Interview

Vagabon Contains Multitudes

Read our interview with Laetitia Tamko and hear new single "Water Me Down"

Vagabon makes music for outcasts. Laetitia Tamko writes quietly luminous songs that help the listener feel less alone. Her work often meditates on how we find a sense of belonging within a community and what it means to feel truly at home. But it also grapples with what it feels like to be alienated, to be stuck searching for that sense of community. The Vagabon project, she hopes, can help connect people searching for the same thing.

Vagabon’s self-titled sophomore LP, her first for Nonesuch Records, is due out in October. It’s the follow-up to her 2017 debut, Infinite Worlds, a record that showcased Tamko’s striking vocals (“it almost sounds like she’s singing with two voices at once,” one YouTube commenter observed), thoughtful lyricism, and knack for expanding vulnerable introspections into universal themes. Infinite Worlds reigned as our Album Of The Week and solidified Vagabon as one of the most promising voices in indie rock — or as we designated her, an Artist To Watch. Along with her 2014 EP Persian Gardens, Infinite Worlds gained traction both online and through word of mouth, and Tamko went from playing to intimate audiences at venues like the now-defunct Silent Barn to performing on national stages in a matter of months.

Vagabon explores a new set of sounds and electronic textures, bringing together airy synths, digital arrangements, and R&B-inspired percussion into a kinetic collection of songs that maintain the same roomy yet intimate qualities that characterized her earliest work. Just like the rivers and floods she sings about on this album, the songs on Vagabon adopt a fluid, shape-shifting quality that takes form around Tamko’s arresting voice. She also drew inspiration from African musicians that she grew up listening to in Cameroon, like Ali Farka Touré and Hailu Mergia. Their influence helped her to imagine new kinds of melodies and rhythms. What remains front and center on the album, though, is Tamko’s capacity to magnify simple observations that we may take for granted, opening them up to feel vast and important.

Tamko studied engineering in college, and up until recently she split her time pretty evenly between her job as an electrical and computer engineer and her music. But since shifting to a full-time career in music, she’s had to confront new obstacles, like trying to rediscover a sense of balance. She wants to be transparent about this, and about the fact that she’s terrified her new album might ruin her career. Tamko isn’t unsure about what she’s made in an artistic sense; in fact, she’s completely confident and proud of the album. The anxiety, she explains, is more so about others’ reception of the music, and the knowledge that other people’s livelihoods are hinged upon the success of her music. In other words, the stakes are higher now.

Tamko had a few intentions when she set out to create this record: “Impress yourself and make something that you’re going to stick up for and stand by.” Tamko wrote and produced the whole record, and the latter role was new for her. The creative process began while she was on the road, where the only tools that she had access to were her computer and the production software Logic. With a new vision of what she wanted the album to sound like, Tamko got to work. Through YouTube tutorials and any other resources at her disposal, she began studying Logic and taught herself how to produce: “I gave myself the title and then figured out how to earn it.”

Speaking of titles, the album was originally going to be called All The Women In Me, but Tamko announced some changes to the project last week. Lead single “Flood Hands” became “Flood,” another song called “All The Women” became “Every Woman,” and a number of lyrics were altered. All of this necessitated pushing back the release date by a few weeks. In a statement, Tamko explained, “My original album title and two lyrics were inspired by and referenced poetry by a writer I greatly admire, Nayyirah Waheed. When I learned that she preferred I not quote her words, I made changes out of respect for her wishes.”

Waheed’s exact phrasings were removed, but her words continue to inform Tamko’s approach to the album, both musically and otherwise. Throughout our conversation, it’s clear that Tamko manifested the ethos of gratitude for working with other women throughout the creative process and promotional campaign. This vision is maybe best embodied by the cover art, which sets a portrait of Tamko sporting a geometric hat squarely against a vibrant, tangerine-orange backdrop. The photography, layout, vinyl design, and even the custom-made hat were all done by women, Tamko explains, all for an album made by a woman as a thank-you note to women.

“It was really important for me to be on the cover of this album and for people to see it, and for me to see it,” Tamko says, “that I am a product of so much generational hyperactivity, and what I have carried as an African woman, what I’ve carried as a woman, what I’ve carried as all the quote-unquote other boxes that I would check off — that this is for me, for me to see myself and for other people to know that this is for them too, everybody who is an outcast.”

A few weeks before Tamko announced the changes to the album, we spoke by phone about her experience writing and producing these songs, the inspiration behind some of them, why she still works on calculus problems every day, and more. Read our conversation below, where you can also hear the album’s second single “Water Me Down,” out today.

STEREOGUM: Did the process of creating this album feel like an extension of making Infinite Worlds or like an entirely new chapter?

LAETITIA TAMKO: It felt like an entirely new chapter for me. Because I toured Infinite Worlds for two years, I was wanting some newness in my musical life, and I had developed this relationship with my guitar where I wanted more space from it when I would get home from tour, so that kind of sparked the ideas of looking for fresh ideas within my brain and then making space for those ideas to remain fresh for me.

