Music business acumen and personal growth go hand in hand for Bay Area pianist and singer-songwriter Vienna Teng. When her tech-savvy parents failed to understand her budding music career, she described herself as a CEO for a start-up company in the Silicon Valley.
The 27-year-old Stanford alumna played Bay Area restaurants and cafes for tips while still working at Cisco Systems. Then, four years ago, she left her day job as a software engineer to pursue music. After signing with Seattle's Virt Records for her debut, Waking Hour, in 2002, she garnered radio play and club dates on the East Coast. National exposure came after NPR interviewed her on its Weekend Edition in 2003, eventually leading to appearances on The Early Show, The Wayne Brady Show and The Late Show with David Letterman. Warm Strangers followed on Virt, and her latest, Dreaming Through the Noise, was released by Rounder Records' Zoe imprint. Both have earned similiar acclaim.
She is usually lumped under the pop category because of her love of melody and storytelling, but her use of lush strings and horns, her new hushed, intimate vocal style, and her rhythmic piano playing have imbued her songs with an introspective, lyrical sensibility akin to chamber music. She's embraced genres from country and jazz to Brazilian and classical, too.
"I really wanted to stretch myself musically while still being evocative and honest lyrically," she says. "I wanted to experiment with different musical genres."
In the past, her singing has drawn comparisons to Sarah McLachlan, Tori Amos and Paula Cole, but her newfound intimacy may cause fans to mistake her for a pop retooling of Alison Krauss.
For Dreaming, Teng teamed with producer Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell, Madeleine Peyroux). He quickly won her trust, leading her in a new direction with arrangements and songwriting.
"Working with Larry was the first time I've sat down with a producer ahead of time. Basically, he had heard the demos and he imagined very clearly how he wanted my songs to sound. I really liked his ideas and learned to trust that vision," she says. "I think my tendency is toward the bombastic or the dramatic and layering all kinds of things. He suggested that we back off and do less than people would expect and draw the listener into the music."
The new tunes stretch from a mournful number about lost or fictional love called "Blue Caravan" to "Pontchartrain," a song about the ghosts of Hurricane Katrina. But there's also "1BR/1BA," a whimsical song about apartment hunting. For such a varied approach, Teng draws inspiration from short-story writers and novelists like Kiana Davenport and Rick Bass.
She performed solo her last time in Raleigh. This time around, she'll be performing with her trio, with Marika Hughes on cello and backup vocals and Dina Maccabee on violin, viola and backup vocals while Teng plays piano and sings lead.
"It's kinda nice to have the female, three-part harmony thing," she says. "Three is a great number for a group, I feel, because it's a really tight-knit energy. It's nice to be able to re-imagine songs from night to night. You can make it into a really full sound, but it also can be intimate music."
Vienna Teng plays Raleigh Music Hall on Thursday, Aug. 24 at 8 p.m. Sanders Bohlke opens. Tickets are $10.