Tei Shi on Exploring ‘Chaotic Energy’ on New EP & Her Hopes for the Music Industry Post-Coronavirus

Photo courtesy of artist.

Alt-pop songstress Valerie Teicher Barbosa, better known as Tei Shi, is certainly one for contradictions. This penchant for jarring clashes can be clearly heard in her latest offering Die 4 Ur Love. A notable departure from gentler R&B-influenced past work, like last year’s La Linda, the electro-pop onslaught was written in a week and features some of the singer-songwriter’s most danceable tracks to date.

“I actually started working on the EP in January, right at the top of the year,” she tells Remezcla. “I did a writing trip and wrote all of the songs in one week, and my plan was to finish it after being on tour [with Blood Orange] for most of March. Since the tour got canceled, I started that process.”

Most of Die 4 Ur Love was produced and recorded while in quarantine, with Tei Shi working with collaborators virtually to craft the chaotic pop sound of the EP, a slower process that allowed for a new side of her artistry to come out. Her voice remains floating and full-bodied as ever, now wrapped in lively guitar plucks (“Johnny”) and sparse futuristic synth keys (“Goodbye”).

“I was writing the songs from a sad and kind of cynical place,” she says. “I was feeling really down at the beginning of the year, with a lot of existential dread. These five songs had a loose apocalyptic concept to them, but the whole time I wanted to play with the two extremes, a balance of doom with fun.”

Remezcla talked to the Los Angeles-based singer about her turn to pop, how growing up between Colombia and Canada affected her process, and how the music industry can improve post-Coronavirus.

Have you been meaning to make a more traditional pop record for a while?
I wanted to write more banger-like tracks, upbeat songs that had a chaotic energy to them. That’s a result of where my head was at and where I was emotionally throughout 2019. I’m not sure if making a more traditional pop record is something I’ve had in mind—in many ways, this EP is less traditional than anything I’ve done in the past. Being stuck in quarantine, especially after having just started a tour and having felt that live energy with people at venues, I feel like the EP was my release of that pent-up stress.

What have you been listening to as you made this record?
Older salsa and bachata records from when I was younger. Some records I love that have come out during quarantine and [what] I’ve listened to a lot are the new Caribou, Thundercat, and Buscabulla. I was listening to old Gwen Stefani and No Doubt when I was making the EP, more early 2000s pop stuff which I think was a loose influence.

I have to ask, who’s “Johnny?”
Johnny is actually not one person in particular! To me, the name Johnny is like a symbol that represents various different people who I’ve been disappointed by or have vanished from my life. The name has always seemed to me like a blank slate because it’s used so much in songs and popular culture, like a kind of folkloric character. I’ve used the name as a stand-in to write about different relationships. Since the song is more story-like, the idea of this Johnny character made sense to me.

You’ve largely managed to stray from “Latin” beats and themes about your Colombian identity in your music. Do you have any plans to record more Spanish songs in the future or make work that touches on your Latinx roots?
When I’m making music, I’m never really consciously thinking about that—I am my cultural identity so everything I make is inherently a representation of my roots and who I am. I don’t necessarily see a huge separation between my songs in English and Spanish, since they are all coming from me. This EP happened to come out as five English songs, and a lot of my music doesn’t have beats that people would identify as “Latin,” but also what is that? What people identify as Latin music today is a very specific thing. The two songs I released in Spanish last year definitely have Latin instruments and rhythms. “Matando” and “No Juegues” both have marimba and guiro, as well as Spanish folk-style guitar. I have a lot of different musical influences I pull from in my music that aren’t solely rooted in Latin music. It’s a mix of genre, language and culture, just as I am.

I’m wondering how your experience as a Colombian-Canadian moving between both places has affected how you create.
My family moved to Vancouver when I was just turning eight. There were barely any Latinxs there at that time and it was a really harsh change in that sense. My sister and I were the only kids in our school who spoke Spanish, save I think I think one other family from Mexico. It was weird growing up in an environment that didn’t have any of my Latinx identity in it. I’m also Jewish, so I was always culturally the odd one out. Within my family, my cultural identity was always strong—we speak Spanish with each other, there was always Latin music at home, dancing, Colombian food, etc. Outside of that, there was very little to relate to in terms of my Colombian heritage. When I was 15 we moved back to Colombia and I spent a year back in high school there, which was when I regained my close ties with Colombia. Once I moved to the U.S. at 19, I found a lot of comfort in Latin culture.

Dream collabs?
Juan Luis Guerra.

As the world moves slowly toward a new normal, how do you hope musicians and the music industry change for the better once (hopefully) live performances come back?
A lot of the old, outdated models the industry was built on are starting to be questioned and broken by artists. I hope we head in a direction where artists are the industry. We as multi-faceted artists can lead this industry to a place that is defined by our work more than it is by the corporations that profit off it. Social media and the platform artists now have in terms of connecting and communicating directly with their fans and audience has been a really empowering thing, though social media is horrible in other ways. I hope people still value live music when venues open back up and that it’ll be an even more meaningful way to bring people together.

Do you feel you had more control making this EP since you were in quarantine?
I definitely had to let go of some of the more immediate control of being in the room with someone and bouncing ideas around. There had to be more patience, emailing notes, making different versions of things. It was slower in that way, and harder to control some things because everyone’s life just kind of spiraled into uncertainty. Overall thought, I felt I had way more control over this project and how I released it than I have in the past. I worked with the songwriter Daniel Ledinsky. I had only really written melodies and lyrics on my own in a very isolated way and I hadn’t really worked with another songwriter in this way. He’s someone I really love as a friend, so working with him was really fun.

How do you hope Die 4 Ur Love affects those who listen to it?
I hope it provides company—I know a lot of us are feeling lonely, isolated, trapped in our own thoughts. The EP is me going through that process with myself within these songs, so I feel it can resonate with what people may be experiencing right now. I hope it makes people feel embraced and serves as catharsis. If you can listen to it, have a cry, and also dance and thrash around in your room alone and get something out, it’s fulfilled its purpose.