The Ballad of Jessi & Nema.
Images by Nema Etebar. Text by Rosella LaFevre.
Will power and love saved singer Jessi Teich’s voice, she says.
The singer was in jeopardy of losing her instrument last year when a cyst developed on her vocal cords. Teich’s fiancé, Nema Etebar, introduced her to a friend, a world-class surgeon, who suggested surgery to remove the cyst.
People told her not to risk it. They told her she’d never sing again. Ultimately, she decided to go through with the procedure.
“I could never have the career that I wanted if I didn’t get the surgery,” Teich says.
Fortunately, the surgery was a success. And seven months after the operation, Teich released her debut album, Barely There, on Fuzztone Records.
By introducing her to his surgeon friend, supporting her decision and then assisting her through her recovery, Etebar, 32, helped Teich, 26, through the difficult period.
While Teich believes will power played a large part, she says, “In a way, Nema helped save my voice.”
Teich’s relationship with Etebar, a street photographer whom she calls her business partner and soul-mate, continually provides her with strength. The two have created a world in which they can live their dreams together. Etebar frequently shoots Teich, a brown-haired, brown-eyed beauty whose usually makeup-free face seems to transform in every picture, and she uses these images to promote her music.
They met in August 2008, three weeks before Etebar, who is half-Persian and has long, dark, wild hair that he tends to keep in a topknot, left for a month-long trip to India. They only had a small window of time together.
“We were just scrambling to get to know each other,” Teich says. “It takes time to get to know somebody, whether you’re going to be friends or lovers.”
They decided quickly.
Teich rarely performed in front of others at that point.
“I was too scared,” she says with a laugh. “I just didn’t think my music was good enough.”
One of the first times Etebar heard Teich’s silky, soulful singing voice was when she strummed a guitar and sang a cover of Feist’s “Let It Die” in his bedroom. A month later, Teich sang some of her original songs for Etebar.
“I’ll never forget those,” he says. “Because I was blown away.”
Etebar, who had been single for six years before meeting Teich, took his first photos of his muse on New Year’s Day 2009 after the Mummer’s Parade. She stood before a brown brick wall, wearing the same green hat that graces the cover of her CD, carrying a yellow Mummers umbrella.
“I was so nervous because I’d seen him take pictures of people for three or four months,” Teich says. “That birthed what we do today. That was the beginning of what he have grown into, what we have created. We planted a seed and we’ve grown an oak tree. It is a joint effort. Although he’s the photographer and I’m the model, the photos wouldn’t be the same without each other.”
Today, Teich accompanies Etebar on his street shoots. This female presence puts Etebar’s subjects – many of whom are mothers with children or homeless people – at ease.
In June 2009, Etebar introduced Teich to another friend, producer Daniel Marino. They started talking about recording an EP. Teich had planned to leave for South America with her sister that September and planned to be gone for three months. Before her departure, she and Marino get down as much of the basic recordings as possible. By the end of August, they recorded nine songs, mostly ballads.
During the spring of 2010, Teich quit talking, let along singing. The cyst was embedded in the vocal fold and by keeping silent, Teich hoped the cyst would be more defined on the day of the operation.
Teich broke her silence before going into surgery to tell Etebar that she loved him.
Etebar did not want to photograph Teich that day but she insisted. The black and white image he created shows a wavy-haired Teich dressed in a hospital gown with her head resting in her right hand and her left arm outstretched, an IV needle taped into the crook of her elbow.
“I am glad now that I have it,” Teich says of the photo. “It reminds me to keep working hard and that, no matter what the situation, if I believe hard enough and make myself strong enough, I can conquer just about anything.”
She didn’t speak for a week after the surgery. Teich broke her silence and called Etebar to say hello.
“No, you can’t do that yet!” Teich says he cried out.
It took nearly six weeks for Teich to fully regain her voice and for much of that time, she did not speak. The couple developed a system to communicate.
“We would call each other on the phone and he would talk to me and ask me yes or no questions,” Teich says. “I would hit a key once for yes, twice for no, and three times for ‘I love you.’”
Teich saw a speech therapist first and two weeks later, she started seeing a vocal therapist.
“I immediately could hear a difference in my voice and the way that it felt to sing,” Teich remembers. “It took me honestly about eight weeks before I sang a full song but it was absolutely worth the wait.”
All this time, Barely There was put on hold. Finally, Teich completed the record and released it on December 18, 2010.
“Right now, Philly’s really receptive to me,” Teich says. “I’ve been able to bring people out without really asking. I really feel like, from the bottom of my heart, outside of my ego, that my music will do well [elsewhere].”