Interview with Vienna from NPRsource
* Band(s): Just one, my own (Vienna Teng)
* Instruments: piano, vocals
* Age: 31
* Years playing: Studied piano since age 5; started singing in choirs in high school; performing since 2001, professionally since 2003.
* Hometown: Saratoga, California
Living Now: New York City (nominally; mostly traveling)
* Full-Time Musician: yes - Yes, though I'm going back to graduate school in the fall (mostly-unrelated field of interest: sustainable enterprise)
* Has Record Deal: yes
Record Label: Rounder Records in the U.S., Universal Classics & Jazz in Europe (and internationally, though they don't promote my music much elsewhere)
Owns Music Rights: I own the publishing, which is administered by Chrysalis Music Group. I own the masters of my first two albums (made for independent label Virt Records); Rounder owns the masters of my last two.
Owns Masters: I own the publishing, which is administered by Chrysalis Music Group. I own the masters of my first two albums (made for independent label Virt Records); Rounder owns the masters of my last two.How would you describe your music?
This is how it gets labeled, anyway: singer-songwriter, mostly acoustic, Lilith Fair-y, featuring classical instruments and musicians with classical training, the "wildcard" selection in folk and jazz festivals (neither folk nor jazz but often appeals to the same audience).What is your role in your band? In the studio? In business or marketing decisions?
Since I'm the artist, most decisions come to me. I write all the songs, except for two that I've co-written. In the band, I'm responsible for hiring the musicians (and paying them, providing travel & lodging, etc) and giving them some musical direction, though it's a pretty collaborative process. Especially with my main collaborator, Alex, his ideas and opinions carry a lot of weight. In the studio, I bring the songs and some particular ideas for arrangements, but otherwise I often defer to the producer. I've been trying to learn more about production—I co-produced my last album with Alex—but it's definitely a student role, a hands-on learning process. I'm very active in business and marketing decisions too, because the reality of my life has a lot to do with how those decisions play out. Routing tours, release strategies, nurturing an online community: these things determine whether I'm home a lot or not at all, how much rent I can afford, how connected I feel to the people I play music for.Describe your gear.
I play grand pianos whenever the venues have them, which is fortunately often these days. Other than that, I carry an Electro-Harmonix 2880 looper, which I hook up to a vocal microphone so I can create loops with my voice, the piano, hand claps, etc and bring them in & out of the song at different times. Sometimes I also travel with a Nord Stage 88 keyboard, which has organ, Rhodes and Wurlitzer sounds (as well as acoustic piano sounds, for the times there isn't a piano at the venue).Do you think being a woman and a musician is different from being a man and a musician? If so, how? Was there a moment that made a difference clear to you?
I feel really fortunate to be in a sector of the music industry—singer-songwriters—where it seems to be an even playing field, gender-wise. I think there are as many women as men with distinctive voices writing brilliant songs and being recognized for it, right now. I don't think that's true in other genres like rock, hip hop etc, and I think successful women are still rare in some roles, e.g. drummers, electric guitarists, producers who produce other artists. If there is a difference, it's the same conundrum working women face across the board: the biological clock. My career doesn't lend itself easily to having kids, or even being in a stable relationship that could lead to marriage and kids. There's both the cultural norm and the instinctive sense that a mother needs to be with her kids when they're young, much more than a father does. And that just isn't feasible for a touring musician. At a certain level of success and income, it can work—bring the nanny on the tour bus, tour less frequently. But I struggle with how I could be a good mother while traveling half the year to play 200-seat clubs.Do you see differences between generations of women musicians?
I haven't met many older female musicians. Of the few I've spent time with, I haven't sensed any major differences between them and their male colleagues—though I'm sure they must exist, just given the cultural shifts in gender equality that have taken place over the past few decades.Did anyone ever give you any valuable advice about making your way in the music industry? What advice would you give to a woman musician just starting out?
I've always tried to make music as a human being first. I am a woman, an Asian-American, a heterosexual, college-educated, classically trained, raised upper-middle class, an ex-software engineer, and so on. These identities inform the music I make, but they don't define it. The victory of feminism (and other equality movements) is that someone like me can move in the world without qualifiers. It's something I'm incredibly grateful for. So if I were to give advice, it'd apply to men as well as women: Be good at what you do. Be fair to the people you work with. Know your own worth; don't be afraid to stand up for yourself. Know others' worth too; learn from people you admire. Ask them to be your mentors. Know your priorities. Yes, a lot of a life in music is luck. Yes, you'll have to work hard, maybe for a long time. But remember the bigger picture: what do you want out of your life, your finite years? What's most important to you; why is it important to you? If creating music fulfills that completely for you, and it'd be worth it to you to labor in obscurity for years or ride the rollercoaster of big breaks and heartbreaks, go for it. If you can't imagine doing anything else, if it's the only thing that really makes you come alive, go for it. But if there are other things important to you, make room for them.Why did you choose to play the instrument you play?
Supposedly I climbed up on a neighbor's piano bench when I was 4 and started plinking out notes. I was also singing before I could talk. I had two wonderful piano teachers growing up, particularly one who taught me a bit of composition, transcription and jazz theory as well as classical repertoire. A combination of circumstance and the instruments choosing me, I guess. I haven't really fallen in love with playing anything other than piano, though I love the sound of a lot of other instruments—strings, drums and electric guitar especially. I often wish I were a multi-instrumentalist. But I think there's a certain willingness to plow through the frustration of being an utter beginner, a certain innocence and stubbornness I had as a kid, that I don't have anymore. And the piano is an instrument of boundless depth—I've played it most of my life and I've just discovered the tiniest corner of what it can do.