If you’ve read about Lætitia Tamko, who records under the name Vagabon, you’ve likely been told that her music is intimate, personal, and, notably, lonely. However, one person who doesn’t wholly agree with that interpretation is Tamko herself: “I think that there’s maybe solitude in my music, but not loneliness. I don’t feel like I’m writing from that place at all. I feel that I’m full,” she says when we speak by phone. “I see more of my music as reflective. I’m just archiving these reflections that aren’t always about me and aren’t always self-reflective.”
Tamko, 24, was born and raised in Cameroon and moved to New York at age 13. In high school her parents got her a Fender guitar, and with the help of the accompanying instructional video she learned the ropes. “I went through the entire disc and I was like, ‘Okay, I know major scales and chords now, great,'” she says. “Then I put it down and didn’t really touch it.”
Upon nearing college graduation—after majoring in engineering—Tamko revisited her musical roots, and made them her primary pursuit. Some three years later, after numerous New York shows, tours and an EP, her debut album Infinite Worlds (Father/Daughter) is out tomorrow. With a powerful, defiant voice and a tendency to experiment with sound—as songs range from garage rock to somber indie pop to electronic soundscapes—Worlds is a thrilling debut.
ETHAN SAPIENZA: What was it like moving to New York at 13?
LÆTITIA TAMKO: It was jarring. I’ve had to talk about this a lot recently. [laughs] In thinking about it, it was being thrust in an environment where everyone was kind of similar to one another and their ways and their culture. There is a culture in America. [I was] put into it and was figuring out where I fit in and where I’m comfortable.
Adjusting was gradual. As I think most people would attest even if they lived in the U.S. their whole lives, it’s just that period in your life when your 13 or 14 and you’re figuring it out. It was that classic figuring it out point until you get to an age where it’s a little bit easier and you feel a little more stable in yourself. It wasn’t too abnormal from the classic “coming into my own” kind of thing.
SAPIENZA: What’s your earliest musical memory?
TAMKO: My earliest musical memory is probably when I moved to New York and I was listening to this Whitney Houston greatest hits CD. The cover is her and these hues of blue and white. It was all I listened to. It was every day, constantly.
SAPIENZA: Do you remember the first song you wrote?
TAMKO: The first song I wrote is called “Cold Apartment Floors.” I don’t know if you’re familiar.
SAPIENZA: Yeah, and it’s on your debut album.
TAMKO: Yes. It’s kind of funny and weird. It’s gone through a lot of iterations. That’s the first song—that guitar line, those lyrics. That’s the first thing I wrote.
SAPIENZA: I was watching an interview with you and you said you didn’t tell your mom until recently that you were pursuing music.
TAMKO: Yeah. My parents saw me play and listened to my music for the first time when I played at Webster Hall. There were upwards of 1,000 people there. They were kind of like, “What is happening? Who are all these people? Where did they come from?” These are questions my mom has asked me. I’m a very private person in general and I never felt like sharing that [with my family] despite the fact that I share it with strangers. I have a hard time sharing my music one-on-one with people—even just sending over a song to someone is something I don’t do. I present it when I feel like it’s ready to be presented. For my parents, it was when I felt rooted in it and established in it enough that I could [say], “Look at this thing I do,” I think they had thought I was a hobbyist. It was very shocking for them. They were impressed.
SAPIENZA: Webster Hall is quite the reveal.
TAMKO: [laughs] Yes. I guess in some ways they thought this was the beginning. Little do they know I’ve been working at it for the last two years.
SAPIENZA: So when you’re writing a song, do you keep it to yourself until you feel it’s fully done? You don’t share it with anyone to get notes?
TAMKO: I’m not a fan of notes. [laughs] I think that’s why I tend to work alone, to write alone. I don’t like to write with others. The very strong, independent part of me feels like I can do everything on my own so I don’t need anyone ever. I also feel like notes can be incredibly helpful. I don’t think my ego stops me from getting feedback when I need to. An idea, a song, an arrangement needs to be pretty much fully developed before I seek that out. I don’t really want to interrupt whatever is going on in my brain. I want to just let it happen. There’s room for tweaking and workshopping afterwards. There are maybe a handful of people I would trust that with; I would play it for them live and then see what they think.
It would be a different thing if I introduced new tracks on tour, which I did on my last one. I wrote a song on the third day of tour and in my very masochistic way I was like, “This is perfect. I’m on tour for the next month. I just wrote this song and I have no idea what the lyrics are past the first verse, but if I just play it every night I can see what people think and continue to write it every night.” I did that for 30 days. The first day I did it, it was horrible. [laughs] I’m introducing this song that I don’t even know! Much like comics do with feeling the crowd, like even popular comics do where they go to Comedy Cellar and try out this new thing the wrote and see how the crowd reacts, I tend to do that with new music when I’m on tour. By the last two weeks of the tour it’s like, “Okay, this is the song.”
