For the past four years, Tee has established himself in roles behind the scenes as bassist and producer. With the long overdue arrival of his debut EP, he is finally ready to take his rightful place front and centre.
Today’s sun is stretching high above the Anglican Cathedral as it moves through the steps of its summer ascent. It’s the hottest day of the year so far. Everything below wears a lick of golden paint. This includes Terrell Farrell, as the hues catch his pristine white T-shirt on the corner of Duke Street where we meet.
Much like the religious icons that bear down on us (along with the sun), Ferrell, better known as TEE, is an artist quietly defined by faith, by commitment, by purpose. His character and music have been tentatively shaped by faith as much as the cityscape that looms on the shoulders of the skyline. “If I hadn’t gone to church,” he says, as we retreat into the shade, “I probably wouldn’t be into music as much as I am.”
Rather than perusing the storied collection of houses of worship across the city, we’ve climbed the humble spire of our office space to meet today. The window is open as far as it will allow. Through it sweeps the clunky symphony of city centre beer gardens. Sadly, a breeze doesn’t follow.
It’s currently above 30 degrees in the mid-afternoon sun. It’s the type of heat when unforgiving chairs fuse with your back and spinal cord. Unforgiving like the two leather office chairs we occupy, seeking to find a quiet spot away from the beating rays and sun-tipsy streets. Tee remains unfazed.
Sitting there, nonchalantly swaying on the axis of the chair, he’s almost excitedly beckoning the red light of the recorder to be turned on and our interview to start. Comfortable would an understatement. Confident? Humbly. Cool? More than most, especially in today’s heat. “I’m, like, the coldest person,” he wryly remarks as we savour the heat streaming down. Judging by how he’s happily reclining in the chair, you’d be lulled into thinking it’s a fresh spring day.
Just as faith quietly punctuates his art, Tee, originally hailing from East London, has quietly been garnering attention in Liverpool over the course of the last five years. But you’d be excused if this is the first you’re seeing of him, front and centre. Until now, you’re more likely to have noticed his handiwork on the other side of the recording-studio glass, to the side of the stage. Maybe in prosaic writings and monologues which occasionally surface on his social media.
His production fingerprints can be seen on recent releases by Sub Blue, Deliah and Little Grace, with his services highly in demand by local artists pursuing an emotively charged spectrum of pop and RnB. As a bassist, you may have seen him backing local behemoths MiC Lowry and neo-soul polymath XamVolo. But in the artist’s own words, now is time to move to the front of the stage. “Producer,” he started in an Instagram posts at the tail-end of 2019, “this is a hat I’ve had on for a couple years now. I think it’s time to hang it up for a little while.”
This has given life to A Dozen Roses // A Love Story, his debut EP as Tee. Given that the assertion to move away from producing came over nine months ago, you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking there’s been a few obstacles for the transformation. “Lockdown has been up and down,” he says as we start to talk about everything that’s shaped the EP, unintentionally beginning with the inevitable conversation starter of 2020. “It’s been good in that it gave people a bit of a break. I definitely need the rest and to revaluate,” he starts. “But it’s also been bad as the EP was supposed to be put out in April with a full installation presented at LightNight.” The event, like many in the cultural calendar of 2020, was postponed.
Delays aside, the EP has no issue speaking for itself, whether now or when it was originally slated for release. In many ways the themes it covers have grown in perspective over the course of five searching months. And the digital shift in life is met, too, as Tee and his band will deliver an immersive live-stream performance in place of the original show.
A Dozen Roses // A Love Story is Tee in his comfort zone, dealing with the uncomfortable. Across seven varied tracks, spoken-word interludes and soundscapes, the EP tackles fatherhood, vulnerability, mental health and love within its umbrella concept. It is highly ambitious and cinematic in its sensory delivery. “In the most basic sense, it’s a twisted love story between a man and a rose,” he says, with eyes and hands gesturing as if to say ‘wait, hear me out!’. “It sounds wild but… I played with the concept of the rose, which never had thorns in the garden of Eden until Eve ate the apple. A lot of it all stems from the baggage people carry, and that they will love you, but can still hurt you.”
