Valerie Teicher speaks in long, deliberate blocks, and she’s careful to answer every part of the question being asked. It’s easy to imagine her privately unwinding in front of a microphone, or on a tape recorder, which is why her debut album Crawl Space contains the nice surprise of just that: Recordings of her younger self, plucked from a different time and space and given the kind of public attention that both makes a great origin story and serves to highlight the journey on which she’s been and continues.
As Tei Shi, Teicher released two EPs (2013’s Saudade and 2015’s Verde) before signing onto Downtown Records. But before she put together Crawl Space, she shook her act up considerably. Her videos and other visuals are more polished, and she reformed the project as a more explicitly solo endeavor. But the core of her music has been the same throughout, open and pensive and reactive to the charged feelings of the heart.
So what’s changed? Many of her earlier songs had a more bedroom electronica feel (compounded by the fact that her resources extended about as far as a laptop) and were mostly private endeavors between her and her producing partner Luca Buccellati. (The greatest exception to the rule is the monster build of “Bassically,” which in earlier performances would be the highlight of her show — she’d drop to the floor and perform those closing, escalating calls as though a woman possessed.) Now, she has space to fill, making her both more deliberate and experimental than she’d been before.
As Teicher explains, “When I was making the music and making the album, I was thinking a lot about how it would translate live and what I wanted to be playing live, and that really informed the music. Playing the shows now, it feels really rewarding because I have a full-length album and it’s more of a statement.”
Teicher’s polished choreography in videos like “Say You Do” make it seem as though she’s been performing forever, but she shares, “When I first started playing live, with my first EP, I had never played a show in my life before. I was very shy, got a lot of anxiety before playing, and wasn’t comfortable on stage.”
“Between then and now, I feel is a world of difference.”
Another difference: The energy of the songs on Crawl Space, whose title is a direct response to a childhood phobia of tight spaces. There are still songs that superficially hew more closely to the style of her older tracks, but even those — “Keep Running,” “Baby,” and closer “Sleepy” — feel more expansive, a quality that’s hard to express through earbuds but which comes through when blasted on speakers and performed live.
“I’m proud of all the music I released, and I think that there’s something really cool for me about it, an element of like, when I was making those first releases and those EPs, I was really not expecting anything out of them,” Teicher reveals. But after touring that small clutch of songs for years, she admits that she still feels “really connected to it,” but that, “I wasn’t aware that I was putting something out that was gonna state something about myself, as an artist.”
“It was coming from a raw place; just me doing whatever I wanted. Nobody else was caring, or having an influence, or giving me opinions or anything. That quality is something that I really loved in those recordings and that music, but I also feel like I’ve outgrown a lot of that stuff.”
When it came to deciding on the final cut of Crawl Space, Teicher consciously chose to “display an array of influences and range, and position myself more broadly, rather than just in this electronic, indie space.” Which meant disturbing the nascent artistic identity she’d unwittingly constructed, a prospect of which she was wary: “I wanna be able to make a lot of different kinds of music and a lot of different kinds of things without setting myself up early on to be pigeonholed and limit myself.” But luckily, she had a means of threading that needle: Those recorded tapes from her childhood.
“Part of the meaning of the album, with the recordings of my younger self, this was a tribute to my past self. I was taking my younger self through it with me,” Teicher explains, and in their own less obvious way, the songs of Crawl Space track this evolution too. Some of them were written at the same time as songs that eventually made it onto those earlier EPs. What’s changed is less the feeling behind the songs and more the ability she now has to execute her vision more exactly: “In a microscopic way, I don’t feel a lot of restrictions or limits or that feeling of being trapped or limited that I had before. The album helped me work through a lot of those things, and by the time I finished it, I’d changed a lot of things in my environment and got free, in a way.”
“There are always new obstacles or new things that come into play. It’s different, now, working and releasing through a label that’s onboard. There are more people involved and who have, not like, ‘a say,’ but have their own part in the project. Those things can become potentially limitations or restrictions or frustrations, but I’ll find that out when I start working on the next thing. If anything, I feel more liberated and excited because, on a personal level, I feel l did what I wanted to on the album, and that opened me up to explore a variety of different things.”
Part of that exploration included further centering her cultural background. Teicher was born in Argentina, has Latinx heritage, and has gone on to live in both Canada and the U.S. When I comment that her track “Baby” shares the same quality as Brazilian singer Gal Costa’s same-named song, Teicher remarks, “I don’t draw directly from any one thing, but they’ve all seeped into the repertoire of stuff along the way, as well as from past music and stuff that’s more ‘relevant’ to America or whatever. A lot of Latin music that, rhythmically, is quite different from American music, but now you can hear a lot of those influences in American pop music now.”
In a golden age of world music pop influences, Teicher’s far-flung fluency is still a unique asset, but she is quick to point out, “It’s good that people are talking about the idea of cultural appropriation in music and in the way that people present themselves. Those dialogues are great and really useful. But I don’t think that’s unique to our generation, though they probably happen at a faster rate now. You just have to pay tribute to the things that you’re borrowing from, because everyone does that, and it makes amazing music.”
“But have respect for and acknowledge and pay tribute to those things, without ignoring that history or that reference or where it comes from, and acting as if you’re creating it or trying to replicate it in a formulaic or coming from a dishonest place. You can usually tell. It’s not a negative thing; the discourse should continue happening, and people should be aware of and respect of where they create, where that comes from.”
In Teicher’s case, the origin path is laid cleanly and clearly out; the rest is up to her.