A vocal heaves and lifts, gliding around the bend, rises up gradually, and hovers for a moment of pure rapture. The musicality is often crisp, sometimes airy, phrases broaching R&B origins. But the greatest gift of Tei Shi, born Valerie Teicher, might be her natural ability to transmute personal stories into sticky pop hooks. “I want people to feel something from my music, and feel the power in that,” she says. Considering the results, that isn’t a lot to ask for, as Tei Shi has been on a path of self-exploration for the past five years. Although her full-length debut, Crawl Space, arrives later this month, she’s been a constant presence since her Saudade EP in 2013 and Verde in 2015 put her on the radar as one of the most exciting new voices in music.
Reeling from destructive relationships and faced with fighting through it, Tei Shi’s video for “How Far” explores the cycles of emotional strife, relationship difficulty, and struggle for self-confidence – all starting from Teicher climbing out of the boot of a car. It’s this cinematic approach that has brought her music into focus, as well as her own development into a unique musical voice that bridges R&B, pop, electronic, indie rock, and more. The album’s title ties to a “crawl phase” she describes as taking the time to remind herself that life and work comes in a continuous evolution. She carves that definition out beautifully in “Crawl”, showing the power that comes with patience: “You crawl, then you walk, then you run the show.”
We sat down with Tei Shi to discuss the evocative new video, her childhood recordings, the difficulty of being pigeonholed in the music industry, and what it feels like to have a spider crawl on your face.
So this might sound a little odd, but I feel like this is the first time we’re seeing you? Vulnerable, open, and honest. Do you feel like you’ve been hiding a little bit of yourself?
Tei Shi: Yeah! A big change in mindset and goal of this album was to have me be more present in it, be musically and visually more open toward it. I hadn’t really found that confidence, or willingness to present myself in a way that was more personal. I wanted my vocals to be really clear and not hidden or washed out under layers. I think the EPs I released were me figuring things out; they really became just personal projects that were very DIY.
What do you think then is the common misconception about you so far?
Tei Shi: I definitely felt like I became pigeonholed in the ‘indie electronic’ and ‘indie R&B’ thing. That makes sense with the way that those EPs sounded, but I also think it was just the result of that blogosphere world with buzzwords labeled in a trendy way. These labels can tend to minimize how we’re perceived. With this album, I wanted to show the diversity of my musical influences and the diversity of my vocals. I wanted to represent a variety of different genres and different perspectives. I really wanted this music to push those boundaries. Now I’ve experimented more with my voice and become more confident as a vocalist, not shying away from using my voice in a stronger, more powerful way. I wanted to show that diversity and the ability to go from genre to genre, or environment to environment, without challenging people to embrace all of those. It really was a process of shedding things that were holding me back, like being too shy to put myself on the cover.
“A big change in mindset and goal of this album was to have me be more present in it, be musically and visually more open” – Tei Shi
The cover of the album should come with some sort of warning sign for anyone who has daymares about spiders!
Tei Shi: Yeah. (Laughs) I know.
Crawling on faces! Obviously that’s a visual representation that might equate directly to fear and conquering those fears. What have you been afraid of so far, other than coming into your own?
Tei Shi: That’s an interesting question. The fears or anxieties are kind of never ending in life in general, but especially when you’re creating things and putting them out into the world. The biggest fear is always just putting myself out there, pursuing what I’m doing. It was always a dream of mine, and I always wanted to be doing this, but I found it to be this elusive thing that was unrealistic. Throughout the past few years it’s become more and more of a reality, and I’ve done a really good job of not really taking into account any external energy into the music or what I make. There’s a lot of things that can be discouraging or difficult when putting yourself out there, especially being a woman in the music industry, there are other challenges. I think there’s a constant fear of being misunderstood, misrepresented and underestimated. That’s one of my biggest things, just the fear of being underestimated. I always try to approach things as if people have an idea of me that I can overcome.
But I think there’s a lot of humility in getting where you need to go at a slower pace – taking the metaphor of ‘Crawl’ – what was the starting point to this collection of songs? They don’t necessarily sound as if you’re heartbroken. Actually, you sound quite defiant, as though you’ve made up your mind but the thought still lingers.
Tei Shi: I was in a weird place where I felt like a lot of the things that I had surrounded myself by and a lot of the relationships I had surrounded myself with were bringing me down, and I felt like I was in a negative place and being held back or held down by some of these surroundings, these relationships. The album tracks the progress of me shutting a lot of that away and shedding a lot of that baggage. During that time there was a romantic relationship that came apart. Like you said, I don’t think the album’s necessarily about heartbreak, because the first songs I wrote started from a place where I was really hopeful toward making that relationship work, and then over time I just had to accept that it was over.
