In Silicon Valley, software engineers often exit lucrative careers and strike out on their own. What’s less common is leaving the fast-paced epicenter of technological innovation to bet on success as an independent singer-songwriter. But that’s exactly what Bay Area-raised performer Vienna Teng did in 2002. And before she knew what was happening, Teng was landing gigs on NPR and David Letterman, and she was on her way to performing hundreds of concerts around the globe.
“Like so many other aspiring pre-meds, I was undone by organic chemistry. And that was around the time I started to think, ‘Well, maybe this is not really what I’m supposed to do,'” Teng tells Spark during a visit to perform at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.
After falling out of love with the idea of a future in medicine, Teng put her computer science degree from Stanford University to work at Cisco Systems. In her off-hours, she channeled the music skills she’d been honing since she was a little girl into original songs that drew upon the classical training of her youth and her parents’ music collection, one steeped in folk rock, Mozart and Mandarin pop tunes. Promoting her music through open mic nights and online under the stage name she created as a pre-teen, Teng — whose birth name is Cynthia Shih — soon secured a record deal with a small startup label.
“When I was 12, that’s when I came up with the name, and I thought, ‘Oh, if I’m a rock star, I’m going to have this stage name, and, like, no one will know my real identity,'” Teng recalls.
Along with a new identity, Teng brought forth an eclectic, hybrid sound she dubs “chamber folk.” Narrative-driven songs featuring Teng’s high, agile vocals unfold against a genre-defying backdrop of violin, cello, piano and percussion into a sonic landscape that’s strikingly unconventional despite its classical underpinnings.
Teng has released three albums. Her fourth, titled Inland Territories, is due out in April 2009. According to the singer-songwriter, Inland Territories is her most personal album yet. Says Teng, “I think ultimately I was more interested in being a storytelling kind of songwriter.”