How Can We Feed Our Creativity?

For songwriter Vienna Teng, the secret seems to lie in her variety of influences.

While I combed through your fabulous feedback (!) on What Poetry Can Learn from Pop Music last month, I connected with Teng for my ongoing interview series,  “Hey Guys, Other People Read Too! 

A Taiwanese-American songwriter, Vienna’s chamber-folk style has led her to Letterman, the CBS Saturday Early Show, the Wayne Brady Show, etc. She’s also opened for Joan Baez, Shawn Colvin, Joan Osborne, India.Arie, Marc Cohn…  Her work is intelligent, intricate, often haunting.

Haven’t heard her? Check out this choral-like demo, written from the POV of a marketing database, inspired in part by Nate Silver‘s blog. It’s “sacred music for the age of Big Data.” Click play & come back…(I’ll wait.)

Last month, having just completed a MBA in Global Sustainable Enterprise (what the?!), Vienna launched right into recording a new album. She took a break from lyric-writing to offer her insights on the creative process, productive influences, and more.

“I’m always aiming for that state of blissful experimentation.”

Hey Guys, Vienna Reads Too!

So: The beginning. What first motivated you to create, write, sing?

I think it was sheer primate curiosity, a natural progression from imitating adults. I made up nursery rhymes in Chinese-English creole. I started piano lessons when I was five, and at six I was composing little pieces of my own. Creating was just play: I bet I can do that. I wonder what happens when you do this.

A few of Vienna's songwriting reminders

A few of Vienna’s songwriting reminders

In my best moments now, that’s still how it feels. I’m always aiming for that state of blissful experimentation.

What was the first literature that had a profound impact on you?

Leo Lionni’s Frederick. My parents would read it to me when I was about three years old. I loved how this mouse would gather sun rays and colors to conjure up later through words. (I also remember deciding one day that it was a coloring book, so my family’s copy has a lot of green scribbles in it.)

When I crossed paths again with Frederick a few years ago, I was in my early 30s and questioning the legitimacy of my creative life, so I had a totally different reading of the story. How does the little twerp get away with not contributing to the food supply? Why does he wait until everyone’s cold and miserable and nagging him to share whatever he’s been up to? Who does he think he is?

Whose side did you take, in the end?

The jury’s still out. I recently started a second career, so apparently I think Frederick should be gathering grain as well as colors… But when the other mice tell him he’s a poet and he blushes, takes a bow, and says “I know it”—I’m trying to do that too. Trying to own my vocation as an artist.

Whose work has recently fed your creativity?

Michael Pollan. I’ve changed how I think about my relationship to food because of his writing. And it’s not because he guilt-tripped or shocked me into it—he made me fall in love. His is journalism of the highest order: well researched, thoughtfully explored, distilled into great storytelling (the corn plant domesticated us?) and pithy insights (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”).

“I spend a lot of time thinking about what the song equivalent of a Michael Pollan article would be.”

Pollan's advice

His writing has a translucent quality—I feel like I’m effortlessly absorbing new knowledge—but it’s beautifully personal, too. The passages where he waxes rhapsodic about cooking or gardening are some of the loveliest bits of prose I’ve read.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what the song equivalent of a Michael Pollan article would be, or the album equivalent of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’m not convinced that music works for spurring the kind of public awakening that he spurs through nonfiction. But if there’s a way to do it well, that’s the kind of music I’d like to make.

Is there a non-poet whose work you’d describe as poetic?
And what writers have influenced your own work? 

My two biggest musical influences are probably Paul Simon and Tori Amos. Paul Simon is reflective, observational, full of warm-hearted wit, adventuresome but always even-keeled. Then you have Tori Amos, all dark mythology and swollen emotion, who summons all this primal energy out of her instruments. They’re both virtuosic, both deeply intelligent, but they channel their gifts differently.

Then I thought about the two poets I keep re-reading over time, Billy Collins and Anne Sexton, and realized you could describe their respective poetry much the same way. Billy Collins’s The Best Cigarette feels related to Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What. And Tori Amos’s Night of Hunters seems kin to Anne Sexton’s Transformations. Together they map out the territory of what I might be capable of doing.

In what ways does what you’re reading at any given time influence your own creative process?

