September 24, 2009

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Vienna Teng’s old soul
Touring Inland Territory
By Michael Witthaus music@hippopress.com

The sweep of history moves in both directions on Vienna Teng’s most recent album, Inland Territory.

“In Another Life” describes the life and afterlife of coal miners, revolutionaries and soldiers, with clarinet and bassoon accompaniment straight out of a New Orleans funeral. “Antebellum” employs Civil War imagery to tell its love story.

A needle dragging across a phonograph record serves as percussion in the opening bars of “Last Snowfall.” The young singer-songwriter (she only recently turned 30) becomes an old soul, imagining her dying days with the clarity of someone twice her age.

In an interview backstage at Cambridge’s Club Passim last winter, Teng said the track’s elemental sound was producer Alex Wong’s idea.

“When he heard that song he immediately thought [there should be] noises that evoke something but are actually something else,” she says. “It’s a way of kind of existing on two planes at the same time. So the little vinyl pop noises … kind of sound like a fire crackling, a wintry noise, but it’s also a reference to music technology.”

On Saturday, Oct. 3, Vienna Teng makes her first appearance at Tupelo Music Hall. Paper Raincoat, the duo of Alex Wong and Amber Rubarth, will open the show and back Teng for her set. Paper Raincoat will release its first full-length album on Oct. 6

What inspired you to get into music?
The shortest answer is that it’s the thing I felt like I was most useful for.

Do you remember a spark, hearing a record and thinking, “I want to do that”?
That’s a good question. I think when I started studying classical music I wanted to be a composer more than anything. I thought it was so cool to be able to construct all these pieces in which you had these musicians playing that would create something bigger than themselves. I really liked the idea of being the person who wrote that, and I haven’t quite got there yet. Somewhere along the way I thought let me start on a smaller scale then, let me write some songs for me to sing and accompany myself on piano, and that’s kind of still what I’m up to.

Inland Territory is … ambitious in terms of the landscapes of sound you’re building.
Ambitious is a good term … with this record I felt like I wanted to get an education as much as anything. I wanted to produce it myself at first. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that’s going to end badly.

Sort of like acting and directing at the same time?
Yeah, I’m gonna learn a lot but the resulting album may not be very good. We might have to do things over. It’s better if I have someone who knows what they’re doing in the process with me. So I asked Alex to work with me because we’d been touring together at that point, and I’d always respected his production work and songwriting. I thought well maybe if the two of us work together and he lets me get in the way sometimes and try stuff out that will be kind of my way of learning more about the production process. That was kind of how it was like, the two of us would sit around and imagine this stuff and I would handle part of the production, and he’d do the rest. It was about 70/30 at the end, but I ended up doing a lot of it. Which was really fun.

You got to indulge the composer side, doing all the horn charts?
I did some of the arrangements, yeah. I ran it by him a whole lot [laughs]. There was one song I felt I mostly produced (“Kansas”). I decided what the instrumentation would be and what the horn parts were going to be and used Wurlitzer piano and upright piano, and did overdubs.

You approached Inland Territory with more of a worldview than anything you’ve ever done.
I always write from what I’m feeling at the time. When I was younger I wrote from a personal diarist point of view because when you’re 19 you’re thinking about the guy you have a crush on. Partly because of the move to New York, it became more submerged in current events. I did a lot more reading of the news and following along, and getting involved. It was a lot more on my mind … I wanted to put myself in that situation even though I’ve led a very sheltered, comfortable life. There are people who live lives I can’t even imagine, and if I were to try to superimpose that on my own life, what would that look like? It did get pretty dark sometimes.

It’s a New York album, then?
I think New York influenced this album in a pretty profound way, in pretty much every way. Musically, it’s very much a “what happened when I went to New York” album — topically, very much so ... It is actually my most hopeful album in a lot of ways, but it’s also one of the most dark and depressing ones. They kind of go together in a lot of ways. I think the extremes of New York influenced that a lot.


Vienna Teng & Paper Raincoat
When: Saturday, Oct. 3, at 8 p.m.
Where: Tupelo Music Hall, 2 Young Road, Londonderry, www.tupelohall.com
Tickets: $25