Q&A with Vienna, February 2005

Chat and sip. Beret optional.

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Postby shawn » Tue Feb 15, 2005 8:23 pm

What I look for in music tends to vary a bit, depending on what a song has to offer. As many others have said here, a well-written, thought-provoking set of lyrics can grab my attention. Definitely for anybody following the folk singer/songwriter route, lyrics are key. But in other genres, sometimes the actual words don't matter as much as the feeling/emotion/energy behind them. One doesn't need to know English to know what Marvin Gaye is getting at in the first few lines of "Let's Get It On", for example, and one doesn't need to know any spoken language at all to understand the call-response part in Ray Charles' "What'd I Say". (Speaking of the latter, I had the recent misfortune of hearing a cover version of that song; didn't catch who it was, but they made the mistake of replacing the "uuunnhhhhh, ooooaahhh"s with a set of "Yeah"s and "Oohhh"s that made it sound like a children's campfire singalong. Almost made me rip out my hair and scream, "No! You're missing the whole freakin' point!" Thank goodness I got the Ray soundtrack as a Valentine's Day present; maybe a few plays of that will erase the memory of that abominable cover...)

Context can be everything when it comes to music. In classical or jazz, proficiency at one's instrument (including one's voice) is absolutely essential. When it comes to rock, though, technique can sometimes get in the way of the energy, IMO. I'll gladly take, say, the punk power pop of the Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady over any bit of prog rock noodling by the likes of Yes, ELP, etc. (Though if you can strip away the manic buzzsaw guitars and Pete Shelley's somewhat-nasal voice, you realize he's actually a far-better-than-average pop lyricist, believe it or not...)

I don't have a question of my own, at least not yet. But I'm enjoying reading others' questions, and the answers to those, as well as everyone's answers to Vienna's original question. Thanks again for taking the time to do this!

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Postby WhiteUponBlack » Tue Feb 15, 2005 8:33 pm

Back again. I have at least one question this time, though whether it's worthy of asking or not is debatable... Do you see yourself coming to Connecticut area anytime soon? I saw you at the small cafe you played in once, I believe it was in Waterbury or Norwalk, and have been thirsting for more ever since. (I was the young boy in the front, staring at you with such entrigue and admiration that I think I may have unnerved you....sorry!! :lol: )

Also...what do you think of Jewel, singer/songwriter/poetess? I know the media has wrongly played down her talent as naivetie and her poetry as cheap trash, but if you give her the chance to move you, I guarantee you won't be let down! She was my first introduction to the world of "good" music, marking my graduation from bubble-gum pop into the true understanding of a melody's power; your stuff came about a year later, after I saw you for a fleeting instant on Wayne Brady and rushed to my computer to look you up... (Bob Dylan's another biggie for me too, though...!) While we're on the topic of mainstream artists, what do you think of "Sleeping with Butterflies", Tori Amos' new single?

Fourthly (and almost lastly) how soon 'till we get a new CD?? I'M DYING! :D Nah, just kiddin', but 'twould be awesome to know when to expect it.

Lastly, what is your favorite song that YOU'VE written (in every aspect, lyric-wise, composition-wise, etc etc...)? Personally, Eric's Song send shivers down my spine every time I hear it. In closing, thank you again for you're awesome contribution to the world of music; know this - even if you were to never win a Grammy, sell-out an ampitheater, or see your name in Vegas lights, you've moved and changed the soul of a single human being for the better, and to me, that should make it all worth while. Love always, you're biggest fan. :wub:
<span style='font-size:8pt;line-height:100%'>Rats<br><br>There are rats in the rooms of my soul.<br>They gnaw at the walls and shred the floorboards with their claws.<br>They nest in my piles of discontent<br>And stir up the dust on long empty shelves.<br>They chase the sunlight away<br>And grate upon the silence of serenity with their jagged teeth.<br>They echo their horrid cries in the dead of the night<br>And keep me awake with fear.<br>Oh, how I loathe them!<br>If only they would leave<br>And let me be!<br>Yet<br>I will not let them. </span>

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Postby Ang Mo » Wed Feb 16, 2005 4:03 am

WhiteUponBlack said:

Love always, you're biggest fan.

