A Tapestry of Sound: An Interview with Tei Shi

Music — 20.06.24

Words: Cassie Morien
Photographer: Jane Dylan Cody
Stylist: Kat Typaldos
Beauty: Tei Shi
Stylist Assistant: Lauren Carr-Gasso

In her Los Angeles home, Valerie Teicher Barbosa, better known as the poetic Tei Shi, leisurely takes a sip of coffee. She radiates a tranquil simplicity, but a tempest of creativity brews within her. The fiercely independent singer-songwriter, producer, and DJ, graciously describes her intricate tapestry of sound, visuals, and emotion with an introspective gaze.

Tei Shi thrives in a nexus of influences, seamlessly blending English and Spanish, poetry and dance, music and film, high fashion Milan catwalks, and homemade merch for fans. Her insatiable curiosity for each of these pursuits is both boundless and contagious. It is this remarkable ambition that draws other talented musicians, producers, choreographers, and fashion icons into her orbit, in turn, expanding her universe. 

Now, with the release of her truly self-titled album, she invites fans to explore the most vulnerable intersection yet — where Tei Shi the artist converges with Valerie, the woman behind the moniker.

Across two interviews with Teeth, Tei Shi shares more about her latest album, emphasizes the importance of community building, reflects on her mental health and happiness, and revels in the gratifying freedom of being an independent artist.

You released a brand new album titled Valerie on April 19. Last year, you treated us to your EP Bad Premonition. Valerie not only contains those mesmerizing songs but also introduces six new tracks. I understand those six songs were recorded early into the pandemic. Can you share more about this new album and how you blended these tracks together? 

These six new songs are an expansion of the [Bad Premonition] EP, but it’s kind of strange how it all came together because, like you said, these six new songs are weirdly the precursor to the songs on the EP. They were the first batch of songs that I wrote for the album and they came first in that they were some of the songs that I first started writing when I finally got back in touch with my creativity, after a period of being super blocked and feeling like I was disoriented. These new songs are more about me at that moment. I was starting to get out of that pit and rediscover myself through these new songs that I was writing. Those songs were what I was feeling while I was having these realizations that the situation I was in, the setup that I was in, and the people around me were kind of falling apart. 

These new songs came from that place and the EP strangely came later, after the realization I was starting to get some control, some empowerment, and confidence back. 

I feel like these new songs and the expansion of the EP into an album are like peeling back the layers, coming out on the other side— independent and empowered.

Your newest single, “Quédate Queriéndome” or “QQ,” is a gorgeous, bilingual track. I know the song title translates to “stay wanting me” or “stay loving me.” Can you share more about this beautiful track and the process of bringing it to life? 

That song was something that I had been wanting to create for a long time, kind of my interpretation of a bachata ballad. It’s a genre of music that I adore. I’ve always loved, grew up with, and have always wanted to do my take on it.

I worked with two producers on this track. I started it with Mikey Freedom Hart. He and I are good friends. He is a bachata-lover as well, so we always kind of talked about trying our hand at bachata songs together. We were in the studio. He started playing that main guitar line that you hear through the song on his nylon string guitar and immediately we were both like, ‘This is it.’ 

I took the guitar parts and the basic demo that we made and finished writing the lyrics and the melodies. Once I had the song, I took it back to him, we brought in Noah Breakfast, the other producer who collaborated with us on it. We brought him in and just chipped away at the production until it was feeling really good, but we all did feel like it needed some real acoustic bachata musicianship on it. That was when we took it to this amazing percussionist Masta Kriz and he had his go-to guitarist come in and do some extra guitar. That really brought it to this other-worldly place. 

The song is kind of like your classic romance. You know, doomed romance — falling in love, but kind of seeing the end before it comes. I was channeling a lot of my emotions and my feelings of heartbreak and deception that I had felt — not actually in a romantic setting — but within my professional life. I wanted to channel those emotions within the format of a classic romance kind of thing. It’s very much a confrontational song. It’s like, ‘Stay loving me. Stay wanting me. You took me for granted when you had me.’ But it’s also just very dreamy and sultry. The video was the place where I got to play with a lot of those things. 

