Photos by Aaron Tian
It’s a cool summer day as I walk through the upscale streets of midtown Manhattan. I arrive at the Museum of Modern Art’s grand glass doors and make my way to the garden out back. Tonight is the final night of their MOMA Nights concert series and a crowd of fans, hipsters, families, and tourists alike have gathered to hear Argentine-born, Colombian-raised, and Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Tei Shi.
The DJ spins upbeat, yet completely ambient music as people mill about, socializing and settling themselves onto patio cushions in front of the stage. The garden looks something like I’d imagine Ancient Greece may have looked. There are intertwining waterways, bushes, avant-garde statues littered about, even a giant statue of a rose right by the stage. It’s a calm little respite from the city’s taxing pace of life.
A million micro-thoughts run through my head, like if it’s worth it to go grab one of those cushions before the show starts or if my camera has enough battery to last the full night. Suddenly, the crowd falls dead silent as a bright orange figure takes the stage. The color is from Tei Shi’s kimono-styled top, and its whimsical movements exaggerate her every gesture. As she and her backing band strike the first few notes to “Nevermind The End,” I’m shocked at how gorgeously they have orchestrated the tune. From the first note to the last, each sound seems perfectly woven into the pieces’ structures. When I consciously break my eyes from the mesmerizing, yet strikingly simple performance, I can see that the entire crowd behind me feels the same way. As someone who’d become a bit jaded to toned down, earnestly rendered live performances, it was a stunning welcome into Tei Shi’s world.
Mass Appeal: How was your MOMA Nights show?
Tei Shi: It was great. I’ve been out of New York for a while, so it was like a nice way to come back. I felt very honored to be playing there, it was beautiful. Lots of people turned out, it was really fun.
Where have you been?
I did a US tour then I went to Europe for just over a month touring. Then I was back in Canada.
Was it nice visiting your homes in both Canada and shooting your video for “See Me” in Colombia?
Yeah, in April I went back to Colombia to where my parents live. I was there visiting them when we decided last minute to shoot the video there. That was the last couple days visiting my parents. Canada was good, I was in Montreal for about a month and a half just hanging out, working on some new music. Then I went to Vancouver for a couple weeks to see my family and sisters, so it was good.
Do you have a close relationship with your family?
Definitely. We moved around a lot and we’re all living far away from each other. There’s a non-traditional dynamic, but regardless, we’re a really close family. We do reunions once or twice a year where we all get to be together.
What made you want to shoot the “See Me” in your hometown, Bogotá, Colombia?
It all really happened last minute. I worked on the video with Dreamtiger, which is comprised of Jonatán López and Adrian Arredondo. They have a diverse background, Adrian is Mexican and Jonatán is actually Colombian as well. He was born there, but he hadn’t been back since he was a baby. They had both been planning on making a trip out there and it just so happened that I was going already and we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do for the video. It was a natural thing, a lot of it was just on-the-go. There wasn’t a big reason or purpose behind the video in the beginning. We wanted something really unique-looking, creating a world around the video that would be unexpected. Also, a world that had personal significance to me and it ended up being something much more than a video for me. It was an experience of re-exploring and discovering the city that I had spent my childhood in. Going places where I usually don’t go when I’m there. I hadn’t been since I was really really little, so it was kind of this re-discovery of that part of myself that actually tied in really well with the song. It gave it another dimension for me.
Had it changed a lot since you were young?
Yes and no. Things have changed a lot in the sense that the country as a whole has changed. When my family left Colombia, it was at the peak of a lot of corruption. The country was not in a good place, it wasn’t a very safe place to be. In the time between then and now, it’s become a lot more safe. It’s progressed a lot with security. Now, there’s lots of tourism and its very much a global city. But culturally and aesthetically it’s the same, very rooted in tradition. They stay true to the way the culture and the city have been for a long time. As you can see in the video, there are areas that have the old, traditional architecture. So yes and no.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
Kind of all over the spectrum. I grew up listening to a combination of Latin music that was around me in Colombia. Also, my two older sisters were listening to a lot of American pop, the early 90’s, Michael Jackson, Madonna, that kind of stuff. My dad listened to a lot of Latin Jazz and my mom was a huge classic rock and folk fanatic, so she got me listening to Bob Dylan and The Beatles really young. So I had a lot of different music from early on that I loved equally for different reasons. I developed a very eclectic musical palette, I guess.
Was it difficult moving from Colombia to Canada at such a young age? That seems like a big cultural gap.
It’s huge. I can’t even believe that my parents made that move, just completely different worlds. For me, I was 8 so at that age, you kind of just adapt to anything. I knew what was happening, but I was very oblivious to the drastic-ness of it. I still had my family around me, so it wasn’t that big of a deal to me. When you’re that age, you kind of just go to school and hang out with your family. Your world isn’t that affected by it. So yeah, I can’t really remember ever having a culture shock or anything. I spoke English to a certain extent already and I think going to school in English was probably the biggest thing I had to adapt to, but I adapted pretty quickly.
So you learned English even while you were living in South America?
