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Detroit pianist Vienna Teng rediscovers her musical passion on “Aims”


Vienna Teng

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Vienna Teng, with Barnaby Bright, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 25, SPACE, 1245 Chicago, Evanston. $15-$35. (847) 492-8860;

Updated: October 21, 2013 6:04AM

Three years ago, Vienna Teng set aside music to attend graduate school at the University of Michigan where she pursued an interest in environmental studies and business at the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise. It was a radical shift Teng had been thinking about for awhile. “I realized that my relationship to music had hit a plateau,” recalled Teng, who graduated last May. “It felt like music and I weren’t sure what to say to each other anymore, and I needed to build my life around something else for awhile. Going back to school really was a way for me to fall back in love with making music.”

Teng rekindles her love affair with music on the new album, “Aims,” due out Sept. 24. Recorded in Nashville with producer Cason Cooley, it’s her most up-tempo, pop-influenced album to date and a world away from the solitary, piano-based songwriting that defines her comfort zone. Fans will think it’s “pretty different,” Teng admits. “There’s much more of a pop and electronica influence on this one.”

Teng tackled the songwriting process in a new way this time. Instead of having a batch of songs written and sometimes already performed on tour, Teng went into the studio with some ideas that were “bare sketches,” and others that were “little fragments” she felt held the possibility of a song. Most songs didn’t even have lyrics.

“I felt it was time to open up the process and approach it in a different order,” Teng, 34, explains. “And Cason was a great collaborator for that because he’s very good at welcoming suggestions and having great ideas at the right moment and sort of making it a very playful process of exploration.”

Teng grew up in Silicon Valley where her Taiwanese-born parents worked in the tech world. She majored in computer science at Stanford and worked as a software programmer for two years before turning to music full time. She took piano lessons starting at the age of five; and insists the piano changed her life.

“It was the first place where I felt I cold pour a lot energy into both learning things that were very technical and very demanding but also finding a voice that was my own,” Teng says. “I felt I could have a long relationship with this thing, and it has definitely turned out that way.”

Teng’s parents envisioned their daughter as an engineer or a doctor, not a touring musician. And while they were “much more open-minded and American thinking than a lot of Asian parents,” they did worry about the profession’s lack of financial security.

“I think there is a bias in the Chinese culture they grew up with in which artists and musicians were seen as people who failed at other stuff,” Teng, says. “But I came to understand the conversations we had at home were actually loving conversations instead of conversations of denial. That said they were quite happy when I went back to school.”

In the new year, Teng plans to balance her music career with a job at a consulting firm where she plans on continuing her sustainability education. She now lives in Detroit, a city with a unique set of problems that seems to be attracting a younger crowd of entrepreneurs and artists.

“It’s actually fun living in a place that’s a real conversation starter,” Teng says with a laugh. “No one ever responds to my living in Detroit with ‘On that’s nice’ and moves on. There are always more questions. There are a lot of cool things going on here now and lots of work to be done to secure the city’s future.”

Mary Houlihan is a Sun-Times freelance writer.

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