Changing Her Tune

Courtesy Virt Records/Adam Tow

When Vienna Teng began her sultry tunes in Boston’s noisy House of Blues, “the entire room was completely silent,” says Michael Tarlowe of Virt Records. “People sat on the sticky floor, five rows deep.”

The 25-year-old singer/songwriter is receiving national media attention for her first album. “That Norah Jones chick ain’t got nothing on self-described ‘music geek’ Vienna Teng,” said the San Francisco Examiner. But 21 months ago, Teng hadn’t even performed outside of Bay Area open mikes. She was pretty much just Cynthia Shih, ’00, software engineer.

A classically trained pianist, Teng came up with her romantic moniker as a preteen. “That way I can separate me as myself from whatever this career is,” she says, “because music careers have a way of taking over your persona.” Teng may be the one performing, but it’s Shih’s insight and calming voice that show through.

Her music is a weave of mesmerizing storytelling and lush piano, a contemporary sound often compared to Sarah McLachlan or Tori Amos. Her songs, called “musical portraits” by her close friend Carolyn Anzia, ’98, MA ’99, are often rooted in Stanford—“The Tower” is about Teng’s roommate in the French House; “Unwritten Letter #1” tells of unrequited love for her SLE tutor.

Though the Bay Area native thought she would go on to graduate school, small audiences gathered when the computer science major improvised on the dorm piano. “It became very clear she had a gift for songwriting,” says Anzia. When Eric Miller, ’99, needed to record someone for a class, Teng saw her chance. Later, the two collaborated in their spare time, and Waking Hour came out in May 2001. Teng had a job at Cisco Systems, but by then, she says, “I sort of had it in my head that I wanted to try and launch a music career.”

Miller created a website, while Teng sent her album to web reviewers and uploaded singles onto free MP3 sites. She played local coffeehouses, carting CDs around in her car trunk. In one year, she sold 1,000.

Right on cue, the record deal came along. Tarlowe, founder of Virt Records—a small, artist-friendly label—stumbled upon one of Teng’s MP3s. “I was just floored,” he said. In February 2002, he flew across the country for Teng’s next “big” show in Mountain View. She signed that spring.

Since then, Teng’s career has entered a sort of adolescence—she’s been finding her audience and gaining recognition. She quit the day job. Waking Hour was re-released. Her big break came in January, when NPR profiled her. That morning, Waking Hour shot up to No. 5 on The Late Show with David Letterman heard the broadcast and invited Teng to play. “I said, ‘You’re kidding me. Which Letterman show . . . the real one?’” says Teng. That appearance prompted CNN’s News Night with Aaron Brown to follow Teng around for an up-and-coming-artist profile.

It isn’t all lights and cameras. From February through the fall, Teng has been peddling her music around the country. She rattles off geographic regions like a grocery list. This summer, she opened for major artists Joan Osborne and Shawn Colvin, but Teng typically plays for audiences of a few hundred. She travels solo, driving a compact rental car to the next show and lugging out her keyboard. “I actually love it,” she says. “It’s a distorted but very nice lifestyle, in terms of seeing the good side of human nature everywhere you go, people being very open and communicative and wanting to participate in something.”

Friends are thrilled at her growing success—“They feel like their taste in music has been validated!” Teng says. Her parents worry more, about the lifestyle and intense travel. But they’ve seen how her music affects people, she says. “So I think they understand why I’m doing it.”

Even if her career matures fast, Teng has no plans to leave behind her quirky sense of humor (website photos include ramen noodles cooking in a coffeepot), the desire to keep reinventing herself, or her perspective. “Her modesty about her talent is absolutely unaffected,” says Anzia.

“The times I have been mobbed for autographs or people taking my picture nonstop, it’s [been] pretty disturbing,” Teng says. “So, I think maybe I’m not cut out to be a rock star.” What she does enjoy is “bringing people together who wouldn’t be otherwise for a couple of hours.”

Teng will tour again when her second album comes out in early 2004. In the interim, she hopes to study more piano and composing. “I would love to keep expanding my abilities,” she says. “I want to write something new.”