Q: Who are your influences?
A: My parents’ record collection: Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, Mozart and Beethoven and Dvořák, 60s Mandarin pop. That’s what I started with and it’ll never leave me. Later on, pianist-songwriters: Elton John, Billy Joel, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple. These days I’m influenced by whoever intimidates me. I hear them, I’m astounded by them, I think daily about quitting music because I’ll never be able to do it as well as they do. Then I try to steal from them without imitating. A tricky thing.
Q: How would you classify your music?
A: Awkwardly. Most of the time I say “chamber folk” or “singer-songwriter.” It’s got elements of classical, folk, pop, jazz, Americana. I’d like the experience of listening to it to be like a good dinner party, the kind where conversation stretches ’til 2 in the morning and years later you still remember every flavor and color and sound and gesture, or at least you wish you could. Something like that.
Q: How long have you been playing piano?
A: Since I was five.
Q: Did you study at a conservatory?
A: No, just one-on-one piano lessons until I was seventeen. Changed my life, though.
Q: How did you learn to sing?
A: In the shower and in school choirs when I was younger, but mostly from playing gigs—that was when I finally got the hang of using my voice as an instrument. I took some lessons here and there, which amounted to paying $40-150 a week to be told that I was doing it all wrong. I don’t think we fixed anything. So maybe I haven’t learned to sing, actually.
Q: When did you start writing songs?
A: I think I was six when I decided I could cobble my own piano piece together. As for songs that I still play in public, the earliest ones are from high school.
Q: How long does it take for you to write a song?
A: A long time. Sometimes months. Occasionally over a year. I don’t revise all that much; it just takes that long for all the pieces to form and assemble. And it seems to get harder as I go, as the self-critic voice gets more insistent.
Q: Who arranges the songs for live performance?
A: It’s a collaborative process. The other musicians generally compose their own parts as we work through a song in rehearsal—sometimes they’re based on the studio recordings, oftentimes not. The string players tend to use a mix of written score and improvisations. Sometimes my bandmates have cool ideas for my parts, too.
Q: What’s your ethnic background?
A: My parents are Chinese and grew up in Taiwan. I was born and grew up in California. Rumor has it that I am also Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, and/or hapa. Rumors are amusing, especially when they get me booked to perform for Korea Day at a university which will remain unnamed.
Q: What do your parents think of what you’re doing?
A: The short answer: they’re supportive, much more so than many immigrant parents would be. Mostly they want to make sure I’m taking care of my health, saving for retirement, and working smart. The long answer is more complex, of course. Arts and entertainment people are kind of an alien species to my folks, but I think they’re getting used to their daughter being one.
Q: How old are you?
Q: Is Vienna the name your parents gave you?
Q: How do you write your name in Chinese?
A: Wikipedia knows all. And is reasonably accurate, though I don’t know why it has a photo of me playing guitar onstage, which I’ve done exactly twice in my life.
Q: Is it true that you used to be a software engineer?
A: Yes. I got a BS in Computer Science from Stanford, and worked at Cisco Systems for two years as a programmer. These days I remember exactly enough to crash whatever computer I’m working on.
Q: Is it true that you went to/dropped out of medical school?
A: No. Can’t imagine paying off med school loans and funding an album…
Q: Is it true that you’re going to business/graduate school?
A: Yes.
Q: What was it like being on Letterman?
A: Surreal. Pretty much like how it’d be for you if you got called to play on the Late Show. I still think I dreamt the whole thing. Except the studio was very, very cold, and my dreams aren’t often cold.
Q: Which of your albums is the best one?
A: Like anyone, I’d hope that the most recent is always the strongest. I think I’m getting better as I go…
Q: Does constantly talking about yourself ever make you feel like an egomaniac?
A: Yes, yes it does. Makes me wish I were in a band sometimes.
Q: Are you ever going to release a live album?
A: Yes! Thanks for asking. (And asking, and asking.) We recently released The Moment Always Vanishing: Vienna Teng & Alex Wong, December 2009 on CD, as well as a USB drive version (with bonus tracks) and a companion art book. You can also get a live DVD shot in Philadelphia in January 2007, which features a larger ensemble. Bootleg-wise, there’s always the Internet Audio Archive, and YouTube.
Q: Is there sheet music of your songs?
A: Some of it, yes. There are piano-and-vocal songbooks for Waking Hour and Warm Strangers now, thanks to hardworking transcriber David Beattie. Songbooks for the other albums are in the works. Eventually, we hope to release them simultaneously with the albums themselves.
Q: Do you ever reply to emails?
A: Very rarely. My apologies. It’s not a policy or anything; I’m just not good at staying on top of it. I promise that I do read everything, and that I’m grateful for everything that comes my way (including constructive criticism). Useful information always gets forwarded on to people who can do something with it.
Q: But I have a question…
A: It’s possible the answer is somewhere in the various online Q&A sessions I’ve done over the years. Or join the mailing list to find out when I’m having another! Someone else on the contact page might also be able to help you.