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Tei Shi:
unanchored melody

© Christelle de Castro

19.05.15
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Valerie Teicher once described her sound as ‘mermaid music.’ Initially a flippant attempt to resist categorisation when unveiling her Tei Shi project online, the definition stuck. Aligning herself with the enchantment of the mythical sea creature, Teicher was onto something. With glistening pastel tones and layers of acapella vocals gently overflowing, her sound nurtured an undercurrent of lust essential to the legend of the Greek siren.

Devised for the release of her first EP, ‘mermaid music’ was indicative of Teicher’s desire to detach from obstructive labels, an unwittingly helpful tool for her internet assorn project. Yet somehow the term manifested in the music, marrying a melancholic mood and bright flourishes of pop sensibility with foggy production and effortless, crystalline coos. For all its yet-to-be-defined, still-amorphous details, it seemed to carry a fascination with duality: certainty and uncertainty, physical and abstract, familiar and strange.

Tei Shi’s output to date has been charmingly homegrown, with just two EPs of work – the first of which was self-released on Soundcloud – and a glacial cover of Beyoncé’s No Angel existing alongside a handful of videos shot by her director friend Nicolas Pesce. The latest, and most epic to date, is a grindhouse-esque montage of grainy footage following Teicher through an abandoned housing complex as she battles a mysterious, tentacled monster alongside an all-female militia.

Kickstarted by the DIY pop revolution, she joins a growing cult of artists who strive to be at once daring and accessible, able to calmly cultivate an international fanbase while defying industry stereotypes. Overthrowing traditional notions of genre with her quietly confident sound, Tei Shi emerges from a sphere of artists, Grimes, FKA twigs and Kelela among them, who’ve explored the extent to which one can meld a hybrid of styles with a singular voice.

Yet, much like those artists, Teicher still feels discouraged by an arbitrary label’s ability to colour the way people interpret sounds. “Mermaid music started off as a joke,” says Teicher, as she greets me from her family’s Bogotá home, a faint tinge of emerald still visible in her platinum bob. “I understand there’s a need for shortcuts, but it would be easy enough to say: here’s new music, it’s good, listen to it. Rather than ‘here’s this future-pop-RnB-Brooklynite’,” she continues. “It was during a time when the term RnB was being thrown around to label any new female singer. To me, those songs were the furthest things from it.”

As we speak, Teicher is running errands in- between rehearsals for her first international tour, with dates across Northern America, Europe, and a handful of UK festival shows. Today marks the official release of the Verde EP, her most polished release to date. It embodies both sonic and personal growth, applying the airy fragility of her voice to a bolder sound. In the lead up to the release, the five tracks had been streaming online, with a few of the songs having been nudged between dashboards for a while now. “It’s very anticlimactic,” she laughs. “When you release music online, you lose that tangible validation and release of actually seeing it. I tend to detach myself from things, step away.”

Tei Shi
© Christelle de Castro

This tendency to disengage from situations has possibly been shaped by Teicher’s life so far, an upbringing punctuated by constant relocation. Born in Argentina, Teicher moved to her parents’ birthplace of Columbia at the age of two, before moving to Vancouver at eight as her family followed her two older sisters to their college destination. Relocating to Columbia for a year at 15, Teicher eventually made her way to music school in Boston. She now calls New York’s China Town home.

It’s an otherness she mines to great effect in her music, her fluid sound the inevitable result of so much darting back and forth between countries. “I always had an outsider perspective,” Teicher explains. “Whether it was in Columbia, being the only Jewish kid in school, moving to Canada and being the only kid who had a Hispanic background, there was always that kind of otherness.” A result of her transient childhood, Teicher felt both inside and outside of her culture, making herself the constant. “When you switch up your environment so drastically, you develop an ability to flow in and out of contexts. At the same time, you develop a very consistent sense of self-identity, so that you have this one thing you can rely on,” she pauses, chuckling at the introspective nature of the subject, “I feel like I’m in therapy right now.”