The end product is all the more impressive given its his debut body of work. Opener A Dozen Roses authoritatively sets the pace, but the EP offers plenty of time to reflect, On I Hear A Kid, a song written from the perspective of a man who grew up without a father, reciting the conversation he’d have when the two meet again. From the early rush of 808s which fades into a moonlit croon, to the explosive Real, both tracks have a bi-polar character as they duck and weave through Tee’s repertoire of delicate arrangements and raps, delivered so hard they almost bleed with conviction. But it’s not just elaborate for the sake of it. “The art that I was wanting to produce and the music that I was wanting to create has been leading to this point,” he tells me. “I think for me, more than anything else, it’s all about storytelling. That’s why there’s spoken word, rap, why the music is so emotional. Whatever I deem necessary to tell the story.”
The sonic palette is therefore complex in its emotive range. It’s as you’d expect when going so deep below the skin. No binary this or that, happy or sad. It stirs the emotion of social experience to evoke a vast understanding of the human condition. In relative terms, it reflects much of the chameleonic Madvillainy, minus the hazy headspaces of MF Doom and Madlib. There’s no smoke and mirrors in Tee’s observational lyricism.
“I wanted to talk about things that I’ve seen and been a part of,” he tells me when pressed on whether the EP is a personal diary entry. “I’ve lived the experiences through other people. Telling the story the way that I do helps it seem more real,” he adds. “Not a confession, more observations.” In the role of the observer Tee paints self-portraits on other’s faces, instantly building an emotive connection to the subject and their stories put to music. These songs aren’t solely from him to learn from.
Crown Of Thorns is the song most discernibly owing to faith. It’s a track that lays its roots in gospel, albeit spliced by Tee’s slick production and lyrical motifs of self-empowerment and worth. It’s the entry point to Tee’s innate musicality of natural rhythm and deft ear for choral arrangement.
“Both of my families are religious,” he starts when looking back to the first building block in his musical journey. “Me and all of my cousins grew up in church and we’d go every Saturday, which meant I’d be playing drums in church every Saturday. I was very much into it, asking about which churches we’d be going to. You’d see your friends there, listening to the same music. When the latest gospel album dropped, you’d all be trying to learn it. That was the environment I grew up in, the music that I was surrounded by.”
Religion itself isn’t something Tee wants to draw on too much as an artist, but he’s open about its influence and atmosphere surrounding his musical beginnings. “Gospel is such powerful music,” he replies, “it’s the kind of energy that I want to bring into my own music. Being able to do a gig, and for the music to hit the audience in the same way gospel did for me back then.”
The early introduction to music would suggest a firm rudder in following life’s path. And yet, music remained a church-bound vocation through his mid-teenage years. Ideas of becoming an engineer were more prevalent until blown off course by the results of his first year’s study of Maths, Physics and Business at college. Looking back, it may prove to be divine intervention.
“I remember walking through the park on my way home and crying, wondering what was I going to do,” he recalls of receiving the results that suggested engineering may not be a true calling. “I remember speaking on the phone to my dad, and he said, ‘Well, what is it that you want to do?’ And I hesitantly replied ‘music.” He says this, elongating the word, almost as if to relocate the shy subconscious influence that took hold of him almost a decade ago. “It was the first time that I ever felt as though I’d been asked what I wanted to do with my life, because until then I’d just assumed what would be best. Him asking the question was the turning point in my head.”
Already well-versed on drums through years of church concerts, studying music at college saw a switch towards bass. “There were already too many drummers,” Tee remembers, outlining his transition to the instrument he’s now renowned for. “My teacher suggested I go with bass, and I just went with it, which was probably a terrible idea,” he says laughing to himself, “as I had to learn it all as quick as I could in two years.” Though the challenge was happily undertaken, and two years later his abilities secured him a place at LIPA and a move up north.
