In Conversation: Tei Shi

Tei Shi is rewriting her own future through music and female connection...

The exploitation of women in the music industry is a perpetual occurrence. Legal battles between musician and label expose the patriarchal hegemonic set-up in the music industry; from Taylor Swift, to Kesha, to Raye, legal battles over contracts, manipulation, and missed payments persist.

Tei Shi is another talented name to add to the list. Last year, the Colombian-Canadian singer’s sophomore album ‘La Linda’ (2019) disappeared from streaming services as a result of a cease and desist. Tei Shi, also known as Valerie Teicher Barbosa, was still waiting for her advance payment – two years after the record’s release. 

Cut to a long legal battle and one year of agitation later, Tei Shi is now flourishing as an independent artist, sharing her triumph on brand new single ‘GRIP’. Sharing pop resistance with a noughties twist, ‘GRIP’ is the ultimate “fuck you” to her enemies: “But it gets ugly when you don’t play clean / Gotta get you off me” croons Tei Shi amongst ribbons of synths and a grainy pop bassline. This new pop-facing direction adds to an already expansive oeuvre last celebrated on her ‘Die 4 Your Love’ EP. Breaking down barriers (politically and musically), Tei Shi’s defiance in the face of adversity is nothing but inspirational.

Now, Tei Shi is ready to discuss her experience of being a marginalised person in the music industry in the hope of helping others. Clash sat down with Teicher-Barbosa to discuss identity, the realities and complexities of making music, and why Kate Bush is the best karaoke choice.

What’s been inspiring you lately?

I’ve been very inspired by being in the outdoors and in nature. Here in LA, you have that at your disposal. I did a long road trip up from LA to Vancouver and went camping. It was so amazing to be sleeping in the midst of these beautiful redwood trees, along the coast seeing the most beautiful beaches. That was a really inspiring moment for me, having a solid 10 days of being in nature and being disconnected. I’m trying to put myself more in those environments because they feel very nurturing.

Otherwise, I’ve been mostly finding inspiration from things outside of music and art. For the last couple of years, as I think we all have been with the pandemic and everything, I’ve been working on self-discovery and my self-journey. I’ve been meditating a lot and focusing on my well-being and my mental health. It’s brought me a lot of personal growth that I brought into the music, but in a way that I haven’t necessarily felt in a musical way per se.

Why did you decide to use Tei Shi as a moniker? 

The name was complete random brainstorming. It was nine years ago when I was first trying to think of an artist’s name. My last name starts with Tei, and I ended up in this kind of abstract taking of my last name, and it stuck. I liked the way it looked; I liked the ‘Shi’, the fact that it feels like there’s a female energy there.

Do you find that your musical persona is like an alter ego of yours, or more like an extension of your own personality? 

It’s definitely an extension of myself. Oftentimes, I’ve kind of wished it was the case for me, where you have this name and this persona, and you create this character very much separate from you. I think for me it’s been more the opposite. It started from such a personal and intimate place. In recent times, I’ve noticed that I’ve been using the Tei Shi moniker and my artist thing as a way to express things that maybe aren’t necessarily things that I’m able to express in my actual life, or that I’m not feeling strong enough to say.

I feel like for the first time I’m starting to see that the Tei Shi kind of persona is becoming something a little bit more aspirational. For me, that’s a little bit removed from who I am in my daily life because at a certain point, you have to do that. When we take on a creative endeavour, whether it’s writing in a journal or writing a poem, whatever it is, we step into expressing things that aren’t so easy to express as ourselves in a conversation or in our daily lives. There is a kind of natural aspirational thing that happens in creativity. 

In Conversation: Tei Shi

How do you feel your identity has had an impact on your music?

My identity as a person has completely shaped my musical identity. I grew up moving around a lot and having to kind of adapt to different languages, different environments, and different cultures. I became kind of a chameleon in who I am as a person, where I developed really early on this need to blend into a lot of different settings. All of that moving around and the mixed cultural background has provided me with a lot of different music, and a lot of different cultural and artistic influences. It subconsciously flows into my style and the music that I make, but as an artist, the thing I strive for most is to be indescribable. I want to defy genre a little bit. I’m essentially making pop music, but I’m always trying to make my voice and what I’m saying the defining thing. The sonic style or landscape could kind of almost be anything. I think that the chameleon-like nature I have as a person is totally my ethos as an artist, too. That identity is absolutely my identity as Tei Shi, too.

You’ve had a rough couple of years but, impressively, you’re still shining. How did being unable to release music affect you?

As of very recently, I finally became an independent artist for the first time since the very beginning of my career. It was about six years of being within this label system that really did not work for me. It took me a good while to finally get out of that ability you lose when you sign to a label: the ability to ultimately decide when and what you release. Losing that is pretty heartbreaking. I think it’s one of the things that we really don’t realise, as artists, when we sign these deals. It was a reality check when I found that I wasn’t actually being trusted or supported in what I wanted to do. There was always somebody else who had to give a green light on something, and so it becomes this kind of game of trying to get somebody else to believe in what you want to do. It’s a soul-crushing process. I know that my mental health definitely suffered from those experiences.

You start listening to other opinions and once I did, it ruined my way of creating and making music. When your work is not being supported, your self-esteem is completely tied to that and just gets destroyed. I realised that I had let my creativity be completely destroyed by these experiences and my relationship to them. I really had to start a process of trying to separate my self-worth as a person from my work. But I also have a chronic pain condition that I’ve struggled with for the past 12 years, and it’s something that really flares up when I’m stressed out. I hit a point exactly a year ago, where I was in crisis because I felt so helpless in my life and within my career. I felt extremely emotionally fucked with. I had to stop working for three months and focus on my health. There’s this trope of the tortured artist that I completely shattered for myself, I was like, no, actually, I’m doing well when I’m taking care of myself and nurturing myself in the ways that I need as a human. That’s when I’m free to create the best music I can create. 