I started learning English when I was really young. My family has lived in the states for a few years before so they all spoke English. My mom got me watching Barney and Sesame Street. When I was in school, I went to a British school so I took English and some of my courses were in English. It wasn’t starting from zero.
How did your family react when you blew up overnight over your first single, “M&M’s?”
They were very pleasantly surprised. They knew that I had a musical part to me, but I had never really shared with them my own music, the songs that I had wrote. I think for a while it was kind of harder for them to support me and my choices because they didn’t actually know what I had to give. Then, when I recorded that first EP [Saudade] I showed it to them and that’s where everybody’s minds shifted a little bit. They had something tangible to see. Then I started putting music out and they’ve been very very supportive and excited.
Speaking of your first EP, can you tell me a bit about the word Saudade and its significance to you?
It’s a really beautiful, mysterious word. I think if you just read it, you don’t really know what it means. That’s something that I was drawn to, aesthetically. There isn’t any word in another language for that exact term, that emotion that it describes. The music that was on the first EP I had been working on in the year prior to putting it out was very much aligned with that theme of loneliness and nostalgia. The word was very much tied to what the music was provoking. It’s hard to define and hard to describe, but it has a very specific emotion that it represents. That’s what I wanted to do with my music.
I think it really reflects on your music well. A difficult to define emotion that sort of just comes through.
Yeah, that’s the kind of significance of the word that I was trying to approach with my music.
Your live set is really amazing. How did it all come together?
It’s an ever-evolving process. The first shows I ever played were in the fall of 2013. I had a band, we threw it together in a couple weeks. It was CMJ Festival that I played the first few shows. It started from a very DIY place, my band was very differently configured. Since then, it’s been changing over time. People left, people came, it’s just a constant process that adapts to the music. With this most recent EP, it was something that entered into the process. I was thinking about performing live, and what would translate well live, and what people would respond to, and how to make things dynamic so they not only sound great recorded, but can be really interactive and cool live.
You’ve been working with your producer/collaborator Luca Buccellati for a couple years now. How did you two first meet?
We went to the same music school in Boston and had a lot of friends in common. We never met until 2 months before graduating and became really good friends. We bonded over music and the music we were making at the time. He was the first person that I showed my songs to, that I had written and was working on. Until then, I was very private about making music and my songs. So he was that person that encouraged me and helped me get out of my shell and gave me the confidence to really go for it. He really pushed me to take it more seriously and put it out there. That gave me the confidence to do that. We were constantly collaborating on music, whether it be his or mine or with other people. We just have a very close relationship.
Was it tough from going to a bedroom songwriter to sharing your songs with so many people online?
It was really strange. Nowadays, releasing music is still kind of this weird thing where you can put something up online and thousands of people can listen to it, but it’s still intangible because it’s all online and digital. You don’t know who those people are or have any personal connection to them at first. As much as it was weird that I knew that people were listening to it, I was still caught up in the real element of feeling like it was kind of untouched. You know what I mean? That made it easier, for artists who go from not putting anything out to being on the radio or something like that, it’s a lot harsher of a change. But for me, I was still able to maintain that feeling of disconnection and isolation with my music while still having people respond to it.
What’s something on your iPod that no one would expect you to listen to?
I have a lot of musical theater stuff that I never listen to from high school. I was a theater nerd, so some musical soundtracks that would be kind of weird now (laughs).
What was your favorite play?
Everything sounds so corny now. I was in the play Into The Woods, which they actually made a movie out of this year. So people know about it now, that’s a really cool musical.
A lot of people saw your song/video for “Bassically” as a sort of feminist anthem, or something along those lines. Was that your goal when you wrote it?
Somewhat. When I wrote the song, it was definitely coming from a perspective of things that I was going through that weren’t exclusive to my experience. Being a woman, the music industry, my relationship during that time. I never necessarily wanted it to be labeled like “this is the sentiment,” because I think that’s giving the song way more power than it should have. It does have some personal and emotional matters, but it’s also a fun song. In a broader sense, it was just a song about empowerment and release and breaking through any kind of limitations or expectations that other people put on you that weigh you down. In a lot of ways, that is definitely a permanent view coming from a young woman. But I think it applies to a lot more than that. I wanted the song to be broader than that, but I understand it. People are labeling a lot of things in that kind of realm. It’s something that’s really relevant right now. It’s cool, but at the same time, I think the song is a little bit more broad and not necessarily just to be interpreted from a feminine perspective.
What’s your ideal superpower?
I think invisibility would be really cool, or flying. That would be amazing.
Do you have any hobbies outside of music?
Kind of regular casual things. Hanging out with friends, movies and films, I go to shows a lot, I love live music. Really, most of my life, ties into music and my career one way other. I’m very casual about the rest of my life. I just like hanging out with the people I love.
What can we expect next from Tei Shi?
I’m about to go on tour with Years and Years. Other then that, just working on new music, hopefully putting out an album in the near future. That’s what I’ll be working towards in the next few months.
Aaron is on Twitter.