“No Ceilings For Me”

An interview with Vagabon

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words by tom johnson

photography by ebru yildiz

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“I woke up early and made some tea; did a little bit of work. In New York it’s one of those days that’s supposed to be Winter, but its actually much more like Spring weather. It’s kind of beautiful actually…”

Much like the weather, the music of Vagabon has the propensity to catch you by surprise; leaning one way, lulling you in, and then suddenly shifting direction; sun bursting through stormy clouds that just a moment before seemed impenetrable. Having caught the eyes and ears of a select few with the release of her debut cassette via Miscreant Records, the past few months has seen Lætitia Tamko’s stock rise immeasurably; building towards the release of her forceful, beautifully wholesome debut album, via Father/Daughter Records, next month. An astonishing meeting of worlds and ways, “Infinite Worlds” is a gripping document of Lætitia’s journey, flitting between punchy indie-rock and more experimental excursions that showcase her ever-expanding craft.

“I’m just doing music, day to day. It’s the job now,” she says, with a giggle that perhaps hints at the incredulity of such a thing. Our conversation with Lætitia comes right in the heart of her debut album preparation; her Spring-like morning coming in the wake of her being defined as an “indie-rock game changer” in a prominent Pitchfork profile-piece. “It feels amazing,” she admits. “It’s my dream job, and it’s so special to only work on the stuff that you love.”

Cultivating her work via the New York underground scene, Vagabon played a number of key support slots, and it was during one such show, supporting Mitski in 2014, when she met Jeanette Wall; Mitski’s manager and founder of the wonderful Miscreant label, which has helped support the likes of PWR BTTM, Lisa Prank, and more, and who would go on to release the first Vagabon EP that same year. “I first started writing songs around three years ago,” Lætitia says, looking back on that time. “The first collection that I wrote I immediately recorded with a friend and put them online, which are the demos that I called “Persian Garden”. It’s kind of been a whirlwind since then.”

The idea of travel, and the associate strands of home and time and place that so often get tangled up in such things, play a meaningful role in the songs that make-up Vagabon’s debut album, or at least they’ve heavily informed and influenced the work which has led to it. “I’ve been living in New York for the last eleven years, but I was born in Cameroon,” she says. “I’ve been here for so long that I feel like New York is my home, but I also have an attachment to the placed I lived until I was fourteen. I’m fascinated with movement, from both a physical and emotional place,” she continues. “I speak of the idea of home in my writing, and that probably stems from the geographical moves I’ve made in my life,”

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I’m fascinated with movement,

from both a physical and emotional place…

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If the New York underground scene was something of another home for Vagabon over the preceding couple of years, then “Fear & Force”, the lead track from Infinite Worlds, unveiled in November, opened up many new doors for Lætitia, gaining plaudits from much further afield, including a number of UK publications. A totemic capturing of her craft, the track is a wonderful burst of impassioned guitar-pop, swelling from a tender, heavy-hearted opening – all memorable vocal refrains and playful production – to something far more robust; the sight and sound of an artist growing in stature right in front of your eyes. As is the case with many joyful musical moments, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes it such a compelling excursion; something to do with the affection with which it’s delivered, something to do with the sophistication of the voice that carries it.

“I definitely loved performing and singing at a young age,” Lætitia admits, “but that’s a memory I’ve been forced to kind of think of recently, and one that I’d somewhat forgot about. I don’t think I ever thought I could play or sing professionally.” While most artists present there work with this kind of modesty, in this case of Vagabon it’s much more meaningful to acknowledge the work she’s put in to honing her skills, rather than simply write off such endeavours as an excise in humility. “I spent the last few years really working on my voice,” she says, “I played around New York when I could and I’ve been on tour a lot; I’ve worked on it as much as possible and I think the results are finally becoming tangible.”

‘Tangible” is something of an understatement. While ‘Infinite Worlds’ comes beautifully alive in the small, exquisite gaps between her vocals, thanks to Lætitia’s schooled-skill as a music engineer, it’s her voice that really grips. When spoken it’s almost enchantingly delicate; add a the flame of a song to it though and it makes like touch-paper; sparking in to life, as fierce and powerful and vigorous as Lætitia wishes it to be; unshackled and raw on the likes of “The Embers” and the heart-racing “Cold Apartment” and detached and poignant on the spellbinding “Cleaning House”.

A remarkable debut record, Infinite Worlds is part re-workings of those aforementioned bedroom demos and part new material. “I was finishing up school, and I knew a full-length was in my future, it was just a matter of time,” she says, of the path that led to the final rendition. “I was writing almost simultaneously as I was recording; rearranging a lot of the songs that I wrote as a baby-songwriter in to the kind of musician I am now, and showcasing my skills a lot better.” It’s testament to the work she’s put in that those early tracks, which compelled so many, so easily, already feel like they’ve been surpassed. “I realised I had two songs from the EP that I wanted to re-work, so I used them almost as a workshopping exercise and that helped me to write some new material, and also to be a bit more experimental with new stuff.”

The signature experimental moment on Infinite Worlds comes in the form of Mal á L’aise; a beautiful, five-minute sound collage that says as the albums somewhat outlandish (though beautifully subtle) centre-piece. “I think it works as a nice prelude to the music that I’m writing now; working on different instruments, different textures,” Lætitia says of the track, before continuing. “Living in New York City, it’s kind of hard to make a lot of noise at all hours of the day, so I was doing a lot of demoing on my computer, so that I wouldn’t make any noise. I was toying around with producing and making beats, and then I heard this amazing track by my friend Eric, so I decided to sample it and I wrote a story in French, about discomfort, and spoke that over the top. I thought it might be a nice break from the rock-centred instrumentation, and also a nice tease of where I might go after this record.”

