Valerie Teicher’s never been one to sit still for very long.
“I want this new show to feature a lot more live instrumentation – I want it to feel more like musicianship is happening on stage,” she shares over the phone. Teicher speaks with a pleasant degree of familiarity, a warmness that transmits over the line as easily as it does in her music. The vocalist, producer, and songwriter better known as Tei Shi seemingly has an innate ability to connect with people – whether through song or conversation.
It’s noon on a Monday in early May, and Teicher is standing outside of a rehearsal space in Brooklyn, taking a short break from jamming with her new band. Car horns blare in the background, a layered symphony of short beeps and sustained bellows, curiously reminiscent of the densely arranged vocal tracks that mark some of Teicher’s earlier work.
Teicher moved to New York shortly after earning a degree in vocal performance and music theory from the Berklee College of Music, and as many have before her, found the city to be both fertile soil and a mirror for her creativity. Saudade, her first EP, was a collection of six songs that showcased Teicher’s powerful vocals and genre-bending melodic mastery, all strewn over hazy electronic beats. Clocking in just over 20 minutes, the record turned heads for all the right reasons, and opened the door for Teicher to make more of her self described “mermaid music.” Born in Argentina to Colombian parents and raised between Vancouver and Montreal, Teicher’s music is in many ways an extension of this truly global background. And as might be expected, Teicher’s not satisfied with doing more of the same old.
“I want to take this in a new direction, and to veer away from the old material and the electronic elements,” Teicher pauses, as if to collect her thoughts, before doubling down. “So that’s kind of what we’re in the middle of.”
Tei Shi plays at Brooklyn’s Rough Trade May 9 and 10, and Washington, D.C.’s Songbyrd Music House 12. All dates are sold out. Crawl Space is out now on Downtown/Interscope.
Brightest Young Things: Crawl Space marks a shift away from electronic-driven sounds. What was the impetus behind that decision, and what – if anything – has changed for you with regards to the process of crafting songs?
Valerie Teicher: Well, I guess in some ways it has changed a lot and in others not that much. For example, the way I wrote most of the songs on my first EP (Saudade) – I wrote most of those songs just with the vocals. I wrote the melody, and the lyrics, and I recorded the vocal arrangements for those songs in a cappella. I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about recording or production, and that was when I brought Luca (Buccellati) in. At that point we formed these pretty minimalistic, bare productions that were more electronically leaning because we were working just off of a laptop, and that’s all that was possible. For the second EP it was more or less in that vein, but there was more of me writing over an initial instrumental idea or loop.
For the album it was really a combination of things: some of the songs started off as a poem or just lyrics, and I attached melody to it, while others built off a guitar riff Luca put together. But then I started making beats myself and familiarizing myself with that process. There was quite some variety in the creative process in the way this album came together, but I guess the thing that stays consistent is that most of the time it really starts with the vocal, and melody and lyrics, and then it’s built out from there.
BYT: Knowing a bit about your background, you’re what could be described as a “third culture kid” to some degree – you’ve lived in all these different countries and cities and places. As an artist and performer, do you think your art reflects elements of each of these experiences? Is this even something you think about or are conscious of?
VT: Yeah. I think it’s not something I really think about, but it does comes into play. I have moved around a lot, and I’ve lived in all of these different environments – that has affected the kinds of music and the range of music and influences I’ve had in my life. All of those influences – more subconsciously – play into the music I make.
I have a hard time answering that typical question of “who are your main musical influences?” For me, I don’t really feel like I have any particular main influences or artists that I pull from; it’s more of an underlying effect of such a big range of music that I love and I identify with – and all of that plays into what I do in minimal ways. I just really try to make music that reflects my identify, which is hard to pin down and is a lot of different things. I strive to make music that is hard to describe and meshes a lot of different genres, with the vocals being the thing that ties it all together. [Laughs] I hope that answers your question.
BYT: I know you’ve said that you don’t have any main musical influences, but are there any albums from your childhood that you carried with you, emotionally, throughout all of your moves?
VT: [Excitedly] Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot. There’s a lot. [Laughs] I guess it would be hard to pinpoint just one. Shakira’s Pies Descalzos was huge for me, just in like – you know, a young Colombian female singer-songwriter doing so many great things. She was so huge in Colombia, and her music and her whole thing evolved a lot, but that album was really big for me. My older sister used to listen to it nonstop, and I was hearing it all the time when I was really young and living in Colombia, and I kept listening to it when I moved to Canada.
One turning point album for me was The White Album by the Beatles. My parents are big Beatles fans, and I remember trading that album with a friend in school for something I had, and that was a record I listened to all the time. It was my moment when I was like “this is me choosing music that I want to listen to” and not just playing whatever was on at my house or on the radio. Another one would be The White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan – that album was huge for me during my teenage years, as I was getting more into rock music. Usher’s 8701 once I got way more into R&B. I listened to that all day, every day, for like a year.
Oh – and also, like pretty much every Céline Dion album ever – especially after we moved to Canada. My dad loves her. [Laughs] That became just a thing that was always on and I listened to a lot.
BYT: She’s incredible, and the best selling Canadian artist ever, right? I was listening to “It’s all Coming Back to Me Now” a few weeks ago – I think it samples Mahler, and when I realized it it just blew my fucking mind. It blew my mind.
VT: Yeah! It’s crazy. The intro to that song is super long, beautiful, and incredible. It’s kind of crazy because that song was such a hit, but it’s also very unorthodox for a big pop ballad in that vein.
BYT: As a minority – a Canadian woman of Hispanic heritage living in the United States – how do you stay sane living in Trump’s America? I’m sorry, I feel like I ask this question in every interview, but I can’t let go of this as a person of color myself. How do you stay above water?
VT: [Sighs] I don’t know. It’s a weird balance between wanting to stay informed on what’s going on but also avoiding the news a lot of the time. It’s a strange thing to do, but it’s the balance I’m trying to find – not being disconnected but giving myself some space to be in my world. I feel like I’m surrounded by friends of mine who are very different from one another but all care about similar things. We talk about this a lot, and I think that’s probably the main thing – being surrounded by good people is the best way to stay in a solid head space. You want to be able to talk about these things, and be able to think things through and feel things through. That’s helpful for me.
It’s also somewhat strange because I’m not an American citizen. Having my Canadian citizenship is a blessing at this time, and there’s a part of me that feels very much one foot in and one foot out, and I know I can go back to Canada whenever. There are a lot of things that Canada does really well are the same things that are very messed up in the U.S., but I know that’s a pretty self-centered stance. I don’t know. It can be pretty discouraging, particularly in a city like New York. It’s hard to see so many of the issues happening in the country in an up close way, but at the same time, there’s a sense of positive solidarity here.
BYT: What are your ambitions for the next year? Where do you hope to take this project?
VT: My ambitions with this album are that as many people as possible will discover it and take to it. I want every album and every year to be a period of growth – and exponential growth as to what I’m able to do the each time around. I hope that I can really take this album to a place where it’s widely heard and I can be touring and playing shows to bigger audiences.
By the time I’m in a position to make a second album, my ideal situation is to be able to call the shots and be able to work with whomever I want to work with, and really make something amazing. I’d like to crossover more to have mainstream appeal, but I recognize that the music I make isn’t your typical top-40 pop record. [Laughs] Striking that balance is my long-term goal. But for the next year? Just getting this album out as much as possible.