Arts & Entertainment
Gentle ‘Noise’: an interview with singer/songwriter Vienna Teng
Published Thursday, 12-Apr-2007 in issue 1007
On her third album, the just released Dreaming Through the Noise (Zoë), Vienna Teng has recorded one of the truly essential songs of the same-sex marriage movement. The straight singer/songwriter’s composition “City Hall,” is a thoughtful and thought-provoking tune that is sure to win her a place in the hearts and minds of the GLBT community.
Teng will be performing on May 6 in San Diego at Acoustic Music San Diego.
I spoke with Ms. Teng shortly before she set out on tour in support of her new disc.
Gay & Lesbian Times: As a songwriter, how important is it for you to strike a balance between the personal and the topical in your material?
Vienna Teng: I write songs mostly to be performed and recorded for other people, so I think that’s what guides me first and foremost. Basically, however I can find a way to express something that will connect with another human being. Whether that’s something that we’ve experienced in common or something that we know is going on, that’s what underlies the whole thing.
GLT: I’ve heard you compared to people such as Kate Bush, Ben Folds and Rufus Wainwright. Do any of those comparisons have any resonance with you or are there other people with whom you consider yourself to be more closely aligned?
VT: I once asked my dad who he thought I sounded like and he said early Paul Simon. Like the Paul Simon of Simon & Garfunkel. That’s certainly one of my big influences, I think. Yes, Rufus Wainwright and Tori Amos, I feel like they’re amazing pianists and songwriters, so it’s flattering to be compared to them. Tori Amos, of course, I did listen to when I was younger. The comparisons are apt, but there are other influences that I have, too.
GLT: There is also a Joni Mitchell quality to your performance and material, and on your new album Dreaming Through the Noise, you work with producer Larry Klein, Mitchell’s ex-husband. What was that experience like for you?
VT: He’s a very easygoing and down-to-earth person. At the same time, in his gentle way, he is very clear about the way he wants an album to sound. The most interesting parts were getting together with him before I ever played any music for him, sitting in the same room. We had a lot of conversations about how we wanted it to sound, and whether we were on the same page about what this music was about, and how to represent it and what kind of sonic landscapes we wanted to paint. Once we agreed that we were coming at it from the same direction, his navigation skills were interesting.
GLT: The orchestration on the album is rich with a variety of instrumentation, including a string section, brass, organs, an accordion and more. Is this the way you heard the songs in your head when you were writing them?
VT: Definitely! This is kind of the first album that I wrote the songs for after I had been touring with other musicians. I had done a lot of solo touring early on. I think I came off of those tours thinking about music in a fundamentally different way. Just in terms of leaving space for other instruments to fill in a lot of the essential parts. Not just to have the piano carrying everything and having other instruments playing supporting roles. I wanted it to be a picture in which a lot of the other instruments are carrying the weight of the songs.
GLT: Dreaming Through the Noise is being released on Zoë, an imprint of Rounder, a label with a long association with acoustic and organic musicians, and the folk community. What does it mean to you to be recording for Zoë?
VT: It’s really exciting. When I was first starting to write my own songs and record an album, I do remember daydreaming about what label I might want to be on one day. Looking through my CD collection, I realized that a lot of the artists that I really liked were not on major labels or were on Zoë or Rounder. I thought this seems like a really cool label that puts out great music. How exciting would it be if one day I could make records for them [laughs]? Of course, when they came to me, I was really excited about working with them.
GLT: What can you tell me about your inspiration for the song “City Hall”?
VT: That was very topical in February 2005. There were these marriages taking place at City Hall in San Francisco because of the declaration that Mayor Gavin Newsom made. Within my group of friends, there were a couple of people who sent out e-mails saying: “We’re going. We’re going to be in line. Wish us luck.” It was an amazing thing to witness at the time. Obviously, there were a lot of political repercussions, but I was struck by how beautiful the event itself was. Seeing all these people who were partners in life, who were in love with each other, and were celebrating it. It was such a cool thing to see. I wanted to write about it, but I wanted to do it right and I didn’t know how. So I wrote little scraps of lyrics here and there, but I didn’t really like any of them. I did know that I wanted it to be called “City Hall.” That’s all I had for a long time. It wasn’t until maybe September  that I suddenly got this idea. What’s the most homophobic genre of music out there? I guess hip-hop is one, but I can’t write a hip-hop song. But country music seems to be pretty straight for the most part. I wonder if it would be funny if I wrote a country song about this event. Of course, it didn’t come out exactly that way because I can’t write country music, per se. Once I had that idea of writing in that vein, it all fell together for some reason. Then I could write the music and lyrics. I just had a lot of fun with it after that.
GLT: I’m so glad that you mentioned that because “City Hall” has a bit of a twang to it, courtesy of Dean Parks’s pedal steel guitar. How do you think the country music crowd would react to the song?
VT: You know what’s hilarious is that I’ve played it for some people who don’t understand what it is. I thought I was being pretty obvious about it [laughs]. Especially since I slow down the part where I’m talking about if they take it away again that it isn’t going to change. For some people, it just goes over their heads, which really is funny to me. It’s satisfying, in a way.
GLT: It’s subversive.
VT: My impression is that there have been some conservative people who have completely missed the point of it and think it’s a great song because it’s about getting married and being happy. In a way, that’s my point. It is about getting married and being happy. Anybody should be able to do that. I’m sort of hoping that somebody along the way will love the song because they understand the emotion in it and eventually they find out what it means, and it makes them think about and talk about this issue.
GLT: I know that you are about to embark on a major tour, but have you had any chances to perform the songs from “Dreaming Through the Noise” in front of a live audience prior to heading out on the road?
VT: We did play some of the songs when I was on tour last year as I was writing them. We did a couple of shows in June  to preview the album. I put together a one-time seven-piece band with a string quartet and a rhythm section, and we played songs from the album pretty much as they sound on the album. We got a great response from that.
GLT: You are going to be touring during August and September. Do you have a favorite thing about being on the road?
VT: Definitely, meeting people. Sadly, you only get to meet them briefly. But I love hearing stories from people about how they discovered, not just my music, but the music that they love, in general. What else they listen to. Why they live where they live. All that sort of thing. Because I think that if you grow up in one place, it’s easy to think that the whole world is that way, or at least the whole country. When you travel around, you do get some different perspective and people who come from different backgrounds. They approach life differently, but they love music just as much as you. It’s a very cool thing to be able to meet them.
For more information about Vienna Teng’s upcoming performance at Acoustic Music San Diego, visit www. acousticmusicsandiego.com.