It’s a risky move for a recording artist to put a career on hold for three years to return to college. But that’s exactly what ex-Bay Area resident Vienna Teng did in 2010 when she moved to Ann Arbor to earn twin degrees — masters in business and environmental science from the University of Michigan.
Cramming for exams had an unusual retro-hip effect on her songwriting. Her new album, “Aims,” is a sonically adventurous, lyrically thoughtful exercise that combines the essence of vintage Enya and Bonnie Tyler records.
“I had fun with this one — I really did,” says Teng, who appears in San Francisco this weekend.
The musician, who majored in computer science as an undergraduate at Stanford and was hired at Cisco Systems, went on to spend eight years following her dream as a singer-songwriter.
“It felt good — I loved that life,” she says. “But I was ready to forge a new piece of my identity. And I had really gotten into sustainability, how to shape capitalism to the realities of living on one very crowded planet.”
Sure, she could continue recycling, touring in a biodiesel van and writing the occasional environmental protest song. “Or I could actually study this stuff, and do work that has an impact on a bigger scale,” she says.
She chose Michigan because of its stellar degree program in sustainability. Her most eye-opening course: Negotiations. “Because I went into it thinking I was a crappy negotiator — even when I try to buy a car, I get taken advantage of,” she says. “But it was more about how to be an honest human being, and I thought that was amazing. You don’t have to pull any sneaky tricks to be a negotiator. You just have to be really clear on what you want, what you need.”
Those lessons found their way into “Aims” material. “Landsailor” — Teng’s new age-y duet with Glen Phillips — was inspired by a study of shipping routes and her own carbon-footprint calculation.
“Actually writing it all out on a spreadsheet and adding it up really awakened me,” she says.
The uplifting opening anthem “Level Up” is an open invitation to save humanity from extinction, rooted in a depressing seminar she took on climate change. “At one point, the professor asked, ‘How many of you think we’re going to make it out of this thing?’ and nobody raised their hand,” she says, sadly.
The Detroit-based vocalist is glad she dropped out of popdom for so long. “I feel like I did the right thing with my life for the past few years,” she says. “Because I came back to music totally in love with it again.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Independent, 628 Divisadero St., S.F.
When: 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $25 to $55 (sold out)
Contact: (415) 771-1421. www.ticketfly.com