Tei Shi, the Brooklyn-based pop adventurist otherwise known as Valerie Teicher, has just returned from a quick trip overseas when ION catches her on the phone. Though she explains that club stops in London and Paris were the first concerts to show off material from her forthcoming debut LP, Crawl Space, fans were treated to an even more intimate performance the week before via a live Instagram broadcast from her self-described "dirty bathroom." Despite the grungy setting, Tei Shi's at home run-through of the album's "How Far" was given a fresh rating.
"I kept seeing all these little comments and emojis popping up on the screen, which is cute," she says from home, just feet away from the scene of the shoot. "I had the phone taped to the back of my bathroom door. I was sitting on the tub, singing, so I couldn't make out what the comments were. But I could see little hearts and happy faces floating up on the phone."
Tei Shi's music career first got a boost a few years back when posting some private recordings led to the release of 2013's Saudade EP and 2015's similarly brief Verde, collections that mixed contemporary, breathy-voiced R&B minimalism with magenta-hued synth pop. Crawl Space extends the template, adding thick walls of brass, eccentric funk guitar scraping and a wider vocal range to the mix. While Teicher's early offerings found support from friends and fans, she credits her latest impressive transformation to a having stronger belief in herself.
"I didn't really have the assuredness or the confidence in validating what was going on and the response I was getting for myself, I kind of felt like 'oh, this was kind of a fluke!'" she recalls, adding that she gave herself more time to put together Crawl Space, living with the songs for the better part of a year and a half before completing the record. In addition to the sonic evolution, Teicher's headspace shifted after severing herself from some negative surroundings.
"I felt like I was being oppressed by some of the choices that I had made," she says, noting that one personal relationship that had started up ahead of Tei Shi's rise "ended up falling apart throughout the process of making the album." Despite it's slow-groove simmer and sleek synth-bass, plenty of person-to-person tension exists on "How Far," where Teicher reveals with a whispered falsetto, "if it pleases you to see my struggle, I will." But later, "Justify" flips the feel as a fully-empowered funk piece that has Tei Shi refusing to play by anyone's rules but her own. Concluding with a series of fierce cries, the whole track is said to come from "an aggressive place."
"['Justify'] is dealing with these feelings of pressure to be a certain thing, or fit into a certain category, or be defined by these very trivial things. I think that happens a lot when you put yourself out there publicly--There's these immediate things that people like to latch onto. The process of making the album, one of the biggest goals was to break any of those expectations in terms of genre, sound, or what your voice is generally expected to sound like."
As much as Crawl Space is focused on bringing Teicher towards the next step in her career, the album is also distinctly rooted in the artist's past. Namely, a series of vintage recordings made back when her family were living in Vancouver in the early '00s offer a behind-the-scenes look at her aspirations. She notes: "I have these memories of starting to record myself on this old boombox that my sister had passed down to me. I would record myself on these cassette tapes, singing and talking the whole scope of what you do as a kid."
That said, "Bad Singer" is a little glum, with the roughly 10-year-old Teicher suggesting open-heartedly that she can't do anything right. She adds on the recording: "I just hope one day that I can be like Britney Spears." Close to twenty years later, Tei Shi has one-upped those youthful ambitions by coming into her own.
Tei Shi's Crawl Space is out March 31 through Arts & Crafts.
Photo: JJ Medina