Photo courtesy of Downtown Records
Tei Shi Has Found Her Happy Place
There’s a certain romantic connection artists share with New York City. As Valerie Teicher Barbosa recalls, for a time the city acted as an effective creative incubator while she made music as Tei Shi. It was where she introduced herself in 2013, anonymously at first, with a series of crystalline vocal loops she called "mermaid music." It was also where she met collaborators, including Blood Orange (Dev Hynes), and where she wrote and recorded her first Tei Shi album, Crawl Space. But after closing what she calls a "chapter with a lot of baggage," she knew it was time to leave.
Like many artists before her, the Buenos Aires-born Barbosa ventured West, landing in Los Angeles' Elysian Park, a neighborhood known for hiking, Dodger Stadium, and—like most places in Southern California—year-round sun.
"It was almost like rebirth, I was so much happier immediately," she recalls of her relocation at the top of 2018. "I would do writing in my little studio and then I would go lie outside for a couple of hours and get some ideas and go back in…It was a really different experience for me. I felt like I had stepped into this otherworldly paradise."
That vitamin D-saturated euphoria informed her forthcoming sophomore effort, La Linda, arriving on Nov. 15 via Downtown Records. Barbosa is especially eager to put La Linda out in the world, as it spent most of 2018 lost in, as she diplomatically puts it, "label purgatory." A showcase of her skills as both a musician and executive producer, La Linda features Hynes again on the hushed duet "Even If It Hurts." Describing Hynes as a creative kindred spirit, Barbosa was pleasantly surprised to find a new coterie of collaborators this time around. As she describes, cherry-picking the right person for each job was what she needed to infuse her humanity-forward R&B/pop with a slick sheen. Ahead of the release, Barbosa spoke with the Recording Academy about Spanish representation, refusing to fight fate and a surprisingly influential apartment building.
What does "La Linda" mean to you?
"La Linda" to me is like a place. It's representative of how I was feeling during the phase when I was first writing the album. I had just moved to L.A. from New York, and felt like for six months after I moved here I was in this oasis. I was so inspired and felt so free. I felt in this really beautiful state of mind. It was sunny and beautiful and nature all around. Every day I would wake up and I felt like, oh open space. I can breathe and take my time with things.
I live in a house now. I would do writing in my little studio and then I would go lie outside for a couple of hours and get some ideas and go back in. It was something that I had never experienced before. I feel like in the past, when I made music it was, "Okay, we have this amount of time in this studio." It was a really different experience for me. I felt like I had stepped into this otherworldly paradise.
I think what was going on internally and in my life on a personal level was playing into that. I felt like when I was leaving New York I was closing this chapter with a lot of baggage. When I came here it was almost like rebirth. I was so much happier immediately. I think that combined with the sun and the green just made me feel so euphoric. I wanted the album to reflect that. All the songs on the album aren’t happy songs by any means, but I wanted it to feel very beautiful and lush and bright. The title was something I came across; it was an apartment building called La Linda. It had this sign. A really cool sign. I took a photo out in front of it. In Hollywood. In Mid-City. And stuck with me. The name felt right to me. It felt like that vision of that sign stuck in my head. It was a sign for something I was entering into. It was something I wanted the album to feel like and look like. All the visuals to reflect that.
The album includes the wonderful Spanish track "No Juegues." What inspired the bilingual shift?
After I released Crawl Space and that song in Spanish, I got a lot of response from my listeners and fans. I realized there are a lot of Spanish-speaking people who listen to my music, which encouraged me to tap into that more. But it was more an organic thing. The past few years I've been more actively reading in Spanish, watching more stuff in Spanish. Revisiting the music that I grew up listening to and loved and influenced by that.
I lived in Columbia until I was eight years old. And then my family moved to Canada. To Vancouver. And then when I was teenager we moved back to Columbia and then back to Canada. I basically grew up back and forth between Columbia and Canada. It was almost polar opposite places. But the cultures really complimented each other in how I absorbed them. I think once I opened up that, okay—let me actually try to write stuff in Spanish I'll try to release, it was really interesting and really freeing. Like anyone, you hit walls sometimes creatively. Once I was writing more in Spanish, it allowed me to step outside of myself a little bit.
Is that something you want to tap into more?
I definitely want to tap in more. I want to be an international artist. I've always felt like that's just who I am. I want my artistry and career to reflect that, and to be able to resonate in different places around the world. I think it’s only natural for me to explore both Spanish and English sides of me, for sure.
"When He's Done" seems to break that R&B pop mold you've created for yourself.
That's good! I like to hear that. That was my personal favorite for a really long time. That was the first song I wrote for the album. I wrote that song right before I dropped Crawl Space. I thought about putting it on that album but it was too late and I wanted to take my time with it. That one feels special because it was the transition between Crawl Space and La Linda. I think to me, it’s the closest I've gotten to writing a classic song. Anyone who heard it, it's not about genre, it’s a song. It’s the one that I feel like I could sing that with just a guitar and it's still the song. That’s what I was going for. It’s also something a little different. My singing on it, it’s more powerhouse vocals. Which I don’t do a lot of but I love to sing that way.
