Home / World News / Vagabon Found Her Voice in Indie Rock. Then Found a New One.

Vagabon Found Her Voice in Indie Rock. Then Found a New One.

“I have no idea what Vagabon will evolve to be,” said Laetitia Tamko, the 26-year-old songwriter, producer and one-woman studio band.

Over the five years she’s been releasing music as Vagabon, her project has already undergone a major transformation. Her songs embrace mixed, elusive emotions: longing and ambivalence, displacement and stability, seeking a home and leaving it behind, confronting fears and searching for hope. Her structures move by instinct and impulse, sometimes blurring verse and chorus as if they’re coalescing right in the moment, sometimes obsessing over a telling phrase. Her voice has a breathy fringe but a tenacious core.

Vagabon’s new self-titled album, out Friday, veers away from the style that brought her an international audience with her debut, “Infinite Worlds,” in 2017. That album was a response to and — with its success — an escape from trauma. Although Tamko sang about feeling small, trapped and weaker than she wanted to be, her underlying determination was clear.

“That’s the one that got me out of a really, really bad space,” she said. Making the songs and touring for two years gave her confidence. “I got to get in touch with who I am and feel like I have a purpose.”

Tamko’s music on “Infinite Worlds” was the kind of home-recorded, self-taught, guitar-centered indie rock — moving from acoustic and exposed to scrappy and vehement — that she started uploading to Bandcamp in 2014, then honed by performing steadily in small clubs. But for the new album Tamko relied instead on the computer software Logic along with her guitar, often layering her voice amid synthesizers and programmed drumbeats. She played and sang nearly every note on “Vagabon” herself, though she arranged the parts for a hired string section and a French horn. In the 21st century, do-it-yourself songwriting has countless variations.

“I have no idea if this music is what people want to listen to,” Tamko said with a laugh. “I have no clue. Some days I really, really love it and some days I’m like, ‘What have I done? I’m going to lose everybody.’”

She spoke over lunch in the outdoor garden behind Ladurée in SoHo, which she had chosen to remind her of Paris, where she had lived for six months with her family as a teenager. She was dressed for both attention and pragmatism in a fuzzy orange shawl and puffy white Naked Wolfe platform sneakers, her short hair dyed an orange-blonde. After the interview and a photo shoot, she’d be taking the subway back home to Brooklyn.

“Infinite Worlds” arrived with a rich back story. Tamko was born in Cameroon, where she first made music at family gatherings. “My mom would host these things that she called reunions,” she said, smiling at the recollection. “Her friends would come over every Sunday and they would harmonize. And my grandmother’s a choir director, and so I was always going to church and always singing gospel music. But no one ever called it anything. No one called it music, no one called it art, no one called it singing or dancing. Everyone was just doing it.”

She emigrated to the United States with her family at 13. She wanted to go to music school, but got “a hard no” from her parents. Figuring there were jobs in the field, she studied and then worked at electrical and computer engineering. She also taught herself to play instruments, write songs, engineer and produce music.

During that time Tamko fled what she called, unwilling to be more specific, “a toxic physical space” where “there just was abuse all around me,” she said. “I couldn’t really understand how to get out of it, and also how to not feel guilty if I left. The first record, I’m talking about all of those things.”

The trauma also reinforced her inclination to go it alone. “Music was the only form of healing that I had available to me and I had to create it,” she said. “I think part of my stubbornness about autonomy is saying, like, ‘What if everyone decides they’re not going to help you any more? Can you do it again?’ I created my own world. I created my own safe place.”

She found an audience online and in Brooklyn, regularly playing do-it-yourself venues like Silent Barn and the whimsically named Shea Stadium. By the time she polished her first set of songs to release as “Infinite Worlds,” her fans included fellow musicians like Mitski and Tegan and Sara, who took her on tour as an opening act.

