This weekend’s Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle will serve as the last performance by pianist Vienna Teng before she leaps into her new life as a graduate student. The music world would do well to be envious. Over the past decade Teng has amassed a catalogue of heartwrenching songs spanning the gaps between pop, folk, and classical music. With producer Alex Wong being made an equal partner, the duo recently released The Moment Always Vanishing, a magnificent live album which expands Teng’s established songs into full-live orchestrations. It’s a fine (and hopefully very temporary) stopping point.
With Wong popping in to expand upon a few points, Vienna Teng discussed the formation of their team, making the live album, and walking away.
Y Spy: As opposed to your previous releases, The Moment Always Vanishing is credited as Vienna Teng and Alex Wong. Is that a permanent change?
Vienna Teng: I’m actually going away from being a full-time musician right after Bumbershoot, so I guess that is an open question. I’m gonna be starting grad school about two days after we play. I would say yes in the sense that Alex and I definitely intend to keep working together and to make music together, but we’re also independent entities. He definitely has his own projects. It was more a recognition of a collaboration of peers.
Alex Wong: It’s definitely something that we talked about. The show became more of a collaboration, and it felt appropriate. We’ve talked about other collaborations that we would like to do, something outside of the pop world, maybe more of a theater-type show. The live shows are going to come to an end, but we’ll definitely be making stuff for a long time.
Y Spy: How did you come to work together?
Vienna Teng: We actually met at an open mic long before we started working together. We became friends, and I was a huge fan of his band that played that night, the Animators. We stayed in touch, so whenever our paths intersected we would do a show together. Eventually it became an annual thing that for the holidays, since we both grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, we would both end up at home with our parents and we’d play a show in San Francisco together.
About three years ago, his schedule opened up and he offered to play with me, which was really exciting for me. He’s a really imaginative live player as well as a good producer, so I wanted to see what the songs would be like if he got to reimagine them from his perspective. That’s what we’ve been doing for the past three years, and people have really been responding to it, so we wanted to make a live record to commemorate.
Y Spy: How has Alex’s presence changed the live show?
Vienna Teng: I played solo for pretty much the entire first year that I was a full-time musician. That’s where I was most comfortable for a long time. Alex is the first person I’ve collaborated with; it has become a very solid partnership. I’ve gotten to be comfortable with this other person on stage and feel completely in sync.
We’ll be playing Bumbershoot as a duo plus extra firepower, which is inaccurately named the Vienna Teng Trio. Alex will be playing a custom percussion setup that he’s developed for the show that we do. He plays a lot of acoustic instruments that he hooks mics on and then runs through different effects. It creates a really cool half electronic/half acoustic sound. He also plays keyboards and guitar, and a lot of exotic percussion instruments, and he sings as well. What’s really cool about what he does is that he multitasks, so he’ll be playing drums and keyboards and a percussion instrument at the same time.
We’re also joined by a guy named Ward Williams who plays cello and electric guitar and sings. It’s really fun creating that much sound with three people.
Alex Wong: Since we’ve started working together on the live shows, we’ve definitely spent more time deconstructing songs and trying to reconstruct them as duo. There’s a lot more attention to layers and sounds, and how to tell the story with more interesting arrangements.
Y Spy: How did you go about making a live album?
Vienna Teng: We decided to record in what we call our two hometowns: San Francisco and New York. We did two shows in one night in New York, in a place called Joe’s Pub, and we did two shows in San Francisco at the club where we’d have our holiday shows, The Independent. We just wanted to capture the energy of those two cities. We caught the best performances of those four shows and made it into a single show.
Alex Wong: The show had been developing for the last year, year and a half, before we recorded it. We both had been evolving our parts and setups for this live show, and it became this thing that felt pretty unique, and it started to become farther removed from what was happening on the studio records. We wanted to have something that represented what we did together live. A lot of the songs are different in arrangement and sounds, and there were a lot of people who were asking for that version of those songs.
Y Spy: There’s a lot of back and forth between you and the audience, and you explain a lot of what’s behind your songs. Was that always the plan?
Vienna Teng: That was a fan request. We put a live DVD of a special show in Philadelphia where we had a bigger band that we never toured with. People enjoyed that, but they did say that there wasn’t any talking on that DVD. We had cut it out because we thought that I’m just talking, just blabbering, so who wants to have that? But for some reason that was something people said that they enjoy about the show, so we decided to include it.
Y Spy: As opposed to a lot of live albums, yours put the stage talk into separate tracks, giving the listener the opportunity to keep it or skip into the action.
Vienna Teng: We kind of went back and forth with it. We didn’t want to put all the talking at the beginning of tracks, because that’s a lot to fast forward through. We’ve also heard albums where they’ve put the next song’s intro at the end of the previous track. We just made them separate so that people could create a list of just songs.
