Taiwanese born  jazz singer Emy Tseng has serenaded the ears of  many with the sounds of Brazil in her time . An academic, she has attended not only Brown University but also MIT studying Math and Physics. Though classically trained, upon moving to New York she began focusing on Jazz and found a love for Brazilian Jazz within that . With a show coming up at The Metropolitan Room in New York this Saturday we were  happy that she was able to find the time to answer some of our questions.

Emy Tseng

Emy Tseng

BN: Tell us about Taiwan , the country of your birth , did you spend any significant time there?

ET: My family moved from Taiwan to the U.S. when I was a baby.  I’ve visited a number of times and have family still in Taipei, but have not spent significant time there.  I grew up in Seattle and I lived in the Bay Area for a number of years. My version of the Mamas and Papas song “California Dreamin’” reflects on some longing to be out West. I still feel like the West Coast is home.

BN: What was your first contact (if you can remember) with Brazilian jazz? and what about it enamored you to pursue the genre?

ET: Over 12 years ago, I heard this album “Casa”, a collection of Tom Jobim songs, by singer Paula Morelenbaum, cellist Jacques Morelenbaum and pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto (Morelenbaum2 / Sakamoto), and became obsessed with it.  Her clear voice, the music’s melancholy wistfulness (“saudade” in Portuguese), lush harmonies and complex rhythms.  It caused me seek out more Brazilian music.  I lived in NY at the time and was lucky to hear Luciana Souza live many times.  I especially loved when she played with guitarist Romero Lubambo.

However, it wasn’t until 2006, when I lived in San Francisco that I started studying Brazilian music seriously – with a great Bay Area vocalist Sandy Cressman and the pianist Marcos Silva who played with Flora Purim and Airto for many years.  Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to study with some top Brazilian musicians in NY including the bassist Nilson Matta from Trio da Paz and drummer Vanderlei Pereira, and go to Brazil a couple times to hear and study the music

BN: You seem to have an interest in Math, having studied it at university , it is said that musicians often have good aptitude to math and vice versa, do you think this is so ? and if so why ?

ET: I noticed that a number of musicians, particularly jazz musicians have a math or technical background.  For example, both Ivan Lins and João Bosco have engineering degrees.  Analytical skills, enjoyment of problem solving, the ability for deep concentration are perhaps qualities common in both fields.

BN: You cite ” Everything But the Girl” as one of your influences , what about them or their music connects with you ?

ET: I love their acoustic music, especially the albums “Idlewild” and “Amplified Heart”.  Tracey Thorn’s voice is haunting, clear yet rich, with a jazz influence.  My favorite songs are little bittersweet vignettes.  Before I got into Brazilian music, I mainly listened to acoustic folk-pop, so other favorites from that time include Suzanne Vega, Jonatha Brooke and the Story.  I love the sound of voice and guitar.


BN: What do you think is the most important part of the musical process?

ET: Although I’m drawn to more technically demanding music as both a listener and performer, ultimately music needs to connect emotionally with people.  Music should reflect and communicate some emotional truth from the musician.  The musicians I most enjoy, play their music in a spirit of generosity and sharing.  I hope my music resonates with people emotionally – even if they don’t understand Portuguese, that they can get the gist of the song’s story and feelings being expressed.

BN: You are a well educated woman having studied at not only Brown but also MIT , if not music , which profession would you pursue ?

ET: Actually, I do have another profession.  I currently work at the Department of Commerce on policies and programs that help disadvantaged communities access the Internet.  In fact, I left my software engineering career fifteen years ago to work on digital divide issues and since then worked at the City of San Francisco and a couple foundations in addition to the Dept of Commerce.  I love my job, but at times find it challenging to balance that and my music career. But it’s a good challenge to have.

BN: What was it like self-producing your album “Sonho”?

ET: It was definitely a learning process.   It took a while to choose the songs.  I tried to include music that may be unfamiliar to people. The Brazilian music spans over 40 years, and music genres from bossa nova, MPB  (Música Popular Brasileira) to a song by a contemporary guitarist/composer, Chico Pinheiro.  Working out the arrangements with guitarist Matvei Sigalov and bassist Leonardo Lucini was a lot of fun.  Building out from the template of the songs was maybe the most enjoyable part of the process.

Then I’d never been in the recording studio before. You’re very exposed in the recording process, both emotionally and technically. The recording process picks up every little nuance and subtlety – I think this is especially true for acoustic music. My producer Marco Delmar was a great coach. He helped me go much deeper into the songs.  It helped to work with musicians I’d often performed with in DC.  Plus they’re great musicians.

However, working with different arrangers and coordinating 10 musicians over multiple sessions, the PR and album release process was a big project-management endeavor.  I’m happy the way the album turned out, however, I hope to be more organized and prepared next time.

BN: If you could describe yourself in two words , what would they be?

ET: That’s hard to answer myself, so I sent the question to some good friends who know me well.   Their answer was “joyful traveler”.  “Joyful” because “you do an amazing job of not taking life too seriously” and “Traveler because you have a courageous and adventurous spirit .”