I have to disagree with you on this although I know you mean it sincerely. I would have to say that "The Man in Blue" is Vienna's biggest fan since he has logged considerable time and miles going from concert to concert all over the United States and the globe to watch Vienna perform.

I sincerely believe that if Vienna booked a gig in the bowels of Hell that The Man in Blue would attend wearing his finest asbestos suit and be in the first row informing the devil, " Listen to how cleverly written this next verse is" and after listening, the old devil nodding his head in approval. :lol:

That's why he's the number one fan. I couldn't do that because they don't serve diet coke down there because it is the Elixir of God...............................
--the only adults who are never depressed: chuckleheads, California surfers, and fundamentalist Christians who believe they have had a personal encounter with Jesus and are saved once and for all. Would you trade your depression to become any of these?

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Postby TDG » Wed Feb 16, 2005 4:43 am

Hi Vienna,

Allow me to add another 'thanks' for finding the time to invite all of us into your Cafe to share a thought or two with you.

I am pleased to learn that you listen to Dylan. He was a great inspiration to me as I grew up playing a lot of his tunes on guitar. It is a total mystery to me why he chooses to sing the way he does -- and I know he can sing when he wants to. Like most Dylan fans, I absolutely love his amazing talent of painting detailed images with his words. I also find a lot of enjoyment in the subtle humor he occasionally weaves into some of his songs. I’ve often thought that perhaps he writes his songs for other artists to do. That is, he spits them out (sometimes literally) in rough renditions where others can pick them up and polish them off to suit their own fashion. This takes me directly to your opening query….

What do we do look for in music?

My answer has got to be melody. That’s the magnet that makes me revisit a tune. Indeed I value lyrics that give thought and deliver an aspiring message, but melody is a common denominator that appeals to all ears. People are more apt to remember and be drawn to a song with a musical hook, rather than a clever line. And that links me to my next chain of thought….

I view your music as a perfect union of melody and lyric. There is a treasure chest of musical bounty in your tunes and your heartfelt words only enhance their value. So in the end of the day, you are doing what I always hoped Dylan would do. What more can I say but ‘thank you’. That, and…

It was a great privilege to witness your performance in downtown San Jose last June. It was to say the least, a memorable experience. The acoustics of the theatre and the atmosphere was magical. I have been playing the ever-loving heck out of your Warm Strangers CD since and have surely received my monies worth many times over. I often listen to ‘Mission Street’ at night before I drift into my sleep world. Your voice is like fine silk that soothes my spirit and sets me up for a near perfect state of tranquility. What better way to end this but with yet another ‘thank you’.

Seeya soon I dearly pray.

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Postby Vienna » Wed Feb 16, 2005 8:44 am

Of all your many travels, which was your favorite and most memorable place to perform and which format (ie, house concert, large music hall, or small venue)?

I think I'm in a phase where I'm starting to enjoy the larger venues. House concerts are lovely, but the acoustics are often less than ideal — I can rarely hear myself and the other players very well, and it affects the performance. I enjoy small venues for being able to see the people I'm performing for, and the size keeps things nice and informal. But the magic of the big music hall is starting to attract me. Playing Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor last month was amazing: fabulous sound, a Steinway grand and a rapt audience of around 3,000. Wouldn't mind duplicating that experience a few times.

Which place do you think you gave your very best performance. The one place where everything seemed to click and be in perfect harmony and sync?

I haven't done it yet. A few shows in the past year have come close. There's a feeling I call "levitation," when my mind stops all its usual multitasking and I'm neither nervous nor distracted, but just...present. I trust what's happening on stage and everything just works. It's like suddenly being able to lift off the ground as if it were the most natural thing in the world. There were about five or ten minutes of levitation at the October show in Villa Montalvo, and at various fleeting moments on the fall tour. I've yet to remain aloft for an entire show.

