After two years of writing computer coding, Vienna Teng switched to song lyrics.
A Stanford graduate, Teng, 35, abandoned software for her piano – the instrument she began learning when she was 5 years old. She spent eight years as a touring singer-songwriter, churned out four studio albums and appeared on NPR, CNN and “Late Show With David Letterman.” But it wasn’t quite enough.
“It felt like I was forever in summer camp, that I wasn’t living a real life,” she said. “And in a way, my relationship with music became more like an old married couple than being in love.”
With a keen interest in the role of capitalism amid evolving social and environmental issues, a music career on its own wouldn’t satisfy Teng. She wants to be a mover and a shaker. She wants to dive into the worlds of sustainability and job creation.
So she went back to school and got two master’s degrees from the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise. Her studies, combined with a recent move to Detroit, refueled her love for music and drove her new album, “Aims.” Teng’s tour brings her to Assembly in downtown Sacramento tonight.
“Aims” is Teng’s first album since 2009’s “Inland Territory,” and it marks new territory. Her normally piano-centric, chamber-folk style veers toward electro-pop, using producer Cason Cooley’s library of digital instruments and beats.
Teng said “Aims” naturally poured out of her while she was busy living her life, which makes her all the more proud of it. Her songs tackle heavy subjects, such as the Occupy movement, Internet surveillance and climate change. And to help listeners, the CD’s booklet of lyrics comes with footnotes, linking to news articles, infographics and other explainers.
She wants to lead a dual existence – and what better place to create music and social change than Detroit, a bankrupt city of urban decay?
“There are a lot of big questions here,” she said. “How do you build a whole regional economy and bring back an iconic city? I’m excited to be involved in that.”
The album’s cover is a data visualization of population changes in Detroit from 2000 to 2010, showing the city’s general barrenness but also small pockets of hope. The opening track “Level Up” is a call to action, inspired by the positivity she’s encountered in Detroit. “If you are afraid, give more. If you are alive, give more now. Everybody here has seams and scars,” she sings.
“What I like about people in Detroit is they’re realists, but they still get up and try to make stuff happen,” Teng said. “They feel like their responsibility is to create momentum and give the city potential.”
Though “Aims” signals a new Vienna Teng, her next album isn’t likely to be “Aims 2.0” nor follow a similar style. Teng’s mind is full of concepts, and she already has two projects she’d like to work on.
One record would comprise covers: old Chinese songs her Taiwanese immigrant parents grew up listening to. Singing in Mandarin is something Teng avoided, not wanting to be marketed as an Asian American artist. Now she’s more open to exploration, in both her music and her life.
“Instead of running away from my parents in order to establish who I am, I’m really curious to understand them better,” she said.
The other album would be recordings of a live band, all in one room, with little production – essentially the opposite of studio-driven “Aims.”
Indeed, with all the synth, samples and layered vocal arrangements, it may be tough to imagine Teng’s live performance.
Though every venue is different, Teng said Sacramento audiences can expect an energetic show with a full sound and plenty to look at. Her trio – Teng with Jordan Hamlin and Alex Wong – relies on looping and an elaborate setup: Teng has two keyboards and a vocals station, Hamlin plays the electric guitar, clarinet and French horn, and Wong takes on a keyboard, a guitar, drums and an electronic drum pad.
“And there are a couple of surprises, where we play percussion on unexpected instruments you’d find around the house,” Teng added. “It’s a lot of fun.”