Songwriting is a nonlinear process for me—I never know where that jolt comes from, why certain ideas spark off other ideas; it’s all trial and error. Sometimes something I’ve read will react with a piece of music, or a certain phrase will sneak into a lyric…

Some lyrics for the upcoming record… Works in progress

For example: a few months ago I was puzzling over two fragments: a Radiohead-like chord progression, equal parts sensual and ominous, and a vague desire to write about the body. Then I happened to read an article about Body Identity Integrity Disorder (BIID), a condition where otherwise healthy people feel a need to have one of their limbs amputated. It’s a beautifully written piece on an unsettling topic, and it unlocked the song for me.

“morality gets tricky on the frontiers of anything.”

The lyrics didn’t end up being strictly about BIID—it’s a useful metaphor for other forms of alienation and defiance, our malleable sense of self vs. other (and normal vs. perverse), and how morality gets tricky on the frontiers of anything.

Why do you think so few people read poetry in our culture?

I think most of us (myself included) find written poetry intimidating. It’s like chamber music, or ballet—we know it’s deep, it’s this art form that requires great precision and heart and insight, and we’re embarrassed that we don’t quite get it. What does it mean? What am I supposed to be appreciating here?…You have to summon all the sounds from your own head: vowels and consonants, tempo, dialect. It’s concentrated monomedia.

But I don’t think it has to be an elitist art form. A little hand-holding goes a long way. I bought a collection of Samuel Menashe poems once because 1) it was the first volume in The Poetry Foundation’s Neglected Masters series, which was an intriguing endorsement, and 2) Christopher Ricks’s introduction really helped unpack the magic for me. Who knew you could relish poetry not just by the word or the syllable, but by the letter?

Do you think poetry should play more of a role in society?

It’s already well woven into our culture, if we take an expansive view of the term.

“Poetry is a big family; the stuff that appears in literary reviews is just one branch of the tree.”

Jay-Z signs copies of “Decoded” at Barnes & Noble, NYC.

We memorize rap lyrics (Jay-Z’s Decoded is a great book of annotated verse, and it turned me on to a lot of hip-hop that was too opaque to me before). We go to poetry slams, standup comedy, live radio shows, acoustic songwriter concerts, impassioned Sunday sermons. We respond viscerally when we hear cadenced language that reflects some truth in our hearts.

And the written word still does get around some. People share poems with each other to mark occasions, to give guidance, to offer comfort. Poetry is a big family; the stuff that appears in literary reviews is just one branch of the tree.

You just completed a degree in sustainable enterprise—Do the SE and music worlds intersect for you?

These are mostly separate threads of my life right now, but they do bump up against each other occasionally. I performed at a cleantech investor conference because the chairman is a fan, and got to meet some luminaries of the environmental movement there.

“I could either despair, or get up and dance. And I’d rather dance.”

Also, these new songs definitely have a different tone from what I’ve written in the past. They’re more energetic, joyful, even when they’re about difficult or confusing things. That was my response to all the disturbing information I learned in school: I could either despair at the fate of the world, at the futility of trying to create meaningful change, or I could get up and dance. And I’d rather dance.

Readers: Join the conversation!

  • Questions, responses, ideas?
  • Re: Vienna’s mention of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, what nonfiction works have influenced your fiction/poetry/etc?
  • Suggest some songwriter/poet combinations! (Such as Vienna’s Anne-Sexton-meets-Tori-Amos)
  • Vienna fans: Is there a Vienna song that reminds you of a book, poem, author, or other piece of music?


About Tasha Golden

Tasha Golden is the singer and songwriter for the critically-acclaimed band Ellery. Her songs have been heard in major motion pictures, TV dramas, radio in the US & the UK, and Starbucks stores throughout the country, and her albums have been featured in national publications such as Paste Magazine and M Music. Her poetry and prose have been seen or are forthcoming in The Humanist, Gambling the Aisle, Luvah Journal, Pleiades, Ploughshares, and Patrol Magazine. She tweets @goldenthis
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10 Responses to How Can We Feed Our Creativity?

