Interview on Art of the Song 2013-12-13

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Interview on Art of the Song 2013-12-13

Postby Reileen » Fri Aug 22, 2014 7:53 am

You can listen to the interview here. I cut out some of the inserted whatchamacallits where Jon credits the song that Vienna’s just played. (Also, he’s consistently mispronouncing Jordan’s last name for some reason.)


1. Harbor
2. Blue Caravan
3. Landsailor (w/ Aaron Long as the voice of Capitalism)
4. In the 99
5. The Breaking Light (sung in the key of C major?)
6. The Hymn of Acxiom
7. Antebellum (with Alex playing the melody line on guitar)
8. Grandmother Song


[BGM: instrumental music]

JON: This is Jon Dillon.

VIV: And I’m Viv Nesbitt. Welcome to Art of the Song Creativity Radio.

JON: We all have a song to sing.

VIV: At Art of the Song, we use the word “song” as a metaphor for the unique gift each of us has to share with the world.

JON: Each week, we bring you music and the stories of people who have discovered and shared their creative gifts every day.

VIV: We all have a song to sing. We hope this program inspires you to sing yours.

VIENNA (excerpt): “I definitely believe in that notion that everyone is creative. For me, it happened to be music. I think for some people it’s actually in the way that they decorate their home, or the way that they organize the information in their lives. Or it could be the way that they give gifts to other people, you know, not saying that just because you can’t draw or you can’t dance, to put the label that ‘I’m not creative’ can be a very restrictive thing, and to understand that whenever you have an idea and you run with the idea, that is being creative. And however you choose to express that in your life is powerful and makes the world richer.”

VIV: Our guest this week on Art of the Song is Vienna Teng. A native Californian, Vienna began playing classical piano at the age of 5. While pursuing a degree in computer science at Stanford, she joined a student-run a cappella group. She began recording her own compositions and in 2001 released her debut album, Waking Hour. After graduation, Vienna worked as a software engineer at Cisco Systems, and she continued to write music and perform in her free time. She left Cisco in 2002 to focus on her musical career.

JON: In 2010, Vienna announced to her fans that she’d been accepted into the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. Through the program, she received both an MBA and an MS. We had the pleasure of speaking with Vienna Teng as a part of the Concerts and Conversation series with AMP Concerts in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

VIV: Please help me welcome Vienna Teng!

[audience applause; Vienna plays “Harbor”]

VIENNA: Thank you.

VIV: Thank you so much for joining us tonight for the Concerts and Conversations, and for the special edition of Art of the Song. Vienna, would you tell us a little bit about how you got started? You got started with music very early in your life, so we wanna talk about that a little bit, and then we’ll move on to other aspects.

VIENNA: Sure. I got signed up for piano lessons shortly before I turned five years old, so I’ve been playing piano for most of my life, which is a really lovely thing that’s been a very good friend to me. And I also — as much as I love studying classical music, I was always a little impatient with it; I wasn’t a very good classical music student at the end of the day. And I just really wanted to cut to making up my own things or at least, like, learning things by ear. And I think that led me more towards songwriting than being a classical musician, so.

I wrote my first piano piece, I think, when I was six, mostly ‘cause I didn’t want to practice the just one I’d been assigned. [laughs] I thought maybe if I wrote my own, my piano teacher would let me get away with it. And then I started, you know, experimenting with lyrics and with singing, and actually singing and playing piano at the same time came a little bit later, it’s a little bit more “brain division” there, I guess. [laughs] And then I...I kind of put it aside for a little while. It was always a big, serious hobby of mine but it wasn’t until after college that I really started pursuing it as a possible career. And that was a bit of an intimidating departure from what my parents had raised me to do and what, you know, I’d been thinking I was capable of, but it was an amazing time for me to decide that that’s what I wanted to do.

JON: You’re also a computer programmer —

VIENNA: [laughs] Ex-computer programmer. I wouldn’t claim to be able to do anything now.

JON: Well, let’s, uh...I just wanted to explore: are there any similarities between writing code and writing music?

