Dreaming Through The Noise

Equality Cabaret Performer Vienna Teng On Being An Ally, Moving To Detroit

By Christopher John Treacy

Equality Cabaret

1 p.m. Feb. 23

The Ark

316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor


We could all stand to learn a thing or two from Vienna Teng.

As an Asian-American woman and singer-songwriter-pianist on the fringes of pop music, Teng understands being an underdog. And yet, she radiates the Zen of acceptance. She's not actively fighting against the grain, not struggling to be a brighter star in our muddled mass consciousness; instead, she comes across as a fiercely intelligent woman that's perfectly content to do her part in inspiring positive change, whatever that may entail. She's living life on life's terms, and doing so with an admirable degree of grace.

Teng will be adding her voice to the lineup for the Equality Cabaret fundraiser, presented by the Jim Toy Community Center, beginning at 1 p.m. Feb. 23 at The Ark in Ann Arbor. It's an opportunity to align her vision with that of a local lesbian couple that's come up against Michigan's Marriage Amendment, passed by voters back in 2004, which prevents gays and lesbians from forming legally honored unions. April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse have been partnered for over a decade and became licensed, as a unit, to provide foster care. They've since raised three abandoned newborns, all with varying degrees of special needs. But because the couple's union is not legally acknowledged, they aren't able to formally adopt the children as co-parents. Instead, one has been adopted by one of the women, and the other has adopted the remaining two. On the surface this may seem like a reasonable solution, but it gets complicated if either of the women were to pass away unexpectedly; the children (and the remaining partner) are left vulnerable to be split up since they are not legally protected under a single, unifying umbrella. The fallout for a household like DeBoer and Rowse's is unimaginable. Sunday's event is to help raise money (and awareness) about the case, which is three years in the making.

"I feel like I've been a ally for a long time," Teng says of her feelings toward the LGBT community at large from over the phone during our recent chat. "And this event makes a lot of sense to me as a songwriter because it involves a particular family. Personal stories are highly impactful. It speaks to something I've struggled with for a long time, in that I don't think of myself as an activist songwriter. That's not what I do. But I very much want to participate in changing the world for the better. I eventually landed at a resolve to tell stories about people grappling with various things. Music often makes an idea hit home much harder than with other mediums."

Teng's gentle brand of vicarious activism is plenty prevalent on her tune "City Hall," which was featured on 2006's "Dreaming Through the Noise," produced by Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell, Shawn Colvin, Rebecca Pidgeon). The uplifting, spiritual feeling track is sung from the perspective of someone about to marry their longtime gay lover in San Francisco.

"It's a great example of how I like to approach issues in song," says Teng. "It's an incredibly emotional day for them, partially because they've been denied the right to do this for so long. I wanted to tell it in a story rather than just standing on a soapbox somehow, and hopefully help people make an empathetic connection. I'm interested in having a conversation with people, and while I've never cut myself off from writing about political things, I do think about the idea of preserving my relationship with my audience."

Now 35, Teng's even-minded approach to finding her place in the world has allowed her to continue building her musical projects while pursuing academic interests and, more recently, going back to working a day job. While others might kick and scream about the dissolution of their full-time music dreams, Teng says the company she's gone to work for has a flexible time program, allowing her to take larger chunks of leave time to make sure she maintains her loyal following. "It gives their employees time to be who they really are outside of the office, which ... if you're going to hire dynamic, exciting people to work for you, they need that time to nurture their interests," she says.

A self-confessed academic junkie, Teng came to Michigan in 2010 when she was accepted at the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. Through the program, she received a pair of Masters Degrees and aligned herself for the dual career scenario she's now pursuing. After wrapping up the program in Ann Arbor, Teng released her most sonically diverse collection to date, "Aims," and moved to Detroit. Right after relocating, she went on tour. So, she's only just getting to know her new city now despite having moved there some eight months ago.

"It's not far from Ann Arbor, but it's worlds apart in terms of who lives here and how they're living," she says of Detroit. "It's a pretty exciting shift for me, mainly because I've never lived somewhere where everyone I meet is actively engaged in the future of their city. Civic dialogue is a huge facet of being here; you can sit down at a bar and talk with anybody, and you'll find they have opinions on what's happening here, what needs to happen here. It's an excellent way to make sure my mind stays open and susceptible to change - to be influenced by the ideas of others whose experiences are different from my own."

Despite recognizing the state's need for change in its policies regarding same-sex marriages and adoption laws, Teng feels strongly that Michigan is merely experiencing normal growing pains and isn't necessarily stuck in some legally archaic holding pattern. She says that she thinks of the Midwest as a "third coast" - high praise for someone that's lived in San Francisco and Manhattan. She says the flat, Midwestern stereotypes create a perfect metaphor about the area's hidden assets.

"This area of the country looks flat and boring when taken at face value," she says. "But when you spend time here, you discover a subtle patience and fortitude to the landscape that reflects in behavior of the people. I really love that overall spirit and humility. Admittedly, though, I move in a pretty liberal bubble. I hang with progressive thinkers, so I'm a bit insulated from certain ideals. But to me, what's happening here regarding LGBT marriage is indicative of a much larger, generational struggle."

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