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How Tei Shi Freed Herself From The Music Industry to Take Control of Her Career

After years of working with teams that left her feeling frustrated and unsupported, the Colombian-Canadian artist tells Billboard Canada how she's returned to her indie roots with the confident, vulnerable new album 'Valerie.'

Tei Shi

Tei Shi

Courtesy Photo

At the end of 2020, Tei Shi was far from her L.A. home, in a dark London basement, trying to do something she hadn’t done in months: write a song.

She had spent the previous half-year of pandemic lockdown coming to a slow realization that she needed to regain control of her career. For the second time, the Canadian-Colombian singer was in a label deal that wasn’t working, with a team she didn’t feel supported by. The loss of autonomy was stifling her creative voice. “I felt like I stopped being able to hear myself,” she says.


Now, four years later, and ten years into her career, Tei Shi — real name Valerie Teicher Barbosa — is finally a free agent again, releasing her first independent full-length, Valerie. It’s not just independent in label, but in spirit as well, as Teicher Barbosa regains a level of control she hasn’t had since the early 2010s, when critical success and online hype propelled her to the stages of Coachella and opening stints for Grimes and Jungle.

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The new release is a long way from the isolation and self-doubt of 2020. That was supposed to be a big year for Tei Shi: after parting ways with the label that released her first two records, she had joined forces with a new label and management, and was set to hit the road with indie auteur Blood Orange.

When the pandemic arrived, she realized that a familiar pattern was taking shape. Amidst lost opportunities, she hoped to take the summer of 2020 to focus on honing her production skills and become 100% self-sufficient as an artist, but she says her team at the time wasn’t supportive.

“That was the first moment where I realized like we were not aligned,” she says. She became more and more alienated from her team and her career, losing her artistic spark along the way.

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Until, while in London, she pulled up a guitar loop a friend had sent her, and decided to have a frank conversation with herself. What poured out was “Valerie,” a kind but firm missive directed at Valerie, the person. “I just wanna love you / Why won’t you just let me love you?” she reflects.

“[That] was the moment that I knew I hadn’t completely lost it,” she says.

That title track is a thesis statement for the album, which serves as a testament to Teicher Barbosa’s newfound independence. She acts as executive producer of a sparkling, genre-blurring show, swirling together punchy top 40, sultry bachata, angsty rock and murky R&B, all inflected by her dark, intuitive alt-pop sensibility.

The album reflects a freedom she was previously missing. “Honestly, I attribute every positive thing in my life right now to the fact that I was able to free myself of those contracts and re-define myself in the way that I want to.”

Embracing vulnerability on Valerie

Teicher Barbosa first began releasing music as Tei Shi in the early 2010s, right before the indie blog hype train started to lose steam. She gained attention online for wistful indie pop songs like “Nevermind The End” and sensual bangers like “Bassically.” Opportunities, and then deals, came fast. But before she knew it, she wasn’t in control anymore.

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“That process of having to convince a gatekeeper to allow you to release your work into the world and move your career and your life forward can be so painful,” she explains.

In 2021, she began, for a second time, the process of extracting herself from contracts. Two years later, she released BAD PREMONITION, a six-song EP that became half of Valerie. Though the songs on BAD PREMONITION were released before Valerie, Teicher Barbosa clarifies, they were actually written after the new songs on the album.

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She focused on the BAD PREMONITION songs because they seemed more confident and powerful — she thought her label might be more likely to release tracks like the self-assured and pissed off “MONA LISA.” “When you look me in my eyes / all you see is dollar signs,” she calmly asserts, before a pre-chorus that doesn’t mince words: “You’re so full of shit and you know it!”

The new songs on Valerie, like the restless “Shooting Star” and the skittering waltz “You Go (I’ll Go),” show a more vulnerable, uncertain side. Several of them could be either about a bad contract or a bad relationship, a reminder that to trust someone with your art is like giving them a piece of your heart.

“Falling From Grace” is the most exposed, and the most hard-hitting, of these tracks. In the summer of 2020, Teicher Barbosa had an unexpected pregnancy that quickly became life-threatening. She was rushed to the hospital and had emergency surgery, a traumatic experience that she barely talked about afterwards.

A year later, as Teicher Barbosa was getting back in touch with her inner voice, she felt comfortable enough to share the story with two friends, musicians Nick Hakim and Zooey Celeste. The three met up to hang out and maybe work on some music, but as they caught up on the previous year, the conversation became heavier than expected, turning into what she now thinks of as an impromptu therapy session. “I talked to them about what I’d been through and they really kind of helped me and encouraged me to write something.” Hakim picked up his guitar, and the song came together that night.

Thanks to her independence, Teicher Barbosa can explore parts of herself she hasn’t always been able to. Valerie features three songs in Spanish (four, counting the Spanish version of “MONA LISA”) the most of any Tei Shi release so far. Teicher Barbosa has long wanted to release more music in Spanish, but felt like that desire wasn’t understood or shared by the people she worked with.

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Spanish-language music is a fast growing market in both the U.S. and Canada, though Teicher Barbosa says the industry still has a long way to go in supporting artists who want to step outside of an English-language framework.

“You still encounter a lot of really narrow minded ideas of what an artist should be, how an artist should be packaged or sold or whatever and what’s possible,” she says. “People are afraid to try things.”

Teicher Barbosa is not one of those people. Ten years into her career, she’s exploring new sounds and learning how to tell her story, on her terms. Where many artists fizzle out after early buzz, after taking a long road back to herself, Tei Shi sounds like she’s just getting started.

Tei Shi performs in Toronto at TD Music Hall on May 2 and Vancouver at The Fox on May 8. Tickets for the Valerie Tour are available here.

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