“We hadn’t talked about it,” Geiger recalled recently over eggs in the San Fernando Valley, “but I was dressing in all women’s clothing and wearing makeup.” So as she sat on a studio couch and wrote a response to fans who had wondered online about her evolving appearance, Geiger showed a draft to her musical family.
“Should I post this?” she asked, effectively answering any questions that may have been lingering in the studio. The other musicians encouraged her to go for it, and so she did, concluding: “this is who i have been for a looooong time. I love u guys. Talk sooooon byeeee,” punctuated with four emojis: A lipstick kiss. A sparkling heart. A lightning bolt. A peace sign.
“She let it out, and she was just so happy — I can’t even describe it,” Mendes said. Then they all got back to work.
While hundreds of songs she has written and recorded since exist only in an array of computer folders, a select few made their way to One Direction, Icona Pop and Mendes, all but ending any chance Geiger had at receding fully into music-business anonymity. Mendes’ self-titled album, released in May, featured 11 songs written and produced in part by Geiger and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart. The single “In My Blood” is a Top 40 radio staple and reached No. 11 on the Hot 100.
Predictably, demand for Geiger is way up: Lately, she has been in the studio with the Dixie Chicks, as well as rising artists like King Princess, Olivia O’Brien and Lauv. Along with another close collaborator, Ricky Reed, she wrote the ballad “Unless It’s With You” from the latest Christina Aguilera album, and the self-love declaration “Liberated” by Dej Loaf and Leon Bridges. This month, she will emerge from the behind the scenes to reprise her first role — that of the public-facing artist, billed now as teddy<3 — with a new single, “I Was in a Cult,” a fuzzy, sturdy rock song about “acting from a place of freedom.”
“I just feel more open,” Geiger said, well aware that emotional intimacy is the lingua franca of a good pop songwriting session. “Because I’m willing to talk about everything now, people are then more open with me.”
She added: “There’s no longer this piece of me back there saying, ‘Don’t go there.’ I used to find that I’d sing songs and think, ooh, it sounds like I’m talking about that stuff, and I don’t want to talk about that stuff. But it was just coming out.”
Reed said only in retrospect did he notice “these sort of cryptic little hints and clues buried in these half-spoken, half-mumbled melodic passes and demos” — nearly subconscious nods toward struggles with identity. “Teddy was already really open and great to be around,” he said, “but that has increased tenfold. When you feel all of that freedom and honesty, how could you not just radiate it?”
Known as a studio whiz, proficient on every instrument and quick to offer a melody or turn of phrase, Geiger is also an eternal font of silliness, with her affinity for inside jokes, arcane YouTube videos and nonsensical, pun-heavy ditties well-known to all collaborators. Musically, she specializes in what she called “roughing up pop music a bit,” leaning on organic rock instrumentation in a digitized world and hoping to keep the radio as idiosyncratic as possible. (A track she is producing for O’Brien is built around a cellphone recording of Geiger making a beat on the tab of a beer can while at a house party.)
Justin Tranter, a fellow pop songwriter who also started in scuzzier bands, called Geiger a “musician’s musician” — one whose coming out helps to shift the landscape for queer creators.
“To see that this trans person is an instrumental queen — one of the most technically talented people in the pop world — is a really amazing thing not just for our industry but for the world,” Tranter said. “For young LGBTQ people to know that a trans woman has co-written and produced some of the biggest hits of the last couple years is beyond inspiring and beyond important.”
Mendes, among the only current pop stars to convincingly wield a guitar, was a natural ally for Geiger, whose early career mirrored his own. A budding star on the social network Vine, Mendes aimed to cross over into the mainstream and found his first defining smash in a demo of “Stitches” sung by Geiger.
“She’s mesmerizing and just has a star quality to her,” Mendes said. “She was the person I was trying to sing like.” His version reached No. 4 on the charts and now has more than 1 billion views on YouTube.
For Mendes’ next album, “Illuminate,” the pair wrote together directly (including “Treat You Better,” 1.5 billion views), cementing a kinship that went beyond music. “I met someone who really acts like me in the studio, who really sings like me, who gets excited like me,” Mendes said. “It was a serious, serious connection — deeper than a songwriter — and from then on, I decided she has to be a part of everything I do.”