  1. Brandon Desiderio says:

    I’ve been a huge fan of Vienna for the past four years. This interview is so beautiful, simply because her own life is such a compellingly unique twist for the music industry at large. I’m curious about what drew her to addressing topics like immigration (“No Gringo”), environmental fragility and unpredictability (“Watershed”), and the social commentary I see in “Radio” that takes a hard look at our often advoidant culture where tragedy, particularly abroad, is concerned? And, for me, this is art; she’s already progressed well toward her ideal of synthesizing Pollan into song. I’m a 20-year-old journalism student, and it’s excruciatingly critical for me to find someone who connects our current world back to art in a conscious way. Vienna cuts through the white noise of today’s music which so often doesn’t take into account these larger themes… At this point I’m rambling, but I suppose the ultimate question I’m getting at is: Vienna, do you see these societal ties as your ultimate vocation? / Will you continue in this vein? / Do you have any wisdom as to how we should better approach, even appreciate, this world of hurt? I feel so many people see the news – see these tragedies – in our world in a negative light, and thus frequently turn off the news, and find something blissfully distracting. Is that what we should be doing? I guess I’m just curious to see the tie-ins between our privilege and our presence. (Too often we’re not present; we’re busy sweating the small stuff, fretting over imaginary relationships in Downton Abbey, yet not being there for a neighbor in need, or donating our time/spare change to a worthy cause.) Maybe I’m overthinking your work by this point, but you’ve instilled a lot of intrigue in me and reaffirmed my own convictions… Hoping that fact alone is present! Haha.

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Hello Brandon,
      “the tie in between our privilege and our presence” — Beautifully worded, and provocative –

      And you throw out some great questions here for any artist: How we will choose to connect what our art(s) with our societal concerns, with the suffering around us and/or in the news…
      Whether we see our art(s) as depicting reality, distracting from it, and/or somehow managing to do both…
      and regardless, what is it that makes us choose one approach or the other?

      One thing I loved about Vienna’s interview is that she doesn’t claim to follow a formula, or offer one. Instead, she offers a freedom to explore and experiment, allowing seemingly disparate areas of our lives to affect, infuse, interact with our art(s) – and, significantly, the other way around as well.
      Simply acknowledging that we can have disparate interests, and that their unity will come from the fact that it’s all US – that’s interesting, and freeing to artists who may otherwise feel distanced from the world, or too hedged in by the stereotypical “life of an artist”…
      Very Austin Kleon-ish. :)

      What do you think?

      Thank you for reading & commenting Brandon – Take care!

  2. Anand Upadhyaya says:

    First off, great interview and wonderful insights. I especially agree with Vienna’s point that poetry need not be solely a diet for the elite. And her point about how poetry manifests in many forms throughout our daily lives is so true. I am wondering why I had any division in my mind between poetry and “other stuff” before. Branches on the same tree, wonderfully put. All the talk about writing relates to me in this way: I’ve written a script for a feature film. It’s a strange mix of an American sports film that weaves in a theme of awareness regarding the Congo in Central Africa. It has grown out of the writing of many analysts and journalists, and from the spoken words of advocates and Congolese people. Like many of Vienna’s songs, the content dances on a fine line between super cheesy and deeply compelling. Vienna always manages to leave me with the deeply compelling emotion. She navigates this difficult territory exceptionally well. I am worried that my script might fall on the cheesy side. So referencing Vienna’s successful style is important.

    Also, relating to the point about Pollen’s writing, I am struggling with how to weave in information about Africa without it immediately sounding preachy. I have found that many people have an almost visceral negative reaction when you start writing or talking about struggles in Africa. Either that or they shake their heads and say, “that’s sad…” How do you write (dialogue in my case) that incites people to want to learn more, that doesn’t make them feel preached too or judged, and that still honors the realities and depths of human struggle that make so many people want to simply turn away?

    As to what Vienna’s music reminds me of: Her style reminds me of well composed rock songs. There’s no “background” music in her tunes. The piano “riffs” are just as important as the vocal melody, making her compositions identifiable and hum-able on dual fronts. As for a particular comparison, I can’t find one. I think Vienna’s music is some of the most unique I have ever heard. It really does stand alone.

    Great interview!

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Hello Anand,
      Thanks for your comments! I love your observation that Vienna successfully navigates the thin line between “super cheesy and deeply compelling.” I’ve long been interested in the fact that songwriters can “get away with” phrases, lines, images, etc that poets cannot, simply by successfully wielding melody and music. Music can make something transcendent out of words that, on a naked page of poetry, would be mediocre (or cheesy!) at best.
      Some poets sense that this means songwriters can be less careful, and as both a poet and a songwriter myself, I think they’re often right!
      At the same time, the songwriter is attending not only to words, but to how they sing, feel, how they develop on the breath, whether they ride out over that piano hook or not. A lot of beautiful poems would be far too clunky, distracting, imposing as songs.
      Writing songs this this fantastic fine-tuning of a mess!

