Vagabon Comes Home to Herself – AdHoc

Vagabon Comes Home to Herself

On her sprawling second album, Brooklyn’s Laetitia Tamko delivers an ode to all the women in her life. 

This article originally appeared in print in AdHoc 28.

Cameroon-born musician Laetitia Tamko, aka Vagabon, shot out of the Brooklyn indie scene with her 2017 album, Infinite Worlds. Its guitar-driven reflections on the infinite power and space of memory were so mesmerizing that they made it possible to quit her full-time job as an engineer and hit the road. After returning home from tour, however, she experienced a bit of a creative block. Thankfully, Tamko pushed through and produced a new album, due out October 18th on Nonesuch Records. 

Vagabon maintains the confessional lyrical style of her debut, with a focus on difficult relationships, loss, and the growth that can occur in the wake of trauma.  It also sees Tamko pushing her sound in new directions, embracing an enigmatic blend of synth-pop, gospel, and folk. Each song embraces its chosen style effortlessly while also presenting an unexpected turn—from sonically expansive orchestral arrangements to distorted growling vocals, church choirs to acoustic guitars.

As she told AdHoc over the phone this summer, Tamko considers production just as much of an art as the writing of the songs, using her engineer’s brain to craft fully fleshed musical entities without while cloistering herself from outside influences. Ahead of her show on October 15th at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust, she spoke to us about how this beautiful album came together—and its function as an ode to all the women in her life.

AdHoc: This album is self-titled, but you were originally going to call it “All The Women In Me,” after a line by poet Nayyirah Waheed. What does that phrase mean to you?

Laetitia Tamko: Presenting the album to the women who have raised me and the women who have taught me how to be, the women who have come before me in music, in life, and in my culture. It’s kind of an ode to the lineage of women who existed before me so that I can exist and thrive and be everything I am in this current moment. So naming the album All The Women In Me, it was to give something back to all of those women and to give it to myself—all the women I’m constantly discovering that I am. 

You were experiencing a bit of a creative block before you started the album. How did you get out of that? 

For me, it was to abandon personal and outside expectations [for] my work. What really was holding me in a stagnant place with my creativity and productivity was thinking about [making] something that feels good to everybody. What helped me is to realize that as long as it’s pure and it’s genuine to me—and I’m speaking and singing and writing from a place that I know—then that is what I’m supposed to be doing. So that kind of unblocked me to let go of those expectations I had for myself, the expectations I thought others had for me. Just to go back to the naiveté of what’s most important, operating from a place that feels genuine and pure.

How would you compare the processes of creating Infinite Worlds to working on this album? I know you produced both.

This one—there was a lot more intentionality behind it. With Infinite Worlds, I knew I was making an album, but I didn’t think about what kind of album I was making, or how I was going to make it, or who would listen to it, or what I wanted to say—and that was great in its own way. I think that one is really sincere, and it was a really healing thing for me to have made. 

By the time I sat down to make [this record], I was thinking about songwriting a little bit differently. I wanted to work on my voice. I had played over a hundred shows, and so a lot changed in me and my musicianship and what I was interested in—and how I thought about production and engineering and sonic routes. I wanted to experiment with all the things that I now have the freedom to do. I don’t have to do it on the weekends while I go to my full-time engineering job during the day. A lot of things about my life were different, and I was a bit more available to [work on] this record. 

Would you say that your background in engineering is an asset for you as far as production goes? 

Yes, in that my brain works very analytically and I’m very much a fast learner, so I can apply that to music. The engineering that I did was not directly related to production or audio engineering, but I think the engineering brain that I have definitely worked to my advantage in my quest to be a better producer.

So there’s production, and then there’s writing songs—do those two sides kind of wrestle with each other, or do they complement each other? 

I think they complement each other. I have my own production voice that I don’t yet have a point of reference for—I don’t really know what my music sounds like. I’m pretty new to listening to contemporary music, [but] I think the creativity and the production acted as one and they came together. The production phase is just as much a part of the song as the lyrics and the instruments. 

There’s a song on this record that I love—“In A Bind”—which has a lot of gospel-style vocals. Is that all your vocals layered, or did you have people singing with you? 

That vocal arrangement is [from] a friend of mine who’s an incredible singer named Taylor Simone Harvey. I’m really glad she was able to hop in the studio on the last day of recording. I wanted to have a choir, and she was the one person I knew who had the range to be a one-woman choir. So I utilized her voice for that part and took myself out of it. There are different versions of it where I was in it, and I just decided that I  wanted it to speak the way that Taylor sang it. I’m really glad she’s on that track. 

It’s beautiful. It has a very spiritual feel to it.  

That song has a lot of African references, and that’s my home. The way I fell in love with music was through choir and my grandmother being a choir director, and church music. So it felt right to put a choral arrangement on that track specifically. 

You said earlier that you don’t listen to a ton of contemporary music. Are there any outside creative influences that come to the fore when you’re recording? 

What I meant earlier was that, as a whole, I don’t listen to very much music. I’m not in the know, and I feel very protective of the ideas in my head—wanting to get them on a page before they maybe absorb someone else’s ideas. So it’s a means of self-protection. But of course I do love music. I listen to a lot of West African music and East African music and folk music and R&B and hip-hop. 

[But] I’m more inspired by people than the sounds that they make—the stories people have to tell and where they come from. So those are kind of my inspirations. I’ve probably listened to more interviews that musicians I like do versus their music. Because I feel like my head has a lot of ideas that I want to preserve in there and get out onto a page before I read someone else’s work. 

Update: This article has been updated to reflect Vagabon’s announcement of a change in album title and new release date.