because you would have larger shows, you wouldn’t be able to interact with your fans in the same way? Or do you feel like it’s a function of the type of music that you make or the emotion you pour into your music?

VIENNA: I think there’s a little bit of both. I think the level of exposure that I have is this kind of a cozy little space where I’m obscure to and unknown to pretty much everybody except for the people who like me [laughs] and the people who know of me feel some connection to what I’m doing. So I think that if the audience got bigger than that, probably it would be a little harder to keep everyone happy by going to grad school [laughs]. But I also think that it’s a certain amount of… the kind of vibe I’ve been putting out, or brand, for lack of a better term, over the last several years, that I am someone who’s pretty nerdy-geeky and interested in stuff other than writing music. And so I think it made sense to people, when I said “Hey I’m going to grad school!” and they’re like “Oh yeah, you always seemed like a grad student anyway so it made sense to us.“ [laughs]

BEN: On a personal note actually, the few people who I’ve told I was interviewing you, the people who didn’t know you were like “Oh OK Ben’s interviewing a musician. That’s interesting, they’re kind of geeky,” but the people who have been your fans have been like “WHAT? Vienna Teng? That’s wonderful! I love her and her music!” and everything so yeah, I think it’s interesting to have that vibe, whereas Katy Perry, everybody at least has heard of Katy Perry –

VIENNA: And has an opinion one way or the other.

BEN: Yeah, whether it’s a very strong one or whether it’s an ambivalence, there’s something already there, a preconceived notion before you actually go see her show or listen to her music. Do you feel thankful that you haven’t gotten that big, or do you feel like that was a choice that you made, to try not to get that big?

VIENNA: Well I think that… That’s a really good question. [laughs] I think that I would like to be better known than I am, just for pure ego reasons, like, well, if my music is good I would like for it to be heard by more people and I hope that it’s good. But on the other hand, I also recognize that if I were to get more famous, there’s a trade-off that comes with that. I lose my privacy, definitely people start passing judgment on me without knowing much about me. There are definitely a lot more players that become involved, people who have a stake in my going a certain direction or not. So it kind of becomes more pressure on different fronts. So it’s not to say that I wouldn’t – I don’t want it and I have deliberately chosen not to have it. But I also think that I’ve kind of gone through my career just trying to be authentic to myself the entire way. And there are times when I’ve noticed that there are limitations to that, and sometimes that’s hurt and sometimes I’m like “Oh that makes total sense,” because I think that I can’t be Katy Perry because I’m not willing to do what Katy Perry does. And that’s not at all disparaging to her, but I don’t dress up in crazy costumes and I don’t write super, super poppy songs that really resonate with a wide audience right away… that’s just not who I am. So, if I were to try and be more famous, I would have to deliberately do some of those things, and I don’t really feel like doing that. That’s not really worth it.

BEN: So being a musician myself, I feel like when I’m writing songs, they start off as just things, but eventually they can kind of take on a life of their own. They can almost pull you in a direction when you’re writing it, or be something that maybe you don’t want to share but you still hold close to you. Do you have any songs like that, that you don’t expect you’ll ever release on an album or do a performance of, that you like?

VIENNA: I think every song that I have felt good about, just kind of as a song that stands on its own, I think I’ve released those songs. So even if they’re kind of hard for me or they reveal more about me than maybe I would like, I think the notion of oh, this is a well-crafted song tends to take precedence over any squeamishness I have about that. And I think that the songs that I don’t release are actually just because they are too personal. There’s something about releasing a song that’s super personal that’s actually more… not because I don’t want people to know about it, but just because I don’t think it’s as strong a song because it’s less universal: “Oh this is just about me and a thing I was going through… and you don’t necessarily relate to this.” So I’ve definitely written songs that way: “This was useful for me and I don’t know that other people would necessarily get much out of it.”

BEN: When I’m writing music and when I’m solving math problems or writing a program, I oftentimes feel like it’s a puzzle. I need to put every piece in the right place, and if I change this piece, it changes that piece, and if I change the way this instrument is moving, then this instrument has to change to make room for it. But at the same time, sometimes I feel like it just comes out and I can change things and they’re less related to each other within the song. Do you feel more one way or the other or is every song very different for you?

