Photos by Tonje Thilesen
Tei Shi’s debut album, Crawl Space, opens with the first words she ever committed to tape. Recorded on her older sister’s boombox when she was around nine or ten, we hear Tei Shi – real name Valerie Teicher – receiving muffled tuition from her father in Spanish, before she imparts her newly-acquired knowledge in English. “So you have to talk there? Ok. This is the way to record…”
Born in Buenos Aires, Tei Shi spent her early childhood in Bogotá before relocating to Vancouver aged eight. “I rediscovered the tapes a while back,” she explains today, down the line from her apartment in Manhattan’s China Town. “I thought it was cool because we’re communicating to each other in a mix of Spanish and English; having just moved to Canada, I was trying to adjust and re-form my identity.” You can hear excerpts of these recordings scattered throughout Crawl Space, and they provide a touching and humorous insight into Tei Shi’s vivid imagination. ‘Bad Singer’ is a particular highlight, finding her melodramatically lamenting that she “can’t do anything well”, and hoping that, “one day I can be like Britney Spears.”
“I was a really dramatic child, almost very emo,” she laughs when I quote the line. She also recalls her ten-year-old self as being “emotional and self-deprecating”, possessing “all these big ambitions and big dreams but a lot of self-doubt,” whilst simultaneously being “super-extrovert, thriving off attention”. Nowadays, Tei Shi defines herself as “more of an introvert,” but she’s been hiding it well ever since she first came to prominence in 2013, with her acclaimed debut EP.
Released following the completion of her studies at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Saudade served as a compelling introduction to Tei Shi’s melodic versatility and gossamer-like vocals. In 2015, she improved upon it with the Verde EP, which ranged from the dreamy, minimalist R&B of ‘Get It’ to the blistering electro of ‘Bassically’. The latter remains one of the best pop songs of the decade, and won her vocal support from Grimes, who invited Tei Shi to open for her on tour, and cast her as an assassin in the video for ‘Kill V. Maim’.
She speaks about Grimes in glowing terms, citing her as, “the biggest example to me of how to be a woman in this industry, because she puts her money where her mouth is. She is just so pure and such a fan of art and music and creativity; she has no pretension and no ego about it.” Tei Shi emphasises the importance of visible female role models, because of prevailing gender inequalities within the creative industries.
“Any time a woman accomplishes something, there’s almost this immediate reaction to deconstruct it and devalue it,” she sighs. “Like, ‘Oh, well she worked with these male producers or songwriters so whatever. They’re just shaping her; she’s just the face of this project’… And people assume if you’re owning your body or your sexuality, it’s undermining your artistic integrity… For a long time I refrained from putting myself on the cover of my EPs because I thought people wouldn’t take me seriously as an artist. But there’s power in femininity and sexuality.”
A quick glance at the striking cover art for Crawl Space confirms that Tei Shi conquered that fear – not to mention any residual arachnophobia – though she freely admits that letting a massive spider crawl on her face took courage. “In the days before shooting I kept having these nightmares, but it ended up being a really good experience,” she explains. “Also, there is a part of this album that is very much about taking fears and just forcing yourself into confronting them.”
Bravery inspired the album title too, linking back to a period when Tei Shi was afraid of the dark. “Shortly after we moved to Canada, I used to get really anxious at night and couldn’t fall asleep,” she explains. “So I developed this ritual of going down to the crawl space in our house and just enclosing myself in there for a minute, facing this fear.”
Crawl Space came together in 18 months in Montreal, L.A. and New York, and – like Saudade and Verde – was largely recorded with Luca Buccellati. Running in tandem to the creative process, Tei Shi was forced to redefine her entire identity by the slow decline of a long-term romance. “The relationship that I was in began around the time that I began shaping the Tei Shi project,” she explains, “spanning my whole experience doing this, so it was very tied into the music.”
As a result she sees the album as tracing “a progression”, moving from the “hopefulness and determination” of euphoric call to arms ‘Keep Running’, “all the way to acceptance”, as communicated in the somnolent beauty of album-closers ‘Your World’ and ‘Sleepy’. In-between, Tei Shi experiments with diverse musical identities, hopping between jittery, D’Angelo-esque funk (‘Lift Me’), bass-heavy electro with a predatory, Prince-inspired falsetto (‘Justify’), and what she describes as “straight-ahead pop” on the ludicrously catchy ‘Say You Do’. Having felt previously “pigeonholed as electro-indie”, she made variety her focus, alongside “more live instrumentation and interesting arrangements”.
Reflecting on the process now, Tei Shi recognises how far she’s come: “I think the period of time after I released the last EP and finished the album, I was in a place where I felt like I was being held-back or oppressed by the environment that I had put myself in. It took a lot of courage and a lot of hard decisions to get out of that, so the crawl space is the figurative place that I dug myself out of through the process of making the album”.
“There is a part of this album that is very much about taking fears and just forcing yourself into confronting them”
“Artistically, I think I’ve learned to have more confidence in myself and to not think any minor success I’ve had is a fluke. For a long time I had a lot of doubt, and didn’t know if I really deserved attention; I would almost attribute a lot of my successes to other people, and that kept me from putting myself out there and really pursuing things I wanted.”
When I press Tei Shi for some of these longer-term goals, she describes herself as “tentative to break it down, because I want that to be something that I build along the way,” though she admits to admiring Björk, Frank Ocean and Beyoncé as artists who “have really wide influence on other artists, but create their own worlds”. For the time being, she’s proud of her achievements, particularly in light of unearthing those early tape recordings. “I rediscovered how much I wanted to be a musician when I was young. So the album feels really meaningful to me, like I’m showing it to my younger self.”