|Waking Hour||Warm Strangers|
|Dreaming Through the Noise||Inland Territory|
One report had Vienna saying that the lines: "This is the same place- no not the same place" although contradictory are exactly what she was feeling at the time. Was SHE feeling, or was she imagining HE was feeling? She has also said that this contradiction actually started out as a typo while transcribing the lyrics. She went to correct it, but then read it and decided she liked it- that it somehow summed up the situation better than the original non-contradictory version. [I like it, too - goes well with the theme of believing each time will really be different even though the beginnings look the same each time.]
She also has a story that she played the song for the subject and he said something like "Nice song, but no, that's not how it is." Several months later, she played it again for him and he said, "Well, maybe that's how it was then, but it's not like that now." Here the story diverges, in one he called Vienna a couple years later and said "Why does that song have to be so true?" In the other ending, after she played the song on Letterman, he started to go around and tell everybody it was "his" song!
Another Warm Stranger asked Vienna about the song at a show once: I have a little something to add - "Between" is one of my favorites and I've never heard her play it live, hence I never got to hear the story on it. So I asked her about it after a show a few months back, and told her that I had two interpretations, both of which seemed to work.
One interpretation was that it was about a couple drifting apart because one person suspected that the other was cheating. The other interpretation was that it was about a couple having a baby, and they were focusing all of their attention on the baby, the "third one" who basically sucked away all of their energy and left them with little time or affection for each other.
Anyway, she told me that neither of those interpretations was what inspired the song, but that they were both correct. :>
To explain a little better, she originally conceived the song as a way of sorting out her feelings about a long-distance relationship, but since that didn't seem to make for a very interesting song, she threw in one of her patented fictional elements, an unnamed "third one" who was coming between them. She was aware that it could be construed as a love triangle, or it could be construed as a baby, and she left it ambiguous on purpose.
Vienna also says she wrote this during a "clever phase" of hers. Being about a third "thing" between two, it, of course, had to be in 3/4 time, with 3 verses, with 3 voices in the chorus, the main one "between" the other two...
At another show, Vienna said she took ballroom dancing in college and she wrote this sort of waltz for her instructor, who absolutely loved it.
She said she wrote this when she was a software engineer and that it is on the surface about a guy who ran away from home but that it was really about her wanting to quit her day job. She did mention that there is a hidden reference to her previous (technical) life in here and that other geeky types might notice it.
She wrote several bad sappy songs to get over it, and out of those ashes wrote this song- now a tango to sort of make fun of herself and the whole experience. The guy in question recently got married in one of the recent Spring 2004 SF gay marriages. "He was so perfect for me," she says. She also says he and his partner sort of independently discovered her music and actually chose one of her songs as "their song" - not this one, though! When he first heard this song, he thought "who's the jerk who turned down Vienna?".
She wrote it on the train on the way to a job interview. She got the job.
In 2013, Vienna said that her family wasn't one of those that said "I love you" a lot - the way some families do in casual conversation ("I'll be home at 8:00. I love you. Bye.") This song partially reflects that reality.
Vienna said she wrote this one night in high school at age 17, while staying up late (~3AM), procrastinating on an English paper due to the next day. (Turns out it rained so hard that the school flooded and school was canceled the next day, so she got an extra day to finish that paper after all!)
Vienna has also said that perhaps of all songs, this is the one she most wrote as a gift to herself.
After listening to her new album for the first time, Vienna asked her sister what she thought. She said it's all very good, except for that one song that just droned on and on endlessly about breathing in and out and all that. "But that's the beauty of it. It's supposed to do that. That's the WHOLE POINT." said Vienna (or something to that effect.)
After she decided she would quite Cisco (where she worked on the 2950 XL and 3550 XL switches) and become a musician, she figured she needed some character (in her living arrangements, that is) and a cheap place to live, so she got a cheap apartment on Mission St. in San Francisco- complete with windows that wouldn't close, constant traffic consisting of emergency vehicles and gangsters showing off their sub-woofers, bar brawls, etc. Feeling rather lonely and lost, early on, she grabbed the only instrument she had at the time - a guitar her boyfriend had taught her several single-finger chords on - and wrote this song. Not being a realist, she, of course, romanticized her situation and came up with this song. She moved out in June, 2004 (3275 Mission St. if you want to go and take a look).
