Inside Issue #19: A Conversation with Vagabon

 By Amanda Siblerling 

By Amanda Siblerling 

“Run and tell everybody
 that Laetitia is a small fish.”

- The Embers

Laetitia Tamko, also known by her stage name Vagabon, is anything but a small fish.

This lyric is on the rock anthem that opens her 2017 debut album Infinite Worlds. The dynamic, versatile, powerhouse singer has the sweetest voice and most infectious confidence. The 24-year-old Brooklyn based DIY artist put out her first EP, Persian Garden in late 2014. The six-track masterpiece is something she never thought anyone would listen to, but after a slow burn it catapulted her into the world of Frankie Cosmos, Allison Crutchfield, Told Slant, Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, and other indie artists changing how the scene looks and sounds. Tamko chooses her words carefully as Hooligan Mag sits down for an interview with the impressive young musician.

“There’s not a really fascinating story to how I came up with the name Vagabon,” Tamko says. “I just kind of wanted to go by something besides my own name. I think I just picked it randomly.” The Cameroonian-born native French speaker says her first name is often mispronounced, which is also why she goes by a different name. (Laetitia is pronounced Lay-tee-see-ya).

Infinite Worlds is an eight track whirlwind which explores themes such as love, loss, friendship, identity, and the true meaning of home.

“Overall, I don’t really have a descriptor for my sound yet. I mean Infinite Worlds is my first record, so I’m experimenting with a lot of different things and finding it as I release music. Infinite Worlds is very guitar-driven, it’s emotive and confessional for me, so I think that it’s easier for me to categorize genre by album or a per-song basis because I don’t think I have enough in my catalogue to really know what my genre is yet.”

Tamko is a huge fan of R&B, rap, jazz, and hip-hop , enjoying everything from early ‘2000s singers like Destiny’s Child “for all the harmonies,” to old Pharrell and The Neptunes-produced tracks, referring to it as “gold.” But she has been diving into pop music more as of late.

“Freddy, come back, I know you love Vermont
 But I thought I had more time.” - Fear and Force

There is a running theme of yearning, trying to find oneself, and where one can truly call home throughout Infinite Worlds. That could be in part due to the fact that Tamko was born in Yaoundé, Cameroon.  At the age of 13, she moved to Harlem, New York so her mother could attend law school.

“What I miss about being back home in Cameroon is the way of life in terms of being content with very little. A lot of people are just happy because they’re happy, and not because of material things. It’s a really special thing that I only realized later as an adult,” Tamko explains. “The things I miss about Cameroon are really small things, such as people gathering together. Even something as simple as leaving your house, walking to your friend’s house, knocking on their door and hoping they’re home is something I miss. I miss things like raising your own food and the whole nature aspect of living. I really miss those things. But I also love living in New York because of all the access, and all the things that are around me here, it’s really special.”

At 17 years old, after a lot of begging, Tamko’s parents bought her a Fender acoustic guitar from Costco. She taught herself how to play from instructional DVD’s, but put down the guitar for a few years so she could attend college to study computer engineering. Tamko felt she had to focus on school rather than music, but after recording Persian Garden and uploading it to Bandcamp she quickly got recognition for her work and after a few years stopped her engineering career altogether and became a full-time musician.

“Never the same, I can't go back to the place where I once was.” - Minneapolis

Tamko kept her burgeoning music career a secret from her family until November 2016 at Webster Hall in New York, where she opened for Frankie Cosmos. Amidst 1,500 eager fans her family saw her play for the first time. Hooligan asked her what her family thinks of her musical ventures.

“They definitely know about it now whether they want to or not [laughs], but it’s good. Some musicians grow up in a house of artists or someone in their family has done some sort of art so it makes it easier to be a topic of conversation. But for me, this is my thing, this is my life, and it’s my day to day. So I don’t really make it a topic of conversation. I just do my thing and that’s it.”

When she’s on tour Tamko has a mix of her playing solo with her guitar and sampler, as well as backing instruments. “I want people to feel a part of everything I’m doing onstage, and for it to be an immersive, collaborative experience.”

Tamko’s fanbase has grown exponentially in the past few years, and the experience has been humbling for her.

