Interview

Q&A: Tei Shi On Childhood, Creative Pressures, And Putting A Tarantula On Her Face

In a big way, Tei Shi’s Crawl Space is an album about confronting fears. The title originates from Valerie Teicher’s biggest phobia as a kid. Suffering from insomnia and a gripping fear of the dark, she decided to confront her fear by enduring the crawl space in her house. For Teicher, the crawl space has grown into not just a place for exorcising demons but a symbol that exposure is a strength.

Sonically, Teicher’s latest music adheres to those lessons. Crawl Space, the 26-year-old’s debut album as Tei Shi, contains cavernous vocal manipulations and eerie synths that mimic the mystifying depths of twilight. But rather than taking on the fear of the dark, the album battles her present day insecurity: unapologetically becoming the artist she wants to be.

More intimate and confident than Tei Shi’s early EPs — 2013’s Saudade and 2015’s VerdeCrawl Space places Teicher at the center of attention, highlighting her innovative strengths and personal frailties. Growth can be painful and enlightening, claustrophobic or empowering. For Tei Shi’s Crawl Space it is all of the above.

After testing the waters on her EPs, Crawl Space is Teicher’s transparent beginning chapter, one that anchors itself on her origins. Fragments of found recordings from her 10-year-old self guide the album, and they are more relevant to the emotional depth of the record than they are nostalgic checkpoints. Teicher’s been writing songs since she was eight years old, letting the tapes be evidence that “singer-songwriter” has always been a part of her identity. They are proof that our baseline emotions, hopes, dreams, fears don’t really change that much as we get older, even though we like to think that life is a linear progression.

In addition to incorporating her earliest memories, Teicher embraced another part of herself on Crawl Space by releasing her first song in Spanish. Born to Colombian parents in Buenos Aires, she grew up between Bogotá and Vancouver and later spent time in Boston studying at Berklee College of Music. By simply existing in a different language, “Como Si” continues the LP’s pattern of exploring the cracks of her identity.

The first single from Crawl Space, “Keep Running,” has Teicher’s signature breathy vocals and hypnotically sexy beats like Verde’s “Bassically.” It feels familiar. However, other tracks offer a shocking but refreshing lens to understand the Brooklyn-based songwriter and producer. “Justify” opens with a spine-chilling refracted beat with minor drumming details in the back, before Teicher comes in with sensual and confident vocals. It’s empowering and full of rage — evocative and jarring just like the star of the album’s cover art, Charlotte the tarantula. Vulnerability has always been a central part of Teicher’s music, whether instrumentally somber or lyrically intimate. Crawl Space opens up the fragile wounds with more energy and experimental range.

In the process of making Crawl Space Teicher also found herself at the end of a relationship. “How Far” reflects on the limits of a relationship harmful to both parties. How far can something really go before it breaks everyone involved? The song exposes change as destructive but the energy from the lost love is neither created nor destroyed but transformed into moxie for a new album. Teicher took an ambitious leap from the silky and more celestial production of her previous work, landing gracefully and stronger than before. The result is a shedding of skin: enforcing her identity while remembering bits of her past, metamorphosing into a different stage of life both musically and mentally.

Teicher walked about in Brooklyn as we talked on the phone on International Women’s Day. We chatted about the limitations of labeling yourself, the empowerment of female sexuality, and how her forthcoming record helped her restructure her identity. Britney Spears came up somewhere along the way. Read our Q&A below.

STEREOGUM: How does it feel to finally have a debut full-length set to go?

TEI SHI: It feels good in the sense that it feels like a step beyond what I’ve done before. It feels good to have something that I’ve worked on for so long and put a lot of time and detail into. I’m really proud of it. It’s also kind of a weird, surreal thing that there isn’t a tangible way or feeling that it is done and out. It’s done but obviously not out yet. It’s a weird experience just letting go of something that you’re so attached to. I think once it comes out I’ll be able to feel a little bit more, I don’t know, any way about it.

STEREOGUM: When and where was the album primarily constructed?

TEI SHI: It was mostly done throughout a year and a half. It was kind of done in three phases. The first phase was when I started writing a bunch of the stuff and just took some time off and went to Montreal for two months. I did a lot of preliminary writing and forming ideas there. The second phase was in towards the end of the summer in 2015. Then I went to LA for two months and that was where I finished writing the rest of it and started some of the production stuff. That’s when the album came together and I had all the songs ready. The rest was done in New York pretty much for the first six months of 2016. That was production and recording and rerecording stuff and bringing in musicians. That was all here in New York and then the album got wrapped up at the end of the summer last year.

STEREOGUM: I know you produce and write your songs, but did you collaborate with anyone on the album?

TEI SHI: Yeah, for sure. I write all the songs. I worked on the majority of the album with Luca Buccellati, who I worked with on a bunch of the stuff on the past EPs. He co-produced a few tracks. One of the tracks I did with a different producer who I’ve never worked with before. I brought in a couple other people who did additional production on some of the songs. For the most part it was very much in the same vein of how I’ve worked in the past.

