PROFILES

A Walk in New York with Tei Shi

On 'Crawl Space,' her debut album four years in the making, the peripatetic singer sizes up fear, self-doubt, and ambition.

by Kim Taylor Bennett; photos by Rebecca Miller
27 April 2017, 8:34am

Rebecca Miller

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.

I was in Chinatown, in New York, waiting for Valerie Teicher, the artist who goes by Tei Shi. Killing time in a store whose presence in the area seems incongruous among the bodegas, dumpling spots, and hole-in-the-wall Asian groceries, I perused the dark space sparsely stocked with hackneyed hipster oddities – skull jewellery, vintage medical posters, bone handle knives, python bags. I texted Val my whereabouts and she wrote back immediately: "Oh God come out cause I'm trying to avoid seeing the guy who works in there." But the aforementioned guy was already outside, smoking a cig and kicking the sidewalk with his busted Converse. "Will you let me know when he's gone?" she typed. I took my lookout duties seriously, exiting the establishment to lean nonchalantly against a lamppost. "Does he want to date you?" I asked. "I'll tell you the story…" she replied.

Eventually he kicked his cigarette butt into the gutter and sloped inside. Coast clear, Val slipped out her apartment door, and we hustled in the opposite direction, toward another dark cubbyhole down the street: her local massage joint. If we were going to pick apart her debut album, Crawl Space, we'd might as well have our feet and legs kneaded (with Vaseline, weirdly) while we did it. Shoes off and jeans rolled up we settled into faux-leather seats—the kind that emit a fart-like parp every time you shift your weight. As for the situation with the next-door dude, well, they went on one date, it was lacklustre, and she's been avoiding him ever since, which is tough given his day-to-day close proximity. But that's also just dating in New York City: 8.5 million people in a metropolitan petri dish, and somehow you always wind up crossing paths with the same dudes.

Val moved to New York from Boston four years ago, a shift that coincided with her public emergence as Tei Shi and her Saudade EP, which premiered on Noisey in the fall of 2013. At the time, those songs knocked me sideways. A slim, poised collection, the then 23-year-old's looped and layered vocals were delicate as a silk chemise, but they also bore a menacing undertone, with the low-end synths and triggered beats preventing her ethereal, bedroom-recorded intimacy from coming off slight. I met Val for the first time the following year, tracking her ascendance through 2015's Verde EP, whose flagship tune "Bassically" is a pop song with coy beginnings that blossoms into a banshee cry of a chorus. It's clocked upwards of 10 million plays since. Verde was a significant leap—Tei Shi in high def—and it secured select dates with Grimes and Christine and the Queens in the spring of 2016 (talk about keeping 24 karat company), as well as a slot at Coachella. Still, fans were left patiently waiting for more. The oft-broached query—where is your debut album?—was punctuated by an increasingly looming question mark. In this era of impatience, where touted new artists can appear and disappear in a span of two or three years, the arrival of Val's full length has felt somewhat protracted. So what's been going on? "The past few years have been crazy," Val told me. "They've felt like a lifetime."

Born to Colombian parents in Buenos Aires, Val and her family left Argentina and relocated to Bogotá when she was two. She lived there with her mom and dad and grandmother and three older sisters, who were a generation older. She took ballet and tap and wrote overly dramatic love songs in her diary. Colombia is a country to which she still has strong ties. "Como Si," the one Spanish song on Crawl Space, is a mellow mélange of percussion that's a vital nod to her Latin roots. At eight, Val's family moved to Vancouver before returning to Colombia when she was 15. After a year it was back to Canada to finish high school. She shrugged off any notion that this sense of flux might have been tough on her. "When you're that age your life is your family, and then you're doing what you're doing anywhere," she said.

Crawl Space took two full years to come to fruition, and, like Val's childhood, it was recorded all over the place – Montreal, Los Angeles, and New York. It's a deeply personal record, and the lyrical through-lines trace straight back to her experiences. "Keep Running" is an apt opener: Not only is it one of the record's most beguiling tracks, but in the late summer of 2015 it was also the jumping off point for the collection. "I wrote that at a shitty point in a relationship," she explained. "It came out of an internal decision to keep fighting for that relationship, a motivation to the other person – let's keep moving forward. That's where it stemmed from, but overall, it's more of a universal message of pushing through challenges and not focusing on the past. Keep running…"

Did it work? "No," she said with a nervous laugh, "I have a hard time ending things. I'm a very loyal person – I'll try and try until it's utterly impossible and it destroys me and there's nothing left. By that point you don't even care or feel anything."

