Vagabon Bets on Herself
Laetitia Tamko is living a life that she never thought was possible. The 26 year old is making a living off of her music, which she records and self-produces under the name Vagabon. She’s toured North America and Europe multiple times over, and her 2017 debut album Infinite Worlds was celebrated by publications such as Pitchfork and NPR. On October 18, she’ll be releasing her second record, Vagabon, through the storied label Nonesuch Records, and then embarking on a vast North American tour in support of popular singer/songwriter Angel Olsen.
For Tamko, opportunities like these were merely dreams of hers that she never anticipated to actually live out. She and her family immigrated to the U.S. from the Central African country of Cameroon when she was 13. Although there were no other artists in her immediate family, Tamko always loved music and would sing constantly to anyone who would listen as a child. However, because her family was in the U.S. on refugee status, the stakes for her and her parents’ financial success were incredibly high.
Tamko tells TIDAL that it took the resources and support of an entire village for her to even be in the U.S., and it was her personal responsibility to send money home in order to provide for her family members who remain in Cameroon. So, despite how Tamko longed to study music after high school, her parents forced her to pursue the more practical route of engineering; a decision she was upset with at the time, but that she’s come to understand and appreciate with age.
“It isn’t just about me and it isn’t just about us,” she says. “It’s about everybody that’s still back at home that we kind of have a responsibility to take care of, and I have a responsibility to take care of.”
While simultaneously entrenching herself in the STEM field, Tamko diligently wrote, recorded and played music on the weekends and in between semesters. Once she graduated from Grove School of Engineering in 2015, she became a professional coder and fully expected that to be her life’s path. When it came time to release Infinite Worlds, which she had written and recorded sporadically over a long period of time, she went with San Francisco indie label Father/Daughter Records and intended to merely have something on Bandcamp for people who may want to book her down the line.
Of course, what ended up happening was two years of touring, playing festivals around the world, and earning immense praise from critics and fans. All of those accolades and experiences were entirely new terrain for Tamko. “I just didn’t know anything,” she says. “Like, I didn’t know what Pitchfork was when the record got ‘Best New Music’ or when I got a [Pitchfork] ‘Rising’ piece. I just had never read these things, never heard of them, never been around them, and so it was all very jarring.”
Tamko is immensely proud that she’s able to not only support herself as a musician, but to be able to provide for her loved ones in Cameroon as well. However, because of the happenstance inception of her career and her unique financial situation, writing the follow-up to Infinite Worlds was intensely stressful. She had never considered what the next record would sound like, and now that she was engulfed in the industry and aware of some of its exploitative and challenging inner-workings, she was worried that she wouldn’t be able to return to the blissfully unconcerned state in which she wrote Infinite Worlds.
With all of these pressures in mind and her hunger to find security in the ever-tumultuous field of indie music, she could have gone the safe route and written another record like Infinite Worlds; considering that formula worked for her the first time. Instead, she did the exact opposite. She swapped the guitar/bass/drums lineup that she’d mastered for musical aspects that were completely foreign to her: crystalline keyboards, serene synths, pitter-pattering drum sequences, and using her voice as the primary instrument.
The result is a record in which all of the compositions are built around her robust croon, which is often layered and/or coated in a variety of effects that yield a balmy mist of R&B and experimental pop—a far cry from the relatively lo-fi indie-rock songs that made up Infinite Worlds. Tamko was insistent that she be the one to produce the record, and although she was completely unsure of her production abilities from the get-go—and is still questioning her talent during our conversation—the record sounds at once unbelievably lush and curiously minimalistic.
Tamko spoke in-depth about exploring outside of her comfort zone, learning to love her own voice, and why she’s still worried this record might ruin her career despite how proud she is of it.
How did having all of those pressures in the back of your mind inform the way you were writing songs when you started writing for this album?
The process for Vagabon was different from Infinite Worlds because to me, I’m in it now. And I’m having to prove myself in a whole different way. Now, for me it was about making something that would allow me to feel like I have longevity in this career, just placing the building blocks. And that’s a huge reason why I had this huge undertaking of producing the whole album, even though I wasn’t sure that my technical abilities were able to do that. It was just like, I need to make sure that this career is it, this is what I’m doing.
Did that actually influence the sound of the songs? Because it is a lot different than your older stuff.
My thought process was more like: guitar, bass and drums—I can do that. I love that. I will likely do it again. What don’t I know how to do? What is it that I’m not that good at? And what is it that I don’t know much about? I’m gonna do that and see what comes out. And maybe I surmise this from my experience with Infinite Worlds, but to me there is a beauty in not knowing your way around something; having so much room for artistic exploration and amazing accidents and innovation.
What were the things that you explored on this record that were so new to you?
Well one was the comfort in the instrument that’s my voice. On Infinite Worlds I hear that back and I’m very proud of that record but I also am able to see the person that was really afraid of their voice and really afraid of hearing it in the headphones for the first time and afraid of how deep it was. . .And so that was a major one. Finding out how to not cringe when I go really, really low. I’ve never had any formal training in anything so I think I’ve had imposter syndrome in a lot of ways throughout the last three years and this record was just about, “This is it. Whatever I’m doing, this is who I am and I don’t have to dilute my voice to sound more appealing or softer and I’m just going to go for it.”
And with instrumentation, drum sequencing. I just did it for Infinite Worlds on “Fear & Force” and “Mal a Laise,” but I didn’t know much about synthesizers, I didn’t know how to play a keyboard. And so the record took so long because I was learning before I was able to really make anything. So who knows if I’ll do that again ‘cause it’s exhausting, but I’m glad that I did and I’m glad that it’s me and I know how to bring what I hear in my head to life.
I saw you tweet earlier this year that you’re “scared this album will ruin [your] career. . .” What about the record worries you?
I’m still worried about it. I think the number one thing [is] I don’t have a frame of reference for this music… Everything is so cyclical, and popular opinion is based on something that’s happening at the time or a sound that’s happening at the time. And I don’t know what this music sounds like, I don’t know what the musical climate is out there, if I’m totally off base, if I’m totally off-time.
I don’t know where it comes from, but I feel like you’re supposed to be confident in what you’re making and confident that you’re doing a great job. And if I were to speak frankly, I think that I did a good job on this record. But I don’t know if that will translate to my career because making records in this way is kind of dependent on other people thinking it’s good. . . I’m kind of excited for someone to tell me what it sounds like because I have no idea.
So you’re worried about how people will receive it, but you wouldn’t ever want to compromise and make a record that, in a hypothetical world, would be guaranteed to be received well?
No, I have no interest in that and that is another emotional hurdle I had to overcome with this record. . .What’s important for me is that I put out something that I’m going to stand by. So no matter what anyone is going to say about Vagabon, I’m standing by it, I’m sticking up for it, I’m going to back it 100%…If this ruins my career, I’m ready to face it because I made something I stand by; and if it doesn’t ruin my career, amazing. I have more proof that my gut, my compass, is spot on.
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