Tei Shi's Music Is R&B Bedroom-Pop from Another Dimension
This Bogotá-born Brooklyn-based singer is a truly formidable talent.
Last night I had a nightmare where my emotional bereavement was so tangible I cried myself awake. My sheets were panic-sweat damp and tears were sliding down my temples so fast my ears were fast becoming shallow, salty pools. Now, hours later, my sleeptime narrative—dredged from the silt of my subconscious—is hazy, but the unease remains, like a white thumbprint slowly fading on red summer-crisped skin. Tei Shi’s music is not unlike a dream, that is to say her compositions leave an impression, they linger but her music is nebulous and holds a twist of unreality that is both appealing and unsettling. Her lyrics are starkly romantic and whimsically obtuse; sometimes she lets a single melody stand naked and vulnerable, at other points she layers and loops her voice, and then layers it all again so that her songs are a spectral chorus—Tei Shi’s image in an infinity mirror mouthing in unison forever after. It’s R&B bedroom pop from an entirely different dimension.
Born in Argentina to Colombian parents Tei Shi—or Val as she’s known to family and friends—is the youngest of four daughters. Now 24-years-old, her life up to this point has been characterized by international itinérance: at two she moved to Bogotá, before her parents uprooted the family and headed to Vancouver when she was eight.
“It was actually a pretty seamless transition because when you’re that age your life is your family,” she explains. “And then you’re doing what you’re doing anywhere.”
At 15 she was back in Colombia—“That was a culture shock, it’s just such a different reality over there”— before returning to Vancouver for one more year, eventually making her way to Boston to attend the acclaimed Berklee School of Music. Now she’s put down roots in Brooklyn and Val is Tei Shi, a composer whose immediate music circle encompasses local music makers like Yellerkin and fellow Berklee alum Luca Buccellati (who serves as her producer and collaborator).
It’s been a hectic twelve months: her first ever shows were at CMJ last fall, followed by debut EP, Saudade, which dropped at the tailend of last year (read Noisey’s gushing summation here). She took on the BBQ madness of SXSW, played her biggest show to date—at NYC’s Bowery Ballroom with Glass Animals in July—released one svelte cover of Beyoncé’s “No Angel” (below), and generally spent time honing her live sound, because as much music does these days, this project started off in four-walled isolation.
You can catch Tei Shi on Thursday 9/25 at the Paul Smith store in New York. She performs as part of a string of intimate shows at Paul Smith locations across the world. Other artists taking part Kele Okereke (Bloc Party), Singtank, and Fryars. (Sign up here. She's also opening for Shy Girls at Mercury Lounge on 10/12.) More details below, but first here’s a chat with Tei Shi, which took place some months ago, before bleach turned her dark brown locks platinum…
Noisey: I have this idea that the Saudade EP is all about one person and it’s a kind of torrid love affair. Was it? Is it?
Tei Shi: No, actually. A couple of the songs I wrote two years ago or more and the others are from about 12 months ago. I wrote “Heartshaped Birthmark” two and half years ago and then also “Sickasfuck” was from that period. There’s probably two different people in terms of the love themes, but a lot of the lyrics that I think you’d assume would be romantic aren’t necessarily based on a guy, they’re broader than that.
I guess just general interactions with people. In “M&Ms” that one line—“I had a dream that you left me, I deserved it”—was actually based on a very vivid dream that I had about my dad where he left my family. It was so dark, and for some reason in the dream it was my fault. So I woke up and wrote that line and it really doesn’t have anything to do with a lover.
What was your first exposure to music?
I was definitely surrounded by music from a young age because my mom put me in dance. So I did ballet from when I was three until I was 14. Less so the music side, but I was still performing. My parents are not musicians at all but there was always music in my house because I have two way older sisters who were teenagers in the 90s so I had the whole influence of them listening to Michael Jackson and Madonna. I also think moving around a lot exposed me to lots of different types of music. I always kept journals throughout my life and I would write little songs in my journals when I was seven. I still remember them now: they were all about love. Or what I imagined love to be. Very dramatic, very “You have betrayed me!”