Val was visibly uncomfortable when I pushed her to discuss the details. She met Luca Buccellati in their last semester at Boston's Berklee School of Music, and the two loners came together, with Luca becoming not only her partner, but her co-production cohort. Their relationship bloomed in the early stages of Tei Shi and eventually fell apart halfway through making Crawl Space – although he completed its production. She explained that the album begins in a hopeful, determined place and concludes with acceptance of the end. You can trace this from "Keep Running" to the slinky "How Far;" on the Solange-leaning "Say You Do" Val begins to make peace with the inevitable, before "Baby" fully embraces the relationship's finale with a graceful goodbye: "Take a bow and shed a single tear, oh dear / But hold me close, and we can dance to the violence."

As our calves were given a final Vaseline-smothered pummel, Val remained firm: "I don't want to make the album about that and this person because it's about me." At this point a man came in from the street, greeted a masseuse, and started to undress – presumably for a full body massage. It seemed the perfect time to make our exit.

Emerging from the massage spot, we walked around her block and strolled through Seward Park, where kids played basketball and elderly Chinese men and women moved through their Tai Chi postures with slow purpose. We talked about perms, and app dating, about the ebb and flow of her feelings for New York. "I'd reached that point after a couple of years, like, fuck New York," she said, "so I felt I had to get away to do a lot of what I had to do." By this point we'd settled by the East River, in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge. "After I came back from that, my relationship ended, and I feel like I reconnected with the city. I've really loved being here this year and having a stable life."

Val said that when she was younger she was more outgoing, but with time she's grown more solitary. Still, despite Val's self-described hermit tendencies, thanks to her new roommates she's found herself thriving in a wider social circle. "I've definitely had my crew this year which is really nice."

When Val was a kid she suffered from anxiety, which took hold at night and kept her wide-eyed and far from sleep. Primarily she worried something bad might happen to her parents, so she would perform little rituals in secret to keep them safe, like jumping up and down five times in a certain spot, or creeping downstairs when everyone was in bed, to the crawl space on the first floor of her family home in Vancouver. Even though she was afraid of the dark, she'd force herself into the scariest place she could think of. "Somehow doing that allowed me to not be scared anymore, if that makes sense," she explained. "I was a really fucking weird child."

This notion of confronting fears is a recurrent theme for Val – from the album cover (where she set herself the challenge of posing with a tarantula on her face), to her fear of letting go, of standing on her own. Yet the album's most compelling narrative is Val's relationship with herself – addressing self-doubt, accepting her ambitions, and doubling down to pursue them. This record is peppered with audio snippets excerpted from tapes Val recorded at nine or ten, made after her older sister gave her a boombox and some blank tapes. Val would record herself singing – Madonna, Alanis, Sheryl Crowe – but these tapes became a kind of audio diary too. In one clip that comes halfway through Crawl Space, an adolescent Val confesses: "I'm a bad singer. Can't do anything well. Think I sing so great, but I really never do anything right. I just hope that one day, I can be like Britney Spears."

The 27-year-old forgot these tapes existed until she uncovered them at her parents' place a year ago. "When I was really young I had a really strong sense that I wanted to be a singer and a performer," she noted. "I remember feeling that was my dream and feeling so passionate about it and then I kind of lost that."

Childhood dreams have the habit of falling out of focus with each advancing year. When you're a kid you're told to reach for the stars, but it's surprising how soon that slides into suggestions of "be realistic;" consider a logical route. Initially Val took the path well paved and studied psychology at Montreal's McGill University. "I was surrounded by all my same friends from high school and so many people I knew from Vancouver," she said. "I wanted to do music and I knew if I stayed there I would never figure out how."

After a year Val took a leap of faith and went to Berklee. It was a lonely, introspective time which allowed her creativity to flourish. Crawl Space is about this journey – her heartbreak, sure, but mostly her growing pains. On album closer "Sleepy," she's at her most vulnerable, pulling specifically from the disappointment of when she was going to be signed to one label only to have the rug pulled from under her. Val sings: "They want me on my knees like I'm suckin' it / Learn fast / That no one gives a shit about the life I live / But tongue tied / They all have a say on the moves I make." These lines touch on part of the central conundrum of a young artist beholden to the pendulum swing of confidence and indecision, putting it all on the line in your art and thus holding yourself up to be judged, your bankability assessed. It's rough. When Val started off as Tei Shi, she was shot a little out of focus, in hazy black and white. Now, years later, she rises to meet gaze dead on. "I feel like before I was afraid to be sexy and through working on the album and becoming more confident, I felt like I wanted to be more upfront with myself physically," she said. "I think caring less in a lot of ways."

We'd meandered back to where we started, Val pulling her camel leather trench a little tighter as the chilly March wind blustered. We paused while I unlocked my bike and said our goodbyes. She strode past the store without giving it or its inhabitants a sidelong glance. She unlocked her apartment door and headed upstairs.

Kim Taylor Bennett is an editor at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.

Rebecca Miller is a photographer based in Brooklyn. Check out her work here.

Crawl Space is out on Downtown Records / Interscope now.