Geiger, who signed to Columbia Records at 16 as a singer-songwriter in the mold of John Mayer and Ryan Cabrera, saw flashes of her own past pressures in what Mendes was experiencing. “Everyone that’s around you is working for you, and you feel responsible for them,” she said. “But also you’re a child.”
Geiger’s late teens were a pop-star movie montage that ended in the inevitable screeching crash. First there was the VH1 competition show, “In Search of the Partridge Family,” followed by a record deal and a slot opening for Hilary Duff on tour. Not long after came a hit single, “For You I Will (Confidence),” with a video featuring the reality starlet of the moment, Kristin Cavallari.
Full-blown heartthrob status came next: a “Got Milk?” ad, a tour of her (parents’) house on MTV Cribs, the cover of Seventeen magazine, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and a partnership with Procter & Gamble that positioned Geiger as eye-candy to sell deodorant and makeup to young women. (“If they associate the brand with the first time they saw Teddy Geiger’s eyes — well, you can’t buy that kind of thing!” an executive said at the time.)
“I was going through adolescence and having sex for the first time, but it was in this really weird context,” Geiger said. “I didn’t have a real support group.”
What she did have was an overeager business team that ran her ragged on tour and pushed her toward Hollywood, including appearances in The Rocker, a goofy teen comedy starring Rainn Wilson and Emma Stone, and the short-lived CBS show Love Monkey.
“The only roles I had done were musician roles, and then they were sending me out for the lead in ‘Spider-Man,’ or like, the military boy with a crew cut,” Geiger said, motioning to her lanky frame. “Um, it’s not going to work.”
Before turning 21, she had returned home to Rochester, unsigned and uninterested in the constantly cranking machine. The years that followed were full of exploration and self-discovery — including a particularly poignant acid trip — as Geiger honed her writing and production, churning out songs in every style, from ‘80s pop-rock to scuffed-up punk to experimental psychedelia.
“Having a hit is fine, but doing the work is what I want,” she said. “I get more excited the day of creation than once it’s big.”
But even as her songwriting began to find new audiences via other artists, and she moved from New York back to California to pursue the industry from another angle, Geiger was plagued by intense anxiety, exacerbated by a dependence on cigarettes and marijuana. By last summer, Geiger said, she was smoking up to two packs and a half-ounce of weed a day; she had also developed obsessive-compulsive tendencies that manifested as ruminating thoughts and a fixation on keeping her nails — which she had begun painting on the advice of an ex-girlfriend — pristine.
“It was the only femininity that I was expressing, so I wanted it to be so perfect,” she said. “It was the only thing I could control.”
In September, Geiger entered a month-long treatment program to address her anxiety and, as she put it, “get to the bottom of the gender thing.” Parsing the sources of her shame and anger in marathon group-therapy sessions, she emerged ready to confront her truth with friends and family, all of whom she said have been supportive.
“I can remember back to being 5 and looking in the mirror, feeling like a girl and wanting that,” she said. “But growing up in Rochester, there were limited resources. I’d never met a trans person before.” It was not until her 20s that she even really knew they existed. Geiger pointed to increased transgender visibility in popular culture, including the models Hari Nef and Teddy Quinlivan, as crucial to her journey, and said she hoped her own coming out (and its typically lighthearted documentation on Instagram) might do the same for others.
As soon as she was back from treatment, Geiger said, “I threw away all my boys clothes and started wearing makeup.” She said she has not smoked anything since, diverting the money saved to beauty supplies and studio gear, and filling recording breaks by firing pellet guns at bottles from her back porch. (She is a great shot.)
Geiger met Mendes in Malibu to begin work on his album the day after she returned.
“It was the first time I ever saw her sober,” Mendes recalled. “She was like Teddy, but on steroids. There was this electricity running through her.”
And while weeks went by before Geiger addressed her newly public reality with her collaborators, the adjustment period, she said, was all but nonexistent.
Mendes said he would never forget when he “unconsciously referred to Teddy as ‘she’ for the first time in the flow of conversation.” Geiger stopped what she was doing, turned around and “looked at me with an overwhelming amount of happiness and joy beaming out of her eyes,” he said.
“It was right then that everything really made sense to me,” Mendes said. “For everybody that ever questions why people may choose to transition, if they had a best friend or somebody they loved dearly look at them the way Teddy looked at me in that moment, they would no longer question it.”
“To me,” he added, “Teddy is more her than she’s ever been.”