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Teng's new album explores social issues, offers fresh sound

Singer-songwriter and pianist Vienna Teng recently released her fifth album, Aims, and will be playing at The Carolina Theatre in Durham as part of her U.S. tour.

Aims is her first full-length album in four years — she just finished programs in sustainability and business at the University of Michigan. The album explores contemporary social issues such as online surveillance and the Occupy movement.

Teng’s chosen cover art features artist and scientist Stephen Von Worley’s visualization of Detroit’s population changes from 2000-10, in shades of purple and orange.

“It was beautiful and striking to me,” said Teng, a Detroit resident. “You can draw the obvious conclusion that, ‘Oh wow, Detroit is in trouble.’ You can look at the situation and be struck by how depressing it is. But if you look closer, there’s other stuff going on. There are opportunities for us to imagine something better than there is now.”

Teng said she got to experiment much more with Aims than with her four prior albums.

“It feels like we’re doing it the right way for this moment in time,” Teng said.

She’s also planning to supplement the experience by adding some musical extras, such as sheet music, to her Bandcamp music site.

“I’m really happy with the sound we came up with. It feels fresh. It’s definitely inspired by lots of different sounds,” Teng said of her album.

For example, the song, “The Breaking Light,” co-written by Alex Wong, was inspired by the tone of a wine glass.

“I really hope that people find music that they connect to emotionally, but also something that makes you think. And you want to find out more about it. Each of the songs in their own way are, I guess, topical songs about things I was grappling with in grad school or in my life and trying to understand,” Teng said.

She and the album’s producer, Cason Cooley, drew inspiration from many genres of music.

“You couldn’t ask for a better collaborator,” Cooley said. “She has a strong sense of identity, but she wanted to be really adventurous and she was fearless in trying new things.”

Teng employed quite a different approach to typical songwriting and producing. Most artists go into the studio already having written all the album’s songs, but Teng intentionally brought unfinished parts of songs into the studio to complete them on site, often incorporating electronic sounds.

“We made a big mess and then would go in the next day and clean it up and see what we had to make a record out of,” Cooley said. “It was a really organic process and we were true to what was in her.”

Wong, who is traveling and performing with Teng on tour, co-produced Teng’s album, Inland Territory,which won the 2009 Independent Music Awards vote for Best Folk Singer-Songwriter Album.

“We’re both overachiever-y in terms of our music,” he said. “We’re always pushing each other to make something better.”

Wong said Aims displays a certain element of freedom.

“It’s definitely intellectual, colorful. It’s layered,” Wong said. “I admire her a lot as a writer, musician and thinker.”

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