I worked on the video with another good friend of mine, close collaborator Vogue Giambri. I sent her the lyrics and shared with her my feelings about the song and wanting to do something dance-centric. She’s also a dancer and so we started with that — the theme of the moon being something that I mention in the first line of the song. She choreographed the dance parts. There are also some improvisational elements I added. She directed the video. She also wrote the monologue in English that’s at the beginning, and that monologue I translated to Spanish. Then we ended up working it into a hybrid there, where it goes from Spanish to English. I just love it because it incorporated so many elements that I wanted to incorporate into the song. One, dance, movement. Two, that mixture of Spanish and English that you hear in the song, but also incorporating it into this like monologue and video. I feel like it just really got across the feeling that the song is trying to evoke. 


I’d like to chat about a few of your other songs on Valerie. I know your Bad Premonition tracks emerged from a period of a lot of self-doubts and creative blockage. Can you share a little about that challenging period and how you found your way out of it?

I found myself in a really unhealthy place — as I think we all did — after the pandemic hit. We went through that first chunk of lockdown and readjusting ourselves and our lives. I was hit really hard by the pandemic. I mean, again, we all were. I think creatively I was hit really hard because, at first, I felt that loss of the ability to tour, play shows—


You were on tour with Blood Orange at the time. 

Yeah. I was on tour, I was on the road. It was heartbreaking to have that disappear, and I was kind of in a new situation. A new label management had restructured my team at that time. And through the pandemic and through the challenges that presented — that partnership started to…not work out. I felt a lot of pressure externally, but also I internalized it a lot. [I felt] a lot of pressure to move forward with my career but in a way that was not healthy, in a very toxic way, I realized…I hit a point where I realized it was making me unable to create music. It was making me unable to write anything that I liked. I was just really blocked and I felt completely disconnected from myself, what I wanted to make, and what my future was. I had a hard time for a while.

I remember I tweeted something. I reached out and asked, ‘Does anybody have recommendations on how to get out of a creative block?’ And somebody recommended the book “The Artist’s Way” to me. I was in quarantine and didn’t have much to do. I said, Let’s dive in. I did that whole “The Artist’s Way” workshop over the course of a few months and it really changed things for me. I was able to open back up after a few months, and that’s when I started writing the music that eventually became the [Bad Premonition] EP. 

Yeah, I needed to take a step back. I needed to give myself the space to actually address things and figure out how to change the way I was approaching my work because it was just not allowing me to really create. That was a huge help — and just taking some time off, taking some time away to work on my mental health and my self. That’s what helped me get back to myself as an artist too. 


You have achieved remarkable milestones since navigating through that challenging period. Today, how do you continue to prioritize your well-being? 

I think it’s a daily struggle. I feel like most people who are working on their well-being and their mental health know you take every day, day by day. But for me, I think the biggest thing has been exactly what we were just talking about — lifting that pressure off my shoulders and lifting that feeling of being stuck and not in control of my future. Having that lifted has completely transformed my life, and it’s not something that happened all of a sudden. It took a couple of years for me to get to that point. Nowadays I just try to be patient with myself. I try to put as little pressure on myself as I can, which is very difficult when you’re also kind of an entrepreneur. I’ve found that I don’t really work great under pressure and creatively letting myself just rest and go with the flow and let inspiration come when it comes and just let things happen how they happen has really helped my anxiety. 

When things do work out, it makes it so much more rewarding. I think that’s a much healthier way of living than this, ‘Oh my God, I’m a piece of shit and I’m never going to write a song.’ And then the next day, ‘Oh my God, I’m a God and I just wrote the best [song].That up and down? It’s really difficult. I think of the day-to-day and try to take everything with a grain of salt and just be kind and patient with myself. 


You’ve had the privilege of collaborating with some truly brilliant artists in the past, including supporting Kimbra on tour and working closely with Blood Orange. As you ventured into the creation of Valerie, what new creative partnerships and collaborations emerged?

With this album, I’ve had some newer collaborations that have been really fun. For the upcoming single “No Falta”, I worked with a producer Knox Fortune, who I had never worked with before and who I admire.

Then I brought in Rodrigo Amarante, who’s an incredible musician that I’ve admired for so many years. He was somebody that I was very excited to start that collaborative relationship with because I’ve wanted to work with him for such a long time. We were trying to figure out, ‘When’s the right time? What should we do?’ And once I started that song, I felt like he would bring something different to it. That was one that I think really added something, a whole new dimension, to the album — even though he’s just on that one song. 