Based partially on the Greek mythical figure, Medea. And called My Medea to represent the deep Medea-like personality in her own mind. She once described this "Medea" has someone: "... very beautiful, very powerful, but not always with your best interest in mind." Very beautiful, very powerful, but not always with your best interest in mind." (youtube)
As with Undone, I started playing it at shows before it was finished (on the piano, not the guitar. Trust me, this is a good thing). I jokingly called it That Song With Twaaaang for a while, until someone in the Red Rock audience one night -- a woman named Stacey Gladman, for the record -- suggested the title "Homecoming."
Interesting that here, Walter hasn't become a truck driver yet - just a drifter.
A balding lonely trucker drives into an Arizona desert cafe late on night. Only after she wrote it and began putting the album together did she make the connection that Walter was Carrie's old boyfriend.... Started while dreaming/thinking of being on the road (touring) all the time and wondering how truck drivers do it. She figured they must survive by learning to make home be wherever they are.
In the May04 Forum Q&A, Vienna said:
on the background of the title for "The Atheist Christmas Carol": It was the working title that stuck. I sat down at the piano sometime in December or January a few years ago and started singing images that came to mind when I thought of Christmas. Most of the impromptu lyrics didn't make it into the song ("It's the season of gift wrap and tinsel and pine needles in the carpet..."), but the chorus came immediately: "Don't forget I love you." I knew it was a Christmas carol. But it wasn't a Christmas carol in any traditional sense, not even in the "Silver Bells" or "Let It Snow" sense. So I tagged it with the name "Atheist" because I couldn't think of anything more accurate. This is what an atheist might contemplate around the holiday season, I thought. Kinship and community, human beings' own potential to rescue each other, a little warmth in the long winter.
When we got into the studio I hadn't thought of a proper title, and other people seemed amused by what I was calling it, so it stayed. It also seemed like a way of counterbalancing Shasta and Homecoming, both of which have distinct Christian overtones, and maybe part of me wanted to startle people back into uncertainty about what my own beliefs are.
She also thought about calling it, Season, but the working title stuck.
From her online scrapbook:
Track #12 on Warm Strangers is an old Taiwanese song called Lüdao Xiaoyequ, or Green Island Serenade. My parents sang it to us as a lullabye; pretty much all Taiwanese people of their generation know it. I started singing the song because I was playing a show where the organizer had requested that I do something in Mandarin. Then it became a habit of sorts, something thrown in for variety on the setlist. Eventually I found myself adding it to the show as a kind of thank-you to my parents, and to the Chinese-American community at large, for supporting me in the unusual and risky endeavor of making music my career. For an immigrant group thats built its foundation on math-and-science academics, this is no small gesture.
There have been many meanings attributed to the song, including political ones, and I have my own interpretations. But here are the actual lyrics in Pinyin (as I sing them), and an English translation, adapted with kind permission from http://ingeb.org/songs/zheludao.html. Much is lost in the conversion, of course. There always is.
Vienna says she started singing it after being aksed to play at a Chinese American Event at the San Francisco Pulic Library. The organizer hopefully asked Vienna if she had written any songs in Chinese. No. Do you sing any covers in Chinese? No, but there is one song my parents used to sing for me.... So, she went home and had her parents teach her what the words relly were and meant.
Lüdao Xiaoyequ words by Chen Chang-shou/music by Yao Di zhe lü dao xiang yi zhi chuan, zai yue ye li yao ya yao. gu niang ya, ni ye zai wo de xin hai li piao ya piao. rang wo de ge sheng sui na wei feng, chui kai le ni de chuang lian. rang wo de zhong qing sui na liu shui, bu duan de xiang ni qing su. ye zi shu de chang ying yan bu zhu wo de qing yi; ming mei de yue guang geng zhao liang le wo de xin. zhe lü dao de ye yi jing zhe yang de chen jing gu niang ya, ni wei shen ma hai shi muo muo wu yü? Green Island Serenade translation by Ed Peaslee This green island is like a boat, floating in the moonlight. My darling, you too are floating in the sea of my heart. Let the sound of my song follow the breeze, blowing open the curtain of your window. Let my love follow the flowing water, endlessly pouring out its feelings for you. The long shadows of the palm trees cannot conceal my love; the bright beauty of the moonlight casts its brilliance into my heart. This green island night is so calm and serene my darling, why are you silent, saying nothing?
Vienna also says this was an attempt to write a love song without reference to gender, partially inspired by Jeanette Winterson's novel, Written on the Body.
