The Art of Independence: Tei Shi’s Road to Coachella 2016

In this installment of Unlocked, we caught up with Brooklyn-based vocalist Tei Shi, who played Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival for the first time last month, over a home-cooked meal of chicken paillard.

Read on to learn how Tei Shi and her band prepped for the big shows, what it’s like to gain notoriety as an independent artist and her advice to up-and-coming creators.

With independence comes responsibility— at least it does when you’re an unsigned artist.

Areas of your business that signed artists don’t have to even consider — from distributing your music, to booking and advancing a show, to marketing it all — are your responsibility to oversee. However, when a big opportunity comes, it can be all the more gratifying that you did a lot of the work on your own — just ask Tei Shi, who played Coachella for the first time this month.

Tei Shi at 2016 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival (image via Zimbio)

Valerie Teicher, AKA Tei Shi, played her very-first show in 2013 at CMJ following the release of her debut singles that same year. After gaining steam with her first track, “M&Ms,” its follow-up, “Nevermind the End,” caught valuable cosigns from The FADER and Noisey, even earning a nod as one of the best tracks of 2013 by the latter. It wasn’t too long after that more publications began to pay attention; 2014 brought more recognition from outlets like Rolling Stone, Vogue and Stereogum, praising her for everything from her original music, to her collaboration with Glass Animals, to her hypnotizing cover of Beyoncé’s “No Angel.”

While Tei Shi has a team now, including an agent, lawyer, publicist and her long-time manager, the key part of her story is that most of the team is a recent addition in the past year. During her entire ascension to where she is now, Tei Shi remained independent, doing everything relating to her business herself. This is why it’s impressive that around August of 2015, still unsigned, she found out she was booked to play Coachella.

We caught up with Tei Shi the night before Coachella Weekend Oneover a home-cooked meal

“[A year ago] I definitely wouldn’t have thought I’d be playing Coachella. I probably would have said I’ll be working on an album, which is what I have been doing,” says Val. “…We got an offer for Coachella, and I just remember I was in the bank, just pacing back and forth. I feel like my response wasn’t excitement at first, because I was just very confused… I just wasn’t expecting it at all.”

Arriving to Los Angeles six days prior to weekend one, the biggest area of preparation for the band was rehearsing, getting comfortable with a new bandmate and readying new songs to be performed live. Ten months ago, Tei Shi added a musical director to her team, who oversees the band and helps assemble the live performance. He, along with a live sound engineer, are both part of the crew attending Coachella.

In terms of getting inspired for Coachella or otherwise, Val tries to keep outside influences to a minimum, but will pick up subtle ideas from watching videos of great artists of the past. Doing this in addition to playing frequently helps her to build her own confidence through relating to another creator:

“I think as an artist, it’s really interesting to go back and watch a random show that [someone] like David Bowie did in 1989… I’ve been watching a lot of stuff from the ’80s and ’90s, like certain artists that I’ve gotten into that I’ve never really dived into before. Like Kate Bush, PJ Harvey and Fiona Apple… For me it’s more building my confidence in watching other people do stuff… It’s really useful and inspiring when I go and look at an artist I really respect — like interviews and stuff they did at the beginning of their career — and see how they’ve progressed and what their mentalities were… It’s just stuff that’s relatable to me.”

For Val, inspiration such as this can come from artists both old and new. A more recent artist that Val cites as relatable is Grimes, whose brother she’s close friends with, and with whom she played a set of shows in Calfornia between weekends at Coachella. During our conversation, Val recalls seeing one of Grimes’ first shows where she was timid and still coming into her own, then seeing her again more recently, just six months ago. To see the growth of a similar creator can only lead to inspiration for one’s own methods:

“It was just the most incredible thing, seeing point A and point B from that perspective. [Grimes] is someone whose career I’ve been watching and admiring for a while. Just seeing her evolution and transformation… In the scope of being a younger female artist who’s started from an independent place, she is definitely somebody who’s been really interesting and encouraging and inspiring for me to see.”

Tei Shi supporting Grimes live in Los Angeles between Coachella weekends 1 and 2

At the actual festival, Tei Shi’s performances showcase a mixture of old and new material, beginning with a high-energy introduction, then reigning in the audience by ending on an intimate note. While the show is the most important part, Tei Shi’s experience at Coachella also consists of visits from friends and family, seeing other artists and enjoying the party in the desert, even despite Val falling unexpectedly ill during weekend two. When we caught up with her to reflect on her experience playing Coachella for the first time, she reminded us that getting enough sleep and eating well on the road are two important things that artists may not always have access to.

While Val getting sick was a big curveball, the band’s successes over the two weeks outweighed this. The meticulous preparation, from rehearsing to choosing on-stage outfits in advance, paid off. The biggest lesson learned from the two weekends, however, was to not take it too seriously. Val reflects that while it’s easy to feel pressure while playing a festival, as long as an artist approaches a festival set with energy and is present with the audience, the environment can be very forgiving, “[It’s about] realizing that it’s not this make-or-break thing, and just feeding into the vibe of the festival is important.”

Tei Shi’s list of artists to see at Coachella 2016

Finally, while Tei Shi’s pre-festival preparation made her Coachella experience a success, Val notes that the years of working independently and playing as many shows as possible was the best practice. The more you play live, the easier it gets, and seemingly high-pressure situations like playing a major festival are more manageable:

“Keep playing live, tour when you can, be strategic about it, play in places where you know you have fans or you’re going to get something out of it… Take every opportunity and don’t take it too seriously. When you’re touring as an up-and-coming artist, it’s almost seen as quantity adds up to quality. You may do a bunch of shows you feel shitty about, but those shows add up to something greater… If you do enough touring as an independent artist, by the time you’re established, or you have enough infrastructure around you and have more pressure around your live shows, it won’t be as big of a deal because you’ve done it so much and can be like, ‘I got this.’”

Learn more about Tei Shi here.

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