SAPIENZA: Do you find songwriting and performing to be therapeutic?
TAMKO: Oh yes, for sure. It’s funny to have some of these songs on the record. The first two singles are some of the first songs I’ve written. They’re tied to the time that I wrote them. Writing anything to me—even instrumentation, which I hold just as important as the songwriting—is definitely cathartic.
SAPIENZA: You play with a lot of different sounds on the album. Were you intentionally trying to experiment or was that something that was natural?
TAMKO: It felt natural. I think a lot of people are surprised to find out I don’t really listen to a lot of music that sounds like my own. Some people make comparisons and I have to look it up. In the beginning of performing around New York I would get [compared to] Cat Power a lot, so I looked her up and I was like, “Oh, this is cool.” I’m always surprised at what people compare this music to.
Making songs with varying genres, it felt normal based on what came to me. The instrumental track is something I’m really proud of, and as a producer it was my first song diving purely into electronic instruments. It was a fun little exercise. I think with a producer’s brain. With sequencing in the album, I think about what is fun for me not just to play for me as a musician but what would be fun to record, and how I could have these songs have a life of their own through the recording process as well as the songwriting process.
SAPIENZA: What artists have had the biggest influence on you?
TAMKO: I’m really inspired by Erykah Badu. I’m also really inspired by this artist from Mali named Ali Farka Touré. His guitar work is insane—a lot of polyrhythms. In “Cleaning House” there’s a polyrhythm that I wrote that’s inspired by a lot of West African guitarists—subconsciously so, I only thought of that much later after writing that song. I’m also inspired by trap and rap music. I listen to a lot of producers and instrumental music.
SAPIENZA: Any specific producers that you’re a really big fan of?
TAMKO: I’m definitely a fan of Metro Boomin like I think everyone is. There’s also a producer named XXYYXX that I really like. His songs are a lot of collages. He samples a lot of different tracks and collages them into his own thing that’s amazing.
SAPIENZA: When you’re writing or performing, is there someone you feel like you’re speaking to?
TAMKO: Myself mostly.
SAPIENZA: Are you confronting things about yourself?
TAMKO: I think I’m challenging myself, or I’m challenging other people. There’s a lot of challenging myself and challenging ideas that I think or have been brought to me or have entered my life in some way. That can be through telling another person’s story.
SAPIENZA: At one point you sing about how your presence can be challenging to others.
TAMKO: Yes, it’s, “My standing here threatens your standing here too.” That’s more of an identity thing. I wrote that at a very specific time in the world, and it continued to be a very specific time. I was just thinking about people in my life who have been looked at strangely for being the way they are or not being able to change things. I’m trying to resist having all my energies be about preaching about race and equality. That line in “Cleaning House” is about people who feel threatened when people who don’t look like them are next to them—you feel physically or emotionally threatened and it stems from the way they look or what their emotion is or what their sexual orientation. It’s having someone, the other, standing next to you and you feel threatened by it.
SAPIENZA: Why’d you choose the name Vagabon specifically with no “d”?
VAGABON: I feel like we’re friends at this point so I’m going to tell you a joke: You asked why the dropped “d” in Vagabon, and I say that I’m in standard tuning not drop d! [laughs] All right, me using Vagabon came from me not wanting to use my name. It’s constantly mispronounced. I wanted to avoid doing that. I identified with the meaning Vagabon because I’m someone who, even as a kid, wanted to be moving and keep traveling. I was never satisfied being in one place. I identified with displacement and wanting to move around and live in different places. The dropped “d” really has no significance, just that there were other bands with that name.
SAPIENZA: What have your interactions been like with fans on the road?
TAMKO: It’s great. I love to play the set and then just sit at the merch table versus the green room. I really want to talk to people that come to my shows. Each time I go on tour and see familiar faces, you kind of become friends with these people. People who would come to a house show that I did a year ago now come see me in a bigger room, and we’ll just talk, or they’re very interactive over the internet. It’s fun to see old faces who have come to my shows for a long time and continue to and to get to talk to new people. I’ve always loved that I get to go to a show and talk to the person who made the music that I loved. That’s so special.
SAPIENZA: How does it feel to have your debut album coming out? Are you anxious or does it feel like, “About time”?
TAMKO: I am so ready. It was a long recording process and it was not an easy one because I also had a lot going on. I was working as an engineer so I could pay for myself to finish school. I had been consistently going to school and working for many, many years. I was funding my way through college and funding my life in general and helping out my family financially. Making an album is even more of a big deal for me because of all the things that could have made it not happen.