Surrounded by a wealth of classically trained musicians at university, Tee was more of an instinctive player and listener. Most of his experience had come from gigs in churches, hours sat around in a practice studio with his friends in college. The change in scenery didn’t instil delusions of star power in his first few years in Liverpool. “It took me a while to find my feet,” he says honestly. “I’d been writing my own poetry all the way before university, but I didn’t return to it until mid-way through my second year. It just took me a while to work out what I was comfortable with.”
Come the end of university, Tee had started to leave his own mark, but through the work of others rather than his solo production. As the sonic range and intricacies of A Dozen Roses // A Love Story would allude, his abilities at the studio controls stood out. “If you’d have told me I’d become a producer I’d have said, ‘No, I don’t have the time nor the patience’,” he laughs with a jovial disbelief.
It’s rare for an artist capable of mastering a wealth of instruments and sculpting a dense debut EP to still evade the charms of self-confidence. “To be fair,” he quickly follows up, “producing was something that I’d done [on my own], but only as a means of making my own music. I didn’t have the money to pay people to make the music that I want to make, so I had to learn.”
The self-taught path of producing has proven fruitful. Rather than market his services out, it was writing sessions and collaborations with fellow artists that led him towards the studio chair. More natural than a determined choice. In a room full of voices, it’s his hands that always appeared to draw out the best from the arrangement. It’s no coincidence when Tee nods back to the years engulfed by the intricate power of gospel choirs. “[Producing] grew from being in church,” he says when I ask him where the seemingly innate ability to arrange stems from. “Playing pretty much all of the instruments in the church band, swapping over with everyone, you get a knowledge of what a band should sound like. And in a live sense,” he continues, “you get a knowledge of what a producer should listen out for. Having the ear to do that, I was definitely building it up subconsciously in church.”
This subconscious framework he’s honed is built on emotion. The feeling of the music “hitting you”, as he explained earlier, is always the desired effect. That same feeling when the gospel choir is in full flight and blankets the audience with its wall of sound. Emotion therefore acts as the compass that guides his music, and those he produces. “I think people come to me to get their songs produced because we can bring out whatever emotion or feeling you want to bring out,” he explains. “That’s something I strongly believe in.”
There’s been no mercurial rise with Tee. Every step has been measured along the way. Every step a lesson of sorts. Rather than take blind control when producing other artists, he’s allowed their qualities to reflect onto him. The holistic approach of emotive production opens up his own creative outlet as well as those he’s working with. All the initial shyness about ability is deceiving. It’s actually a state of study. “As a person I am very observant,” he starts, with the sun jutting in through the windows at a lower angle, causing a swivel in his chair.
“In 70 per cent of social circles I am quite quiet – human behaviour intrigues me. Being able to predict or make someone feel a certain way is fascinating. It’s something that I want to be able to do on stage. I want to be able to silence a crowd, make people lose themselves a bit. I’ve been able to sit in and watch performers like MiC Lowry and XamVolo and work out what parts of their art I’d like to build into my own. I don’t want to be the person who draws the attention in a room, but I do when I’m on stage.”
Understandably there’s currently a limited number of stages where Tee can announce his new front facing role. But it’s not all lost. In many ways it’ll only enhance the eventual power of the coil when the live embodiment of the EP springs out. He notes that after the first performances of his own projects at university he was often greeted with reactions by his peers of “Where did that come from?” The quiet and humble demeanour of the day-to-day was in stark contrast to the emotive displays some were able to glimpse. It’ll likely be a different reaction now, four years down the line; assertively planting a flag as if to say, “I’m here”. And ultimately, it is what Tee says is most important to his music.
Across the EP and a scattering of live performances, there’s a consistency of monologues and spoken word. The medium isn’t unfamiliar to him. One of his first forays into music was part of Spxken, a spoken word duo set to music. Even now his more contemporary performances remain punctuated by the starkness of the spoken word interludes.