Y Spy: One thing that stood out on the live album was the extensive use of loops in “The Last Snowfall,” which contrasted with a lot of songs which sounded more straightforward. Was the idea to bring more electronic and production techniques to the live show?
Vienna Teng: There is a fair amount of electronics going on in certain songs. Other songs are “No Gringo” and “Gravity.” There’s a little bit of looping or sometimes effects that Alex, Ward, and I are using. Hopefully it sounds seamless most of the time, and people wonder afterwards where all that sound was coming from.
Maybe “The Last Snowfall” was the least subtle. Because on the studio album it was five or six people singing, I knew I couldn’t perform the song unless I had some other way of doing it. I bought that looper and was experimenting with it, so that arrangement came out of buying a new toy and figuring out how to do that song which would be impossible to do otherwise.
Alex and I have one rule: that we don’t want to include anything prerecorded in the show. We think it’s really important to create something where the audience is aware that all of it is happening in the moment. There is that tightrope walk, that whenever I do “The Last Snowfall” all of the lines are being sung in front of everybody. It’s not like I had a bunch of backing vocals that are prerecorded and are never wrong. There’s something about the organic nature of creating things live, even if you’re creating and recording them live and then playing them back.
Y Spy: How did you release The Moment Always Vanishing?
Vienna Teng: We have a very generous record label, Rounder. They said that live albums don’t sell nearly as well at retail. We truly understood that they didn’t want to throw all their firepower behind it, so we said that we wanted to make it for our fans, and asked permission to print a set number of copies and sell those at our shows and online. It’s not an official Rounder release, but it definitely came out with Rounder’s blessing and a bit of their support. We’re very grateful for that.
Y Spy: How did going on to grad school and putting your music career on hold come about?
Vienna Teng: The program I’m going into is basically Sustainable Enterprise Studies, so it’s a dual degree in Environmental Science and Business, an MBA and a Master’s. It’s something that has been a dream of mine as long as pursuing music has been. It just felt like the right time to go.
I was recently thinking about how much joy I get from running away to music, rather than having it be my full-time pursuit. I think that a lot of good music will come out of procrastinating on homework assignments.
Y Spy: Have you had other moments in your career when music wasn’t your top priority?
Vienna Teng: Only in the very beginning. I’ve been super lucky; pretty much from the time I quit my software engineering job in 2002, I’ve never had a day job. [Music was] the thing that paid my bills – sometimes barely paid my bills.
Y Spy: Are you still gathering new songs?
Vienna Teng: Yeah. Recently I was at home for a while and started writing again. I have this idea for an album that’s in its very starting stages. I’m a very slow writer, so I think it’s gonna take a couple of years for all the songs to take shape. There will be a studio album in the future, but not yet. Maybe in the meantime I’ll release something a little lower pressure, like a holiday album or an album of covers, or a bunch of assorted songs that were co-written with friends over the years.
Y Spy: Alex, because of the level of work you’ve done together, will it be hard to adjust to music beyond Vienna Teng?
Alex Wong: Definitely. I really enjoyed working with Vienna. She’s an amazing talent. I will miss playing with her. This project has consumed more of my time than anything else over the last couple years. There will definitely be some withdrawal.
Y Spy: What else have you been working on lately?
Alex Wong: Most recently I did a track on Elizabeth and the Catapult’s upcoming record. I just finished producing Ari Hest’s upcoming record. I produced The Paper Raincoat’s existing record, which is also my band. I’m singing and playing guitar in that project; it’s a duo with Amber Rubarth, who is another singer-songwriter. I will be touring with the Paper Raincoat and working on some more production and writing projects in New York.
Y Spy: Vienna, as you’re about to take this big step in your life, how do you feel about your musical career to this point?
Vienna Teng: I feel really good about it. It’s one of those paradoxes in that I feel that I couldn’t leave music unless I felt like I had gotten where I should be, but at the same time when you get there, you think “Why am I leaving?” The only answer I can give is that, somehow, music gave me permission to move on. That’s how it felt.
Y Spy: Was there a certain point when you felt that you had achieved everything you set out to do?
Vienna Teng: No. I don’t think so at all. I don’t think I’ve checked everything off my list. There are people I haven’t gotten to collaborate with yet, instruments I haven’t learned to play. I’ve never completely self-produced my own album, which I hope to do someday. Bumbershoot is definitely a big thing that I would have had on that list to check off, so it’s nice that that’s happening right before school starts. There’s still a lot of exciting stuff in music that I would like to do, but I think it crossed over into “That would be nice” rather than “I can’t give up until that happens.”
The Vienna Teng Trio will play Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival on Sunday, September 5th at 8:30 pm. “The Moment Always Vanishing” is available now. More information is available at www.viennateng.com.
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