How do audiences react when you perform "Passage" live? Is it a downer?

It is a downer, and the vibe in the room has to be right: focused and attentive but not too upbeat. The room kind of exhales collectively when it's over. I think I've occasionally ruined the after-mood by being irreverent about it or cracking a joke about the next song. I should probably stop doing that; I should respect that people might have been affected by the story, which of course was my intent. It's just hard as a songwriter to take myself too seriously.

Can we expect any new releases anytime soon? Also, do you ever plan on recording some of your rarities I've seen lyrics floating around for, like "Mira" or "Signal Fire"?

I read an interview with Loretta Lynn recently, where she said (paraphrased) that she's written plenty of bad songs, and the trick is only letting the world hear the good ones. Songs come slowly for me, as I've said, and after they're written I take forever to figure out if they're any good. Sometimes I have faith in them from the beginning, like Harbor and Blue Caravan, but that's rare. So the answer is: there will be a new release when I have ten to twelve songs that I'm reasonably sure are good. I'll probably also record some rarities that I'm reasonably sure are good (when we have the resources to do them justice in the studio).

Funny that you ask about Mira. I haven't played that one live, ever.

If money were no object and you could truly make the album of your dreams with as much or as little production as you wanted, what would that album be like?

It all depends on what the songs need. I would like to continue exploring classical instruments, though. Recording with an orchestra when I have the right songs would be a real thrill. And I have this long-standing fantasy of working with a taiko ensemble.

Do you write the poetry or the melody first (more often)?

It's so odd to come back from a couple hours at the rehearsal studio and answer a question like this... "Hey, I was just over-thinking that very topic." :) Lyrics tend to be harder than melodies, but if I get lyrics first, chances are the song will be easier to finish. Lately I've been having a tricky time with both words and melodies. I've got all these piano motifs sitting around.

In either case, when you're in the process of getting it all to work, are you more likely to rephrase / change words or rearrange parts of the music to fit the lyrics?

The lyrics are most vulnerable when I'm piecing things together. In fact, I've gotten in the habit of writing more lyrics than I need, because I know I'm going to have to cut about a third of the words out. The initial draft is to get all the thoughts out on paper, roughly phrased the way I want. In the music-setting part of the process, I have to make sure the stresses fall on the right syllables, that a line fits inside the musical phrase, that it obeys the rhyme scheme without sounding contrived — technical considerations like that.

Your songs have always shown depth, in content or meanings and the choice of words or phrases. Do you always think that way or you just write that way? You know, most of us just think "and the melody dies/subsides" do you think "the swelling fermata as the chord dies"?

For most part I have to write that way deliberately, consciously. In the case of the fermata/chord metaphor, though, I really did think about the situation that way. There was nothing left but the ringing out of notes that had already been played.

Do you have the opportunity to explore the towns you visit and do any site-seeing?

Some. Not enough. I entertain a daydream of touring someday where we have a day off in every town I'd like to explore. But I doubt the band and crew would want to be kept out on the road for that.

In fall 2003 I travelled alone, no road manager, just me and a car. It seems daunting in retrospect, but it was a great way to see the country. I could wake up early in Jackson and spend the morning at the museum of Mississippi history; I could go out in Chinatown with a group of Columbia law students after a show. House concerts were wonderful because they brought back that aspect of touring: connecting with a place and the people in it.

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Postby Vienna » Wed Feb 16, 2005 9:03 am

Scot wrote:1) What's your ultimate success dream?  Sold out Madison Square Gardens, a long career of intimate performances, an acting role, etc.?

And since it's unfair to ask if I don't answer them myself. For me, I'm just hoping to stay employed in the field, and continue to find time to make at least moderate new finds and discoveries. If I end up getting paid for management, that's OK, as long as I have some research time and results as well.

I've been wondering this too, about all of you. It'd be nicer to get at the "what would you define as success?" question in the course of a long kitchen-table conversation, rather than in this contrived form, but it's all we've got for now.