VIENNA: You know, I did an interview years ago with a gentleman who was doing articles for a technology publication, and he was curious about the connection between creative — the creative spirit in art and the creative spirit in, you know, software. And I feel like there’s a certain phase in working on a song that feels a lot like debugging. [laughs] Debugging code. You know, you built a thing, and it doesn’t work, and you’re just sort of looking at it going, like, okay, sort of run it through and then you hit upon the spot that is not working, and then you start to kind of tinker at it and going, “well, maybe it’s because this part is broken.” Then you start to realize that it’s actually a structural problem in other parts of the song, you know, so...that part feels very similar. And there is a part of songwriting that feels very...technical. Kind of down in the weeds, like...of course there’s some songs that are gifts, and you just kind of wake up and you have a notion and you just start writing it and then it’s done, but that happens maybe, like, five percent of the time for me. [laughs] The rest of the time it’s just: “I don’t know why this isn’t working, so lemme, like, try this other thing.” And that feels very similar to “I don’t know if it’s my code or if it’s my colleague’s code or if it’s the platform I’m coding on, or, like [laughs] I don’t know what’s going on.” But yeah, you need to both kind of be in the weeds and step back at the same time.

VIV: I love that image of being “in the weeds and step back at the same time.” So you’re in it and above it —


VIV: — wrestling with it and sorting out the roots and all that stuff. And then at the same time, you’re sort of above it, getting that big overview.

VIENNA: Right. And I marvel at the ability of really talented creative people to hold that space, that contradiction, at the same time. I was just thinking about the movie Gravity — have some of you seen it? So, there was — I was listening to an interview of the director, and it was such a technical movie, you know, kind of trying to create the illusion of zero-g and...his ability to think about “what story am I trying to tell? what emotion do I want the audience to be experiencing?” at the same time of being, like, “well, this has to turn here and then the camera has to do this and then the lights have to...” you know, keeping track of a million details. I think it’s maybe the less glamorous explanation for what brilliance is and what genius is: it’s the ability to hold the detail and the greater picture at the same time. And I know that I’m not always capable of it. So, like, when... [laughs] Whenever I get a little lost, I have to think about, like, how do I cultivate that in myself?

[Vienna plays “Blue Caravan”; audience applause]

VIV: Several years ago, you took another break from music and went back to school. Can you talk a little bit about that decision?

VIENNA: Yeah. So the past three years I’ve been in a graduate program at the Erb Institute at the University of Michigan, which is why [laughs] Professor Andrew Hoffman wrote the introduction for my album. And it was something that I’d wanted to do for a long time. It was a piece of me that felt really important and I didn’t really know where it was gonna fit in my life, a way, [it was] kind of like the dark secret — I don’t know how dark it is, really — but to me, it felt like this secret that although I have this amazing life in music, I knew that it wouldn’t be the only thing that I wanted to do with my life, and I wanted to combine it somehow or have it run parallel to some other thing. And so I took a long time over the years that I was playing music to try and figure out what that was. And to me it finally led to studying sustainability and the role of business and corporations in social change. I just really enjoy the contrast of how, in a creative life, it is of course about the art but by necessity ends up being about self-promotion — like, you’re going around talking about yourself and your music and all that sort of thing. And that can be really fulfilling in certain ways, but then I loved going back to school and studying things that were about the world or about the country or about my community or, you know, how I could kind of step into that and play some small part and not have it be about me at all or my self-expression. And, honestly, it was really fun just being nerdy for a couple of years. [laughs] I just love, you know, reading about logistics companies and shipping routes and energy efficiency and all these things that you can’t talk about so overtly in music or else people will walk out of the room. [laughs] So I enjoy that technical stuff a lot.

JON: And how has that whole process affected your music?

VIENNA: Well, I started writing songs in which I’m trying to refer to energy efficiency [laughs] but, like, more like on — so this album is definitely much nerdier, I think, than my past albums. And it was a really fun challenge. It was really interesting to try and think about “how am I going to write songs about what I’m interested in right now that still work as pop songs?”, or as songs that you perform for an audience, that emotionally connect with people. And so it was really fun. And I think my way into it was that in the sustainability program that I was in, a lot of my fellow students and I struggled with this fact that it’s really easy to go to the doom-and-gloom space [laughs] when you’re talking about environmental issues. It’s very easy to go into this space of what you and I are doing wrong: we use plastic disposable things, we eat too much this, we spend too much that. And it kind of becomes this pattern of telling people what they’re doing wrong, and that’s not really very uplifting. [laughs] And so for me, I ended up turning more and more towards music that felt aware but also joyful, that felt like: this is not about what we’re doing wrong, this is about what we could be doing, and what we’re capable of, and what we — the possibilities that lie ahead of us. And that we are up to, you know, the challenges that we are up to and how exciting meeting those challenges can be. So all of the songs that I ended up writing kind of came from that place once I had figured out that that’s what I wanted to sing about.

[Vienna plays “Landsailor”; audience applause]

VIENNA: That’s Aaron Long.

VIV: It seems like the ultimate protest song is to go and get an MBA —

VIENNA: [laughs] It is.