What came to mind was a modern take on "I Will Always Love You." My first thought was, "Wow, that girl knows what a broken heart feels like."
Oh, my god! I wrote it in kind of a crazy time. I made my album Crawl Space, I made with my ex-boyfriend. He was the other producer I worked with on it. We broke up halfway through making that album. And then we had to spend six months in the studio, producing it and recording it and finishing it after we broke up.
I was experiencing being single for the first time in a really long time. Trying to find that companionship, that kind of love I was missing in different people—and being disappointed over and over again. We all go through that at certain points. So, it was kind of like coming from this place of being really jaded about love and falling for someone or opening yourself up to someone, and the inevitability of when you find yourself really into somebody who you know is not good for you and you’re like, "I know it’s going to end up in sh*t." When he's done, he's going to have his way. But it's also resigned in a way—but I'm still kind of going through the motions because I feel lonely. I feel like that’s a very relatable thing, the heartbreak not just of losing a relationship but the heartbreak of putting yourself out there and hoping for something or trying to find something.
You're pretty upbeat about life in Los Angeles. Do you consider yourself to be an optimistic person?
No! Absolutely not. I find myself being way more positive now in recent times. I think that's a result of me getting into a better place emotionally. Just being healthier all-around. Mentally and physically. I think it's been a journey to get to a place where I can draw from positivity in my work. For a really long time when I wrote music it was always coming from a place of sadness or despair or anger. It’s really hard when that's your nature to write music or to make any art inspired by just feeling good. I’m trying to make more of an effort. I don't think I'm an overly negative person. But I'm definitely not someone who you'd be like, "My friend Val, she's a very positive person!"
I think we do romanticize the suffering artist while forgetting you have to also live all those hours every day when you're not an artist.
Totally! I think it’s also a negative thing because a lot of artists feel a weird pressure to self-sabotage. When you start feeling happen, for me, when I was in a really good place. Suddenly it's, "I'm not going to be able to write any music and I need to f**k up my life right now. I'm done!" That’s a horrible thing. I think a lot of people feel that pressure creatively. Sometimes it’s an internalized thing, but a lot of the time it’s what you’ve absorbed from the outside because it is such a glamourized thing. The suffering artist. Pain is art. Yes, that's true, but there's so much amazing music that’s come from people being positive. Redemption. People want to connect with a positive, empowering message.
What does self-care look like for you?
I think it's surrounding yourself with people that contribute to your self-care. As you get older you realize how important the relationships you have around you are, in terms of your energy and mental health. I think one, it’s having people around me who are contributing to my well-being. And also for me, the number one thing, I need alone time. I'm the kind of person who recharges off being alone. And having space around me. So now that's a lot easier for me, not living in a place where anywhere I go you're in a crowd of people and you’re surrounded and there’s so much stimulus. I think the peace and quiet is really good in that sense.
And then taking care of my physical health too. When my body doesn’t feel good, that's when my mind is not good. Sleep is crucial! When I'm busy and stressed, my body doesn't process hunger. I live with my boyfriend and we were joking about it last night, when goes out of town, I lose weight. I rely on him for 90% of the time to feed me. When you're stressed and overwhelmed and overworked and stuff, something goes out the window. For me, nutrition is that thing.
Do you feel like you were meant to move to Los Angeles?
Yeah! I think so. I believe in fate to the extent that I think that every decision and action leads to the next. While I'm here because of every choice I've made before, it’s definitely not like there’s an alternate reality where I’m not a musician and living somewhere else. I do think everything worked in a way where everything felt like it had a purpose. The purpose was my own personal and creative growth. The finished product of the album.
You think about things that at the time felt terrible. How could this happen? I'm so upset about this! And then you realize that if that hadn't happened, I wouldn't have ended up here. It's important to think about those things because sometimes you can dwell on negative experiences. When you follow the path and you realize those things lead to good things—I guess I am positive!
After claiming the genre "mermaid music" during your first alum, how do you feel about mystical beings now?
I wanted to distance myself from that, but then the album cover of La Linda ended up being literally the most mermaid thing that could have happened. That term—when I first made my Facebook page, there's the genre section and I didn't know what to say, so I said "mermaid music." When I started making music, I was using vocals to make these soundscapes. So, there was a lot of layered and looped vocals. Very ethereal. The siren song thing. That felt cute and kind of funny and natural.
As my sound has evolved and what I want to do musically has changed, I felt like it didn’t really resonate. At the same time, what is mermaid music? It's not anything, really. I like the idea of mermaids. It's always been super appealing to me. The concept of a fantastical creature whose voice can draw in people and cast this spell. There's so much power in the voice and the mystique. That always resonated with me. When I saw that album cover I knew I had to be a mermaid.