Band To Watch

Band To Watch: Vagabon

“In my country, and in a lot of countries, people still go to the well to get their water,” Vagabon’s Laetitia Tamko explains to me as she begins to reveal the metaphorical crux of one of her new songs. Tamko grew up in Cameroon before moving to New York in the early 2000s, and she instinctually refers back to her personal history to make this central point. Choosing her words extra-carefully, Tamko describes the ritual of going to a well in detail: “You walk it back to your house, you use the water or put it in a container, and then you do the same trip back,” she continues. “People don’t always check to see if there’s any more left after they’ve taken what they need. No one looks down a well.” Tamko proceeds cautiously before reaching an abrupt conclusion: “I guess, in the case of that song…I am the well.”

That’s just one of many metaphors Tamko uses to describe the contents of her debut album, Infinite Worlds. All of the eight songs she chose to include are outpourings of emotion illustrated in practical ways, moments and memories that she’s collected over the past few years. Tamko likens her songwriting process to collage, and her constant state of transience informs every track on Infinite Worlds. Imagine each lyric as a line on a postcard, written from different places in the universe or emotional states of mind. Together, they form a patchwork of varying narratives interconnected by the same seamstress; a smattering of worlds Tamko enters and will just as soon leave behind.

Tamko began Vagabon in 2014 while studying engineering at the City University Of New York (CUNY). Music had been Tamko’s side interest up until then, and she only actively started pursuing it a few months into playing shows around the city. Tamko taught herself guitar in high school and put it down for all of college, convinced that she needed to take engineering seriously and get a “real job” once she was out. For a while, she did exactly that. Tamko was a programmer and worked for a dev team, specializing in circuitry. Eventually, though, music became her main thing.

Vagabon’s debut EP, Persian Garden, was released a few months after Tamko started playing shows. It’s a collection of six songs that she considers to be half-rendered, practically demos. “To me, it was never intended to be listened to. I just told myself I had to get it out, and then I will record a real album, and all of those songs can still be on it, but I had to go through that initial sharing process.” Miscreant Records put out Tamko’s tape, which, in spite of her expectations, did get listened to. Tamko started playing more shows, oftentimes performing with a full band. She opened for Waxahatchee at a Planned Parenthood benefit earlier this year, and next week she’ll embark on a national tour with Sad13.

I first heard Persian Garden sometime last year, and its closing track, “Sharks,” quickly became one of my favorite songs to watch Vagabon perform live. Tamko re-recorded it in upstate New York for Infinite Worlds, which she made in about a week’s time, keeping the lyrics the same and adjusting the production and title. “The Embers” now opens the album, and though it’s still very much a ragged rock song, it serves as an appropriate bridge between Persian Gardens’ slipshod production and Infinite Worlds’ adventurous experimentation.

“The Embers” is immediately followed by “Fear & Force,” the album’s debut single, which you can listen to above. It’s an appropriate segue. Upon first listen, “Fear & Force” has so much echoing space in it that you’ll feel like it’s playing in surround sound. Tamko begins it much like she did earlier songs — her voice carries confidence, but she delivers her lyrics from a place of extreme shelter. “I’ve been hiding in the smallest place,” Tamko sings. “I am dying to go this is not my home.” Then, the guitar falls away and all of the timidity and fear goes with it. That initial beat, accompanied by the chorus’ harmonies, pushes the song out and in another direction. Freddie come back, I know you love Vermont but I think I’ve changed my mind. It’s a simple sentiment that sounds revelatory when you consider its backstory: Tamko wrote the song about someone she loved at a certain point in time who wanted her to move to Vermont with them. “I wasn’t down,” Tamko says. “I wasn’t done with my life here, and so it became this dilemma of like: Do you move where your partner is with the fear that you won’t find yourself where they find themselves?”

Much of Infinite Worlds is about exactly that: finding home in unfamiliar places. Tamko has traveled long distances throughout her life, and at 24, she’s just starting to adjust to that transience. Tamko embraces all of the traditions she comes from on Infinite Worlds. One of its standout tracks, “Mal á L’aise,” is a dream-pop song sung almost entirely in French. “I don’t want Infinite Worlds to be an album that you play through and through and feel like I’m always the same person,” Tamko explains. “I kind of wanted to throw things in there that can give the listener a break, or entice them with something new.”

She looked to a variety of inspirations while producing the album. She aligns the Cameroonian, West, and East African music of her childhood with producers and multi-instrumentalists like XXYXX, Sampha, Erykah Badu, and ’90s R&B acts like 3LW. Though Tamko came up in Brooklyn’s ever-changing DIY indie scene, she’s already starting to push the boundaries of what that scene should look and sound like. “I want to reach people [in the DIY community] who need to see this as much as I needed to see this,” she says toward the end of our conversation. “Black girls need to listen to me. Black girls need to see me. There aren’t enough of us, and in order for me to reach them, I need to spread wide.”

Maybe every album is in some ways an exploration of identity, but Infinite Worlds is less a statement of purpose than it is an affirmation that you can always be everything at once. On “Cleaning House,” Tamko opens with a question: “What about them scares you so much? My standing there threatens your standing too.” Initially, it sounds like a confrontation with an ex-lover or friend, but in reality it centers on greater societal issues that plagued 2016. “We’re at a time where a lot of black people are dying. All of these people who are harming us are saying [stuff like], ‘Oh we were scared,’ or, ‘That’s a thug,'” Tamko says. From there, the song delineates into a conversation she once had with her parents, grabbing direct quotes and rearranging them to suit a melody. But despite how personal “Cleaning House” is, like all of the songs on Infinite Worlds, it’s not a singular vision. Tamko’s power as an artist and producer rests on her ability to describe small situations that convey a higher truth. They’re meditations on what it really feels like to be a person on the prowl for something bigger than what you’ve been given, denying what the heart wants for what the soul needs. In short: It’s about her — and our — ongoing struggle for self-preservation.

Vagabon

Infinite Worlds tracklist:
01 “The Embers”
02 “Fear & Force”
03 “Minneapolis”
04 “Mal á L’aise”
05 “100 Years”
06 “Cleaning House”
07 “Cold Apartment”
08 “Alive And A Well”

Infinite Worlds is out 2/24 via Father/Daughter Records.