In a December 2006 Q&A, Vienna said:
A fundamental fear of being alone, really. I spend a lot of time on my own, and usually it's fine. But it's strange how terrifying loneliness can be when it strikes, sometimes in the midst of a perfectly decent evening or a lively party, and I started to wonder how other people deal with it. I had a discarded song from years ago that had the line "a thousand papercuts/and the sheet in my hand." That's more or less where it started.
I still like other people's interpretations better, to be honest. Especially those who read it as a song about spiritual hunger.
During a Dec '06 Q&A session, Vienna said:
There are about six different stories about how this song came about, and I think I've told them all at different shows... I started writing it after seeing Sam Phillips, who introduced one of her songs that night as a "reverse striptease." Around that time I was also infatuated with the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and the way Michel Gondry played around with timelines and the selectiveness of memory. I also wanted to try writing a poem to set to music later --- something whose words might stand on their own if read on paper. And as always there's something of my own life in there, albeit distorted beyond recognition.
In a scrapbook entry,
Vienna describes the song like this:
In keeping with the pattern of the last few posts, lyrics: this song is that great rarity for me, the successful collaboration. Alex and I have tried to write together before, without much luck (both times in family homes over the holidays --- we blamed the parental paparazzi). Ironic, maybe, that the one we finally finished is a song about limitations, living with a mere shadow of what used to or might have been.
It was not an easy song to write, nor to record. Alex must have spent four solid days composing the string arrangement; we stayed up all night beforehand double-checking it. "It's like Sudoku or something," he would say, eyes bleary from LCD light. "There's pretty much one correct solution, and each choice affects all choice going forward..." But I think we got it in the end. Nice puzzle-solving, Wong.
Vienna wrote the music first, then wrote the words with Alex. She was purposefully trying to write something that would be a little difficult to play on the piano.
Not exactly, an origination story, but here's a funny story that goes with
Apparently Vienna and Alex agreed that recording some songs in certain places would make them sound more authentic, or something. So they decided that this song should be recorded in a haunted house. She sent out a message to her mailing list (I think, i dont recall well), asking for a "Friendly haunted house with an upright piano". She, surprisingly, got some replies. "Oh, i have a piano.. but no ghost.." and "Oh... my house is really haunted, I'm not sure if you want to come here, plus we dont have a piano" She got an email saying "Well, our house is haunted by our old pets, and we have a piano" So they decided to record there. Aparently, they did feel some pet ghosts walking around, plus just normal, living pets.
Vienna says she felt it was time to tackle in a song some of the family / cultural conflicts she has dealt with in choosing a professional music career.
In an interview on
Before. I wrote it right around the time President Obama announced his presidential run. At that moment I had this thought of, "Wow, this guy has really good ideas and seems to have a really good heart that will hopefully not be corrupted by politics."
You don't see people like that very often, so I found myself thinking, "I really want to help make this happen." It was such a scary feeling, because being cynical is so much easier. To find myself crawling out of that negative space and suddenly wanting to be part of change that might have a chance of success¿it felt a lot like falling in love with someone but not being sure if they liked you back!
The idea of illegal immigrants trying to sneak across the border came to mind. I didn't want to write about being a Mexican woman trying to cross the border or something, because somehow that felt inauthentic. But then¿not that this is any more authentic¿I thought, "What if this were reversed and Americans were trying to sneak into Mexico in the future?" That's kind of how it came about.
She also says it was partially inspired by the Talk Talk records Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock - a change from Talk Talk's popy music to more eerie, almost ambient music.
In an scrapbook post on the forum, Vienna reveals the notes from her "lyrics journal" for this song:
8 Oct 2007: I was recalling something J said about moving to Korea, how part of the appeal was the prospect of being there at an historical moment¿reunification of North and South, or at least an opening of borders, the kind of thing that would send people spilling into the streets en masse in both celebration and anxiety. Somehow I ended up writing about a couple separated in the confusion, and the undertones of disturbing possibilities that lurk in any dramatic moment of change, particularly a revolution or liberation. I remember searching hard for interesting phrases, trying to evoke vivid images and feelings in striking word combinations, not really knowing what the hell I was actually writing about.
Though I have a weirdly fierce attachment to this song already, it's problematic for a number of reasons. Musically it sounds a lot like some other song I can't pinpoint, and that's been P's and A's reaction to it as well (the two people who've caught snippets of it so far). Lyrically it suggests the fall of the Berlin Wall, since that's the most iconic event of that sort in recent memory and so the first thing people will assume, but there's no such thing as St. Stephen's cross in Berlin, and none of the details are meant to be historically accurate to that night. What's more, the phrase "St. Stephen's cross," which somehow feels right enough that I don't want to change it, isn't easily mapped to some other political situation; there's no bifurcated border town in Northern Ireland, and it's doubtful any wall-split city in Asia or the Middle East would have a Catholic church. I'm not sure how I would explain or defend this song if it went out in public, basically.