There was a period of time when my sister and I would put blank tapes in her boombox and just record ourselves talking. I started to record myself singing and making up songs. I kept my songs very much to myself though until last year really.
How do you feel onstage now versus when you first started?
The contrast is crazy. I was so insanely nervous and anxious during CMJ. Not only were those the first shows showcasing the Tei Shi project, and not only was it the craziness of CMJ, but it was the first time I ever performed like that… I remember feeling very anxious and in my head during the shows. I was definitely really reserved on stage as a result. My set up at the time was also really different, and I was stuck behind a big keyboard the whole show. I had these vocal samples that I triggered off the keyboard, and I had to hold down the keys for really long loops so I was never free from that one spot. That made it difficult to really get into the music and interact with the audience.
Now, I just hold the mic in my hand and move around the stage and every now and then I come back to my station where I press and turn things. Every show I play I feel more comfortable, and I find myself being able to let go and feel the music and actually have some sort of semblance of performance. Ha! Maybe I'm being a bit harsh on past me, but I definitely am having a lot more fun now. I still get nervous as shit though.
How has your songwriting progressed since Saudade? Can you tell me about any new songs?
I keep a pretty constant flow of songwriting going on, and I've been gradually working on things since Saudade up to this point. I have a pretty big array of material to work with, but I’m really trying to structure another EP out of it. I feel like the stuff I'd been writing after Saudade is along the same vein in its essence, but definitely a lot brighter and more upbeat. The songs on Saudade are pretty mellow and brooding, I wrote those throughout a long period of being in school and being pretty isolated and somber.
I surprised myself in the past few months because the stuff I was writing was a lot happier, and I've kind of approached songwriting from a less self-indulgent, emo place, and more from an angle of wanting to write something that grooves and will make people move. Not to say that it's super dancey music, but it's a lot more playful and bright. I have a few songs that I'm really excited about, but I will probably be over them in like a month!
How do these differ from the EP?
They just feel lighter. They're probably a result of me feeling a lot happier and in control of my life than I ever have before. I also had something totally new enter my mentality when it comes to making music that I never had before, which is the element of 'What might people want to hear.' I always just wrote entirely what I wanted to before, and even though that's definitely still true, I take into account what might feel good to people, what might make them dance in a live setting, what might make someone laugh or smirk, or something like that. The factor of knowing that people will hear this stuff is different than before, when I didn't even really think I would release any of those old songs. The songs are also a lot more developed instrumentally, while the stuff on Saudade was largely a capella.
What's been inspiring you lately and getting you excited?
I'm really excited about this new music and the prospect of a whole new project. I seek to exude is versatility, I like changing things up and exploring different roles. That really excites me and this new stuff is definitely an extension of Saudade, but in a different direction at the same time. I'm just really excited to dive into a more fun and liberating phase. I've also been thinking a lot about visual stuff/video ideas for these songs, creating that whole side of the project feels really exciting.
Aside from the music stuff, things that have been inspiring and exciting me lately are barbeque food (I just discovered the amazingness that is good BBQ) and Hitchcock films. My friend Nick has been walking me through the whole repertoire one film at a time, and I'm so into it.
For a chance to go see Tei Shi 9/25 in NYC sign up here. Below is the full Paul Smith live schedule which includes performances in London, Milan, and Paris.
Paul Smith Live: Oscar
Thursday September 11th
6:30PM – 8:30PM
Paul Smith, Beak Street
Paul Smith Live: Fryars
Thursday September 18th
6:30PM – 8:30PM
Paul Smith, Floral Street
Paul Smith Live: Kele
Friday September 19th
6:30PM – 8:30PM
Paul Smith, Via Manzoni
Paul Smith Live: Tei Shi
Thursday September 25th
6:30PM – 8:30PM
Paul Smith, Greene Street
Paul Smith Live: Singtank
Thursday October 2nd
6PM - 8PM
Paul Smith, Boulevard Raspail
Tei Shi in some rather chic Paul Smith PJ-styled attire.
Kim is an Editor at Noisey and she's on Twitter - @theKTB