Tei Shi: "I used to sit in my room for hours and sing"
Tei Shi has dreamed of being a pop star since she was a little girl - and now it’s becoming a reality.
Published: 8:46 am, March 29, 2017
In the two years since Tei Shi's ‘Verde' EP - which boasted viral breakthrough ‘Bassically' and led to support tours with Grimes and a slot at Coachella last year - Buenos Aires-born Valerie Teicher has grown to accept her talent. "After I had put out that first thing and people liked it, I felt encouraged," she begins. While she didn't expect it would attract so much attention, Valerie felt that ‘Bassically' was something special. "I thought it would translate more widely than a lot of the stuff I put out before that. It was a cool gateway into my other music," she says, adding that the hype didn't change her creatively. "It gave me the understanding that I could create something that came naturally to me, that was interesting and cool and would appeal to a big demographic of people. Before then, I didn't think it was possible, but that was the moment when I said ‘I'm going to try and do this'."
Growing up on a diverse range of music - veering between her mum's love of The Beatles and Bob Dylan, her dad's passion for "powerhouse divas" like Whitney Houston and Celine Dion, and listening to Michael Jackson and The Cure with her three older sisters - "there was a bit of everything," Valerie remembers, "it was kind of all over the place." Then, throughout her teenage years, she rediscovered the classic rock of Nirvana and The Cure before having an "emo phase; Death Cab for Cutie are still great," she beams. But it was during her years at university that she started getting into electronic music and re-loving R&B – two styles of music that feed into her work as Tei Shi.
Discussing her personal approach to songwriting and recording, it took some time for Valerie to feel comfortable with sharing the music she'd made. "I just had to take that leap of putting something out there, because, even though I was writing and recording things, I hadn't shown them to anyone. I never really wanted to thrust something on a friend or a family member and for them to have to pretend to like it," she laughs, describing it as "an embarrassing, exposing thing. It took me a while to get the reassurance or confidence to stand behind my music and acknowledge myself as an artist. I think it takes a lot of balls to claim that…"
Although music was a "lifelong desire", she never quite believed it could become a career. To set the wheels in motion, a young Valerie would write and record songs/words/arguments on her sister's boombox - some of these childhood recordings and memories feature as interludes throughout her debut album. "When I was really young my ultimate dream was to be a pop singer," Valerie recalls. "I used to sit in my room for hours and sing and record myself and write little songs. I would just talk, as well - it was like a confessional diary. My family members would come into the room and we would have conversations, or I would get into fights with my sister, and it's all recorded on these tapes."
After rediscovering one of the tapes a few years ago, Valerie went home to Canada mid-way through recording the album and dug out more of the tapes. "I picked out bits and pieces that I thought would be good for the album. For me, it's an interesting juxtaposition of my life and my voice when I was young, being like ‘I want all these things, I want to be a singer' but also being very self-hating and self-deprecating. That self-doubt that I still have a lot of the time, and I think we all have in some way, and contrasting that with a song that I'm really confident about. Overall, for me, it felt like I was giving this album as a gift to my younger self who dreamed of doing this…"
Reflecting on the year-and-a-half process of making her debut record, ‘Crawl Space', Valerie calls it "a crazy experience. Realising that this is what I'm getting to do with my life, it brought me back to that feeling when I was little… I rediscovered a more raw, natural love for it." It's something that Valerie thinks was "lost a little" with her last EP. "I didn't expect to be on the road so much after it… my life was a little bit all over the place coming out of it. I lost the enjoyment of it a little bit, and got overwhelmed with the different things surrounding the music," she remembers. Making the album, then, helped reignite her passion for creating music – though it's been a long time coming. "I don't know why it took so long," she laughs. "I wanted to pay very close attention to detail; I'm involved in every step and every choice. I wanted to take time, and now I feel like I'm coming out of that black hole."
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For Valerie, ‘Crawl Space' is about "coming into your own as an artist," whereas on her two EP's – recorded within weeks – "I was just dipping my toe. I just put it out there and didn't think too much about it, but when I started thinking about making an album something changed. I'd spent all this time touring and doing this; I just gained more confidence. I became more aware of what I wanted." The result is a debut album that's packed with different sounds, styles and emotions – one that'll have you checking if it's still the same record every few tracks. "I was trying to make an album with a bunch of different genres," she says of her ambition for the record; "I wanted every song to sound quite different from the last." Valerie's definitely succeeded: fusing jazz, electronic, soul, R&B and pop, ‘Crawl Space' surprises at every turn while effortlessly defying expectation.
The album's vibrant lead single, ‘Keep Running', is "a call to arms to someone you love, to take on and confront all of life's obstacles together", she says. Having written it shortly after the release of her last EP, it was a natural progression into the record. "I had it floating around forever, and I knew I wanted it to be the first thing I released from the album. I didn't exactly know what I wanted the album to be, or where it was headed, but it felt like a good passageway from ‘Basically' and that EP." It's follow-up, ‘How Far', is more sultry and smooth, about "the process of attempting to change one another in a relationship, and the final desperate point - the last attempt before acceptance."
For the first time in her career, Valerie feels as though she is "in front" of her music. "On the EPs, everything was more abstract: the music itself, the production was more ethereal and washed out. I never had my face on the covers. Whereas this project is much more attached to me personally, which I think took me some time to get comfortable with." Although there isn't an overarching theme to the album, Valerie thinks it's about "fully accepting and being serious and passionate" about what she does. "There was a lot of stuff going on in my life – half way through there was an ending of a relationship that had lasted for many years. I'd been in that relationship for my whole time as Tei Shi - the songs relate to that, the ending of relationships and the falling apart. But also the coming out and empowerment of it…"
In terms of the album's title, ‘Crawl Space' represents Valerie's emotions over the last few years. "The title sums things up for me because I felt that I was stifled in a lot of ways. Just cramped within the way that I had chosen to do things and some of the creative choices that I'd made and some of the people that I'd surrounded myself with," she considers. "Throughout the album, it happened that I was making a lot of important decisions to change a lot of those things. The album really tracks that, and the crawl space is that emotional space of being suffocated and then coming out of it."
Tei Shi’s debut album ‘Crawl Space’ is out 31st March.