STEREOGUM: Was your mindset the same going into a full-length versus a shorter release?

TEI SHI: I guess the way that I approach making music was the same, but I think there was a very different mindset or intention behind making a full-length. The two EPs that I put out before were both just more condensed moments in time. The first EP I ended up putting it out there and got a good response, but there was zero intention or expectation behind it. The second one was definitely beyond that in that I knew that I was going to put it out and had a better grasp on what I wanted to do with it but it was still made in like a month. I didn’t fixate on it too much. But going into the album it was a lot more focused, and I had a clearer idea of what I wanted with it from the beginning. I took my time with it and really just sat with it for a while working on it. With the EPs I was still kind of testing the waters and dipping my toe. With the album I had a sense of this is what I’m doing and taking it more seriously.

STEREOGUM: You’ve said before that on the EPs you were in the background. You were not being explicit about being a singer and an artist. Do you think that there is a tension between those two labels?

TEI SHI: I think there’s a lot of layers to that. I think something about being a singer that people kind of immediately jump to, it’s almost like it undermines any other skill or any other creative input that you might have. I know when I went to music school there was a sense of oh the singers aren’t musicians. If you’re not an instrumentalist then you’re not a real musician. I think there is a stigma attached to being a singer, especially because a lot of the time in a band setting or something the singer is the face. People just assume that the singer isn’t the creative force but the face of the project. I think there’s that, and when I started putting music out I kind of hesitated from identifying too much as a singer because I wanted people to focus on the songwriting and the overall sonic creative aspects of it more than me.

I think with the EPs for sure I didn’t put myself too much in the front, and even in the way that the music sounded and the way it was produced and mixed it was more layered. The vocals were more ethereal and textural rather than a very clear. There were a lot of things that I wanted to differentiate myself from when I was making the album. I wanted to come through as myself and use my voice more. I didn’t want to be afraid to be classified as one thing or another, which I think for some time I was. If people think I’m this singer then they won’t think that I write my music or that I produce stuff, or whatever. But now I think, in making the album, that I realized you shouldn’t minimize yourself in different ways to appease what other people’s perspectives should be of you. I gained more confidence and assertiveness in wanting to fulfill all these different things. I want to be a great singer. I want to be a great songwriter. I want to be all these things, and I think you kind of have to stop caring about what people will see you as in order to just present yourself the way that feels good and feels natural. That was a big change in the album for sure.

STEREOGUM: That sense of questioning yourself is in the lyrics on Crawl Space but also the interludes, especially “Bad Singer.” Could you talk about the interludes and where they came from?

TEI SHI: The tapes were from when I was really young. I used to record myself on these tapes and my sister’s old boombox. I used to sing and just come up with little ideas for songs, but also just talk to myself. It was cool to go back and rediscover those while I was in the process of making the album. It helped me to 1) rediscover how passionate I had been when I was young about being a singer and a performer and 2) get back in touch with how much I wanted to do what I’m doing now. It was cool to have it come full circle that way. And then I think when you’re a kid you’re almost just an exaggerated version of yourself as an adult and you allow yourself to really feel all those things and express them.

I think all of the things that are tracked emotionally in those little tape recordings are things that I still feel all the time. That insecurity and self-deprecating nature, but then coming out of that and gaining this unique confidence and owning yourself. I think when I was little I would feel those ups and downs in the span of a minute and now I feel them in the span of a year. All of that stuff resonates with me and it still applies to a lot of the things that I felt in the process of putting myself out there and pursuing being an artist and making this album. But also in the way that it is a display of a purer version of myself where I really desired these things that I am now doing. It’s a different reality than I expected at 10 years old, but it’s still kind of cool to tie that back to that version of myself.

STEREOGUM: How did you decide to include them in the album? There seem to be a lot of references to childhood on the album itself. What was the thought process like for that?

TEI SHI: It was definitely a very separate process than the making of the music. It was these two parallel things. Making the songs was one thing, and kind of along the way I was discovering these tapes and visiting that part of my past. I think only after the album was made did those two things merge together and make sense in the same context. I had come across one of the tapes. I had totally forgotten about them and then I came across one of them three years ago. I remember thinking at the time when I make my first album I have to tie these in somehow. So I’ve always had it in the back of my mind. Then when I was halfway through making the album I went back home and found a bunch more that I had forgotten about. I started scraping bits and pieces of those and then selected those three little ones that I included. It wasn’t so much from the outset that I was like this is the thing and this is the concept. It just came together at the end. Once I had the album finished and I had the track list I was able to weave those in in a way that I felt made sense with the songs and gave it direction.

I always feel like this this kind of pull with childhood. I moved around so much and had to reform my identity and morph it a lot of the time. There was little stability in the sense of my surroundings and my environment. I developed this deep nostalgia for moments of my childhood. I just feel like I was very much formed by those experiences, so it only made sense for me in doing this project that took so much of my life and my emotions to tie it back to that. I think it makes sense that it’s the first album to really present the earliest memories that feel relevant to what I am doing now, if that makes sense.

