Vagabon's Lætitia Tamko Discusses the Similarities Between the Underground and the Real World

Vagabon's Lætitia Tamko Discusses the Similarities Between the Underground and the Real World Illustration by Samuel Nigrosh

This article appears in AdHoc Issue 18.

A Cameroon native with a past working as a full-time software engineer, singer-songer Lætitia Tamko, aka Vagabon, has spent the past few years developing her songs through live performance, experimenting with solo and full-band versions of her sets, which are invariably intense. February 24 marks the release of the Brooklyn-based artist’s first full-length, Infinite Worlds, on Father/ Daughter Records, and Vagabon is set to tour in March alongside Allison Crutchfield. On Infinite Worlds, Tamko blends the frank lyrical stylings and swelling guitar rock that marked her 2014 debut EP, Persian Garden, with lush electronic flourishes. In late January, she spoke to us over the phone about her music’s evolution, and offered some thoughts on how DIY and the “real world” aren’t always so different after all—at least when it comes to questions of inclusivity.

AdHoc: The title of your record comes from a book of poems by Dana Ward called The Crisis of Infinite Worlds. What did you like about that collection?

Lætitia Tamko: It was a really challenging read for me. His writing style is so particular. There are a lot of run-on sentences; I had to really comb over his poems to grasp even an idea of what he meant.

I detect a similar affinity for strange repetitions and movements in your lyrics.

It’s funny—these songs were written before I read the book, but I was reading it as I was recording. It’s one of those things that sticks with you, though.

There are a few songs on Infinite Worlds that rework material from the EP. “Fear and Force,” for example, grew out of “Vermont II,” with dramatic shifts in sound. What informed your production decisions?

“Fear and Force” was really fun to work with. Because I have grown so much as a musician and producer since releasing “Vermont II,” I think of them as two different songs, which is why I changed the title. The song has evolved as I have over the years—it’s a testament to where I was and where I’ve gone.

How do you feel you’ve evolved?

I have a lot more technicality than I used to—and I’ve traveled around and toured a lot. I had to find ways to make these older songs feel exciting to me and to the audience. If I’m excited about a new arrangement, or a little thing that I added to an old song, it makes playing it feel new. I also learned to play new instruments and to use a lot of different production tactics. I had session players come in for some things, but it was really important for me to have my hand all over the record.

You studied computer engineering in college, then worked as a software engineer for over a year afterwards. Would you say that background influences your music at all?

I learned a lot from working with the engineer who worked on this record—Chris Daly in New Paltz, New York. There were lot of things I had learned in school that were tucked away in my brain, and I didn’t know how they applied [to my music]. Watching him work, it was like, “Oh yeah, I know what a low-pass filter does, conceptually, so if I can think of it practically, then it can be of use to me.” In the first year of engineering school, you learn about all these waves—triangle waves, square waves, stuff that’s all over synthesizers. That knowledge was in my brain conceptually, but I didn’t know how to actualize it into a practical thing. A lot of the time, it was just me and Chris in the studio. Watching each other do our own thing was really helpful in tying up those two worlds for me.

You went on tour with Sad13 this winter, and you’ll be touring again next month. You’ve talked about how physical space factors heavily in your songs. Were there any places that particularly resonated with you on tour?

This last tour was interesting, because I felt like I lived in a lot of the places I went. I had toured the same route a month before, so in addition to seeing new people, I was seeing many of the same people I had seen a month before, and finding myself at the same food spots. It was like, “Oh, this is all so familiar—I feel like I live here.” I always have a good time on the West Coast—there’s something special about it for me, maybe because it’s so different from New York. But this tour, with Allison Crutchfield, will take me to a lot of new territory: New Orleans, Birmingham, Florida, Asheville. So I might have new favorites the next time we talk.

Has seeing music spaces all over the country made you think about how we can make these spaces more accessible, more inclusive?

I’m not sure that I have a formula. I think there are efforts being made. One of the things that I always keep in the back of my mind, or in the front of my mind, is that the more people there are that go against the archetype, the better. The more people who feel comfortable sharing their art, even though they’re outnumbered or feel outnumbered, the better. It’s important to be unable to be silent or pushed aside. The DIY community, the music community, is a lot like the real world. It has this appearance of alternativeness—that everyone who is the “other” rallies in this community and finds solace in it— but it’s more complex than that. It’s more complex than the clothes you wear, how you dye your hair, where you hang out. You can say that DIY has a long way to go, but the world also has a long way to go. By “the real world,” I mean what’s going on outside of this community. [DIY] is not all that alternative— the same systems exist there as in the outside world. I think that resistance against these systems can be approached by showing up, doing the work, being heard, and being visible. That’s what I’m about. Despite what anyone thinks—not that I’ve heard anything crazy—I’m determined to make myself seen and make myself heard, even if people have opinions about it. Much like in the real world, you know?

Do you feel you belong to more than one community?

Absolutely. I’m a complex person—people are complex. Three years ago, this wasn’t my world. I was in engineering school, working as a full-time engineer. I had a different life, a different background. I don’t see myself as being defined as one thing, or fitting into one thing. [Who I am] is more about whatever happens and wherever I go, and whatever I want to do. It can be limiting to think someone has one thing going on.

Has the current political climate, with Trump in office, affected your approach to music-making at all?

It’s hard to find the motivation to even get up and do things for the day. I think I’m dealing with it all just by listening to myself and doing the things that I obviously need to do, and be involved with. There are a bunch of organizations that could use donations right now, so I’ve donated to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. But I know how incredibly hard it is for me not to take all of this stuff on personally. Sometimes all I require of myself is to listen to myself rather than being like, “I have to do this today,” or “I have to keep working.” And I’m someone who needs to constantly be working, so it’s tough.

Download a PDF of AdHoc Issue 18 at this link, and look out for physical copies both at our shows and at record stores, bookstores, coffee shops, and community centers throughout the city. (Those of you outside New York City can order a copy here as well.)

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