“No Ceilings For Me”
An interview with Vagabon
words by tom johnson
photography by ebru yildiz
“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,”
I’m fascinated with movement,
from both a physical and emotional place…
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.”