Having experienced all of this, was it nerve-wracking to be so bold with ‘Grip’? Or was it liberating?

It was super liberating! I remember when I wrote it, I was at the beginning of that three-month period of realising that I couldn’t carry on the way that I had been. My body was literally breaking down and that day when I wrote the song, I felt real catharsis. Singing the song was drawing that pain out of me in a way that was so liberating. It was saying all the things that I wanted to say in my daily life, that wasn’t registering and that I wasn’t really able to act on. So by the time I released it, I was so ready to say those things and get that out there.

Seeing the exploitation of women and artists belonging to other marginalised groups, unfortunately, is a reoccurring theme. What kind of advice would you give to any musicians experiencing this?

I would say, talk to one another. That was a huge moment for me. I started my career at a time when the way that we discover music was completely different than it is now. I think there was a real kind of subliminal effort to keep female artists removed from one another – pitting them against one another. I’m speaking on female artists because I know that artists of different minorities and different kinds of marginalised artists deal with different experiences, but this is what my experience was like as a female artist. I’ve seen a huge shift since when I first started; a lot of women are collaborating with one another and saying fuck you to that mentality. 

Aside from that, I would say, don’t let somebody else take control of your vision. Trust your instincts, because your instincts are your art. Ultimately, you have to be the one that’s leading. There are people in this industry who see a young promising artist, and they want part of it. Being aware of that and being wary of that is knowing your worth. If you’re a woman or a minority, try and reach out to other people who have similar backgrounds as you and speak to them about their experiences working with these people. I think it’s also really important for artists to be transparent about their experiences.

‘Grip’ has that sort of Britney-esque noughties feel. Do you think that this is a new era for you sonically as well as in spirit?

Absolutely. It’s weird because I’ve been through all these different kinds of phases in my career. I started as a super independent DIY artist and I kind of entered the label system and released albums. I really feel like only now that I’m an independent artist leading everything, I’ve learned so much in terms of music, and the kind of artist I want to be. I’ve finally gotten to the place where I wish I was starting my career. In that way, it’s definitely a new era – I think sonically and creatively it is too. 

I love that you mention the Britney reference because a lot of the music that I’m currently working on has been inspired by pop music production that is very minimal and dry and very to the point – that kind of brand of pop production where everything is very in its place. But with the songs themselves, I’m having more fun. It’s more playful. I’m making the music that I wanted to make for a really long time. My ambitions have really grown from when I first started and I’m not really afraid of the term ‘pop’. 

Recently you’ve spoken on contentious and politicized issues. Has using your platform to speak on issues always been important to you?

It’s the nature of the personal is political; only once you experience these forms of exploitation firsthand, do you really feel a desire to do something to change that. I’ve always been a politically-minded person and social issues have always been important to me. But within my platform and my work, it’s never something I set out to do. There have definitely been more times than not where I’ve been really compelled to talk about things and I’ve been advised not to, or I’ve had to bite my tongue.

I’ve felt a lot of rage and anger throughout my experiences. Particularly in the music industry, because I think the music industry is a really accurate microcosm for the way the world and power dynamics work. My experiences in the industry have really opened my eyes to the realities of our systems in the world outside of the music industry. When you’re a person that’s used to expressing yourself for a living, expressing yourself in those settings is kind of the one thing that you have control over.

How do you strike up a balance of sharing parts of yourself, but it not weighing heavy on your sense of self?

For whatever reason, whenever I’m going out and sharing something that’s really personal to me, once I’ve shared it, I just go away. For example, a couple of weeks ago I shared an experience I had with pregnancy. It was something that I’ve been living with for the last two years. But because it happened a while back, it feels removed enough to talk about. But once I put it out there, I just didn’t look at my phone for a couple of days. When I do share big things that are really personal to me, I feel so exhausted by the time I share them. Then once it’s out there, it’s like I’ve vomited it all out and I need to sleep. 

I’m actually really grateful that’s my nature because, on the other end, it can also be really easy and tempting to share and be super caught up in how people are responding and reacting. I had some early experiences of doing that and being super crushed by it, so I put up a barrier and now whenever something’s really personal to me, I kind of step away. Even with music, it’s taken me a while to get to a point where I can release music, talk about it, keep playing it, and be like on socials posting about it. 

You’ve posted some great acapella bits recently on Tik Tok. What’s your go-to karaoke song?

Well, ‘Wuthering Heights’ weirdly became my karaoke song because I was listening to it nonstop at one point one summer. There was a karaoke place I used to go to all the time when I lived in New York with my friends and I went to perform it and just completely botched the entire song. It’s kind of become this mission of mine that whenever I do karaoke, I have to do that song so I can do it right and erase the horrible memory completely ruining it. 

What other music have you been loving recently?

I’ve been looking for more instrumental music to listen to. When I was on my camping trip, somebody in the camping spot next to us was listening to Beverly Glenn-Copeland. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him. He’s an incredible pioneer of electronic instrumentals. The album was called ‘Keyboard Fantasies’. It’s the perfect music to put on when you need something that’s not like speaking to you and telling you what to feel. It’s a sonic landscape.

What’s next for Tei Shi?

A lot more music. I’m going to basically just keep them coming. I’m working on an EP right now – a collection of my favourite songs that I’ve been working on for the last little while. I’m looking to get back on the road probably the end of the summer, or early fall. Definitely more music, more sharing, more visuals, and more activity, because now that I can do whatever I want, I can be putting stuff out there in a way that I wasn’t able to before. You’ll be hearing and seeing more of me for sure in 2022.

Words: Gem Stokes

Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.