7/4/2013 - Vienna Teng’s forthcoming album Aims contains a song as unsettling as anything she’s ever written. In “Hymn for the Acxiom,” an omniscient force track clicks, keystrokes and cell phone calls – “gathering every crumb you drop” – as it professes benevolence. “Let our formulas find your soul … design you a perfect love, or (better still) a perfect lust,” sings a multi-tracked chorus of gorgeous yet disembodied voices.
The collision of moods is by design. It’s about white hat consumer data mining – Acxiom is a giant in the field – a darker force looms in the shadows.
“I wanted the song to both sound beautiful and for the lyrics to be unsettling, because they are two pieces of the same thing,” Teng said in a recent phone interview. “Information is being used to create better designed products for us – to make our lives better … but it’s also being collected by the NSA and all kinds of other folks.”
It’s not simply high-minded talk from a songwriter. Before pursuing a music career, the Stanford educated, Silicon Valley native worked as a software engineer at networking pioneer Cisco. Discovered at Bay Area open mikes, Teng made four critically acclaimed records from 2001 to 2009. But she took occasional breaks to do volunteer work in a field that captivated her – sustainable enterprise.
One such effort, two weeks spent in Argentina at a Habitat for Humanity project, ended in both elation and frustration.
“It gave me a sense of how little you can do in two weeks … when you don't really know much about anything,” she said.
Teng began thinking about returning to school, “to really learn more about the issues that I care about, and to figure out in the very long run – 10, 20, 30 years – how can I make myself useful.”
In May, after two years studying at University of Michigan’s Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, Teng received a master’s degree.
“She still performs and writes music whenever she can,” reads her graduate school biography. Too true – in between studying, Teng toured, co-wrote a musical with California playwright Tanya Schaffer, and worked on new songs.
She amassed enough material to head into a Nashville studio soon after graduation. But much of the work was unfinished fragments.
“I am used to having written all the songs and even having time to live with them for a while before I go in to record them,” she said. Instead, Teng told producer Cason Cooley, “a third are done, another third don't have lyrics – I don't know what they're about. These other ones have pieces that I think form a song, but I haven't put it together yet, and I think I need your help.”
No doubt it was a departure, but, Teng says, “I also felt ready to do it at that point.” She and Cooley spent a lot of late nights bouncing around ideas before bringing musicians in to to flesh them into songs – an exhilarating experience. “There was just a lot of freedom to play around and so I think that ended up being reflected in the songs.”
It’s her most electronica-infused effort by far – “I did a lot of writing away from the piano,” she explained – and the preview tracks are more than promising. In addition to “Hymn for Acxiom” and the eerie “Close To Home” there’s “In The 99,” a meditation on the Occupy movement with quick burst rhyming born out of a Kanye/Jay-Z binge.
“I owe a lot to Rock-A-Fella Records,” she joked in the song notes.
Teng explained that she had a parent-child relationship with most of her songs, and that the edgy “99” had begun to take on its own life.
“It’s already a little cooler than I am, kind of precocious with its own fashion sense,” she said. “It went out and started making friends, and collects records that I don’t even know about. It’s that kind of song.”