VIV: —and then come back and write uplifting songs about the path forward [Vienna laughs again] that you’ve discovered. That, to me, just really is very profound and very uplifting.

The other thing that I’m really enamored of, of this particular presentation, now — this album is available in all kinds of formats. You can get the book, you can get it on a thumb drive —

VIENNA: [speaking over Viv] Mm-hmm. You can get it completely digitally online, and you can also get the “nerd alert” edition, yeah, which is the book. [laughs]

VIV: The “nerd alert”...this is what is, I th — being a history major and an MFA person, has footnotes. [Vienna and audience laugh] And I started —

VIENNA: You can tell I’ve been in graduate school.

VIV: I love it. And I started looking them up. And it’s just fascinating because there’s all this additional reading and all this background that just deepens the experience. And then there’s the art part of it, which deepens the experience all the more. Can you talk about the process of creating this particular...”iteration” of it, that I know also appears on the thumb drive, and, uh...

VIENNA: Yeah. Well, I can point to two very specific, um, sources of inspiration. One is actually my friend and collaborator Alex Wong. When we first met, I was still kind of in programmer-engineer mode, and I felt really kind of self-conscious about being an artist and being somebody who cared about the clothes that I wore or what my hairstyle looked like. And I think out of that insecurity I sort of rejected all of that, and I decided image shouldn’t be important to musicians — like, it should just be about the song. But he kind of pushed back on that with me and said that, you know, if you’re a creative person, you express it in all different dimensions. And you can choose your own authentic voice for that. But absolutely: your CD cover is a part of your art. What you wear is part of your art, and how you talk to an audience is part of your art. And so, in putting this album together, I was trying to keep that in mind moreso than usual, and think that, if I’m going to make an album, it’s not just the songs, but it’s know, if you want to kind of leaf through it and have a physical copy of it, like, what is your experience of that?

And then the other piece of it is actually a book by a rapper. Jay-Z came out with this book, Decoded, a few years ago that I read while we were recording the album. And he has footnotes. [laughs] was really helpful! I loved that, you know, he would break down, he’s like: this is actually a double entendre, this is a reference both to the crack-dealing trade as well as living in the projects as well as this other thing. And he had some really thoughtful essays which he was really actually quite forthright about what he learned from growing up that way as well as the ways that it still haunts him. And it all kind of made more sense when he put the footnotes in the lyrics. [laughs]

VIV: Yeah, it’s incredible, because I think so many times — perhaps I’m not alone in this, but — I’ll be listening to something and thinking “I know what that’s meaning to me,” because it’s different for all of us. A song will go out there and it takes on a life of its own and it resonates in us very differently. And we find our own meaning in the heartpath of the music, as well as the lyric hits us in these, uh, very visceral ways. But to actually have the footnotes, to learn what your thought process is, is very, very cool for me. [laughs] Because I’m a geek.

VIENNA: [also laughing; speaking over Viv] I’m glad that’s your experience of it.

[Vienna performs “In the 99”; audience applause; interview goes to intermission & musical interlude]

VIV: Welcome back to Art of the Song! We’re talking with Vienna Teng in front of a live audience at the Outpost Performance Space in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

JON: Can you talk a little bit about your songwriting process? How’s that work for you?

VIENNA: Well, it changes over time. And I find that I...I guess I describe my songwriting process as a “beggars can’t be choosers” process. [laughs] So, I write slowly — it takes a long time for me to finish songs. There’s actually [laughs again] a diagram in that “nerd alert” book of how each song got written along the way. And there’s some of them that actually took over two years to finish. And not that I was working on them steadily the whole time, but I would often gather fragments, and so I would have, like, a little piece of music, or I would have a song title that I thought was interesting, or I would have a couple of lines that seemed to fit somewhere. Or I would have just a beat that I hadn’t attached anything to. And then the songwriting process for me is generating as many of those as I can and then kind of sitting down and gluing them together to see if they [laughs] if they get along. And at some point, something will tip into having a life of its own. I’ll say, like, “oh! This wants to exist as this bit of music with this little bit of words” and, like, where does it go from there? And then it kind of feels like this process of, um...very delicately trying to, you know, excavate your way through an underground passage or something without [laughing] without accidentally breaking anything or, you know, shattering anything that you’re supposed to leave intact.

But then there are some times when I think that metaphor doesn’t work, that it — actually being more cavalier about it is the way to go. And so I’ve also written songs very quickly, just sat down and said “I have four hours to write a song, and here we go.” And usually they’re bad [laughs] but once in a while they’re amazing, and they come pouring out of me because I’m not overthinking anything. So I use all different kinds of techniques, just because I never know what’s actually gonna work.

