Tei Shi Found Herself Making Dance Music for the End of The World

Published July 24, 2020

Photo by Tim Erem.

This is “Add to Queue,” our attempt to sort through the cacophony of music floating in the algorithmic atmosphere by consulting the experts themselves. Our favorite musicians tell us about their favorite music—the sad, the happy, the dinner party-y, the songs they want to be played at their funeral.

In this edition, we speak with Valerie Teicher Barbosa, also known by her stage name Tei Shi, on the occasion of her most recent EP, Die 4 Ur Love. The EP follows 2019’s La Linda, a Spanish-English album that the Colombian-Canadian multi-hyphenate describes as a byproduct of lush dreams and a naïve sense of excitement after moving from New York to Los Angeles. Through big dance songs, written during a week-long outing at a Texas ranch, Tei Shi explores fear, loss, pain, disappointment, and impending doom. From her home in Los Angeles, Barbosa took some time in isolation to explain the process of making music for the end of the world, the Jennifer Lopez music video that shaped her, and the one salsa song she thinks could save us. 

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ERNESTO MACIAS: Where are you right now?

TEI SHI: I’m at my house in L.A. What about you?

MACIAS: I’m in Brooklyn, actually. Been stuck here.

TEI SHI: I moved here just over two years ago, but I’m so used to going to New York, getting my fix of being in crowded places and stuff. Even though that’s not the reality that exists anymore, I keep having fantasies of that New York.

MACIAS: Why did you decide to write these songs about heartbreak and pain, and love during a time of isolation?

TEI SHI: La Linda was something that I spent two to three years working on. When I wrote the majority of those songs, I was in this headspace where I had just moved to L.A. I felt like I was starting this fresh chapter. I was very inspired and happy and felt like I was in this surreal, beautiful world. I wanted to make something really beautiful and dreamlike. 

It’s been two years, and a lot of things have happened in my life. A lot of things have brought me down to more of a negative headspace. When I wrote the EP, I was in this apocalyptic mindset. I spent a week at this ranch in Texas and I wrote the EP there. I was feeling anxiety and despair, like a dark cloud over my head—the songs really came out of that. 

MACIAS: They’re heavy but they’re also actually relatable pop songs about heartbreak. At least that’s how I was experiencing them, personally.

TEI SHI: Well, what’s interesting to me. This is one of the really cool things about writing songs and putting music out—what people take away from the songs, given their particular experience or circumstances. To me, Die 4 Ur Love isn’t a breakup EP.  I didn’t experience a romantic breakup during this time. A lot of the time I’m trying to write things that can be relatable and that’s the most universal, relatable thing: the end of a relationship with someone you love. Songs can be about that, but maybe that’s not where they came from. The EP is definitely about loss, the ending of relationships, the disappearance of people from your life, or abandonment. These are things that I’ve experienced and have gone through in the last couple years, and in a variety of different kinds of relationships, but I wanted the EP to ultimately be catchy and relatable, with big songs.

MACIAS: What’s the last song you listened to?

TEI SHI: Let me pull up my Spotify. Oh my god, my history is just trash. I listened to “Song to the Siren.” It’s the version by This Mortal Coil. I was listening to that a lot over the last few days.

MACIAS: What is one song that you usually sing to? 

TEI SHI: I have a playlist. It’s called “Covers” because it’s just songs that I want to cover, that I like singing to. A big one is “How Deep Is Your Love” by the Bee Gees. It was on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. I’ve been meaning to re-watch it. I feel like it’s a really good quarantine movie.

MACIAS: I recently watched it. It was a weekend night, and I was like, “Man, I miss going out dancing,”

TEI SHI: Did it hold up? 

MACIAS: Aesthetically and musically, I enjoy that era a lot, so yes. Who was the earliest musician to influence you?

TEI SHI: I feel like the earliest music and musicians who influenced me were probably at a really subconscious level. I feel like I’m really influenced by the music that was around me when I was a child. Either stuff my parents or older sisters were listening to or my older sisters were listening to, or what was around me culturally.