Still something about this song captures the effect I've been chasing all summer, the "Old Friends" standard: spare words, simple chords, a framing of a deeply personal moment in a bigger swirling world.
Here are the lyrics as discussed on Vienna's forum: http://viennateng.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=2517&highlight=
you've asked if I love you and I never could say and you want me to answer in any old way what I'm trying to tell you simple words could not show and will never be spoken still I want you to know so I ask you to meet me tonight by the gardens we walk, in the twilight [and] the roses abound by your side I will hold you and let you decide I will hold you and let you decide [but] there are times when I've wondered if you're reading my mind can you know what I'm feeling when I look through your eyes now you ask if I love you it almost seems so unfair [and] that you even must ask me when the answer['s] right there and so I want you to meet me tonight by the gardens we walk, in the twilight and the roses abound by your side i will kiss you and let you decide i will kiss you and let you decide so i want you to meet me tonight by the gardens we walk, in the twilight roses abound by your side and I will hold you and let you decide [ ]I will hold you and let you decide and the roses abound by your side I will hold you and let you decide
Here are the lyrics as deciphered on the Forum:
Ten fingers. Ten dancers. An uncanny intuition of when and how to pirouette Eyes darting over the invisible page Which is riddled with a road map Of chords that guide without regret. Into the precarious land of improvisation, A one player band amid conversation. Two hands, a measurin' leisure time Two hands skimmin' over keys, "that's fine" Says the girl in the corner, the kid on the ledge. And the Boy at the Piano plays on... Well often, I've come to watch him play. And it seems to me so funny, he doesn't even know I'm there. Well the music, it takes him to another world. Sudden playful pauses, dramatic clauses, Melodies from empty air. Noontime master of improvisation, A one player band amid conversation...
Tell me tell me now What kind world would it be For all of humanity? And tell me tell me How would we be living today Without curiosity?Click here for a brief interview about the song.
One of the songs that almost made it onto Warm Strangers was called "In My Arrival," sort of my preemptive strike against being "claimed" by the Asian-American community. The second verse begins: "I am not your spotlight haven/I am not your passionate voice..." I'm wary of being a representative of Chinese America, or being a role model for others of my ethnicity.
I am not your angry servant I am not your wasted time give me all that you've been given and I'll stand to speak your mind but I have turned away from you turned far away from it all and in my arrival triumphant in this crowded hall I am not your spotlight haven I am not your passionate voice lived the moments all may covet and I stand to make that choice now impatient so you watch me so now you want to shake my hand I am left silent here trying so hard to understand who you are and who you are in me are you my welcome home my rusted key this much I'll know who you are and who you are in me I am not your wrong direction I am not your free at last will you hail this generation we're all moving much too fast the colors bleed and I falter reading my history out loud I can't make out the pictures I cannot be too proud to hold on, to hold on...At one show, Vienna said:
There is a brief recording of the hold on part on Jim Batcho's site: http://www.jimbatcho.com/music/media/examples.html
I'm as guilty as the next girly-girl when it comes to picking names for my future children. Sitting bored in an airport terminal one evening, I decided to kill time by working on this particular fantasy. I don't have music for this yet, and I'm not sure I like the lyrics enough to work on it much further; still, it was an interesting exercise, to imagine what a child after my own heart might do when she's about my age.
Mira walks with her head down against the wall of wind on her way up the hill she seems to know she's been let down although the evening feels the same dry leaves and the song of the whipporwill come stand beside me watch how the red fades to blue someday you'll live the world you've made come stand beside me open your arms to what's to come you'll always have this place to be afraid Mira walks and her hands are cold New England winters don't forgive the smallest sin she thinks history's demands are bold there is no higher ground to claim only great circles back to where we begin come stand beside me watch how the red fades to blue someday you'll live the world you've made come stand beside me open your arms to what's to come you'll always have this place to be afraid each sleeping tree makes a river delta in the darkening sky and casts shadows on her face she's a camera out in space she's a camera out in space Mira walks with her head high down in the fire a sheaf of paper starts to curl you know she's just trying to shed light on a mystery she can't name she's nothing if not her father's girl come stand beside me watch how the red fades to blue someday you'll live the world you've made come stand beside me open your arms to what's to come you'll always have this place to be afraid
A conversation with a friend about hallucinogens, ex-girlfriends and world travel wormed its way into the lyric-writing borough of my brain, and here's what happened...