STEREOGUM: There’s a strange relationship of discomfort versus empowerment in the creation of identity. Could you talk about what “crawl space” means to you as a concept and how it has changed, if at all?

TEI SHI: I think it hasn’t changed that much. It’s probably become more figurative than literal as it was when I was little. I’m still making sense of it now, but I think the significance of when I was young, I had a really hard time at night and these intense fears of the dark. The crawl space is something that I was really scared of, and I forced myself to get in there just to show myself that I could confront the thing that was scariest to me and be fine. I would feel OK and be able to fall asleep afterwards. I think as it applies to now, the crawl space concept to me is that coping mechanism for your fears and your insecurities and my approach to that has been forcing myself into the worst case scenario — not the worst case scenario, but forcing myself into confronting them — and once I see that it’s OK, it allows me to just relax overall.

In making the album there was was definitely a lot of fears and insecurities and just putting yourself out there and pursuing being an artist publicly. There’s a lot that is really scary about that to begin with. Making the music and doing it, it’s almost that that is the source of the fear, but it is also the thing that allows you to get over that. I think for me now it’s still a similar idea of the crawl space being the source of your fear but also the remedy for it. Making music and creating is that as well.

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STEREOGUM: The cover art is so intense. What was that experience like with a tarantula on your face?

TEI SHI: It was really weird. I think actually just like what we were just talking about in that it’s this thing that in an abstract way seems really, really scary. It’s unendurable. I had that idea for the cover with the tarantula and just put it in the back of my head, and then when it was time to figure out the artwork that was the biggest idea that I had. I presented it. This is what I’m doing. I forced myself into doing it because I had to plan the shoot and everything. Everything was planned around the tarantula. I had no other choice but to do it. I was really scared leading up to it and having nightmares about spiders all over me. But once I crossed that point of holding it and seeing what it was like then it was fine. I was actually cool. I was really fond of the tarantula afterwards. I felt like it lingered with me a while afterwards, like the smell, and that was weird. I just find it really cool to do something that you would normally be afraid of and then you get out of that.

STEREOGUM: I really love the song “Justify.” Could you explain your thoughts behind that song?

TEI SHI: That song to me is really special and fun because it feels empowering for me in different ways. I kind of wrote it when I was halfway through the album. I feel like I hit the point in writing where I was feeling frustrated with a lot of things and felt this pressure that was maybe a bit external but mostly internal. It was me rebelling against it a little bit. The song came from a place of, I don’t know, I felt frustrated a lot of the time in putting music out there and putting myself out there is a lot of like… how do I phrase it? People responded in weird ways to things, and I think there was this tendency to get pigeonholed or to get labeled as one thing very quickly, whether it’s like female “this” or this genre or whatever.

You get this thing attached to you. It can be frustrating when you’re creating and you’re a creative person to feel like you’re categorized in a certain way, especially as a woman sometimes. The song is deconstructing those things, those trivial little things that people define you by, and challenging them. The track is more aggressive and more forceful in the vocals. I’m doing different stuff than I do on the other songs, using my voice in different ways. There’s some rage. It’s empowering to sing live, too. For me playing some of this new music live that one is always a really fun to do because I feel people don’t expect it. It takes you out of this space and I get to scream into the mike. It makes people like uhh!, feel weird for a second. I enjoy that.

STEREOGUM: There’s also a feeling of empowering sexuality. The notion of “Justify” is this sexual empowerment, and you also mention Britney Spears in “Bad Singer,” so I was wondering if she was your idol or still is?

TEI SHI: It’s funny putting that in the album because people are going to think that she’s a huge Britney Spears fan, which I’m not not. I definitely at this point in my life am not drawing musical influence from Britney Spears, or as a creative influence. But I think she was such a huge part of the childhood of anybody that grew up in the early ’00s. I think that she was just that icon of a young woman owning everything that she did and defining mainstream music so much. She’s such an incredible performer. Something that I always found striking about her is she always seemed like this tame kind of girl next door, sweet quiet girl but then when she performs it’s this whole other thing.

She’s tapping into this alternate version of herself. That always resonated with me. Just being a little girl and wanting to be a singer, she was the person at the time, who I was looking to and that has obviously changed over time. The sexuality aspect of it she was definitely at a time where a lot of pop stars were pushing the envelope in a lot of ways and I think that’s something I’ve become more comfortable with, presenting myself and my artwork, physically presenting myself and tapping into that side of myself more that I was hesitant to do earlier on — along the lines of what I was talking about earlier, just feeling like people undermine your creative integrity as soon as you look hot in a video. There’s that weird struggle of that. But with the album and some of the songs there was a mini rebellion of being more unabashedly sexy lyrically or in my voice. Just being whatever.

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Crawl Space is out 3/31 via Downtown/Interscope. Pre-order it here.