MACIAS: Is there anyone that comes to mind in particular that you like?

TEI SHI: I started forming my own idea of music when I discovered Kate Bush. It’s weird, I feel like I have so many mixed influences. As a singer I remember listening to a lot of Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, jazz singers, bossa nova, and Brazilian jazz singers like Astrud Gilberto.  Then there’s the stuff that’s more music taste, the vibes of music that I liked listening to, which were more like Björk and Shakira. She was a big influence when I was a kid; she was making me think in Spanish. I remember listening to Pies Descalzos. I listened to the shit out of that when I was a kid. I have three older sisters, but two of them are much older. They were in high school when I was a toddler, so they were listening to Madonna and Michael Jackson.

MACIAS: Do you remember a music video that impressed you or that left a big impact on you? 

TEI SHI: I remember really clearly when J-Lo’s “If You Had My Love” music video came out because that was her first single. It was in the era of MTV, when we would sit and watch music videos all day. I was so excited and affected by it because it was during that time when we started to see Latinx pop stars breaking out and doing well in a really different way than now. It was Shakira, J-Lo, Ricky Martin, Enrique Inglesias. That first wave of universal pop stars that we were seeing, and I was living in Canada in a place where there were no other Latinos. My sister and I were the only kids who spoke Spanish in our school, and I felt like I didn’t have that culture around me when we moved to Canada. 

MACIAS: What’s the song that always puts you in a happy mood?

TEI SHI: “Be Alright” by Ariana Grande.  If I’m sad and I need to feel better, I listen to that song.

MACIAS: What song makes you feel safe?

TEI SHI: “Emotion” by Destiny’s Child. It’s all a cappella, beautiful vocals.

MACIAS: What music would you play on a going out, post-breakup playlist?

TEI SHI: “I Will Survive,” “Borderline” by Madonna, some Missy Elliott in there, and “It’s Okay To Cry” by SOPHIE. Also, the “Do You Believe In Life After Love” Cher song. I don’t know if that’s what it’s called.

MACIAS: “Believe.” What about crying in your bedroom playlist?

TEI SHI: A lot of Robyn, Sufjan Stevens, and Frank Ocean. Frank Ocean is good for crying.

MACIAS: What about for a getting high playlist?

TEI SHI: I mean, most music for me is for getting high. But definitely Erykah Badu and OutKast. And Thundercat, he’s the ultimate.

MACIAS: Which one from OutKast?

TEI SHI:Aquemini” is my go-to. 

MACIAS: If there were one song that you could play for the entire world and you think it would save the world, what would it be?

TEI SHI: Whoa. That’s heavy. Well, I would probably play stuff that my parents would play when I was little. There was this song “Que Lio” by Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe, and it’s just the most amazing song. I really like playing it for people because it’s one of those songs where if you don’t speak Spanish, it doesn’t matter. It’s so warm. There’s something about that song, to me, that just shifts the energy in the room.

MACIAS: If your life were a TV show, what would be the theme song?

TEI SHI: Damn. I might need a second to think about it. I keep going back to this song lately, and I feel like it’s very much where I’m at. “It’s My Life” by Gwen Stefani. I recently found out that the Gwen Stefani version is actually a cover. It’s not the original, but I feel like that song would be the theme song of my life right now. 

MACIAS: What would your show be like?

TEI SHI: A dark comedy, and it would be very relatable, I think. It would mostly be me getting into the same situations and making the same mistakes and the same patterns in life and then always trying to restart. Every episode, it would be the same arc, which just ends up at the same place I started at. That doesn’t sound like a very good show.

MACIAS: What’s next for you?

TEI SHI: I’m going to be doing a Spanish version of one of the songs too. I was trying to get it on the EP, but I couldn’t get it on there in time. I think I’ll put it out separately.

MACIAS: Which song will it be?

TEI SHI: It’s “Johnny. Technically part of the EP, but won’t come out with the EP at the same time.

Listen to Tei Shi’s “Add To Queue” playlist below, and follow Interview on Spotify for more.