Mar 2, 2017
Vagabon: Traveling the World through Time Signatures
There’s a good chance that whenever you’re reading this, Lætitia Tamko will be on tour, somewhere in middle America, bleary-eyed, eating soggy vegan food, surrounded by people who look nothing like her, weathering sneers from condescending sound engineers and booking agents.
And yet, she prefers this lifestyle. “It’s an insane thing I can’t believe people enjoy, including myself,” she says of touring. “I feel very restless all the time. The structure is really good for me: there’s a schedule, there’s a purpose, every night. It’s up my alley of constantly being busy.”
Jumping headlong into unfamiliar situations, self-imposing challenges, working nonstop: these are hallmark traits of Tamko, who records music as Vagabon. Born in Cameroon before moving to Westchester County and then Brooklyn, Tamko brings a restless, defiant energy to her debut album Infinite Worlds, out this month on Father/Daughter Records. The album may seem slight at first glance: it runs just 30 minutes, and opens with a scratchy guitar and a wavering syllable. But it soon explodes with confidence, revealing a woman who melds self-assuredness, fears, transience, and humor into a mesmerizing and wholly modern worldview.
On the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Tamko, 24, is eating a plate of lentils, kale, and injera sourdough bread at Bunna Cafe. She’s chosen to meet at this Ethiopian outpost on Flushing Avenue, not only because it’s close to her apartment in Bushwick and serves vegan food, but because it reminds her of home: the pungent smell of spices, the traditional coffee-making, the food’s freshness. She’s intensely proud of the West African culture she grew up surrounded by until she moved at age 13. “The history that comes from where I’m from, and the culture there, is insane,” she says, citing pioneers like William Onyeabor, Manu Dibango, and Francis Bebey. “American rock music cannot exist without it. And also the fashion is on point.”
But the music that Tamko makes is far more closely aligned with the scraggly indie rock pouring out of her new home borough, from Mitski, to LVL UP, to Eskimeaux, to Petal. She plays nearly all the instruments on the album, including the rumbling, distorted guitar. Her double-tracked voice scales from delicate murmurs to raspy yelps and back again; her drumming provides a slightly disheveled and manic energy due to the fact that she only started playing a year ago. But she’s not at all wedded to her current style. “I’m trying to figure it out,” she says, of her musical sound. “I made a rock-centered album but depending on who’s listening to it, I think you can pick up a lot of these things. There are also polyrhythms, R&B styled harmonies.” Her newest musical adventures, with synths and other electronics via Logic, peek through in pieces on the album.
The prime example of this experimentation on the album is “Fear & Force,” which conveys her emphasis on dualities and mobility through both music and lyrics. The song begins with those flickering harmonies and a drum machine. “I am dying to go, this is not my home,” she confesses quietly. But the anxious stasis is interrupted by the “force” portion of the song: huge rolling tom-toms and a reverberating guitar that nearly swallows the track whole. She may feel unmoored, but is still enthralled by the journey.
Each song unfolds quickly, as if watching a new landscape fly by from a car window. While other pop singers can repeat a refrain dozens of times, Vagabon will sing a chorus once—and then it’s on to the next hook. “If it’s there, then I don’t want to hone it too much or have it lose its impact,” she says. “People can just rewind it and relive those moments again.”
Throughout the album she’s on the move, cleaning house, hiding. She’s a small fish, as she says in “The Embers,” a small fish in a world of sharks “that hate everything.” These sharks loom big, especially on the road, quick to underestimate a black woman with a small frame and closely cropped hair. She doesn’t get particularly fazed, though. “Whether it’s sound people, or the person overseeing the show on tour who doesn’t think you’re the musician—or thinks that you’re the roadie or the girlfriend. And then you get up there and you shred and they’re like, ‘Ohh. Okay.’”
But now there’s a shark in the White House, too. (“It’s so fucked up. It’s making a lot of us feel small,” she says.) And though her work is not overtly political, she’s well aware of her unique identity within indie rock, and some of her lyrics offer shades of rebellion against an increasingly nationalistic and close-minded dominant culture. “What about them scares you so much / My standing there threatens your standing, too?” she sings on “Cleaning House.”
If Tamko is understandably wary of powerful interlopers, she still carries an unshakeable belief in her own ability to succeed and provide a mouthpiece for those who are marginalized. “I feel like I have a lot of strength in me,” she says. She speaks very plainly about what’s going to happen next in her life: After spending much of last year opening for Sad13 and Frankie Cosmos on the road, she promises to headline her own tour before the year’s end. She’s then going to record another album. And race on the next voyage. “This doesn’t feel temporary for me,” she says. “Deciding to share this is like deciding to make this my life.”
Photos by Jane Bruce
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