Since the beginning of the decade, Vienna Teng and Alice Peacock have edged into the national spotlight with albums that reflect the inspiration of singer-songwriters who came of age in the 1970s - Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor and Carly Simon, among others.
However, both Teng, 28, and Peacock, 36, realize they are operating in a much different environment than the vintage artists they admire. So before recording their latest albums, each had to figure out a middle path between self-released DIY endeavors where every decision is theirs and better-funded bigger-label projects fraught with potential artistic compromises and huge commercial expectations.
Teng decided to move from Virt, a tiny, Seattle-based indie label, to Zoe, which is distributed by Rounder Records, a major independent, before beginning work on her third CD, 2006’s “Dreaming Through the Noise.”
The change, says Teng, “gave me the opportunity to be a full-time musician. ... It was sort of a validation, a badge of legitimacy, and it certainly opened a lot of doors for me.”
Peacock opted to leave behind a major-label deal with Sony to record her third CD, 2006’s “Who I Am,” for her own Peacock label, later working out a distribution deal with industry giant Universal. “Sony was not the right home for me,” says Peacock. “If a major label won’t spend a jillion dollars on you, you’re lost. It used to be about nurturing someone’s music. No more.”
Teng, who released her first disc, 2002’s “Waking Hour,” on her own, and won critical acclaim with 2004’s “Warm Strangers,” says switching labels allowed her not only to quit her office job at Cisco in Silicon Valley but also to take a break from having to pack up her car and travel across country to sing and play piano in clubs and coffee shops. The San Francisco native got to spend from December 2004 to November 2005 writing the music that became “Noise.”
“It (2005) was a great year because it was the first time my job was to write songs,” says Teng from an Easton, Md., cafe where she was having brunch. “I would get up in the morning, go to my rehearsal studio (in Oakland) and play the piano and other instruments and experiment. It was like tinkering in a workshop. I did it six to eight hours a day.”
Teng describes her songwriting as “a percolating process, a slow-drip sort of technique. I gather a lot of thoughts and wait for them to coalesce. Once that moment arrives, then it’s just a matter of doing the work.”
While her earlier work was often slotted somewhere between Ben Folds and Rufus Wainwright, the Larry Klein-produced “Noise” is notably different, says Teng. “The songs are more adventurous and they have more harmonic complexity. ... I left a lot of room for other instruments.”
Like Teng, Peacock released her first album, 1999’s “Real Day,” on her own label. The buzz it generated was strong enough to land her a major-label deal, and in 2002 Sony put out “Alice Peacock,” which featured guest spots by John Gorka, John Mayer and Indigo Girl Emily Saliers.
But ultimately Peacock decided she wanted out.
“I tour my butt off; that’s what I do,” says Peacock from her home in Chicago. “But if I’m asked to compete with folks with a Top 5 single on Adult Contemporary radio and a video without the resources they have, well, don’t complain if I can’t sell records like Sheryl Crow and Michelle Branch. There’s no rancor on my part. It just wasn’t the right fit.”