I didn't mention other aspects of my life in my answer, I realized. Family, knowledge, community, adventure — they're all in there too.

Thanks for your thoughts on what you listen for in music. I do seem to be hanging out with the right people...

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Postby Clarinet » Wed Feb 16, 2005 9:47 am

Hi Vienna,

Allow me to say that I've really enjoyed your music starting when I first heard you in San Diego a couple of years ago. That time, you performed at a church (AcousticMusicSanDiego borrows the church for their venues). I've gone again when you came back to San Diego (again arranged by AcousticMusicSanDiego), and I can't wait to attend your show at Lamb's Players Theatre at Coronado next March.

Each time, I brought different friends to your show, and they all became your new fans!

Now to answer your question:

what do you look for in music?

There's no specific music that connects deeply with me. The types of music that I listen to on a given time depends on my mood. If I feel angry, I listen to loud music (with the drums and all), if I feel happy I listen to more upbeat music, if I want to unwind then I'll listen to slow soothing music, etc, etc. I connect more easily with the beat/melody/type of music compare to the lyrics.

It really helped me to connect with your songs more deeply (especially the songs from Waking Hour) by attending your show and hearing you telling the stories/history behind each of your songs. I admire the honesty of Waking Hour and your ability to express different life experiences through the appropriate melody and well written lyrics (Waking Hour and Warm Strangers).

Here's a question for you:
When you write songs about your own experiences (the ones that you wrote when you were in High School and the ones that your write now), did you write them purely for yourself as an expression or did you know that you will be playing those songs to an audience in the future?

Thanks Vienna for your effort to connect with your fans with the Q&A session! I truly enjoy it!

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Postby Ginny » Wed Feb 16, 2005 2:49 pm

Vienna wrote:I've been wondering this too, about all of you.  It'd be nicer to get at the "what would you define as success?" question in the course of a long kitchen-table conversation, rather than in this contrived form, but it's all we've got for now.

As far as my career goes, despite thinking about it alot I can't seem to figure out my ultimate success dream. I suppose the main goal is to completely get past having to think of technique in any way while playing no matter how challenging the piece of music is. I have only achieved it twice and it was with the second movement of the Sonata for Trumpet and Piano by Eric Ewazen, but I want to be able to do that all the time because I think only then will I completely be able to show my soul when performing. I also want to spend some of my music career touring. When I was in high school I thought I wanted to play in an orchestra pit for some big travelling B'way show, like Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera--something w/good trumpet parts that would get me around the country. I'm no longer all that set on the musical theater angle but I am definitely still set on the more-travel-while-performing part. I love seeing new places and meeting new people and I hardly ever sleep so I think I'd enjoy it most of it.

Where the rest of life is concerned, growing up my success dream was simply to move east and have my own place to live so from that standpoint I have it. To an outsider it may not seem like much; a little apartment, 2 pets, too much to do in the course of the day and barely enough money to pay bills (much less have anything fancy). But I'm rediculously happy when I look around me. My dad's the best friend a person could have and I'm honored to know he's mine. The friends I have made in North Carolina may be the greatest people in the world and before meeting them I didn't realize so much good existed. Of course I'm biased but they are just amazing and they are my family. I feel quite successful on this rest-of-life category but I am of course hoping to build on it. I want to be more trusting and more able to open up to people. There are a couple of people here in NC and my best friend in Louisiana whom I feel completely close to but I want to stop selling the others in my life short. I care about them alot and show them as much as I can, but some of them have told me they wished I talked more about problems or the past or whatever else I'm thinking and feeling, so I need to work on that. I would like to finish school and get a good job, whether teaching college or performing so that I can get a house and my sister and niece can move in with me. Maybe if I fix that getting closer to people thing then I'll think about getting married someday, but I'm not sure that's in the cards and I'm okay with it because I like being on my own and it's what I need right now.

