Teddy Geiger on 'LillyAnna,' Shawn Mendes and Finding Her Own Voice - Rolling Stone
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Teddy Geiger’s Pop Salvation

Shawn Mendes’ closest studio collaborator is a Top 40 auteur who sounds like no one but herself

Teddy Geiger photographed by Yana Yatsuk for Rolling Stone on January 6th 2019

Teddy Geiger photographed by Yana Yatsuk for Rolling Stone on January 6th 2019

Photograph by Yana Yatsuk

Before Teddy Geiger was one of pop’s most in-demand songwriters and producers, she was a kid in western New York state who wore a pendant embossed with the Virgin Mary. She was raised Catholic, and Mary statuettes populated her childhood home. In her twenties, during a time of personal upheaval, she started seeing Mary everywhere — a guide appearing to let her know, maybe, that she was headed in the right direction. “It was some weird, superstitious feeling,” says Geiger, 30. “I’d see her and I’d really feel it: ‘She’s here for a reason!’ I’m not even that religious, but I’d see a Virgin Mary and I’d be like, ‘I understand.’”

The Virgin Mary appears again on the cover of LillyAnna, Geiger’s first album as teddy<3, and her first since publicly coming out as a trans woman in 2017. Released last November, the same day her girlfriend proposed with a heart-shaped ring, it’s full of irresistible alt-rock hooks and intense vulnerability, the same qualities that have made her a key collaborator for stars like Shawn Mendes.

A prodigious musician with encouraging parents, Geiger got her first four-track recorder for her 11th birthday. At age 15, she signed to Columbia Records to begin a career as a pop singer with a rock edge. “It was all super-surreal,” she says over noodles in Silverlake, Los Angeles. “It reminded me of watching Behind the Music on VH1, where it’s like, ‘Whoa, this is it, it’s happening.’”

While working on her first album, Geiger fell in love with the process of putting together pop music. “I just remember being in awe of everyone I was working with,” she says. “Just learning as much as I could at every opportunity, watching how a record is made. Being a part of that was exciting — the biggest learning experience.”

Toward the end of her teens, though, Geiger’s career shifted away from studio work. She says her management wanted her at center stage, not behind the scenes. “They had me go out on acting auditions, and I was doing a lot of sessions with other people who were like, ‘We’re going to write you a song!’ It was very not about me as an artist. It just didn’t feel creative and it wasn’t fulfilling for me.”

By age 21, Geiger had slipped the spotlight and moved back home. “I was like, I’m going to return to what music was for me before I got involved in it as a business,” she says. “I slowed down and returned to the creative side of things.”

Her second act began around 2014, when Mendes got wind of a demo Geiger had written called “Stitches.” It went on to become his breakthrough hit, sparking an ongoing creative relationship between the two artists. While working with Mendes on his second album, 2016’s Illuminate, Geiger realized the depth of their artistic chemistry. “When we wrote ‘Treat You Better,’ I remember being like, ‘Damn, this kid’s amazing,” she says. “He is just such a real artist. I want to be around that kind of energy as much as possible.”

Together with Scott Harris, co-writer of the Chainsmokers’ hit “Don’t Let Me Down,” Geiger kept working with Mendes, scratching the itch that had driven her back to the studio. She honed her production skills further while working on Shawn Mendes’s self-titled third album, released last spring. Serving as both co-writer and co-producer on most of the album’s tracks, she found that the reverb on a snare drum or a wordless backing vocal could tell a story just as powerfully as a well-composed lyric. On “In My Blood,” the record’s lead single, a sparse acoustic verse erupts into a wall of sound as Mendes sings about the tumult of living with anxiety. It’s one of his more powerful songs, a nuanced expression of personal anguish rendered in a distinctive pop-rock palette.

After her work on Shawn Mendes — along with other addictive blasts of attitude she’s written lately, like Lizzo’s “Fitness” and 5 Seconds of Summer’s “Woke Up in Japan” — Geiger turned to her solo music, picking out six-year-old demos until she compiled nine songs that told a story. She finished LillyAnna in a flurry, producing the record in just two weeks.

Most of the vocals on the album are from the original demos, recorded during her tumultuous twenties: echoes from the past, given closure by completion. It’s been cathartic, she says, to finally let them see the light of day. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many people have been listening and like it,” she says. “It’s been inspiring to put out the album and get that feedback. It makes me excited to make more stuff in a different way than I did before.”

The first song she picked for LillyAnna was “I Was In A Cult,” a hard-edged rock cut built on a staccato bassline. Soon, the wide-eyed, hopeful “Under the Blue” joined the mix, while darker numbers, like the wobbly “Get Me High,” rounded out the narrative. Distorted vocals storm through “Loser,” whose distinctive electronics clip closer to experimentalists like Arca or SOPHIE than most of Geiger’s work. It was the last song Geiger finished for LillyAnna, fleshed out in a single day on “this cheap synth that I found at a thrift store for 50 bucks,” she says.

A voracious listener, Geiger cites artists as far-flung as Young Thug and Fiona Apple as her musical heroes. She gushes about the lyrical choices on Sufjan Stevens’ 2015 LP Carrie & Lowell: “The way he’s like, ‘lemon yogurt’ — that’s you,” she says. “No one else is singing about lemon yogurt.” More than anything, she admires idiosyncratic songwriters, artists who develop their own unmistakable voices.

No one else is writing songs quite like Geiger, either, who weaves disarming emotional intimacy into a slick, dynamic pop milieu like it’s the most natural thing in the world. She prefers real instruments and analog synthesizers to software, which explains the heft and depth of her production. She’ll write a melody using a sample of her own voice, keen on the uniqueness of the texture, or drum up a percussion loop while playing with an almond tin. “It’s personal,” she says. “You can’t recreate it exactly.” From the way her voice slides across the name LillyAnna to the quiet-loud pulses of Mendes’ last album, Geiger covets irreplaceable sounds. No one in pop sounds quite like her, and lately, she’s beginning to sound more and more like herself.

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