Not many artists get to experience as many pop lives as Teddy Geiger. She was a teen idol by 16, with a mushy soft-rock hit, “For You I Will (Confidence),” on her hands. At 19, she starred as the romantic lead opposite future Oscar winner Emma Stone in the comedy The Rocker. After an early retirement at 21, she took a few steps back out of the spotlight and began writing songs for and with other artists, most famously becoming one of the names behind Shawn Mendes’ biggest hits (“Stitches,” “Treat You Better”).
“It was pretty natural,” Geiger says over the phone in early autumn. Shifts in both radio pop and her label meant that it was easy for her to bail on her Columbia deal and explore other options. Besides, the singer-songwriter schtick started to feel boring. “I didn’t connect to what was happening on radio with singer-songwriter stuff at the time,” says Geiger, who is now 30. “I was more excited about what, like, Kanye was doing or whatever. My influences were changing, and I wanted to experiment.”
But after spending the majority of her twenties outside the spotlight, Geiger has found herself back in it. She’s become one of pop’s most sought-after songwriters, adding a touch of rawness to the pop sheen of stars like One Direction (“Little Black Dress”), Lizzo (“Fitness”), Anne-Marie (“Machine”), Christina Aguilera (“Unless It’s With You”) and 5 Seconds of Summer (“Woke Up in Japan”). Now, she’s back in the game at the front of the stage, with her album Lillyanna — named for an alter ego she once used online — and the stage name Teddy<3, chosen because it looked “cute.”
“The artist thing fizzled out and gave me space to spend a lot more time growing as a writer/producer, and then when I finally got the opportunity to write and produce, I had spent so much time working on that that I was ready for that,” Geiger says. With that space to breathe, she found herself free to experiment more with her sound, getting back into the noisier, messier music she loved when she first started writing music. “If I had been out on the road the whole time and stuff, I might not have had as much time. I think the way things worked out was really cool in a way.”
As a kid in Rochester, New York, Geiger learned how to both play and write on guitar and piano. The first song she wrote was called “Stuck”; not long after, once she’d mastered ProTools at 14, she made her first recording ever, titled “Amazingly Fat Cows.” (“I think you can buy that on iTunes, actually,” she adds. “[It was] lot of bad music.”)
Like many preteens in the early millennium, Geiger’s tastes leaned towards melancholy late Nineties stars like Fiona Apple and Elliott Smith. Listening attentively to the local alternative rock station, she branched out to Offspring, Weezer, No Doubt, Blind Melon and Ben Folds Five.
In 2004, at 15, she auditioned for the VH1 reality series In Search of the Partridge Family, where Geiger competed to play Keith in a revival of the Seventies series (future costar Emma Stone won the role of Laurie). Though she didn’t get the role, she did land a record deal and a spot opening up for Hilary Duff on tour. Her debut album, Underage Thinking, was released in 2006 and peaked at Number 8 on the Hot 100.
“The best part about it was making a record with Billy Mann,” Geiger gushes of the writer and producer who has worked with P!nk, Celine Dion and Robyn. As positive a learning experience working with Mann was, she hasn’t gone back to listen to those early songs in a long time. “He basically brought me into the industry and was a mentor. It was cool to see what he did, and being there for the recording process was amazing.”
The worst part? “I was on the road for two and a half years. It was intense, and it was a lot of promotion and playing the same songs over and over again. By the end of that process I was pretty burnt out.”
At the same time, the constant work schedule gave Geiger an obsession to zero in on — something to distract her from the feelings of gender dysmorphia she’d felt for most of her life. Geiger was assigned male at birth, and publicly identified that way until she began transitioning last fall. She recalls always having some understanding that the gender she identified with didn’t match the one the world saw. But a lack of trans figures to look up to, she says, left her with little language or experience to identify with as a teen or even young adult.
“I was so busy, and at that time, there was so much to process that [the dysmorphia]…it was there, but it wasn’t,” she explains. “I had to leave all of my friends that I was going to high school with, and I was constantly in motion, having a very different experience than my peers. The experience of being a product and having an image was a lot, and the image didn’t necessary correspond with me even beyond a gender. It’s hard to feel like a teen idol.”
Geiger was under heavy scrutiny at the time, with expectations set high for her image. She couldn’t be seen drinking or heard swearing. She became paranoid that any time she hooked up with a girl on the road it would appear on blogs the next day. Even the instruments she played were controlled. “I wanted to play an electric guitar on stage, and it was like, ‘Nope, ’cause you play acoustic guitar.’ I had to be careful to align with this image of me that wasn’t necessarily me.”
By 2009, she needed a break. After working in music, television and film all before she could legally drink, Geiger had lived a full life in the industry already. That was, itself, an important lesson. “Things kind of have their arc: you get signed, and your first thought is ‘Oh my God, I made it!’ But you never really make it. Or at least, it’s never over. It’s never done.”
After over 15 years in and out of the music business, Geiger is still learning that a career as a professional musician means constantly having to start from scratch.
“You’re always kind of having to ‘make it’ over and over again, which is cool, and makes it fun,” she says. “But I remember thinking when I first did it I was like ‘Cool. I made it. It happened.’ And I did not. That’s not how it works,” she laughs.
Once Geiger left behind the team she’d launched her career with as a teenager, she spent some time on her own getting back to what she loved doing in the first place: writing music. Years later, she began slowly easing herself back into the industry fold, finding a new manager and taking sessions. She eventually found a songwriting partner in Danny Parker, who went on to co-write “Stitches” with Geiger. The hit song found its way to Mendes and his team just after Geiger had relocated to Los Angeles in pursuit of a full-time songwriting career. Not only was it a major moment for Mendes, helping make him a full-fledged, arena-playing teen star, but it also pushed Geiger head-first back into the industry. While expanding out her writing portfolio in the time since “Stitches” broke the Top 10, she has continued to write and produce multiple songs on every Mendes album with increasing frequency.
“The one thing that I love about Shawn is that it’s all about the music for him, and it’s all about the work,” she says of her main collaborator. “He’s the kind of person that forgets he’s famous, which is crazy. We’ll be in the studio, and he’ll turn around and be like, ‘Oh man. People listen to our songs! People are gonna hear this!’ Which is funny for me to hear too, because I’m the same way.”
Last fall, while writing for Mendes’ self-titled 2018 album, Geiger began coming out to friends and family after years of experimenting with the idea of presenting more femme in public. Her ex-girlfriends had been her greatest confidantes, and with them, she would paint her nails and dress up in private. “I didn’t know anyone who was trans,” she says. “I had very little connection to that, so it wasn’t really until maybe three years ago I started actually painting my nails and going out. Nobody cared if I was femme.”
When a former girlfriend asked if Geiger wanted to transition, her first impulse was to say “no,” believing that she didn’t have to. “It’s funny. Some people now are like, ‘Why would you transition? Why can’t you just be comfortable how you were born?’ That was my logic, but at a certain point I realized that I was born uncomfortable. I was born in this in-between where I want to express one way.”
She sought treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder soon after, further unlocking her history with shame, secrecy and coping mechanisms like smoking, which she had used to distract her from those feelings. She says now that she’d known she was a girl since she was five years old, and after more than 20 years, she was finally ready to let her loved ones know the real her. “Nobody really knew me, and all of this stuff that now on a day to day basis I don’t have to deal with,” she says. “It is a huge weight lifted.”