Now a ‘weekend warrior’ musician, Boulder-based Vienna Teng headlines Wheeler Opera House on Saturday
IF YOU GO …
Who: Vienna Teng
Where: Wheeler Opera House ‘On the Rise’ series
When: Saturday, Nov. 17, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $22
Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com
Young and supremely talented, with an ability to do just about anything she wanted to with her voice and piano, Vienna Teng appeared primed for pop super-stardom after releasing her much-adored debut album, “Waking Hour,” in 2002.
The record landed her features on NPR, a performance on “Late Show with David Letterman” and an extensive international touring profile at age 24.
But since this initial brush with fame, Teng has opted to get off the pop music treadmill of promotion and performance. Instead, she went to graduate school and studied environmental sustainability and gone to work on renewable energy development for a global nonprofit.
That work brought her to Boulder. And though her output slowed after releasing her sixth album, “Aims,” in 2013 as she finished school, her enthralling classical technique and her adventurous sense of genre and her soaring voice remain.
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Teng will make her Aspen debut Saturday, headlining the Wheeler Opera House’s “On the Rise” series. She recently played a show in New York City, she’ll also perform in Boulder this weekend and has dates scheduled in Chicago and Ann Arbor next month. Teng describes her current approach to performance as “a weekend warrior tour kind of thing.”
Music is still woven into her daily life, even if it’s only goofing around playing something at home.
“It’s a beautiful place to be,” Teng said in a recent phone interview from Boulder. “At this point in time, it feels like every time I step on stage it feels more precious to me than it used to. … It’s been a fun feeling to discover my relationship with music in a really new way.”
Stepping back from an opportunity to be a pop star may be hard to imagine. For Teng, a polymath with interests beyond music, there was always going to be more to life than music. Faced with the prospect of a life consumed by self-promotion and the grind of climbing the music industry ranks, Teng saw how the art and her love of performance could get lost in the mix.
“I’ve always wanted to be more than one thing,” she said. “As I went through being a full-time musician — traveling and touring — I got to the point where I saw that it was my personal relationship to music that was most important to me. There came a moment when, for me, to continue with it, it was going to be about a career and ambition and doing the networking and whatever to get to the next level.”
So she more or less dropped out of the race to try something new.
“I want to make sure that I stay in love with music,” she said. “That feels like the most important thing at the end of the day.”
Part of staying in love with music is giving concerts like this weekend’s in Aspen and Boulder, where she is playing without accompaniment — though she is bringing loop pedals to create expansive effects — and planning tell the stories behind her songs.
Teng can bend her voice and piano in some remarkable directions. She can blast vocal fireworks on songs like the club-friendly, toe-tapping synthy dance track “Level Up,” or plumb emotional depths in a dark piano ballad “Gravity” and she can craft masterful pop songs like the irresistible Dido-like “Flyweight Love.”
She wrote her last proper solo album five years ago, while she was in graduate school. And her environmental studies subtly made their way into her compositions.
“It is a sneaky sustainability album,” she said. “I didn’t want to write overt songs about specific issues. That’s not the kind of songwriter I ever wanted to be. But the fingerprints of all this time thinking about those kinds of issues are all over the lyrics.”
But moreso, working in sustainability policy and looking for solutions to the seemingly intractable cycles of waste, pollution and environmental degradation changed her ideas about what music can and should do to listeners.
“I found myself much more drawn to music that speaks to hopefulness, to connecting people and feeling a sense of purpose,” she said. “I increasingly realized that music can be a solace without being an escape. It can embrace the reality of what we’re experiencing, but also provide a different emotional color.”
Her life in music has evolved. Early in her performing career, she might have thought about it as a pure and free expression. She might have thought of it as a creative feat, part of a competitive game — playing the piano better than anyone, playing it in a new way nobody had before. But those aims have given way to a personal mission.
“Now, I think more like, ‘Is this useful to someone?’” she explained. “‘Does it help someone get through their day.’”
Teng recalled a concert where a man, his husband and his mom approached Teng and told her how her song “City Hall” — a sly, sweet song about gay marriage — helped repair their family relationship after his mother shunned him for coming out. If her work can have that kind of effect in the world, Teng said, that’s all she needs.
She is writing new songs these days aimed at bridging the bitter divides that are more evident than ever in the U.S. And, inspired by her songs for the 2015 musical “The Fourth Messenger,” which imagined the Buddha living as a contemporary woman, she’s looking at ways to craft musical narratives for the stage.
“That was an amazing and exhausting and eye-opening experience,” she said. “It whet my appetite for thinking about music as a part of a narrative.”
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