My question to you is: How do your siblings feel about their sister being an actively performing/recording singer/songwriter? Do they think it's cool or do they have the more "whatever that's just my sister what's the big deal" outlook? :)
"I'm going crazy a little every day. Everything I wanted is now driving me away." ~Sheryl Crow (Home)

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Postby Cookie778 » Wed Feb 16, 2005 9:00 pm

Hello Vienna,

Thank you for opening up yourself to the Q & A forum...we really do appreciate it. It seems like a group of your favourite fans(long distance friends?) having coffee together in a quaint little coffeehouse sitting in plush comfortable chairs, and taking in of aromatic smells of coffee and chocolate over 2 hour long coffee talks, except we are separated by computer screens and screen names and being separated over great distances across countries and geography.

M. mellow
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Postby M. mellow » Wed Feb 16, 2005 10:05 pm

re: what do I look for in music:

I'm not certain I could pin down what it is I look for in music. Since what I like ranges from your music, Vienna, to guiltier pleasures like sugary J-pop, it has to be a combination of (potentially distinct, non-overlapping) things. For me, music's about mood - like a choice of floral arrangements or hot chocolate vs. tea.

I love your melodies and I love your voice. I think I told you at one point that, while John Denver's "Annie's Song" is a great song, I've never liked it so much as when I heard your cover of it. So some of it's in the rendition too.

But the strongest factor for me seems to be the most intangible, most elusive qualification: does it resonate with me? That's a characteristic that's very hard to put into words, or as I think you once put it to me - why writing about something obliquely sometimes works better than trying to write about it directly. When I hear music, sometimes it conjures a mental image and sometimes not. For me, your songs always do, and although I could look to the sound of your singing voice or the thoughtfulness of the lyrics or the artfulness of your arrangements. Sometimes when I hear music in another language, it resonates with me too, though in that case I know for certain it's not the lyrics... when it comes down to it, I think that whether music resonates with a person it has as much or more to do with the person listening than the performer. Whether it conjures a mental image or storyline - an emotional/mind's-eye music video, if you will - depends a lot on what the listener's life experiences, wishes, and emotional desires are, and that's something I think the artist has a better chance of appealing to rather than controlling or even manipulating.

Something in my dreams or experiences always seems to find something with which to form an attachment in your music. You've said that people will interpret a song differently than the author might, and that's generally perfectly ok. Music is hit-and-miss that way, but what you write seems to have made an extraordinary succession of consecutive bullseye's, or at least it has with me.

And I think *that's* magic.

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Postby Jessi » Wed Feb 16, 2005 10:23 pm

Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience treacherous, judgement difficult. - Hippocrates

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Postby Scot » Wed Feb 16, 2005 10:28 pm

Vienna wrote: It'd be nicer to get at the "what would you define as success?" question in the course of a long kitchen-table conversation, rather than in this contrived form, but it's all we've got for now.

All right, who's gonna help me raise funds for a long kitchen table for all of us!? :>


ps- reminds me of a Dave Alvin song called Kitchen Table, although other than the title, there's not
much to connect with this topic except that Dave is an excellent musician and thoughtful lyricist as well.

pps. I'll make the sourdough pancakes, but Ang Mo has to handle the lunch duties if we carry over. :>
My little attempt at a Vienna Teng WWW page (Set lists, song info., and more...)

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Postby TonyT » Wed Feb 16, 2005 10:40 pm


Who do you think should have won a Grammy (or even been nominated for one)?

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Postby shawn » Wed Feb 16, 2005 11:27 pm

Vienna wrote:So the answer is: there will be a new release when I have ten to twelve songs that I'm reasonably sure are good.

So there's no contract that says, "Album 3 must be recorded by such-and-such date"? ;)

Did any of the major labels ever come knocking? If so, were you ever tempted to sign up with them, and what ultimately made you decide against it? And are there any circumstances under which you could see yourself signing with a major?

Thanks again!

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Postby ctakim » Thu Feb 17, 2005 2:26 am

No questions this time, just a thanks for visiting with us!


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