VIENNA: I definitely feel like there’s a certain stage of songwriting that feels very logical-mechanical. And I don’t mean mechanical in a bad way, but that you are actually tinkering with the mechanics of it, of trying to figure out yeah, this needs to make room for this, or this isn’t going to work unless this piece kind of goes this direction. So I really enjoy that process. But then the other thing, too, is that I love listening to other people’s music that kind of breaks all those rules for me. To give an example, my band, on our day off, we all went to see this artist James Blake, and we love him, partly because… I think he’s been influential for each of us in different ways in that he does music that breaks the unspoken rules about some stuff that we have in our heads, but he makes it so compelling and he makes it work. You’re like “Oh, music can actually work if you don’t follow that rule,” so that’s really interesting. For example, he would record these vocal loops that are like slightly out of tune and slightly kind of like off from one another, and you would think that it would just sound like he’s bad at it [laughs], but you can tell that it’s a very deliberate effect and it ends up with this really soulful and slightly unsettling feeling that is really, really great. Just listening to something like that made me realize "oh yeah, I keep having this idea that everything has to line up in this neat little way for it to work, but it actually doesn’t." You can actually introduce chaos in very deliberate ways that can be really, really effective. But of course there’s a whole art to it so [laughs] so then I kind of go off on this whole path of trying to master the art of that new thing.

BEN: Speaking of solving puzzles, one of the things that we talk about on GeekSpeak a lot is how it’s… at least I personally believe it’s important that kids learn a little bit of computer science, a little bit of how to program. When you say computer science, it doesn’t sound very exciting, it sounds kind of dreary, like “learn math.” But it can be so exciting if you’re taught it the right way. How do you feel about that, having been involved in science, having been involved in business, and in art, like music, and also in computer science? Do you feel your computer science skills inform other aspects of your life?

VIENNA: I think so. I think the real gift that it gave me, is not so much that I write code all the time now, but just it demystified just enough of it for me that I’m no longer intimidated by it. And so I think the biggest thing that studying computer science did for me was… now when I see anything technical, even if I don’t understand it, I don’t immediately shut down and feel "oh that’s complicated, I don’t get it" and just be more like "well, if I need to troubleshoot this I’m sure that I can dig in and figure it out." And I think that’s the most important thing for kids to learn, even if they never end up writing code per se, for their living or anything like that. I think it’s a huge thing to awaken and nurture in kids this idea of problem solving is really fun and it can apply to all these situations and you don’t have to be scared of it, you don’t have to put up defenses against it when you see something like that. To me, definitely, programming and that kind of logical problem solving is becoming – I think other people have said this – it’s a form of literacy at this point. You have to be able to read and write, be able to speak, probably speak in public…that’s a basic skill at this point, and you also have to be able to do a little bit of coding or some kind of technical/logical work. I think that that unlocks a whole world for people. I really love the different projects and non-profits that are trying to make that as accessible for as many kids as possible.

BEN: Our favorite at GeekSpeak is CODE.org and –

VIENNA: - I LOVE that, yeah.

BEN: Yeah, it really makes it easy… Also, I feel like a horrible geek, but there’s an hour of coding coming up in December where they’re trying to get as many people to do some coding during that, I think in that day or that week. The more people that they can get to do it, the more it’ll get traction and maybe demystify a little bit of code too, because you can learn a good amount of code in one hour, you can solve some basic problems –

VIENNA: Totally.

BEN: …Play around and have fun with it. So I’ve been writing a little bit of software recently, and I have been releasing it all as open source, primarily because… they’re small projects so it’s not that I want people to come and work on my project with me, but more… it’s that I want people to have the freedom to do with my code what they want to do. As musician I feel similarly. What is that space like when you’re recording with a record label?

VIENNA: It’s a tricky one. I’m currently not on a record label –

BEN: Mmhm.

VIENNA: And I find it a lot more fun in a lot of ways. It’s also limiting in other ways, obviously, but I –

BEN:That was your new album, Aims, right?

VIENNA: Yes.

BEN: And that came out two months ago.

VIENNA: Yeah, two months ago, and I got to license it as Creative Commons because I… I can do that now –

BEN: That was my question!

VIENNA: …I love the idea of Creative Commons and I love that it has a whole legal framework that they provide for people to just stick in… you can just use this boilerplate Creative Commons thing to very quickly indicate what your intentions are for this piece. I really love combing through it and figuring it out, like “Ooh… license shopping! Which one do I want to have?” [laughs]. And so for me because… music still gets… a major source of revenue for artists and songwriters, especially independent ones at this point, is commercial licensing. They get used in TV soundtracks and movie soundtracks and commercials, or like, web ads or whatever it is. So that’s a pretty significant source of revenue still. So I felt like, well I don’t want to undermine any of that stuff so I’ll do non-commercial only. And then I like the idea of people being able to make derivative works as much as they want to. I like the idea of people remixing them, or sampling it, or singing new harmonies on it or something like that.

BEN: Do you have any of the individual tracks available for download so you could remix it if you wanted to?

