Back in 2010, Vienna Teng found herself at an artistic crossroads. The former Bay Area resident — who once punched the clock at Cisco Systems — had been a full-time musician for eight years, often backed by her collaborator Alex Wong.
But as much as Teng loved that existence, she also felt drawn in another direction. "I had gotten to a point where I was ready to forge a new piece of my identity," says the singer-songwriter. "I had really gotten into — and started geeking out on — sustainability, in how to shape capitalism to the realities of living on one very crowded planet. And I realized that I could write some bad environmental songs and try to tour in a biodiesel van and recycle stuff. Or I could actually go and study this stuff, and do work that has an impact on a bigger scale."
So that's what the former computer science major chose. She dropped out of music, moved to Ann Arbor, and enrolled in the University of Michigan, just recently graduating with an MBA as well as an MS in environmental science.
"For me that was really exciting, and more where my heart was at, instead of writing another album of singer-songwriter-y songs," says Teng. "So I feel like I totally did the right thing with my life for the past few years. And I came back to music totally in love with it again."
Teng's effervescent new Aims album, her fifth, is awash in thoughtful, philosophical lyrics and a playful, '80s-retro sound that date-stamps it somewhere between epic Bonnie Tyler and ethereal Enya. Wong co-wrote (and appears on) one track, "The Breaking Light." But Teng penned everything else, played keyboards, piano, guitar and percussion, and co-produced the set in Nashville with Cason Cooley, while listening to other brainy pop composers like James Blake, Vampire Weekend, and Florence & the Machine.
"I had a great time making this album," she says. "On one hand, I want my music to serve a purpose, which sounds like I'm putting a lot more weight on it. But at the same time, I'm also having a lot more fun with it, and it matters less to me whether it's successful in the usual way. It's not super-important to me whether I get to make a lucrative career out of music. So I was trying to create this record for myself."
Aim opens with "Level Up," a frothy tune that invites listeners to get involved in something larger than themselves.
"It actually came out of a really depressing climate-change seminar that I'd taken," says Teng. "At one point the professor looked around and said 'How many of you people think that we're actually going to make it out of this thing?' And nobody raised their hand."
"In the 99" taps into the recent Occupy movement, while her duet with Glen Phillips, "Landsailor," resulted from Teng's fascination with her own carbon footprint, which she carefully calculated as a class exercise. For whatever product you utilize, she explains, "you have to take into account the original materials, how they were mined and transported. And actually writing it all out on a spreadsheet and adding it up really awakened me.
"I was like, 'Holy crap! There's a lot that goes in to one plastic spoon!'"