Translated from its French origins, Mal á L’aise means discomfort, and Lætitia has mentioned the that the idea of such a thing is still a prevalent force upon her day-to-day workings. “The discomfort comes from doing something that is incredibly personal,” she admits. “Not all of my songs are autobiographical, they’re not all about me, but, because of where I was when I wrote the album, there are a lot of simple phrasings that mean a lot to me. So the discomfort comes from the thought of sharing that, and sharing it blindly without knowing who’s going to listen to it and what they’re going to draw from it.”

Such trepidation about words and attached meanings is not to be unexpected. As a recent tweet importantly highlighted, there has been a propensity to demand that musicians from more marginalised backgrounds lead the charge against troublesome issues, both within and outside of the industry, rather than simply being afforded a level playing field to play whatever game they feel most comfortable with. Though Vagabon is still in the initial stages of her career, for want of a better word, she is already being touted as a cheerleader for the maligned, from a number of corners.

“I don’t know if I necessarily want that attached to me,” she admits, “but it’s also something that rings true. A lot of people in the communities I’ve been in, and those that I’ve met at my shows, are people who have felt like outcasts, or have felt weird, and feel singled-out by that experience. In those communities, especially, that’s not the case, because almost everyone has a quirk. I mean, everyone’s a little freaky, you know?

So I don’t think it’s something that I want to have to talk about all the time; or to even put myself on a pedestal as someone who can talk about that, because I’m also just a person trying to figure it out as a I go, just like everyone else. If I am given a platform to talk about certain things,” she continues, “and I think it can ring true, then sure, why not? If there’s something important to say, then I’m more than happy to do so; if that wasn’t already obvious!”

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That being said, with the current state of the world many people will, and do, look to bands/musicians/artists for, if not guidance, then certainly a slither of hope; some moment of light amid the seemingly increasing dark. “Oh I see so much hope in it; if not all of the hope,” Lætitia says of such a thing. “A lot of things in the U.S feel hopeless right now, in so many ways, and having artists share things with us is a very brief, but very meaningful, moment of quietness from everything that’s going on. Mitski is a great friend of mine, and she speaks very eloquently about it, and has a great balance between talking about politics and her music, and staying on-topic, and it’s good to have those conversations with friends, and to have a voice like that which understands where you’re coming from.”

“I guess it comes back to that notion of discomfort,” she continues. “In that, the world is really shitty and we’re all doing our best to just stay afloat – and however anyone does that is valid; whether it’s making music, listening to music, going to shows, not going to shows… However people are coping with what’s going on, or however they’re finding empowerment, or finding any glimpse of togetherness, I think that’s ultimately what gives me hope; seeing my friends do it, seeing people release incredible work and using their platforms for good; sharing themselves with a whole group of people, even if they’re strangers.”

Released on February 24th, Infinite Worlds feels like a lightning-bolt of such sentiments; a sudden spark of inspiration that first glistens and gleans in the dark but also one that stays with you; that invites you in with its warmth and perceived openness. Trying to single out specific tracks seems somewhat pointless, given the rounded nature with which it’s presented; you could try and pinpoint certain musical influences or place it within specific familial genre roles, but perhaps it’s best to simply label Vagabon as a singer-songwriter; wonderfully adept at both of sides of that coin.

“The producer side of me wants to say that I hope every time someone listens to this record they hear something new, and discovers something else,” Lætitia says, in response to the question of what she hopes other people take away from Infinite Worlds. “Whether it’s in the instrumentation, or my arrangements, or my lyrics, or even just the tone of my voice; I want it to be a record that keeps on giving in a lot of different ways, because those have been my favourite records. I think that’s my main wish for people; to see and appreciate the production aspect and to find something that resonates with them.”

Resonate it certainly does, and it’s no surprise, either, to see the record arrive via the Father/Daughter label; a growing family of artists that continually resonate; doing as much as anyone to keep that flicker of hope alight for those of us that look to art as something of a beacon. “I met Jessi around the same time I met Jeanette from Miscreant Records, after I played a show with Mitski back in 2014,” Lætitia explains. “When it came to releasing Infinite Worlds it was obvious that Jessi totally understood where I was coming from. I think that’s what truly matters; working with someone who has seen you grow from the beginning, and also someone who understands what you’re doing and doesn’t shy away from your ambitions. I have very ambitious visions for myself and she didn’t think that was weird at all…”

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“This is my first album and I already feel so very humbled

by everyone who has responded so positively to it.”

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Perhaps Lætitia’s most endearing trait is the way her voice lights up when she talks about the future; about what comes next. Resting on her laurels doesn’t even enter the discussion. “I plan to travel a lot, and I plan to make a lot of great records,” she says, expanding upon those ambitious visions. “I would love to continue on this upwards trajectory. This is my first album and I already feel so very humbled by everyone who has responded so positively to it. I’m so excited to write ‘LP 2’ and to continue feeling good about making this my life,” she continues; that aforementioned spark, present and correct. “There is no ceiling for me, is what I’m trying to say,” she adds, with a laugh. “There is nothing that I think I cannot do, and so every day I’m just working towards doing that…doing everything!”

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“Infinite Worlds” is released on February 24th, via Father/Daughter Records

You can pre-order it here

Vagabon plays her first UK show on May 25th;

tickets go on sale tomorrow.

vagabon

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