But even as she was performing songs from “Infinite Worlds,” Tamko was contemplating changes in her music. The initial buzz over the album, which was released on the independent Father/Daughter Records, got Vagabon courted by major labels. She chose to sign with Nonesuch, the proudly eclectic label with a catalog that includes classical music, jazz, the Buena Vista Social Club and the Black Keys.

“Like a lot of people I was instantly a fan of her album,” said Kris Chen, the senior vice president of Nonesuch, who signed Vagabon to the label. “Right before I met her, I saw her play at the Bowery Ballroom and I was struck by how warm she sounded, not just in terms of how she spoke to the crowd with this disarming sincerity and honesty, but also how her voice was so much more expressive live. It made me feel she has so much more in her than this first record.”

He added, “And what I loved when I met her was that one of the first things she said was, ‘I don’t want to be just that black girl with a guitar.’”

In summer of 2017, only a few months after the release of Vagabon’s debut, Tegan and Sara suggested that Tamko could rework their song “Floorplan” for “The Con X: Covers,” a 10-year anniversary celebration of their album “The Con.” The result, with only a hint of “Floorplan” in it, was “Flood,” which Tamko kept to become the first single from the “Vagabon” album: a stately, synthesizer-centered ballad about wanting to leave yet wanting to stay.

“I was shocked that I made that song,” Tamko said. “I was shocked that I programmed those drums. But when I thought of writing it for them, I wanted to grab synthesizers, I wanted to grab electronic drums. So in a way that song opened up my view of myself as an artist. ‘Oh, I guess I can write other types of songs — this is cool!’”

Another early breakthrough was “Water Me Down,” the catchiest song on “Vagabon,” with an understated four-on-the-floor beat behind gently exasperated lyrics. Tamko recalled tossing around ideas with a friend, Eric Littman, who offered a synthesizer line. “Immediately my world opened up,” Tamko said. The lyrics were a reaction to a recent “phone call with a really annoying person”; the layers of drums, strings and melody came to her quickly. “I listened to that song, and I was like, this feels like a Vagabon song still,” she said. “That’s crazy.”

A new possibility had opened up, reinforced by the fact that Vagabon was spending a lot of time on the road, and a computer running Logic was easier to set up than recording a guitar. But it wasn’t just a matter of convenience.

“After ‘Infinite Worlds,’ I felt like I didn’t have any fresh ideas on the guitar,” Tamko said. “Especially because I’m self-taught, I don’t know scales, I don’t know keys or anything, I’m just winging it. I didn’t want to make the same thing. And so it was, how can I keep a freshness about my ideas?”

Still, she didn’t rule out guitar. “In a Bind,” with one of the album’s most blunt lyrics — “I know that I was gone a lot last year/But I hoped you’d still be here” — hints at the syncopated, hypnotic vamps of the Malian guitar master Ali Farka Touré. And mournful strumming sits behind “Every Woman,” the album’s closing statement.

“Every Woman” was inspired by a “micropoem” by the author Nayyirah Waheed: “All the women. In me. Are tired.” The Vagabon album’s preliminary title was “All the Women in Me,” though to avoid directly quoting Waheed, Tamko dropped that and rewrote the song’s lyrics, which now include lines like, “All the women I meet are fired up.” The song is calm, not strident; Tamko strums her acoustic guitar, singing with quiet strength.

“The anger part of me comes out in ‘Every Woman,’” Tamko said. “I’m able to put onto paper what I am feeling about this country that we’re living in right now and these bodies that we’re living in right now.”

She added, “If every album for me is like archiving a moment in my life, that song had to be a part of it, because it’s a strong feeling that I have. I want to build community. I want the song to be like someone’s older sister that makes you feel seen and heard and understood.”

In conversation as in her songs, Tamko balances between righteous confidence and looming insecurity. But she’s willing to take chances. “I’m always going to do exactly what I want to do,” she said. “I can finally make my own rules and I’m really going for it. Now I don’t have anything to be afraid of.”

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