VIENNA: I had the mixing engineer make those, and we haven’t released them yet but we’re definitely going to. We’ll have them for all of the songs on the new album.

BEN: That is really, really exciting.

VIENNA: Yeah! I’m really excited too because one of the things that is great about that is that you get to hear the – again going back to what we were talking about earlier – kind of the underpinnings or kind of how things were put together, and the different space that each of the different sounds and instruments occupy. I don’t think people really get to appreciate the fullness of that by just hearing the final result. And so the idea that you can solo the strings and solo the bass part… put them together [laughs] without the vocal, you know, that’s kind of fun.

BEN: There’s actually a technique that you can… kind of inspect mixes that are done that you don’t have those tracks for. If you take the left channel and you take the right channel and you invert the signal polarity of one of them and then you sum them together, it basically, mathematically takes away the center channel, anything that’s the same between the left and the right. And so you can listen to anything that was mixed more to the left or more to the right and not in the center.

VIENNA: So it tends to take the vocals out.

BEN: It tends to take the vocals and the kick drum and the bass out.

VIENNA: Right.

BEN: And so on the way over here I had your album on and I made a little box and connected it up in such a way that basically if I turn this knob…

VIENNA: Oh it reverses the polarity –

BEN: Yeah, I turn this knob, this potentiometer, and it would change... basically “fade out” the vocals.

VIENNA: That’s so cool!

BEN: Then you flip a switch and it’s entirely no vocals, and you flip it back and you have the normal mix. For me, I like to sing along to songs in the car but of course when you have a nice studio-produced mix playing really loud, you can’t necessarily hear if you’re right in tune with them or if you’re not. If you take away the vocals then you can be the vocalist so –

VIENNA: Let me just turn on my karaoke box here. [laughs]

BEN: And actually my partner and I were driving over here and I turned down the vocals so I could converse over the music without lowering the overall volume of the music.

VIENNA: That’s really fun.

BEN: How do you feel when people cover your songs, like when they do public performances of covers of your songs or remixes of your songs?

VIENNA: Oh, I love that. I just love the idea that anyone would want to do that. [laughs] I really appreciate it when… especially college a cappella groups have covered my songs – that’s really fun. And sometimes I’ll just see YouTube videos of people playing a song in their living room on the piano or something.

BEN: I have one more question about I guess the future of music. It seems more and more that we’re moving away from downloads and CDs and more towards streaming. Spotify is one of the services that’s gained immense traction. But one of the disadvantages of that is as an artist you get much fewer royalties. So what are your feelings about that? You may get more coverage, and people listening, but at the same time you get just pennies compared to dollars.

VIENNA: That’s a great and difficult question, because I… as a music consumer, I think that that’s actually the best way for us to listen to music, to not have to buy individual albums per se, but to just have kind of the whole library of what we could be listening to kind of at our fingertips. That’s definitely an amazing thing. I think that there must be some way, there must be clever business people out there [laughs] who can figure out a way for us to effortlessly pay for the things that we listen to as well. And I know that right now they have this kind of clunky system of “well this service is free but you can get Premium by subscribing to it” and not a lot of people go for the premium thing, and even with the premium service the artists don’t actually see the end royalties of that. So I think that there’s a lot about this system that’s still being worked out, and I don’t necessarily have the answers. And I think that as usual with any technological disruption, there are going to be a lot of people who are going to get hurt by it, and in this case I think a lot of artists and songwriters will get hurt by it, and musicians as well. So there’s that. You know kind of my ambivalence about it is probably clear at this point. I also think… I read a number of articles recently about the controversy of creative people doing stuff for free, and there being this kind of cultural expectation that you love what you do so much that you must be willing to do it for free, and often many people do. So it kind of creates the cycle of expectation of, like, of course people would do it for cheap or for free.

BEN: It’s like free apps on the iPhone store, on the app store.

VIENNA: Right. I occasionally think about… I can download an app for two dollars that replaces an entire device that I would have had ten years ago, and I hear people saying “Two dollars? I have to pay two dollars for that? I don’t want to pay two dollars for that. That’s nuts.”

BEN: Yeah it’s expensive.

VIENNA: [laughs] So I’ve heard a number of people trying to push back against that culture… we have to recognize that in order for people to build stuff and to make stuff and to maintain it, and to have a livelihood doing it, that’s not always going to be cheap. So I think that that whole dialogue is working itself out. It’s an important one to have and I think it will work itself out over time. But… I personally don’t really know yet where I stand on it. There was an article recently about TED and how all of the TED speakers are never paid, and the same goes for TEDx speakers so –

BEN: Really? I didn’t know that.

