words: Sarah Hojsak
With a debut LP on the way in February, Vagabon is more and more frequently being labeled an artist to watch this year. Yet in the New York indie music scene, Lætitia Tamko has often felt a bit like an outsider. Born in Cameroon and moving to New York as a teenager, a career in music wasn’t always on the horizon for Tamko. In fact, she was a college student studying engineering before she allowed herself to explore her creative side. But then she began to record songs. What followed was 2014’s Persian Garden EP, and now Tamko is about to release her first full-length: Infinite Worlds is out Feb. 24 on Father/Daughter Records. We shared in the excitement surrounding the forthcoming album by talking to Lætitia over the phone about making music, touring, and turning your passion into reality.
So, you have an album coming out soon – next month! How are you feeling leading up to the release?
I feel really good. It’s been, I guess, not that long of a time coming, but I’m pretty excited to share a first album after touring without one. It’s exciting to have one and to have completed it and be ready to share it.
Your recent feature on Pitchfork describes you as a “game changer” in indie music, but you’ve mentioned that you didn’t necessarily always plan on being a musician. Has music always been a big part of your life?
Yeah, it’s kind of been something that I was drawn to since I was a kid, but in terms of making it my job, that’s something I didn’t know I could do. But from growing up listening to traditional music with my parents and always listening to music, it was always a huge part of my life, and now even more so doing it.
How did music become a career plan rather than just a hobby?
There was a personal shift in it for me where I realized that it’s possible to do something that you’re super passionate about. It just feels right, you know? It’s something that I don’t think I could ever stop doing and that’s enough of an incentive to keep doing it. I see a hobby as something you do to decompress, or apart from another thing, and it never really felt like that. It felt like everything. And so I just decided to keep working towards what I wanted to do and not really focus on anything but how I can do it.
You’ve said that the New York indie rock scene kind of discovered you – not the other way around. What was this process like?
I played my first show at a venue in Brooklyn that is like an all-ages community kind of space that a lot of musicians from New York play at, and from that show I started either going to shows there or being asked to play more shows there, or even booking shows there myself. It kind of becomes easy to see how integrated everything is. Everything is very related to one another, I think, in a lot of music communities, not just in New York but across the country. Once I played a few shows in New York, I started to see the same people around, and we started to play more shows together, talk more, become friends, and then it kind of became a thing.
You’ve mentioned before that identity and politics play into your music and your creative process. How does that take shape?
I think that it’s without me noticing it, you know. I think for a lot of people, what they got from my music – the two singles that they’ve heard – is like, “this is not political.” But I feel that’s music’s up to interpretation, and the reasons I wrote it, or the way in which I wrote it, or what I meant to say. In “The Embers,” there’s really funny phrasing that’s like a playful spin on a not so playful topic. Whatever people identify as, it can’t not seep into their music, because it’s such a huge part of your life and what you put out. If it’s a part of your life of course it’s going to be a part of your music.
Some of the songs on the new record are re-workings of songs from your EP Persian Garden. What made you want to feature them in a new light?
I wanted to showcase the things that I’ve worked on since the EP was released, and it kind of felt like a lot of those songs weren’t completely bled out dry in their creativity or their arrangements. With learning new instruments from the time that I made the EP with a bunch of other people, to now making a record with primarily myself, using only a few extra players when I felt like they could play the part that I wanted better than me. It was kind of like an exercise in workshopping, and also in developing different skills, like teaching myself drums and demoing new versions of songs that I’ve written, like, two years ago. So it’s kind of like these songs still had some life in them, and I’m trying to bring that new life out as much as possible.
“Fear & Force” is the first single you released from the new record – can you tell us the story behind that song?
Yeah, there a few stories behind that song. And I think with a lot of these songs, they’re kind of all over the place in that they’re about very different things within the same song. “Fear & Force” was one of the first songs that I’ve ever written, and it’s about a friend and about moving around and displacement and discomfort and kind of wondering, in a very vulnerable way, wondering if you’ve made a right decision.
You’ve talked about the need for more black women in the indie rock scene – how do you hope to influence or encourage young women who might be interested in music?
I just want to make sure they know that it’s an option, really. Because I think so often you can feel, rightfully so, intimidated by spaces where you don’t think that you belong, and I mostly just want to say it’s okay, you can enter these spaces – then, the more people that feel fearless to enter these spaces, the more people of color there will be in these spaces. They exist, obviously – me, and a lot of my friends that I know who play music are people of color who are killing it at their thing, but it goes without saying that everyone knows that it’s a minority. But I think I would be doing myself a disservice if I had the ability to talk about it and I didn’t. It’s more about saying, like: "Hey, it’s okay. I’m here, we’re here." We can unlock this whole list of people of color who are doing so well and who are in this music scene and thinking the same way you did and it’s fine – we’re accessible and the scene is accessible, and whatever you want to do is accessible.
You’ve played shows with artists like Waxahatchee and Frankie Cosmos, recently toured with Sad13, and will tour with Allison Crutchfield this spring. Is it important to you to be a part of shows led by women?
It’s probably not the most glamorous answer, but it’s not something I really think about – because I don’t have to. I just think about whose music I love and how I can either support them or they can support me. I think that it’s not always intentional to play with female artists, but it just works out, because women are killing it. It’s very easy to pick a great artist to tour with that you just like their music.
Last question’s kind of a fun one. Since you’re getting ready to go on tour again soon, what’s some music you listen to while touring?
Ooh, that is a fun one! I listen to a lot of Migos, love Migos, they’re my favorite. I’m loving the Solange record, me and everyone else. I’ve been listening to this London-based singer and keyboardist named Sampha, I guess people know him from being featured on “Cranes in the Sky,” but his music is incredible and I love him so much. I’ve been listening to this new rapper, his name is Aminé, he has a song named “Caroline” and the video is like one of my favorite videos I’ve ever seen, it’s incredible. I’ve been listening to this group called St. Beauty. I made this playlist on Spotify not too long ago of all the songs I’ve been listening to, and it’s basically all of that!
Vagabon celebrates the release of Infinite Worlds with shows in Brooklyn and Philly in February before heading out on an expansive national tour with Allison Crutchfield and the Fizz in March. A full list of dates can be found here. You can pre-order the album on Bandcamp.