STEREOGUM: [Original album title] All The Women In Me [was] inspired by a Nayyirah Waheed poem. Can you tell me a little bit more about what that title means to you?

TAMKO: Me deciding to call it All The Women In Me [was] an ode to all of the people who have contributed to me being here. And I don’t mean in this world, I mean in the United States, because it really did take a village for me to move here. My family and I came here on refugee status, and it’s very important to me to think about how much of a privilege I have to be able to exist in not just a place where I’m able to exercise multiple interests but also where I’m able to make art and have it be sustainable.

All The Women In Me also means that I’m a multifaceted person with complex interests, a complex mind. It’s really my thesis of before you press play on the record I’m hoping that the title gives everyone a synopsis of the intention behind this record and to listen with intention and with generosity.

STEREOGUM: What was the creative process like writing and producing an entire album? How did it feel to listen to the finished product?

TAMKO: Oh man, it felt so crazy. I wrestled with this album for a long time, and that’s because a lot of the time between Infinite Worlds and now, I was studying and I was learning. I had this huge undertaking where I said, “I’m going to produce this record,” and I knew it was ambitious, and I didn’t really know how I was going to do that. I just knew that I have strong ideas about who I am, what I’m writing about, and what it needs to sound like. And to me, that’s like a producer.

All I had to do to connect the dots was have the technical ability, which then was all the learning. But I did spend a lot of time learning how to give myself that title and actually back it up in the work, so I was studying and learning and learning. And what really worked in my favor was that I knew exactly what I wanted to make. I had a vision for everything that I wanted to make. So I just got to it, whether “it” was watching Logic YouTube videos or just studying, and I know how to study. I gave myself the title, and then figured out how to earn it.

STEREOGUM: You spoke before about how this album sounds a lot different than the last one, especially in terms of using new instruments and sounds. Was moving away from the guitar-driven sound of Infinite Worlds a deliberate choice or something that came about organically?

TAMKO: It kind of came about organically. What I observed in creating Infinite Worlds was that naivité works for me. When I don’t have an expectation for what I’m doing and I’m just doing it purely, it feels good. It feels like the right thing to do. So I set out to work with textures and sounds that I didn’t know much about. I think that there is a special place to spark innovation within myself where if I’m playing the keys and I don’t really know how to play the keys then what I’m going to do is going to be purely coming out from a very genuine place. I just wanted to do that instead of guitar — which I’ve played all of the time on the road and still love and I’m back to playing more of — but I felt like I was getting a little stuck in that specific instrument.

STEREOGUM: In some of your press materials, you mention being inspired by West African artists you grew up listening to, like Ali Farka Touré. How do those influences connect to your sound on the new album?

TAMKO: Growing up and experiencing music through my parents, I listened to some very traditional artists like Manu Dibango and all of these people who are from our village. When they played music, when they sang, there was always this moment like something that comes over you, and I remember being such a curious kid about that feeling. I was like, “I want to feel that feeling,” like what is that feeling that overcomes you to a point where you just audibly have to react?

I’m not sure where my voice comes from or why it’s different or louder than my speaking voice or what moves me to sing that way. I don’t know. I have no idea. I don’t have formal training in anything, and so I’m more interested in thinking about the spirituality of singing and my voice. In writing “In A Bind,” it felt like I was just flowing into this thing, I’m playing the guitar and words are coming out. I felt like I had tapped into that feeling I was so curious about as a child.

STEREOGUM: On “Wits About You” you sing, “I was invited to the party / They won’t let my people in.” What’s that song about?

TAMKO: The song as a whole is about a whole other thing than what the bridge is about, so when I starkly stop the song and I start to say, “I was invited to the party,” that’s really about going back to community, going back to me wanting this album to be so many people’s older sister. It is me saying, “Well, if you’re inviting me and you’re not inviting everyone I’m with, if the people who look like me, who are from where I’m from, who have stories like me, who have resilience, anybody who is categorized as other, if they can’t come with, then I’m not coming.”

It’s my anger towards gatekeeping and showing my lack of interest in it. The intention is that in me sharing my life and sharing these songs publicly and engaging, sure, it does stuff for me directly. But also part of my plan is with each inch of power that I get is to hold the door open for people who can’t have that for reasons that are ridiculous. So, the bridge is kind of like saying, “Well if I’m let in, why aren’t they let in?” Like, they’re with me. So then we’re all leaving [laughs].

STEREOGUM: Compared to your last record, do you feel more or less anxious about putting this one out into the world?

TAMKO: I’m way more anxious to put this one into the world.

STEREOGUM: Were you able to overcome that fear?

TAMKO: No, I’m very much still in it. I am terrified [laughs]. It’s not because I don’t think I did a good job — I made something that I’m proud of and that I’m going to stand by and that won’t change… When I sat down and wrote intentions for this record it was, “Impress yourself and make something that you’re going to stick up for and stand by,” and that didn’t involve making something I thought would be successful. So a lot of my anxiety around this record is that I don’t have a point of reference for this music. I don’t know what it sounds like, and that’s terrifying because this is my life now. This is all that I do, and this is high stakes because now there are so many other people that depend on me within my life. I’m really unsure about what this will do for my career, but that doesn’t mean that I’m unsure about what I’ve made.

