|Singer-Songwriter Vienna Teng Seeks Balance
Posted: December 5, 2006
San Francisco (AP) -- As the overachieving eldest child of Taiwanese parents who both work in the high-tech industry, it was almost went without saying that Vienna Teng would attend Stanford University, then take a job as a software engineer in Silicon Valley.
But she chucked it all, packed up her car and started traveling across country, singing her songs and playing piano in clubs and coffee shops. Even Teng was surprised when she started attracting a national spotlight, appearing on National Public Radio and the David Letterman show.
"I feel really lucky," she said during a recent interview. "I have a lot of friends who are still struggling."
On this foggy, cold and blustery day, Teng quickly ducks into the Bazaar Cafe, where she played her first public gig in 2001. None of the handful of people inside gives her a second glance. Bundled up in jeans, boots and a black corduroy jacket, she could be anyone in this largely Asian-American neighborhood.
But when the 28-year-old Teng, who started taking piano lessons before her fifth birthday, sits down at the faded, upright piano and plays, heads raise. She begins to sing and a few people recognize her. She earns a living as a songstress, but doesn't yet seem entirely comfortable in the role.
She doesn't use her real name, Cynthia Shih, for example. She says she chose her moniker, Vienna Teng, as a preteen to pay homage to Mozart's hometown and her Chinese heritage. Now, she says, it's a good way to stay grounded.
"I like having a thing that keeps my personal and private self separate," she says. "It's like I'm in a band or I work for a company called Vienna Teng."
Chuck Fuery, her piano teacher from age nine through high school, said Vienna Teng was Shih's piano-playing, poetry-writing alter-ego.
"I think that's her shell," he says. "She has a vulnerability that's very beautiful and it comes out in her music."
There's also a disconnect between Teng, the woman, and Teng, the music.
She shows up for an interview casually dressed, with unstyled hair and no trace of makeup. "I'm a geek," she explains. "Clearly, I'm not someone particularly fashion-minded."
That nearly cost her. When she first sought a record deal, she heard from labels who immediately wanted her to develop "a look." She's since relented a bit, appearing on her second album in a pink ball gown. On her Web site and on her latest CD, she's wearing heavy eye makeup and her short hair is slightly fluffed.
Some fans have criticized the look, accusing her of selling out. Instead, Teng says she's simply trying to make her appearance more accurately mirror her music.
"It's a reflection of the conflict inside me," she says, in a voice much lower than her delicate singing voice. "I'm looking for an honest representation of the music. It's not particularly tomboyish or geeky."
Then there's the Asian-American factor — the Tori Amos-Fiona Apple-Sarah McClachan genre is conspicuously Caucasian.
"I started out thinking it wasn't relevant," she says of her ethnicity. "By the sheer nature of it being unusual, it got noticed. ... It feels like an unfair advantage, but it's an advantage I can't disavow."
But perhaps the most obvious dichotomy within Teng is that she's a left-brained perfectionist who was pre-med during her first two years at Stanford. She switched to computer science and snagged a lucrative job at Cisco, which helped her skip the strugging singer-songwriter phase of her career. When she quit Cisco in 2002, she had already landed a record deal.
Shortly after "Waking Hour" was released, Teng was profiled on NPR. Letterman heard the broadcast and invited her to his show, proclaiming, "I've heard the entire CD and there's not a dud on this."
That level of exposure allowed Teng the financial freedom to dedicate herself wholly to music and to hire producer Larry Klein for her latest release, "Dreaming Through the Noise." Klein, best known for his work with and marriage to folk icon Joni Mitchell, puts Teng's voice front and center.
Teng says her struggle for symmetry, in life and in music, is paramount.
"I'm a Libra," she says, pointing out her astrological symbol is a set of scales. "I feel like I always have to have a balance."
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