Which feels very true during your new video ‘How Far’. It’s brilliantly dark and captivating. Do you have acting experience?
Tei Shi: Not really! Acting is something I’ve always admired and found appealing and wanted to explore a little bit of. I did some theatre when I was in high school, but I don’t think that really counts. It’s very different, the experience of having a camera in front of your face, it’s so strange. This time around we definitely wanted it to be more of a story, more action than a strict music video. By the time we shot it, the intention was there so I was able to go with it. It was a lot of fun to do.
So, it starts how it ends, almost. You break free after being abducted, trying to escape something that’s caused you physical or emotional pain, but then you find yourself getting caught up in it again.
Tei Shi: The directors that I worked with, Dream Tiger, are two really good friends of mine, and they really picked up on what the song’s emotional content was for me. It’s really dealing with a point in a relationship that becomes really destructive, really negative and harmful, and the way that we often fall into those cycles out of comfort, custom, or habit. I was at a point in a relationship where I was acknowledging all the negativity. There’s something about the song that feels kind of haunting, there’s this other presence that I’m interacting with. We all just really wanted to do a car chase scene! In the end it kind of leaves it open to whatever happens next, representing this cycle. Like you were saying, it ends where it begins, and it’s this struggle and power dynamic, but then it just cycles back into itself. That is something that we experience in a lot of relationships that are maybe not the best for us.
Do you feel sensuality and sexuality relate to this album too? Songs like ‘Baby’, where you sing, ‘To lose you is something I refuse to do,’ and ‘Justify’ find you rebelling against justifying your age, name, face and brain.
Tei Shi: Oh, yeah! Along with becoming more confident in myself and in my voice I have this desire to be aggressive as a rebellion against my insecurities. It’s really fun to bring out that sexuality and be more playful. It’s very intimate, and really cool and powerful to use that. For me, I didn’t feel like I did that at all in my music. I was afraid to because I felt like maybe people wouldn’t take me seriously as a writer if I were more upfront in that way.
It is powerful. So then how significant is your stage name, your persona?
Tei Shi: It’s great to be able to separate yourself from yourself. I don’t know if I feel that detached from it, for some people, it almost opens up this whole other side to their personality. For me it’s about not feeling like what I do as Tei Shi defines me. It just opens up that ability to separate myself a little bit, my career and artistic energy.
There are two tiny spoken word interludes during the album, titled ‘Bad Girl’ and ‘Bad Singer’, affirmations recited by a little girl. Who is the little girl?
Tei Shi: That’s me when I was young. (Laughs) I used to record myself on tapes, singing, talking to myself. I rediscovered those tapes over the last couple of years and wove some of those pieces into the album.
“I think there’s a constant fear of being misunderstood, misrepresented and underestimated. That’s one of my biggest things, just the fear of being underestimated” – Tei Shi
Wow! It made me a little teary because she’s doubting herself but with a sense of hope. And then you say, ‘I could be Britney Spears.’ Did you believe that?
Tei Shi: I think of that memory when I was recording myself in my room, as something very similar to what I’m doing now: expressing myself without it being towards anybody else. The moments where I doubt myself and get down on myself, but then come back and own it are things I still feel. Obviously in a different way, because when you’re a kid, everything is so much more magnified and dramatic. But the sentiment behind those tapes still resonates.
I understand now why this album is a representation of the different stages in your life. The song ‘Como Si’, which is sung in Spanish, is a beautiful ode to your heritage.
Tei Shi: It’s great. I think that Spanish is such a beautiful language. Writing in Spanish is trickier for me than writing in English, but I do write poems and songs in Spanish, and that was one that I first wrote as a poem, and then put it to melody. I hadn’t released anything in Spanish yet, but it was definitely a big part of my identity and I wanted to show that. Although we left Colombia when I was eight, when I was 15 we moved back there. I lived there until I was 17, and then moved back to Canada. My parents have been back in Colombia for the past ten years. I go there to see them a lot, and my mum’s whole side of the family is there. Canada is home in a lot of ways, but there are a lot of things there that I felt on the outside of and I would always feel like there was a big part of me that didn’t necessarily fit there. There are pieces of me scattered around. I think that that is how I approach my music as well. My response is never to internalize and be sad about it. My response is to come back with power to challenge that. You can speak about obstacles and struggles, but it’s much better to present yourself as the thing that you want to see in this world.
Polydor release Crawl Space on March 31
Follow Lior Phillips on Twitter here @LiorPhillips