Last Friday night, the musician Tei Shi was preparing take the stage at Elsewhere in Brooklyn. Wearing a denim blue jumpsuit with retro vibes, she told us before she went on that even she has a hard time defining her music. "Most of the time I’d probably just play it because I’d like to have somebody hear it and say 'Oh, okay,' rather than trying to explain it for them," she says. For her, her sound on a very basic level is, "a mix of some electronic elements, some R&B elements, some more soulful jazz influences with pop elements to it." Tei Shi, née Valerie Teicher, gained popularity when she first released her music in 2013 — including a cover of Beyoncé’s “No Angel."
Her performance last week was part of Dr. Martens' Worn Different festival, which featured live music from Jimi Tents, Nasty Nigel and Beach Fossils, as well as art installations throughout the venue from Aaron Fowler, Bráulio Amado, Christian Benner, Shawna X, Tamara Santibañez, Kyle Garner Of Sit & Read, Kayrock Studios, and Jessica Lehrman. The event was inspired by the creatives and eccentrics who typically gravitate towards the signature boots, and naturally, each of the performers wore their favorite pairs of Docs in their own stylish way.
Before her performance, we chatted with Tei Shi about fashion, songwriting, and New York City.
KB What’s your process like when you’re writing a song?
TS It kind of varies. It’s not like the same thing every time, but it usually starts with a lyric or a melody idea, then I write the song that way. Then I’ll start adding instruments and production around that, so it kind of starts with the melody or a lyrical idea, but sometimes I’ll write over an idea – something like a guitar riff that was floating around.
KB Where do you get your ideas from?
TS I don’t know, I guess I’m kind of like always writing down little things, and little pieces of lyrics or voice memos of melodies and stuff, and then if I’m working with somebody in the studio we’ll show each other stuff and we go from there. Or it’ll inform something else and I’ll think of an idea I had on my phone a month ago. It’s gathering bits and pieces of information from all over the place, it doesn’t necessarily come from one place.
KB And I hear that you’ve been writing songs since you were eight years old?
TS Yeah. I kept journals, and diaries my whole life – when I was young, especially – so I would write the words to the song and make up the song in my head and I’d remember it, or sometimes I’d just record it on cassette tapes, and it was very simple. It was like having a little ditty and having it in my diary, and that’s how I started writing songs.
KB How does New York inspire you?
TS New York inspires me in a lot of different ways. There’s such a consistent ongoing activeness in the city. The main inspiration for me is just being around so many people, and just observing. Anywhere I go in New York, I’m constantly observing. And there’s so much to observe, like conversations that you’re like “What!” or things on the street that you see.
KB A lot of women musicians have been quoted saying it’s really important to band together and support other women musicians and be feminist. I wanted to get your take on that.
TS Yeah, I agree with that, I think. For me it’s a balance of on one hand, I want to be a strong and positive female role model for other women, and to create a space where other women can feel like they can and like there’s a place for them in music. But I also try not to put too much emphasis on “I’m a female musician,” because at the same time I don’t like to define my music or my career by my gender, if that makes sense?
It’s like a double-edged sword where I like talking about it and I think that being a woman in this industry is really a specific experience, and it’s a hard one. I think artists should support each other more, and collaborate more, and I love to collaborate with other female artists. But at the same time I don’t think that I necessarily want to limit or define myself as just “a woman in music,” I want to be like a musician, you know what I mean? It’s a balance of both of those things. But there’s a lot of really amazing women doing really great stuff in music right now, so I think it’s very exciting.
KB And how do you play with your personal style on stage? Is it different from things you normally wear?
TS A little bit. It’s definitely like an extension of my personal style, but I put a little more thought into it, like on a daily basis I try to keep it pretty comfy, and when I’m on stage I just put a little more thought into an accessories. Also, I think different things look good on stage more than on a real live person.,
KB. Do you have any favorite places to shop in the city?
TS I haven’t shopped in the city in a while. I really like going to Beacon’s Closet. It's like everybody goes to Beacon’s Closet. It’s like I like having to search for things, then finding the one thing – when you’re like, nobody else is going to have this and I can’t believe I found this, and that, to me, is the kind of shopping I like, so every time I go to Beacon’s I find something I love.
KB What is the story behind your stage name?
TS There isn’t much of a story, it’s derived from my last name, so it’s like a more abstract take on that. It just kind of came in a brainstorming session, and I liked the way it sounded so I kept it!