      All this to say – You’ve hit on something Vienna does well: that tricky partnership of the words & music, that riding of the line between a clunking, complex-but-beautiful poem, and the soaring-but-perhaps-too-simplistic song.
      (“Hymn of Acxiom” is a fabulous example of how the music matches. “Now we possess you” – sung right at the most soaring, enveloping moment of the song?! Perfect).

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  4. Fred Volkert says:

    I’ll echo what Brandon said without repeating it. Vienna’s music reaches out into many parts of my life too, and having had the chance to have a few conversations with her has added to the complexity of those musical ramifications. Here I’ll just concentrate on places in the music where I’ve seen strong ties to other artistic expression. Unfortunately, for me, at least, the tie-ins are not to poetry but to novels, films, plays, and other music. Maybe I should read more poetry. More tie-ins will probably occur to me over time; these are just ones that stay close to the surface of my consciousness.

    The Jared Diamond/Watershed nexus is already noted.

    As a topical song on at least one of its levels, the references in Pontchartrain are apparent, and they point to photo-essays on the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, of which there have been several good ones. It is far and away Vienna’s most visual song, and I have to believe the imagery comes from Vienna looking at the same kind of pictures found in those photo-essays, more than from reading about the disaster.

    Soon Love Soon instantly evokes singing Kumbaya around a campfire. It’s a spiritual for the age of Gallup’s “spiritual-but-not-religious” ascendancy.

    Antebellum evokes (almost invokes!) the conventions of the musical theater where two characters sing parallel monologues that form a musical duet, as in “Tonight” in West Side Story. One can envision Vienna’s character and Alex’s character singing their regret and resignation to us from opposite ends of a darkened stage in tight spotlights.

    The comparison of No Gringo to The Grapes of Wrath almost goes without saying, but beyond that it betokens for me a compassion for the downtrodden of society. I think of Dos Passos and Kurt Vonnegut as well as Steinbeck. Vienna’s recent life as a graduate student has put her in a position of dealing with large natural and social systems at arm’s length, and it seems as though we may see some evidence of that in her upcoming CD (we already have, actually, and that is a very ambitious thing for an artist to do). As we grapple with her next creation, it will be useful, and maybe necessary, for us to remember that she’s the same person who wrote No Gringo and Soon Love Soon. Much complexity.

    Vienna has called Transcontinental 1:30 A.M. a jazz ballad, but in fact it’s a bossa nova (so I’m told by a bossa nova aficionado), and part of a continuum of dance songs she’s put on her CDs. As such, for anybody who was around then, it instantly points to the world of Getz/Gilberto, and “The Girl from Ipanema,” since that’s where bossa nova entered the mainstream American consciousness. Beyond that, and in the same time frame, it evokes the world of hyper-romantic art-house films of the 60′s like A Man and a Woman.

    Finally, at least for now, Passage, the stark a capella song from the other side. Planting a tree to commemorate a lost loved one is common to several cultures, the tree representing the continuity of life even after the death of one person. Although Vienna probably had no knowledge of this, her use of that symbolism in this song is strikingly similar to its use by Oscar Brown, Jr., in his jazz ballad A Tree and Me. I like that song and it’s pretty obscure, so I’ll link a performance by Karrin Allyson here. This was fun; maybe more later.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UzcVrmEFRQs

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Hello Fred,
      Thanks for reading, and for making these connections!
      I love that Vienna’s work didn’t necessarily make you think of poems… That they evoke memories of photo essays, Steinbeck, jazz — Perfect.
      Ploughshares has published blogs in which the author connects novels with music that seems appropriate for them; so great to see media being connected more purposefully.

      And THANKS for posting the links! A great help to fellow readers.

      Cheers Fred!

  5. Fred Volkert says:

    For those who don’t know the songs I referred to in the last reply, here they are. Didn’t have time to wrangle the links at the time I posted the comment.

    Watershed
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7iRsDUUAC8

    Pontchartrain
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bsqh5JhpXwU

    Soon Love Soon
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=majy1Z6nKkU

    Antebellum
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BYb-cNOxe8w

    No Gringo
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TM5AjUwVX_g

    Transcontinental 1:30 A.M.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPQe481LbQ8

    Passage
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RiMsI5ZZ-qg

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