STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
Singer/songwriter/pianist Vienna Teng is embarking on a 6-city solo tour, which includes a stop in Philadelphia at World Café Live. And she has something very special planned for her fans: an all-request show. She got the idea from what has become a tradition in her hometown, San Francisco.
In a phone interview from her current residence in Detroit, Mich., Teng discussed the tour.
“I enjoy the freedom of traveling on my own. And especially with these shows I’m not planning what I play … and that came from this tradition I have (of) every year playing in my hometown, the San Francisco Bay area. At the end of each year in December — it (is) sort of like a family reunion. (It’s for) people who have followed my music from the beginning.
“I would just sit down and say ‘well, what do you want to hear?’ And they’d throw out these ideas. They’d throw out cover songs that they wanted to hear me try, they asked for songs that have never appeared on any album, they’d ask for songs that I’d co-written with other people. So it ended up being a much more spontaneous and fun evening. Just me and the piano and this audience — this family that I’ve gathered through music.
“I figured, ‘well, I don’t just want to do this in the San Francisco area; I’d love to do it in other places where I’ve built a family of sorts.’ And so that’s the experiment that I’ll be doing in April.”
Of course if you’re not familiar with Teng you’re still invited to join the party. It will be a great way to hear a diverse sampling of her music, what other fans consider her best compositions, and likely some surprises.
This tour will also signify Teng returning to her solo piano roots. Her most recent album “Aims” (Soltruna Records, 2013) employed a different style than her previous piano-based albums.
“I think when I’m working on a new album a lot of it is very intuitive; it’s not necessarily a conscious choice that (the) album is going to sound a certain way,” she explained. “I think I start writing music that is interesting to me and then the instruments that should be in it kind of fall out of that initial instinct where my songwriting is going. And in this case I wrote a lot of music that was away from the piano and it was much more electronic, or it started with the rhythms or it started with a lot of vocals layered on top of each other.
“And I honestly think that part of it was guided with boredom from the way I’d done things before. I was in (the) early songwriting phase (and) I would sit down at the piano and play and I would quickly get bored. So I thought ‘I’ve written stuff like this before and I don’t need to write it again so what else can I do?’
In addition, Teng explained that her other career in environmental sustainability has begun to influence her songwriting.
“Several years ago I went back to graduate school at the University of Michigan (to study) Environmental Sustainability. That’s what I’m working on now, trying to do my part in saving the world, I guess you’d say.
“… When you read about environmental issues a lot of it can get very depressing. When you think about how much work it is to start fixing some of the things we’ve broken it can be pretty disheartening. And so I started to gravitate more towards music that would help me think of things that … would help people who are already being really courageous and working hard. Those people don’t necessarily need sad, mellow music; they need pick-me-ups. They need music that’s fun and imaginative and optimistic.”
She added: “I actually take it as a personal challenge as a songwriter to try to figure out how to write songs about bigger issues without being preachy. Because I think it’s really easy to write terrible environmental songs and terrible songs about different political or social issues. It’s a really interesting challenge to figure out how to write about them in a way that’s emotional and that works for pop music. I’m having a lot of fun trying to figure out how to do that. And there are times that I succeed more than others, for sure.”
Teng explains that although she loves the all-request show format, it is a bit of a challenge.
“It does mean that I have to prepare a little bit because I don’t know the 15 or 20 songs that I’m definitely going to play. So I have to go over all the songs that I’ve written that someone might ask for.”
And now it’s time for you to do your homework and come up with your requests. And how do you submit your requests?
“People have done it all different ways,” said Teng. “Usually I’ll react to requests during the show itself. We’ll have a little bowl up on the stage with little scraps of paper and people can write (their) requests. People can yell out, too. And people can send things in advance.”
IF YOU GO
What: Vienna Teng with The Bolands
When: Friday, April 24. Show is at 8 p.m.; doors open at 6:30; VIP event 5:30 p.m.
Where: World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St., Philadelphia.
Ages: All ages
Tickets: $30 for show + $25 for optional VIP upgrade
Info.: Check www.philly.worldcafelive.com and www.viennateng.com or call (215) 222-1400.