Music: Masterful messenger

Vienna Teng marks a new musical triumph

by Charlie Swanson

Bay Area native and indie folk singer/songwriter Vienna Teng has spent the last decade living in New York City, Detroit and most recently, Boulder, Colorado. And, that’s in between spending two-thirds of her life on the road pursuing her music, touring nationwide and amassing a fan base that adores her piano-led chamber pop.

One such fan was Bay Area author and playwright Tanya Shaffer, who reached out to Teng with an offer to collaborate on a new work. “We had a friend in common,” Teng says by phone, on the road as usual. “She mentioned that she and her husband had actually gotten married to one of my songs, which was touching.”

Shaffer also mentioned that she was working on a new play—a musical—and wanted Teng to compose the score.

“It was a pretty irresistible challenge,” Teng says with a laugh. “One, because I’d never written for anything other than my own albums. And she also had this really compelling story she wanted to tell.”

That story was “The Fourth Messenger,” a tale about the Buddha imagined as a woman in contemporary society. Possessing a fairy tale quality, Shaffer’s vision was both sweeping and epic while maintaining intimacy and emotion. “It really touched a chord for me,” Teng says.

The challenge for Teng was to get out of her songwriting comfort zone. As emotionally stirring as her songs are, pop music and theatrical tunes don’t always go hand in hand.

“We got incredible support by various theater groups in the Bay Area,” Teng says. “I felt like I was surrounded by mentors who were able to point me to soundtracks and other reference points.”

After a crash course in musical theater, Teng composed a slew of emotionally touching and ambitiously melodic songs that helped make “The Fourth Messenger” a success when it originally premiered in Berkeley two years ago.

Now, “The Fourth Messenger” is an album, featuring Teng herself singing in some of the lead roles alongside an ensemble cast of recording artists. Many of those vocalists will be assembled on stage when Teng and Shaffer bring a selection of songs from the album to life with a record release concert this weekend in Mill Valley. The concert includes a meet-and-greet with the cast, and Teng is also performing an all-request after-party set, where fans can hear her personal piano-driven pop repertoire.

Vienna Teng sings “Songs from the Fourth Messenger” on Sunday, Nov. 8 at Throckmorton Theatre, 142 Throckmorton Ave, Mill Valley; 8pm; $38-$50; 415/383-9600.

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