Indie Rock Chanteuse Laetitia Tamko Is Born Again As Vagabon

Tonje Thilesen

In many ways, it’s not a stretch to compare creating an album to giving birth: the conception, the waiting, the pain, and the fear of how your creation will fare in the world. On the day Laetitia Tamko released her self-titled sophomore album as Vagabon, that fear was eclipsed by excitement anchored with a sense of calm.

“Because it’s my second album, release day is exciting but it’s really about the year.” she explains in a phone conversation with BeatRoute from Los Angeles, days before joining Angel Olsen on the North American leg of her upcoming tour.

Her tone is soft-spoken, but self-assured, and she stretches the word “year” to reflect the long-game that awaits. “I’m not worked up or anything,” she continues. “I just feel glad that it’s available. I think that’s the most exciting part — seeing what kind of life this child of mine will make for itself.”

At 13, Tamko migrated to New York City from Cameroon, speaking limited English. She got her start as a multi-instrumentalist when her parents gifted her a guitar from Costco in her teens. After high school, Tamko opted for a full-time career in computer and electrical engineering while gestating her artistic alter-ego, Vagabon, through playing DIY indie shows in Brooklyn after work.

When she eventually made the decision to leave her engineering career and make music full-time, Vagabon was born. Since then, she has released three critically-acclaimed projects, toured internationally with indie icons like Courtney Barnett and Tegan and Sara, and headlined a Tiny Desk concert that has amassed nearly 100,000 views.

Where the face of indie rock so rarely deviates from its norm, Tamko offers a refreshing take on the genre beyond face-value.

Over the phone Tamko’s confidence bleeds into her tone, which echoes her singing voice; strong and steady, but never ascending to a roar. Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, over Vagabon’s ten tracks, Tamko delivers an evolved sound that is more revelatory and honest than ever.

She opens up about an overwhelming love on “Flood” (“I know even if I run from it I’m still in it/I know I’ll hold you so close”) and addresses her position as an indie outlier on “Wits About You” (“I was invited to the party/ They won’t let my people in/Well then never mind, never mind, never mind/We don’t wanna go to your function/I want it all for my own”).

On tracks like “Every Woman” and “In a Bind,” Tamko leans into her indie roots, pairing gently ascending strings, rising tension, and a straightforward song structure, similar to Bill Callahan or Cat Power. “Water Me Down” and “Flood,” depart from her signature sound, and instead opt for edgy, impossibly danceable synths, to amplify the raw power of her vocals.

At moments, Vagabon plays like a meditative sound bath, particularly on “Home Soon.” Sonically, it flows with the rest of the album by fusing her airy vocals with disjointed, symphonic instrumentals, but there is no chorus, verse, beat or melody to follow. This track transcends the conventional song structure with no apologies, just as Tamko rejects society’s conventions and comes into her own throughout the course of the LP.

While Tamko’s journey to self-realization plays out over the course of the album, it started while she was touring her debut album Infinite Worlds. She opened Infinite Worlds with the punchy mid-tempo track “The Embers,” where she sang about being a small fish and getting gobbled up by sharks. While touring her last album, she recalls “being directly in tune with the transformation from songs deriving from feeling weak and feeling tired.

“It was really an act of discovering ones-self and discovering the powers within me.”

Over time, her lyrics took on new meaning and grew to be mantra-like, setting the foundation for the growth that would play out in her 2019 follow-up. Rediscovering and redefining her debut album prompted a coming-of-age for Tamko. “To perform these songs over and over and over and find such confidence in reiterating this message to myself, the timeline, everything in between, just reshaped those songs for me.

“In turn,” Tamko says, “it reshaped me.”

Though the songs on Infinite Worlds initially came from a place of pain, Tamko now sees them as “songs of triumph.” “In their conception they were powerful in the freedom I felt being that vulnerable. Now, they’re powerful because they remind me of what I’ve learned through performing them,” she elaborates.

On Vagabon, Laetitia Tamko stepping into herself is multifaceted. In addition to handling all of the production on the album, there’s another subtle difference in the liner notes. Vagabon is being distributed under a self-titled LLC: an independent imprint through which she will take greater responsibility over the album’s commercial distribution, but also reap the rewards more abundantly. In essence, this serves as a sign that Tamko is inching towards ultimate artistic independence, beyond the bounds of expression.

This transition was by design. “I want people to remember that I am self-reliant. That’s most important to me,” Tamko says. “I have taught myself all these instruments, I produced my own record, and I engineered on my record.”

On Vagabon, she accomplished this goal. “I actually found myself impressive at several moments of this album-making process.” She specifically cites her work behind the boards as a feat that has stuck with her.

“Making a song like ‘Water Me Down’ is something where I sat back at the end of it and thought ‘How the fuck did I make that?’ Actually being able to say nice things about my music instead of downplaying it, or minimizing myself.” Still, she is secure enough to ask for help. “I just want to be an all-encompassing well that can still outsource help,” she says.

The self-titled debut project has been a long-standing, cross-genre tradition with roots so deep that the concept’s origin is impossible to peg. When Diana Ross split from The Supremes and released her first solo album in 1970, it was self-titled to distinguish herself from her former group. In 2013, when Beyoncé’s self-titled her fifth solo album, it was to herald a new era of creative independence. Similarly, Vagabon used her sophomore album title to assert her identity under a self-appointed alias.

“Having the record be self-titled just felt appropriate for this [album],” she explains. “It was really an act of discovering ones-self and discovering the powers within me. So in that journey it felt right to reintroduce myself. It was time to put a face to the name.”

On one of the album’s standouts, “Every Woman,” Tamko exudes affirming security with lyrics like: “I belong to no one” and “I won’t ask permission from you. In a press statement ahead of the album’s release, Tamko referred to this track as Vagabon’s “thesis.”

In her own words and on her own terms, Tamko has shed the skin of uncertainty and insecurity in order to tell the story of her settling into herself. On Vagabon, she is the story’s narrator and its hero. In just two albums and one EP, Tamko has solidified her presence as an indie-rock force and has truly lived up to her name.