“I think I started to realize people were digging my sound maybe a year ago,” says Tamko. “I didn’t expect anyone to listen to the EP. I just wanted to have something out there and then work towards playing more. I toured the country a lot on my own without a booking agent or anything, just kind of with friends. It really helped me to solidify my music and my performance skills so that when people did get interested I was prepared. It’s a hard thing to explain because the EP was a slow burn. I put it out at the end of 2014, and I started playing more shows locally and people started to pay attention. Even if they weren’t listening to the EP, I think the live shows were something people really enjoyed and so I was playing live a lot. So Infinite Worlds coming out is kind of like putting out the songs that I’ve been playing live, and I’ve been getting a good response from it.”

Tamko speaks of the community of friends she has made in the DIY scene and how they have helped shape her musicianship.

“I met Greta Kline (Frankie Cosmos) through mutual friends. When we first met we hit it off immediately. The New York DIY scene has a great community, it’s really nice to be able to bounce ideas off of each other, work with each other and write with each other. I have found it very helpful to have found a community specific to a group of people who like touring, putting out music, and having that commonality with a few of my close friends in the scene as well as the community as a whole.”

“You know my kind of high.”- Mal à L'aise

Tamko worked with Jessi Frick, one half of the father-daughter team at the remarkable independent label Father/Daughter Records to release her debut album.

“I met Jessi Frick of Father/Daughter Records many years ago at CMJ Music Festival. She would always collaborate with another small tape label and they would do a joint CMJ show. I played it for two consecutive years. So when I finished my record Jessie DM’ed me. I was tweeting a lot throughout the recording process because I do stuff alone and I don’t have bandmates, so it’s kind of my outlet to not losing my mind. It’s my chance to talk about something or get it out of me. Jessi DM’ed me on Twitter and said, “Hey, I’d love to hear it,” and from the first listen and her reaction I could tell that she really got it and got what I was trying to do. She didn’t just see what I put in front of her but the foresight and the long haul sight of what I’m capable of. That was really cool and really set her apart from other labels that I was talking to. Just knowing that she understood it and really connected to the songs, and I knew when someone really loves something they’re going to do a really great job with it so that really settled it for me.”

Tamko continued finding people to cultivate her creative vision when it came to her first music video for ‘The Embers,’ which was directed by Mooj Zadie and features her dancing by herself in an aquarium and a bus.

“‘The Embers’ was my first music video and we shot it on 16mm film which is really cool,” Tamko says. “While film is expensive, it also has a restriction on it. Without a budget or a lot of money, there is a restriction on how much film you can use. So, making this with one take per shot was really cool because once we got it, we got it. It felt really authentic. As for the concept, what I was really adamant about bringing to the table was color palettes and this song was one that I saw colors for very intensely. Mooj had really loved this song since it was on the EP when it was called ‘Sharks’, and came in with some really cool concepts, and it was good to work together.”

Writing and recording albums, releasing them, and shooting music videos is only part of the hard work Tamko does. The other bulk is touring, something that she enjoys immensely.

“I love being on tour because I get to meet so many people and have a different experience with my music with live shows. I’m a human being like everyone else, so regular things will affect me whether I’m on or off stage. I’m very shy and being on stage is vulnerable; so I like to talk to people afterwards and see how my music has affected them in a positive way. I like seeing people who are inspired by what I’m doing and to come back for more. It is worth everything of being human.”

That human aspect is crucial to how Tamko relates to and represents her fans. She has fans who have never seen themselves represented in the DIY music scene, especially men and women of color, who are so often lost in the extremely white sector. Tamko is determined to create a space for underrepresented groups. Or in her words, especially weird black girls, girls who are not celebrated, black men, and women of color. Though her natural inclination is to hide, she is determined to be visible no matter how uncomfortable it gets. Tamko has a desire for black girls to be able to see and hear her, and know that no barriers can stop them from doing the same.

“You didn't know it was falling apart.”- 100 Years

“During the process of recording Infinite Worlds it was a pretty long and grueling experience,” recalls Tamko. “I would go to school and work during the weekdays, and record the album on the weekends. I learned so much though about what I would want to do differently the next time. For example I wrote a lot of songs in the studio, so I would do different takes 15 times or 1 time, which wasn’t a very efficient use of my time. Now I write more while I’m on tour, so it was all a great learning experience for me.”