Having always nurtured an urge to pursue music, Teicher didn’t make the leap until she enrolled in Boston’s Berklee College of Music. What she lacked in knowledge, she was confident she could make up for in passion. Yet upon arrival Teicher withdrew into herself, quickly discouraged by the narrow-minded approach to creativity, and subsequent artistic stifling that such a competitive environment can breed. Teicher burrowed into her own sound in isolation, working on music for three years without showing a single person. “That allowed me to take my own path. I was writing songs in a very private setting and I didn’t have the resources at my disposal to make rich recordings. It forced me to use my voice more to compensate.”

"I wanted to make something hard to pin down. You know the emotion when you feel it, it's not something that can be described in a word"

Honing her style under the dim glow of a laptop, Teicher channeled her feelings of isolation and loneliness, as well as the yearning of the long distance relationship she was in at the time, into an intimate collection of vocal demos, influenced as much by Elliot Smith’s expressive range and Madonna’s pop psyche as the delicate, emotive delivery of 80s Spanish- speaking vocalists, fed by her father’s love of Latin jazz.

A month before graduating, Teicher met fellow Berklee alumni Luca Buccellati. The first person to hear the raw demos she’d been working on, Buccellati proposed they re-record them. “Luca entered at a point where I had already developed my identity, and he was able to make it stronger,” she tells me. His production skills provided the bedrock to Teicher’s sound, where delicate vocal delivery hangs suspended over wandering bass and short bursts of harmonised melody are offset by dousings of warm electronics. “Having someone that was very supportive got me to that point where I was confident enough to put something out,” she explains. “It was only once people responded well to the first song, that I was like, ‘I can do this.’”

Teicher unveiled her project to the world in the summer of 2013 with the Saudade EP. A sophisticated distillation of bedroom pop, the songs refined her ephemeral vocal qualities, while preserving a fly-on- the-wall sense of intimacy. The release highlighted a refusal to be defined, from its content to the EP’s title. The Portuguese word, which, as she gracefully corrects me, is pronounced “souw-dah-dah”, was chosen for its linguistic qualities: it has no direct translation in English, yet describes a specific emotional state, that of profound nostalgic or melancholic longing. “I wanted to make something that wasn’t really describable, that was hard to pin down. You know the emotion when you feel it, but it’s not something that can be described in a word.”

The release attracted a modest but passionate online fanbase. However, its success bred limitations, sparking for Teicher a desire to go beyond what was expected of her: “that I should stay in some kind of box or some kind of category,” she explains. And so Teicher began to pursue her next project, working on a collection of songs that could advance her vocal acrobatics as well as showcase her stylistic breadth as a performer.

The Verde EP, released via independent New York label Mermaid Avenue, signals a new direction, setting the stage for her pop trajectory. “Is that what you want, like the other boys? / Someone you can flaunt like the other toys?” she sings on Bassically, an intense, cathartic ode to empowerment with a main stage-friendly chorus. It’s a personal anthem of sorts, influenced by the juxtaposition of male and female roles.

“As a female you play a psychological game a lot, where you know your capabilities but you downplay yourself in situations, to ease certain relationships around you,” she explains as we touch back in for a catch up, this time from her China Town bedroom. “At the same time, starting out in music, it’s a difficult environment to be in when you have to be very confident and very assertive about yourself. You have to learn to be that way. The challenge is just feeling a need to prove yourself continuously, to overcompensate for something. I wanted to break through those things. I can do this. I can do more than this. I can make a big, powerful, pop song.” Once again, where the EP’s title is concerned, you’re encouraged to read between the lines. “Verde describes something that’s not yet ripened; it’s at an immature phase,” Teicher says. “I feel like I’m very green, I’m still starting to grow.”

With her first international tour and rough plans for an album on the way, Teicher is just making herself comfortable, stretching out her sound above the safety net of her own knowing self-awareness. “Any goal you set for yourself, once you reach it, your goal immediately becomes the next thing, it’s a ceiling that keeps rising. I think there’s no other way to pursue your own music than from a place of complete nakedness, of just being unabashedly honest with whatever you’re trying to do.” While she’s still tapping into just who she wants Tei Shi to be, she’s reluctant to spell out her next move. With a few directions mapped out, it’s uncertain which she’ll take next. Much like her music, you can read in to it what you want to.

Tei Shi appears at Field Day, Victoria Park, London, 6 June. The Verde EP is out now via Mom & Pop / Mermaid Avenue

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