On her debut album, Tei Shi beckons listeners into a dim crawl space and asks them to stay a while. Because the Argentine-born synth pop artist has mesmerized fans with slinky bedroom productions and a voice that rings out like a ravenous siren call for the past four years, an invitation into the shadows has never been so alluring.
Tei Shi — born Valerie Teicher — has familiarity with small, contained nooks. When she was 8 years old, she was plagued by an extreme fear of the dark. As part of a makeshift-conditioning plan she devised for herself, she would clamber into her family’s pitch-black crawl space for a few minutes every evening, willing herself to grow out of her fears. Those moments in opacity left an impression so profound that the artist named her anticipated debut Crawl Space, out today via Downtown Records.
Since 2013, the singer, producer, and writer has been doling out tastes of what she’s coined “mermaid music” — stunning little experiments of minimalism and R&B that seem to bubble up from a place under the sea. But after the success of her EPs Saudade and Verde, she decided she needed to turn inward and reclaim private headroom to evolve as an artist. She was searching for something similar to the self-imposed nights of darkness from her childhood, and the crawl space she used to wriggle into as a kid became a symbol for the constrained mental place she accessed while centering herself and breeding new sounds.
Stepping into ground zero for childhood fears and professional anxieties might seem daunting, but the figurative crawl space Tei Shi has created on this album is beautifully smoky and chimerical — something you want to slip and slither your way through. This has to do primarily with the hazy, stripped-down sensibilities of her songs. Her dusky lead single “Keep Running” is a provocative anthem to roll around to, and “Creep” is a tangle of clouded synths and looped vocals seemingly conjured from an FKA Twigs daydream. The sultriness on this release is deliberate and precise, a testament to Tei Shi fully embracing her own agency, sexuality, and independence.
Although the mood is restrained and steamy, Tei Shi keeps you from feeling as though you’re wading through sparse gloom. She organizes radiance in the darkness, and her eclecticism bursts through on tracks like “Say You Do,” a poppy throwback that’s as bright, sparkly, and nostalgic as roll-on body glitter from the 90s. On the air-light “Como Si,” Tei Shi sings in Spanish for the first time and salutes a peripatetic, bilingual upbringing that involved bouncing around from Buenos Aires, Bogota, Vancouver, Montreal, Boston, and New York.
Throughout the album, we hear recordings of Tei Shi as a little girl, murmuring old basement-level anxieties into a microphone: “I just wanted you to hear this, everybody else in the world. I’m a bad singer. I confess it.” It’s a perfect irony that these snippets are tucked into moments in which Tei Shi’s voice reaches glass-shattering highs, like on “Justify,” a beautifully odd little plate of deconstructed trills and vocals that features the singer’s best Prince squeal. The contrast shows her growth as a singer, producer, performer, and even purely as a person.
While most musicians crave boundless freedom to expand as artists, Tei Shi’s release shows the power in constriction, and how creativity can flourish within limits. The crawl space she’s built for herself in is tight and tiny, and Tei Shi burrows her way through, teasing out her identity slowly in the process. At times, it seems like an asphyxiating internal exercise; as she sings on “Lift Me,” “It leaves me empty when I’m looking inside myself/All the questions I would rather ask someone else/What if I don’t know how to be my friend/Lift me up from this place.”
But in the end, Tei Shi has always turned to crawl spaces to explore her fears — and ultimately to move forward. Her album is like holding a flashlight into this small passage and getting a glimpse at all the vulnerabilities, broken romances, inspirations, challenges, and experiences she pushed her way through.
Tei Shi’s debut album Crawl Space is out now via Downtown Records.