There were several songs off of the Persian Garden EP that Tamko remastered for her debut album. As Tamko explained to Hooligan:

“For the Persian Garden EP I was much less confident in my creative voice, creative vision and creative ideas. So, there were not too many hands on it, but way more hands than my process is now.  It was a lot of ‘Everything sounds great!,’ I’m really excited my songs just sound like something. After touring Persian Garden for two years on a DIY scale and then trickling over into recording my first album, the dynamic of how I make music was so different. At first, I really wanted to be in a collaborative band, and then very quickly I realized that wasn’t working for me, or wasn’t working for me then. I just really felt like these songs had a lot of life left in them. I wanted to recontextualize them and reintroduce them, which is why I named them new things, because I wanted new and old listeners to approach the song differently, and not feel like it’s a remake but that I actually just remade it.”

Along with remaking the songs, Tamko learned how to play drums, synth, bass, and other instruments to create a fuller sound for Infinite Worlds.

“Guitar is my first instrument, but with Infinite Worlds I didn’t want to allow much creative input from others,” Tamko says. “For me, if I’m going to ask someone to do something, I want to make sure I can do it myself. Even to delegate a task such as record these drums or record this bass, I wanted to be able to show them what I wanted instead of talking about it in a way that might go misunderstood.  It really minimizes how much compromising you’re going to have to do.”

“What about them scares you so much?”-Cleaning House

This iconic line from her song “Cleaning House,” is a showstopper in the center of her album. The heart-wrenching question leaves us raw and truthful.

“I keep a notebook on me at all times so I can write down ideas and lines as they come to me, and work on them continuously,” says Tamko about her songwriting process. “I don’t like to force writing. I know there are musicians who can sit down and write for two hours every day, but that’s never been me. I need for it to pour out of me organically, I think it would be very obvious if I made myself write every day.”

Tamko found inspiration for Infinite Worlds from award-winning poet Dana Ward’s book, “The Crisis of Infinite Worlds,” the title coming from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

“I found Dana Ward’s book through a friend of mine who is also a writer. He suggested it to me, and we were going to read it together. We were both on separate tours at the time, so we just had this idea to read this book on our tours and to talk about it over email, kind of like a virtual book club. I was reading this book as I was writing songs for Infinite Worlds and recording them at the same time. It’s a strange book, I haven’t gone back to it yet. It’s kind of a difficult read but I really enjoyed it. Another poet that I just started diving into is Fred Moten. He has this book called The Feel Trio that I’m parsing through, it has really beautiful lines. To my knowledge it hasn’t really seeped into my songwriting but it is good to see how other songwriters more in the literary sense than musical are creating imagery and a broad use of words.”

“We sat on my cold apartment floor where we thought we would stay in love.”- Cold Apartment

Tamko says that her drive, ambition, and capacity to love all stem from her astrological sign.

“I’m a Scorpio sun and moon with Gemini rising. My sign plays a big part in my identity. Every person has a different history and characteristics. Scorpios are seen as fierce, scary, intimidating, and self-deprecating, but we have a lot of drive. I’m very driven and ambitious, once I set my mind to something no one can stop me. I do have those debilitating moments when I can talk myself down by writing and creating music. Creation is subjective, and as I’m growing and trying different things I don’t let the ridiculous statements from people bring me down. I just don’t agree with them, I feel confident. As a Scorpio I know when something feels right for me, and when I get that feeling nothing can stop me.

“Water me darling,
Take what you need before it runs out.”

-Alive and a Well

“The lyrics off Infinite Worlds that I’m most proud of are from Alive and a Well,” says Tamko. “I always go back to that song. It represents a person as a well of water, the imagery stemming from trips back and forth to the well while I lived in Cameroon. A well of water isn’t strange to see, and metaphorically one must check in on the well to see if it’s okay, if you’re taking more from it than it can give, and if you are reciprocating what you take.”

As for the future of her music as Vagabon, Tamko has a lot planned but can't say too much yet.

“I’m working on two cool new projects right now, so there will be new stuff from me before the year is over. I’m excited to share what I’ve been doing, like writing and recording music. I am going on my first headlining tour this fall. I think it’s important to assert myself and what I do.”

As for advice for up and coming musicians Tamko says her words are really simple.

“Don’t be afraid to be curious. In music there are nuances to playing, so play and write often. Work with people who impress and inspire you, and absorb their genius. Never settle for just being satisfied, it’s going to yield something for you that way. Trust your gut and keep working because no one is the best at every single thing.”

View the entire spread in issue 19 here.