And Knox, of course too, he’s super fun to work with. For the most part, I think other than that, it’s been almost like continuing to work with some of my close collaborators that I’ve worked with across albums, but also rediscovering those a little bit. For example, one of the songs called “Falling From Grace,” I wrote with Nick Hakim and this other artist Zooey Celeste. Nick is somebody that I’ve known for years and years who’s a good friend of mine. We’ve kind of been parallel to each other for such a long time in terms of our trajectories. We’ve made music together. We’ve started things, but we’ve never released getting together. So this was like 15 years in the making, like finally, we worked on something together that’s actually coming out. That was a really touching moment for me, actually being able to finish something with Nick and put it out. Also, it is a song that’s really, really so personal and intimate for me. 


How has your experience as a self-managed artist influenced your creative process in music and confidence in the last year? 

One hundred percent it has just in every way. Having the freedom back to just wake up in the morning and know that whatever I do is mine, and is my decision, motivates me in a way that’s just completely different from the motivation that you have when there’s people breathing down your neck or pressuring you to do things a certain way. Or not allowing you to release things the way you want to. It’s that motivation, the thing that drives you, is just so completely different. 

It’s what’s allowed me to feel free in that way. It’s what’s allowed me to make all the decisions about what does this song need? Who am I working on it with? Tweaking every aspect of it, all of the visuals, who I decide to make a video with, all of that! Literally every single decision has been so different to make without a gatekeeper in the way. I honestly think it’s totally transformed — and it’s definitely influenced — the music and all of what I’m starting to put out now.


Whose opinions do you value most as you’re creating new music? 

I value a lot of people’s opinions, but I don’t necessarily open myself up to a ton of opinions when I’m writing music or making something. Honestly, the only opinions that I’m really that interested in when I’m making music are the people who I’m making the music with, or other musical peers or musical collaborators that I’ve worked with in the past. Even then, when I play things for someone or ask them for their feedback, I always take everything with a grain of salt because I think everybody has their opinion. Everybody sees things differently. I could listen to any song and say well, ‘This is how I do it,’ but that doesn’t mean anything.

I think I’m trying these days to value my opinion the most and definitely stay open, but also know that at the end of the day, my intuition makes me right. And that’s what I’m trying to demonstrate to people. I try to make an effort to be open to feedback, not take feedback too personally, and just always prioritize what I think.


What is something priceless you’ve learned from a fellow musician? 

I definitely learned a lot from watching Dev [Hynes] do what he does. Pre-pandemic, during the period when we worked on music for his album and music for my album, I performed with him at shows and I toured a little bit with him. 

I like seeing how he works and one of the things that I observed from him, that was really inspiring, was the way that he builds community around his work. He’s such a self-sufficient artist, he can make an entire album with him by himself without ever talking to anybody else. But at the same time, he builds this community around him and his music where there are so many other musicians, singers, people he brings in for visuals, people that he works with, his band. It was really, really cool to see him bringing people together.

I think being a solo artist can be an isolating thing. It can be really lonely and I think I had [previously] been moving through my career in a very isolated way, where I did feel very alone. Seeing the way that he does what he does was really inspiring to me. I’ve definitely brought that more into how I approach things and how I approach my work, like trying to create spaces at my shows where it feels like people are stepping into a community. I think that that’s a huge thing I learned and it’s been more fun for me, kind of feeling like I don’t have to carry everything on my own. I actually can open myself up and share these experiences with other people and bring people into my world.

In my show [last year] in New York, I had friends and people from different walks of life that I love, coming on stage and cat walking and it felt like a party. It felt like people were coming to be a part of a party. I think that’s something that’s been the result of what I’ve learned from seeing artists like Dev. 


Speaking of touring, you toured this May. Last year, you poetically described each of your shows as “having its own personality.” You also shared you really enjoyed the visuals, lights, and the ability to “take up space.” How are you approaching touring in 2024?

I think it’s like that, but even more, I think I realized how much I love just having a stage for myself. Even though I definitely have dreams of having a band on stage with me again one day, I’ve really loved that feeling. I think this time it’s almost like 2.0. There will be more. 

I’m looking to take the version of the show I did last time and kind of tweak it and incorporate more visual elements in a different way. And also give myself a little bit more to play with on stage, if that makes sense. Not just moving around with the microphone, but also having some toys that I can do sound stuff with on stage. I would say it’s similar to my setup last time, but I’m hoping it’s going to feel bigger and more interactive. 


How do you ground yourself? 

A lot of different ways. I’m a homebody. I love being home. I love creating an environment for myself where I can be kind of isolated and still have everything I need. 