he says no one's gotta be high to know it but it helps see for yourself you don't need to barely get by to know it but total darkness is hard to find stars drinking dry your mind so it helps see for yourself someday my rain in england someday someday morocco pulsates someday someday mystery evolves to familiarity twist yourself until you break and wake two hands a lighter drops of water on my glasses yellowed water in my glass I can't hold on gets brighter I can't come back to where it passes let this pass someday my rain in england someday someday where she became her someday and I grieve and I grieve and I grieve this isn't me touch the wood taste the cedar smell the asphalt in the street gets brighter this isn't me he says the summer slipped on by without a dream to hold on to and that it's wrong to and you can live your lie without a dream but total lightness is rare indeed winter solstice where you bleed so hold on to what is wrong to twist yourself until you break and wake
I went for a long stroll in the drizzle one night and found myself singing something under my breath near the end. I came back inside and wrote down roughly what I'd been singing, and added a couple more verses.
As sometimes happens when a song is first completed, I only have a mild inkling of what I mean.
when I turn I hear the passing of an empty train does it know does it know there's no one waiting [This is the way the song was posted on Vienna's site, but on at least all the performances of this song I've heard, it's been sung "... nothing waiting...". Given the rest of the lyrics, this probably represents a typo at the initial posting.] when I turn I hear the passing of an empty train does it know does it know there's no one waiting there's a man nearly over in the bed he built does he know does he know there's nothing waiting there's a woman pacing back and forth with a telephone does she know does she know there's no one waiting and up north they're breaking open all the virgin ground do they know do they know there's nothing waiting across the world they're digging through the rubble calling out do they know do they know there's no one waiting I don't fear -- oh I gave all that up long ago for I know for I know there's nothing waiting a broken heart when it understands will heal anew when it knows when it knows there's no one waiting
If I have a prog-rock song, this is it. Odd meters and constant key changes. I can't sing it well enough to do it justice either. I'd relegate it to the Botched Experiment bin if it weren't so much fun to play, and if people hadn't sometimes come to lie down under the piano when I played it, just to get the full effect of the post-bridge solo.
warm breezes on the island shore another night is setting in I feed on the landscape and drink in the air forgetting the deeper starvation then a melody cry some voice of distance pull tight around me the voice of a man fold right around me the arms of a man if not for this dividing sea he and I light our signal fires the smoke memories of things to be in realness our lives of streets and keys and spiderweb wires weave an ocean dive unafraid and surface at the other's flame oh wise desire see his signal fire then a melody cry some voice of distance torn innocence, the voice of a child once born innocent, the heart of a child maybe cries out for me she and I light our signal fires the sparks anger and hope combined in realness the crushing ties that bind to a passive despair overcome this dive unafraid and surface at the other's flame lift it higher see her signal fire and the island is shelter and the island is cold as the dark isolates me if I stay here forever... you and I light our signal fires the flames all our love to be given away in realness we're strangers and dare not to say what the future may bear I am searching dive unafraid and call the other by name your hidden pyre I see your signal fire
From Vienna's old web site v1:
I don't know why human beings are drawn to dangerous places, but it's a beautiful topic to write on.
This was as far as I got in the first lyric-writing session, and nothing else has come along since. There's music for it now, though, something akin to Tori Amos' "Liquid Diamonds," and I've actually performed it despite its incompleteness. Some have suggested that given the title, it might be apropos if it just stays this way.
there's a moment made of frozen hopes put under lights in an empty space in my little museum and at closing time with crowds dissolved I slip right past the velvet ropes press my fingers to the case and I hold you in my arms this isn't where I should be I stand and stare when I should run why am I only waiting for what can only come undone you were hidden in a highway curve solid lines a silent shield against metal twisted cold like sudden daylight there you were took all I had just not to swerve and slow instead to yield but then your light was gone
I hesitate to call this "Waking Hour" because that's not really its title; sometimes I name something just to have a way of referring to it, and it sticks. I'd come up with the album name and needed a title track, and this instrumental, with its clock-tower-chime motif, seemed like a good candidate. Since then I've recognized that it was an experiment rather than a bona fide song, but I've put it here in case anyone's interested in my forays into Windham-Hillism.
The main piano meoldy you might recognize from the later "Harbor".