[Vienna performs “The Breaking Light”, with audience participation; audience applause]

VIENNA: Oh, that was really beautiful; thank you.

VIV: Now, technology is clearly informing a lot of your songwriting, and you were talking about having a beat, you know, that will come in — how are you using all of this to inspire you?

VIENNA: I guess technology is great for me because it’s a playground. [laughs] And with each, you know, new bit that I become familiar with, it becomes a new toy or a new kind of structure that I get to climb around on and play with. And again, I don’t plan what I’m gonna do with it, you know — it’s not like I buy a piece of gear and say “I’m going to write songs with this,” but I will buy a new piece of gear and mess around with it and it’ll make some interesting sound or it’ll be malfunctioning in some way and have this, like, cool pattern, glitchy pattern, going on. So from there I’ll suddenly have an idea of like, oh, that feels like something that expresses this, and then I’ll try singing something over it and then it’ll kind of spark something from there. And so there are times when I write songs on a very...visceral sort of level where I don’t know what it’s about and I’m just kind of trying to follow this thing. And then there are other times where I feel more like an architect, where I’m like, “well, there’s this story I want to tell, there’s a way I want that story to be unfold, and these are the tools I’m going to bring to build that house.” So it’s kind of fun that they happen both ways.

[Vienna performs “The Hymn of Acxiom”; audience applause]

VIV: In the editing process on your songwriting — the debugging — have you ever sort of pulled out one piece and had the whole thing just collapse?

VIENNA: [laughs] Well, I’ve definitely had, um — added something, and then had it just get stuck in mediocrity [laughs] and so, yeah, there are times when I’ll just say, like, “you know, I’m just gonna finish this song and I’m gonna write this chorus and just see what happens.” And then it’ll be this sort of uninspired chorus, but then it’s so much, feels so melded to everything else that I was working on that I don’t know what else it would become, so...the times when I just, you know, decide that, “okay, that song is what it is, and I’m gonna move on.” [laughs] And hopefully that has taught me something, and I move on to the next song.

JON: You’re clearly a very creative person. Do you think it’s important for people to find some sort of creative outlet, whether it be music or something else?

VIENNA: I definitely believe in that notion that everyone is creative, and that everyone has particular outlets that awaken that more than others. For me, it happened to be music. I think for some people it’s actually in the way that they decorate their home, or the way that they organize the information in their lives. Or it could be the way that they give gifts to other people, and I think that, you know, not saying that just because you can’t draw or you can’t dance, to put the label that “I’m not creative” can be a very restrictive thing, and to understand that whenever you have an idea and you run with the idea, that is being creative. And however you choose to express that in your life is powerful and makes the world richer. So I absolutely believe that.

VIV: I can’t thank you enough for joining us tonight, and for having this conversation and letting us dig deeper into your process. We really appreciate it. Vienna Teng, thank you so much.

VIENNA: Thank you. This is such a privilege.

[audience applause]

ALEX: So, this is another song that Vienna and I wrote together. It appears on a previous record called Inland Territory, which I think we were promoting the last time we were in town. So, this is another song that started with the music before the lyrics or the idea of the song. And it started out with sort of a melody that Vienna had been playing on the piano, two lines that sort of diverged and then came back together again. And that was all we had for a really long time. And we just kept playing that over and over, and I think first it became a song about birds migrating...

VIENNA: We wrote a whole set of lyrics that way. And then it became about twins that were separated at birth, I think... [audience laughs]

ALEX: But finally we took a cue from the motion of those two lines, and it finally became about two people who spent a lot of time together and then went away from each other, and didn’t come back together for a long time, and when they did come back together they were both very different people. And so this song sort of opens with this sort of initial first awkward conversation that two people might have after not seeing each other for a very long time.

[Vienna performs “Antebellum”; audience applause; Vienna performs “Grandmother Song”]

VIENNA: This is Alex Wong, and this is Jordan Hamlin! And that’s Aaron Long. Thank you so much!

JON: Thanks for joining us for Art of the Song Creativity Radio. I’m Jon Dillon.

VIV: And this is Viv Nesbitt. Remember, we all have a song to sing.

JON: We hope this program inspires you to sing yours.
"You've made us swear our souls to you
And blamed us for your poisoned grace."

Reileen van Kaile

Posts: 874
Joined: Sun Apr 27, 2003 1:11 am
Location: Exit 47

Re: Interview on Art of the Song 2013-12-13

Postby Michele » Fri Aug 22, 2014 8:16 am

Wow. Thank you, Reileen, for putting in all that work to transcribe this!

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