STEREOGUM: Since switching from engineering to doing music full time, what’s been the most challenging part about pursuing music as a sustainable job?

TAMKO: A lack of balance and a lack of well-roundedness. I’m fully obsessed with music and making it, but my time isn’t divided like it used to be when I was making Infinite Worlds, where I was in school all week and then on the weekends I would go record, or I would be working and coding and then I would go play music. So there was this forced balance. Even though I was upset that I wasn’t making music 100% of the time, there was still this well-roundedness.

I think balance is bullshit anyway. It’s really hard to find and to have that expectation. But I want to be a well-rounded person, so I still wake up in the morning and I do calculus, and I wake up and I do some integrated circuit equation, just to remind myself that I’m a full person. My personality is pretty obsessive, so if I just allow myself to do one thing and I let my identity just rely on that one thing, I would crumble. It took me a while to figure out that I need to do other things to be able to continue having a healthy relationship with music.

STEREOGUM: If you had to offer any advice to emerging artists who want to pursue music as a full-time sustainable job, what would you say?

TAMKO: I would say build a community. I think that is the number one thing that has worked for me, and will continue to be fruitful, is to find people who are interested in the same thing as you, interested in playing shows, interested in building a career. Find them — obviously organically and genuinely — but find your people and build a community, and that will sustain much longer than all the fucked-up variables of the music industry.

While my music-making is very solitary, my emotional life is very community-centered and very much about asking questions to the people who have done this longer than me and answering questions for the people who have them for me. I think it’s important to have your people because those things are more pure than the music industry [laughs] and there are too many shifting factors in the industry. It’s not lost on me that the plates can shift. What I will have at the end of that is my integrity and the community who will continue to support me and love me, and that’s how I believe you can have sustained longevity.

STEREOGUM: On “Home Soon,” you repeat, “I gave it all away, I’ll be home soon.” What does home mean to you in that context, both emotionally and physically?

TAMKO: Physically, home has been a few different places. But in this song, I was meditating on that line over and over again while playing over those chords because I was thinking a lot about Cameroon and nostalgia. I harp on this a lot, but being able to make music, I sacrificed a lot, and I sacrificed people, and I sacrificed family. I sacrificed a lot to go against everything that was wanted and expected of me in a very serious way. When I make money now as a musician, it goes home to Cameroon. It goes there, but I haven’t been there in nine years.

So I was just meditating on giving everything away, giving up all of these things that I don’t think I felt I had any other choice like I had to follow this path that led me to be able to talk to you today. I had to take that path and that meant not speaking to my family for a while, and so that song is really addressing my family, saying I know this doesn’t make sense and I know that this feels really selfish to you and that I’m taking this detour, but I’ll be back, I’ll be home soon.

TOUR DATES:
10/15 – Brooklyn, NY @ National Sawdust
10/17 – Los Angeles, CA @ Pico Union Project
10/21 – London, UK @ St. Pancras Old Church
10/22 – Brussels, BE @ Autumn Falls @ Botanique – Brussels (B)
10/23 – Berlin, DE @ Kantine am Berghain
10/24 – Paris, FR @ Hasard Ludique
10/30 – Asbury Park, NJ @ Asbury Lanes *
10/31 – Philadelphia, PA @ Franklin Music Hall *
11/01 – Washington, DC @ Lincoln Theatre *
11/04 – Atlanta, GA @ Variety Playhouse *
11/05 – New Orleans, LA @ Civic Theatre *
11/07 – Austin, TX @ Stubb’s (Levitation) *
11/08 – Dallas, TX @ Granada Theater *
11/09 – Oklahoma City, OK @ The Criterion *
11/10 – Lawrence, KS @ The Granada *
11/12 – Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue *
11/13 – Madison, WI. @ The Sylvee *
11/14 – Chicago, IL @ The Riviera Theatre *
11/15 – Detroit, MI. @ Royal Oak Music Theatre *
11/16 – Toronto, ON @ Queen Elizabeth Theatre *
11/18 – Montreal, QC @ mTelus *
11/19 – Boston, MA @ Royale *
11/22 – Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Steel *
12/02 – Phoenix, AZ @ The Van Buren *
12/03 – San Diego, CA @ The Observatory North Park *
12/05 – Los Angeles, CA @ Palace Theater *
12/07 – Oakland, CA @ Fox Theater *
12/09 – Portland, OR @ Roseland *
12/10 – Vancouver, BC @ The Orpheum Theatre *
12/11 – Seattle, WA @ Moore Theatre *
12/13 – Salt Lake City, UT @ The Depot *
12/14 – Denver, CO @ The Gothic Theatre *
12/15 – Denver, CO @ The Gothic Theatre *

* w/ Angel Olsen

Vagabon is out 10/18 via Nonesuch Records. Pre-order it here.

Tags: Vagabon