tei shi makes music for mermaids
Tei Shi arrives backstage at Baby's All Right in South Williamsburg all smiles, accompanied by her production partner and band mate Luca Buccellati. Dressed in a black hoodie over a pair of reflective emerald trousers, she's carrying a heavy backpack loaded with equipment. This will be Tei Shi's second year performing at CMJ and she is prepared for the chaos: "You can get away with a lot of things at CMJ. Everybody is wasted and wanting to have fun. No one is really scrutinising you very closely." Later that night she will open her set with a hypnotising rendition of No Angel, covering the virtually unrecoverable Beyonce in all of her breathy, falsetto glory without even the slightest hint of vocal timidity.
At a nearby Italian restaurant, she nurses a mug of hot tea in an effort to ward off an impending cold. She recounts collaborating with Luca at Berklee College of Music in Boston before moving to New York to begin piecing together the tracks that would form her debut EP, Saudade. Listening to her debut song, M&Ms is like the auditory equivalent of watching a high-speed car crash in slow motion - equal parts lights and sound, pain and misery, slow and fast. "I had a dream that you left me / I deserved it / I deserved it," she chants over a pounding drumbeat interspersed with melancholic hums.
Discussing the genesis of Saudade, Val names an eclectic mix of genre-ambiguous female vocalists from Bjork to Lykke Li as sources of inspiration, making it even more difficult to discern Tei Shi's own musical leanings. When asked to describe her sound, Val smiles knowingly. "A lot of the songs I put out last year were labeled as R&B, but for me they're the furthest thing from R&B. When I was trying to describe the music on my Facebook page, I called it 'Mermaid Music.' I like to think that it takes you to a dimension that's a bit ethereal, and it's not just one thing that you can pin down."
While Saudade is dominated by sultry slow jams that are popular fodder for Tumblr sex playlists ("I'd like to think that people would be getting in the mood…"), her most recent single, Bassically is more commanding and danceable, slowly building to a chorus of howls that had the kids at Baby's pulsing energetically. "I'm more upbeat of a performer than people would expect. Because the music is quite mellow, with the live sets we've really strived to make it something that's more dynamic and hits harder."
Tei Shi is a bundle of contradictions. Chief among these are her ultimate musical ambitions. Citing the career path of her idol and alternative goddess Caroline Polachek (the same Caroline Polachek that wrote and produced No Angel), Val is determined to retain her autonomy as Tei Shi by cultivating a collaborative songwriting career. "I don't really want to be an artist that has a bunch of people shaping me, I would rather be helping do that for other people."
When Val takes the stage at Baby's, her lithe frame moves with the pounding bass. Bleached blonde hair pulled back above her angular cheekbones, she appears possessed, swaying rhythmically with her eyes closed like she's alone in her bedroom. Somewhere towards the conclusion of Nevermind the End, decidedly Tei Shi's most upbeat number, Luca breaks out into a mesmerising guitar solo, whipping the crowd into a frenzy and sending Val into a full on dance-trance. A guitar riff during an electronic dance song? Just go ahead and add it to that growing list of contradictions.
Text Clarke Rudick
Photography Brayden Olson