VIENNA: Yeah, I’ve done a number of TEDx performances and I’m never paid for them, and that’s one of the rules. And so recently somebody posted an editorial saying like “I was asked to give a TEDx talk and I turned it down on principle because I think that people should be paid for the creative expenditure... the time and effort.”

BEN: Also the TED conference is very expensive so –

VIENNA: Exactly.

BEN:They make quite a bit of money, I’m sure.

VIENNA: Right. And I think, again, there’s this expectation of, you have the honor of being a TED speaker, you have the exposure of being a TED speaker, you’re going to be on this video that may go viral, so all of that somehow is supposed to compensate for the fact that you’re not being paid to speak at a $6000-a-person conference.

BEN: It’s like stock options at a startup.

VIENNA: Right.

BEN: If the startup takes off, which most startups don’t, then maybe you’ll get notoriety, or you’ll get money in that case, or in the case of music you might get notoriety and that translates to more listens…

VIENNA: So I think there’s a lot of that that we’re still working out, and I think that with things like Kickstarter and crowdfunding, people are starting to recognize that argument of, “It costs money to do this stuff, and I want to do this, but I need your help financially to do it.”

BEN: Mmhm. You did that with a music video recently, right?

VIENNA: Yeah, I did, and it was really, really rewarding [laughs] to find out how many people have been… this sounds really crass but I’ve heard it from a number of people that are like “we’ve been waiting to give you money, like we’ve been been waiting for a way to give you more money, and now you’ve given us an opportunity to.” So, I think that sentiment gives me a lot of hope for the music industry, that we have to figure out a way to tap people’s real sense of I want to give back to the people who have done something important for my life and contribute something really valuable. I’m willing to help them and to reward them for it. I think the mechanisms of that are still in flux. I guess I haven’t gotten down that road because I haven’t felt a strong need to, like, let people send me money [laughs] and I tend to feel more like “I don’t need your money. I love the fact that you love my music and you feel like supporting me… go do other cool stuff in the world.” I would just rather that... somehow the world is better for my making music and even if that’s not directly rewarding me then… I just want it to have some kind of ripple effect.

BEN: Yeah. Excellent. You know what’s interesting, speaking of Spotify, is that’s where I found out about your concert. And that’s why we’re here having this conversation.

VIENNA: Oh that’s great. I actually didn’t know about that feature of Spotify where you say, like, oh you’re listening to this artist. Did you know that they’re playing –

BEN: - You know, I do not know where it went. It’s somewhere in the Spotify interface. It probably should be a bit more prominent because that’s one of the biggest benefits.

VIENNA: Mmhm. Definitely.

BEN: Well thank you so much for doing this interview.

VIENNA: Yeah!

BEN: And have a great show.

VIENNA: Thanks a lot. This has been a lot of fun.
"Drowning my pain in lemonade. . . Singing along to 'feelin' alright'"

chigaijin
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Re: Interview on GeekSpeak 2013-11-23

Postby chigaijin » Thu Feb 27, 2014 7:00 am

There’s something about releasing a song that’s super personal that’s actually more… not because I don’t want people to know about it, but just because I don’t think it’s as strong a song because it’s less universal: “Oh this is just about me and a thing I was going through… and you don’t necessarily relate to this.” So I’ve definitely written songs that way: “This was useful for me and I don’t know that other people would necessarily get much out of it.”


Of course, one of the amazing things about a lot of personal songs is that it turns out that someone does relate to them. So either Vienna's not quite aware of how much this happens (not just with her music), or these songs are really idiosyncratic. :-)

"Nothing is magic" is one of my favorite themes from my college CS classes. Definitely agree on that section.

Thanks, aaparallel!

Steve
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Re: Interview on GeekSpeak 2013-11-23

Postby Steve » Thu Feb 27, 2014 1:14 pm

Thanks, both of you, for this incredible amount of work! As nice as it is to hear an interview, I think it's even better to have a transcript and be able to re-read sections, skip around, go back, etc. And in my mind I hear Vienna's voice on every word, anyway!

Scot
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Re: Interview on GeekSpeak 2013-11-23

Postby Scot » Fri Feb 28, 2014 10:20 am

Wow. Thanks for all that effort. I listened to maybe the first half of the interview then ran out of time and never finished it. It was a pleasure to read it now.

scot
My little attempt at a Vienna Teng WWW page (Set lists, song info., and more...)

cmooreNC
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Re: Interview on GeekSpeak 2013-11-23

Postby cmooreNC » Fri Feb 28, 2014 8:19 pm

Ditto on the comments from Steve and Scot! Thanks for all the effort transcribing for us!
Chris


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