For three years, while she was earning a master’s degree in sustainable enterprise at the U-M business school, Vienna Teng lived in Ann Arbor. Which meant that, besides the occasional formal concert, such as her 2011 show at the Power Center, she also sporadically showed up in more informal situations, such as when she appeared unannounced and sang a song with a friend at an open stage at the Ark, or when she played an hour-long concert on the front porch of her house on Fountain Street as part of the Water Hill Music Fest in May. That concert was also her farewell to living in Ann Arbor. Wearing the cap and gown from her graduation the day before, she announced–to audible groans from the hundreds of people sitting on her front lawn and crowded on the sidewalk and street–that she’d soon be moving to Detroit to work. But first she’d record Aims, a new album she will debut with two shows at the Ark on September 26 and 27.
That’s Teng, and her music–at once complex and straightforward, surprising yet inevitable, much art, no artifice. Her songs, often with hauntingly evocative melodies, reflect her years of classical training on piano, along with strong folk, pop, and jazz influences. One of her best, “Harbor,” flows seamlessly, almost imperceptibly, from 5/4 to 6/4 time signatures (a rhythmic complexity rarely found in modern non-classical music) and features lyrics–“Sail your sea / meet your storm / all I want is to be your harbor”–that, as in many of her songs, combine clarity and subtlety with a deep humanity. Her lovely voice, at once agile and direct, warm yet sturdy, is the perfect vehicle for her own songs but also allows her to deliver compelling versions of songs like Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
Teng chose to temporarily sidestep a highly successful music career to pursue her interest in sustainability. The new album, and her upcoming live shows, will embody her consistent contradictions. Although her new album often questions our world’s growing dependence on technology, it also deliberately uses more technology than her previous works. The rich, multi-layered sound of the new album, as well as her plans for the live shows, reflects this new attitude. In concert, Teng, percussionist Alex Wong, and multi-instrumentalist Jordan Hamlin, a trio assembled for this tour, play acoustic instruments but also use looping devices and vocal harmonizers to enable them to create a fuller, more intricate live sound than is normally possible for a trio. “When I first set out to write songs for this album a lot of my classmates said ‘You could write a climate change album …’ And I thought, ‘Well that sounds like the recipe for a really awful album,'” she said in a recent conversation. “But on some level that is what I’m trying to do, and so it’s a big experiment for me; how do you write good albums that are wrestling with big questions, that is not propaganda, that is not preachy, but … once people listen to it they go about their life feeling like they are changed somehow. That’s my hope for this album.”