In a similar vein to Kae Tempest, when Tee arrives at these moments, such as on I Hear A Kid, each word seems to cut against the skin. Each rhyme seems to be wrestled out of the body. You hear the joy in the eventual release. Every sentence seems to bulge and swell with magnitude; even the pauses and silences in between the flow say so much. In his view, the style of delivery isn’t acting, but enhancing. “I’m very aware that I’m bringing out an emotion,” he says. “Even if I write a lyric, it’s not necessarily of that moment, but I’m bringing it from a moment that I’ve experienced.” But this is not to say words are sterile until forcibly hurled from the body with performative effect. The written language is what inspires the stirring delivery, as though the words are tangible and Braille-like, with a trapped emotion released by the reader and listener.
“Language can be a really strong tool for change. It’s a tool and a release. If we talk about fatherhood and if we talk about Black Lives Matter,” he begins, looking to the sky in a more thoughtful manner to his earlier nonchalance as the conversation moves the role of language in the continuing protests. “Over the past few months, I’ve posted lots of things, but I struggled to work out what to say. Everything around [Black Lives Matter] was so quick and emotive. I’d feel like I’m doing myself a disservice because, yes, I’m reposting things and I’m fully here for this, but I don’t fully know what I want to say. I’m assuming that I’m not the only person who didn’t know what they wanted to say.”
It’s here where Tee sees an ability to unpack the self and world around him through prosaic language. He continues in outlining how his true thoughts came to find their flow when changing the medium for using his voice. “For me to be able to put [the feelings] in a piece of poetry and put that out, hopefully it captured my voice and what I wanted say in the way that I wanted to say it. It was undeniable,” he affirms. “And I hope that somebody else heard it and thought, ‘That’s what I wanted to say, too’. Language is important because it gives people a voice. It gives me a voice.”
This desire to connect with other voices is the watermark of Tee’s music. It stems from his observational tendencies, the idea of placing himself in as many pairs of shoes as possible in order to understand their stories better. There are no solipsistic tendencies on show. He’s the ear on the other side of the confession box, one that listens out for the diversity of the chorus as opposed to zeroing in on the soloist. The communality of gospel is always present. “Talking to my audience, in a conversational way,” he says, “I hope it’s therapeutic for other people as it is for me. It’s the same thing as talking about vulnerability.
“It’s like saying, ‘I go through this as well’, so you can talk to me about it. because I’m telling you I’m going through it. And if you don’t want to say it first, I will – I’ll take that plunge. Having that conversation is letting people know that it’s going to be OK. I think that’s necessary in this time. If I have the time, I will 100 per cent talk about issues and what’s happening to me, and the relations to the songs. Every one of my songs is a conversation, a feeling that I’ve had.”
For Tee, music and lyricism are the purest form of communication, the medium whereby he can best make sense of his own feelings, and those around him. “The best message I could receive is someone coming away from the end of a gig and saying, ‘What you said there touched me, I’ve been having similar conversations’. You know what I mean?” he says with a genuine air of sincerity. “That makes me feel like I’m doing my job. That’s what I want to do. I want to be able to open conversations. As a society we’re better at it. But there’s not enough conversations about real shit.”
The sun is now lower in the sky but the heat hasn’t departed. But there’s no sense of fatigue in Tee. If there’s any on show, it’s nervously stemming from having to talk about himself for such an extended period. He clearly sees himself as the messenger rather than the message, the interpreter for so many others and their vulnerabilities. So much of his journey to now has been about everyone else, his place in their lives and the whole communities he’s a part of. Until now he’s never been the spotlight focus. I ask him if there still remains a will to remain behind the scenes. He’s humble as ever, happy in the self-understanding of his once veiled capabilities and talent. “This, it’s front and centre for life,” he rounds off, as we descend the stairs and back out onto Duke Street where the golden hues reattach themselves to his white T-shirt. “I’m not allowed to hide anymore. [Being Tee] is me telling myself I can do it.”
Real and Crown Of Thorns will be available on 11th September and 2nd October. A Dozen Roses // A Love Story will be released on 17th October. The VR immersive experience of the EP in partnership with LightNight will take place on 23rd October.