Also, spending time outdoors. Just being around nature is something I’ve come back around to and started to appreciate again in the last couple of years. Going for walks, going to the beach, going camping. I meditate a lot. I do yoga. I do a lot of mind-body practices that help me manage the day-to-day when it’s so hectic. Those are some of the things that I find myself needing to stay grounded. 


On your note about nature, I saw you traveled to Africa earlier this year! How was that experience? 

Africa was absolutely otherworldly, it was so insane. It was like the trip of a lifetime. But it’s kind of funny because, timing-wise, it fell right at the end of the year when I was trying to finish the recording of the album. I was torn between the studio and the outdoors. I was in this incredible place and it was like a dream. But, at the same time, I was like I need to finish my album and the clock is ticking. It was weird, not [being] fully in either place, but both places came together and collided. It was just amazing. I love wildlife, and just seeing these parts of the world that still feel somewhat untouched. Yeah, it was amazing. 


Your love for fashion is palpable. In 2023, you attended New York Fashion Week and were also invited by Tom Ford’s designer for Milan Fashion Week. How was that experience, and how do you continue to explore the intersection of fashion and music and art? 

Well, it’s something I want to do a lot more. It’s a space that I feel is really exciting. I just, I love the intersection of like any art form — where music meets fashion, where music and art meet, where art and fashion meet, where film and poetry and music meet. I love exploring those spaces. 

I feel like I haven’t done that as much as I would like to. But I had so much fun going to the Tom Ford Milan [Fashion Week] runway show. I had never been to Milan before and it was just a dream to know that they wanted me there and played my music during the runway show. I got to get all glammed up and being in Milan, it was wonderful. 

I definitely feel like I get a lot of inspiration from seeing how designers work, how they operate, and how a fashion show comes together. It’s very similar in a lot of ways to a live show. But also, very different. I think it’s fascinating to see the workings of that. I was really, really excited and just happy to be there and I hope to do more of that. 


In addition to high fashion, you have also created your own for fans. Handmade merch is not a term fans and music lovers see often. Tell me more about that passion and process. 

Last year, I think I made about 100 handmade, hand-dyed, T-shirts. It was quite a project, but it was really fun. I had some old T-shirts — just like old rags — bought some spray paint, and just tried things out. It just felt like a child-like, playful activity. I don’t know that I’ll do that exact thing again, but I definitely plan on carrying the spirit of that forward. It’s something that, as a music fan, I would love. I would love to be able to have something that an artist I loved created and that is one-of-a-kind. 

Right now, I am working on one new merch element that’s gonna be pretty hands-on too. It won’t be a T-shirt, but it’ll be something different. 


What are your goals and aspirations for 2024, both personally and professionally?

[My] goals are getting this album out and being able to tour it as much as possible. Touring last year revitalized my love for performing, [after] I had spent many years having a lot of anxiety and negativity towards touring. I feel excited to get back on stage after how last year’s tour went. And now, with these new songs and the album, I would love to do as many shows as possible, anywhere that will have me. 

And [I’m] hoping to do more collaboration. Hopefully work with some new artists that I love and admire, and who I haven’t worked with before. 

I would love to make music for a fashion show or some other type of performance — a movie or a TV show, something like that — just to take myself out of the strictly Tei Shi thing and try different things. More fashion stuff, for sure. And just try to get this music heard by as many people as possible. And be able to also go back to my countries — hopefully playing Colombia, playing in Canada more. Tour more of Latin America. I would just love to take this music to as many places as I can and reconnect with all of my fans. 


In the past, you’ve hinted at intentionally preserving an air of mystery about yourself. Is there anything you are now ready to share with fans that you haven’t shared before? 

I think I’m ready to be a little more open as just a person because I think for a long time [I’ve enjoyed having] that separation between Tei Shi and Valerie. That’s still the case, but I think that now, as I’ve been doing this for longer, as my listeners and followers have gotten to know me better through my music, I feel like the relationship there has become deeper. 

I want to be able to be a little bit more transparent in this way. Overall, I think the album being named Valerie is kind of a nod to that return of trying to bring Tei Shi a little bit closer to Valerie, to who I am every day. 

Also, some of these songs, I feel are a lot more intimate and personal than some of my previous work. It is deliberate. And I think that’s the hope— that I’ll be able to let my fans get to know me better with this album.

Follow Tei Shi via Instagram, see her on tour, and listen to her new album Valerie below: