Vagabon On Her Self-Titled Sophomore Album - Pressing Forward | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, May 30th, 2020  

Vagabon On Her Self-Titled Sophomore Album

Pressing Forward

Dec 17, 2019 Photography by Tonje Thilesen Web Exclusive
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Vagabon (aka Lætitia Tamko) has just recently passed the mark of having lived in the U.S. as long as in her native Cameroon. In the brief 13 years that have passed since her immigration to America, Tamko has taught herself guitar, graduated college, and in 2017 released her first album, the critically acclaimed Infinite Worlds. A heady beginning to be sure. 

Her debut's title was inspired by a poet she respected and this year's follow-up, the self-titled Vagabon, was likewise inspired by another poet's work, that of Nayyirah Waheed. Having met with some reluctance from Waheed, Tamko respectfully reversed course and changed her new album's title, cover art, and a few songs were reworked. Her primarily self-performed and self-produced sophomore album leaves behind the punky energy and guitars of the debut in favor of a revamped and synth heavy sound. Regardless, Tamko's confident vocal approach remains.     

We caught up with Tamko in the midst of touring behind her new album in support of Angel Olsen, whose own All Mirrors was also released earlier this year. Tamko was between the San Diego and Los Angeles stops of the tour when we spoke to her. Tamko took a break from shopping for Christmas decorations on a day off to catch us up on how the tour is progressing, her songwriting process, the documented challenges in getting her latest album to market, and plans for the future. 

Mark Moody (Under the Radar): If we could just jump right in if that's okay. Maybe just talk about the tour a little bit first. I know the first leg finished. I guess you were able to be home in New York for Thanksgiving. Maybe just talk a little bit about how the tour has been going with Angel [Olsen]?

Lætitia Tamko: Yeah, it's been a lot of fun really. I'm really glad that she invited me on this tour, and it's been really nice since I hadn't heard the record [All Mirrors] before going on tour, so it's been really nice to experience this for the first time through the live show. And a couple friends of mine are in her live band, so it's been a really fun thing. And we started singing "Every Woman" together at shows. So it's just fun, and it makes for a really special night. So anyone who's coming to the shows are lucky.

I saw the video from Brooklyn Steel, with the two of you singing "Every Woman." So you kind of work that in every night?

Yeah, almost every nightwe kind of play by ear. Obviously, if any of us are on vocal rest we try to do it as often and possible. Just keep it light and fun, never stressful.

Right. So you've been playing a couple of nights in a row in the same venues. I think you're in LA two nights. You did DC two nights in a row. Do you try to mix things up a little bit in your own set?

Yeah. We are very much in a support role, so depending on how much time we've got, how much the forces are with us. It really depends on the set, but I do change the set every so often with some key songs staying in. In DC, we did two nights. But in LA, we're only doing one of the nights. So the set tends to change a little bit, not by much, every once in a while just to keep it interesting and just to practice ones that aren't getting as much practice.

So you mentioned the support role. I know you've headlined, playing shows yourself. What's been kind of the crowd reception? I've seen a couple of openers lately, Hand Habits, and Lindsey Jordan [Snail Mail] and the crowd was not on good behavior for those. So just kind of curious what your experience is like?

It's been really captivating. Once in a while, someone will come up to me and kind of give me the rundown how it was from the audience, which is always interesting because I don't have a gauge on that unless obviously people are loud. But it's been a really respectful crowd. And I think usually when I start singing and when I start playing, people usually pay attention. And when they don't, I definitely tell them to pay attention. [Laughs]

When I was at Hand Habits show Meg called out the crowd. Told a little story. So. I just hate seeing stuff like that. It seems to have gotten worse over the years.

Yeah. I wonder what it is. I feel like it can be helpful in those scenarios where like you're saying with Hand Habitsbeing able to tell the crowd about your experience up there, because maybe, sometimes, it's not a fully human experience, and then that will humanize yourself.

Could you maybe talk a little bit about the song "Home Soon?" It's my favorite on the album and I saw an earlier setlist where you were opening with that. I don't know if that's still the case.

Yeah. I'm not opening with it on this tour. It's very strings heavy and I'm not able to travel with that extensive of a strings section.

Well, maybe just if you could talk about the song in general a little bit. And to me, it kind of had the most essence of the Nayyirah Waheed poems. I know it's your own lyrics in this case, but just being so succinct lyrically but then it's also the longest song and it's just got this big heavy synth sound...

Yeah, that one is not very lyric heavy obviously. It's just kind of ruminating on that one line. But I wanted to make something that was like on the last record [Infinite Worlds' "Mal à L'aise"], which was more of an instrumental track and I find myself really gravitating towards instrumental music sometimes. And so I wanted to make something with strings and kind of have it be more improvisational than the rest of the album and so that song is pretty much that. It's not entirely improvised but it's basically improvised.

Could you see yourself going so far as to doing something more ambient?

I don't know if I can make a whole record of it but I like to dabble.

I know you've got a strong technical background and just curious kind of how you brought that to bear on the record?

I mean it's such a different thing than what I studied and how it's used in the context of making an album. They're not exactly the same. I didn't study audio engineering or anything. So there's still a big learning curve for me when I'm making a record. Getting familiar with all the technical aspects that it takes to make a body of work, of recording music. That's just very different than my experience in the field of engineering or with electronics. But they do complement one another in at least being problem-solving orientated.

Gotcha. What about kind of the songwriting process itself? I saw on your Spotify playlist you had the song "41st" on there by Frankie Cosmos. So I just kind of got a sense and I may be wrong about this, but she [Greta Kline] kind of cranks out the songs, and that song is kind of funny to me about how many songs she writes in year. And seems to me you're a little more deliberate in going back and revisiting either a lyric or an idea.

Yeah. I'm way more slow at writing than Greta is, so I didn't even know that that's what that song was about actually. [Laughs]

Well, I was fortunate to review your album as well as hers, so I paid a little attention as I was going through.

Oh, okay. Cool. So you got a deep dive. I just loved the melody so well.

Yeah. That's always what hits me first too. But I just wondered if there was more to it in terms of you picking that out?

Not necessarily but, yes, Greta is one of my more prolific friends. And I'm way more of a slower writer. And it isn't so much that I'm kind of spending a lot of time. It just takes a lot of time for me to be inspired and do something.

It may be a little off the wall but I don't know if you've ever listened to the Revisionist History podcast by Malcolm Gladwell?

No.

Oh, okay. Well, he's got one that talks about art in general, but he's comparing artists that do things quickly versus those that take more time to produce something. 

Oh, that's interesting. I'd be interested to hear that.

The name of the episode is called Hallelujah, the Leonard Cohen song, and I guess he wrote and rewrote that multiple times on multiple albums and in comparison to Bob Dylan who's just cranking songs out. I guess the two of them actually sat down and talked about that at one point. And then it goes on to talk about visual arts as well, so like Cezanne was very slow about producing the same work over and over until he got it right.

It would be great to normalize that. I have that conversation a lot with friends. Some are very proficient and kind of can make a lot of songs in a week, and some kind of take a year to make a few songs. And, yeah, it's really interesting.

Sticking with that theme, the way you redid your Persian Garden EP. This phrase "water me down" that appeared in the last album and you brought it back in a song on Vagabon.

Yeah. Good point. I wish I could always redo everything.

So that phrase, "water me down," just curious in terms of I kind of listen to it in two different ways, and you may want it to remain a mystery, but I viewed it both as either you could be suppressing somebody else's emotions or literally trying to dilute someone down?

Yeah. I think that they have had different meanings at different points of first writing it and then performing it, so it's constantly changing for me too, and oscillating between those two ideas that you have.

Just a little bit maybe about the album itself in terms of the delay in releasing. I looked at a lot of interviews and different things out there and I saw the announcement about the album being delayed but maybe not so much about how that impacted you and what was involved in reworking things.

Well fortunately, I have a really good team of people around me so everyone just sprung into action to make it, basically, all fine with everybody. And so ultimately I did really just want to respect the poet's wishes and did whatever I had to do and I wasn't really feeling like victimized or anything. I just wanted to have my album be out and for people to hear it. So everyone involved kind of acted quickly in doing that.

So how much reworking of the recordings themselves did you have to do?

Well, certainly, obviously the biggest one being changing the album name. And like redoing the album cover. The fortunate thing is nothing was too bad that it couldn't be fixed.

Did you have to redo lyrics, singing?

Well, not really redoing lyrics but when we heard of the request where Nayyriah did not want to be referenced, basically our objective at that point was to make sure that she felt comfortable with where we landed. And I didn't want to compromise my work either. And so just finding the middle ground very quickly. Just how can I not really change what my objective is and respect her wishes. And I think we ended up landing on something. Self-titled record, "Flood" is called "Flood" and not "Flood Hands." So these really subtle changes that really didn't harm me much or change the direction or the meaning of my music.

It just struck me a little bit strange given how often her work appears and people reposting things. It seems kind of custom-made for being recycled.

Yeah. I mean, as artists, we all have different laws with the protection of our work. And my work is protected by copyright and to be honest, I had worked on this album for so long and so hard that this wasn't going to be the biggest thing about it. I wanted to kind of just get to the part where I can share it because it has been a year sitting with it and agonizing that all I wanted to do was to have this album see the light of day, to make music videos like "Water Me Down," and to tour it. And so I was quite impressed and proud of everyone around me for the support. I was pretty calm about it, which is hilarious, because I agonize about a lot of stuff. [Laughs]

So if you put that in context today, does it seem like a lesser thing?

Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, the worst part of it was knowing that I had made another artist feel anything but great. So if anything, it was such a small thing to have happened and to have it happen at the time that it did and to still have my album out on time. It's a very insignificant thing in the whole story of this album.

So kind of looking ahead, and I know you just had the album out and everything. But what does 2020 look like for you?

Yeah, so in 2020, I'm excited to embark on a headline tour for this record and to take on the road kind of the way that I want to present this record. And some of that will be through choreography. I worked with choreography for the first time for the "Water Me Down" video and really enjoyed that journey and I'm really excited to bring it to a live context. And to offer not just an audio experience, but also a visual experience to my live shows. So in the spring, I'll be going on tour. And there's a lot of announcements that will be made at the top of the year too and new music and stuff like that.

Okay, so you think back into the U.S. again?

Yes, back into the U.S. Back to Europe and some festivals. I'll be back in New York. I'll be writing a record. We'll see how long that takes. [Laughs] But I'm really looking forward to it. I think that I'm really excited to expand. This is my second record. I feel more like I'm doing it for real. And to take this on a headline tour, I really hope people who have been following me since the beginning and people who are freshly discovering me, whether it's through these Angel Olsen dates, whether it's through The New York Times or The New Yorker, just I'm excited to have face-to-face time with the people who have bonded with this record.

It's great that it just keeps growing from where you started. So, you feel like the next one may come out quicker?

Yeah, that's the plan. That's the plan. [Laughs]

For this record, reproducing that live with the band, how has that been compared to the first album?

Oh, it's been a really, really special experience. And it was really hard work in the beginning just because there are so many electronics. There are so many moving parts that like how many human beings will I have to have on stage to make this work? But I have landed on this really sweet spot of it sounding like the record, but it also having so many qualities that you can only see in the live show, which is personally my favorite thing about seeing live music is just having one thing that makes you feel like you're not just listening to a record with a bunch of other people, but that you're seeing this experience live. And so, there are four of us on stage including myself and I have an incredible multi-instrumentalist, Oliver Hill, who's kind of on triple duty playing synth and viola and guitar. We've got SPDs, got basshere's essentially no bass guitar on the record, but I've basically had it so that all the bass synth parts and similar bassy tones of the record are played by bass guitars, so it's been really fun. And it's slightly different but I'm really proud of how much justice we've been doing to a record that was not made with a band.

www.vagabonvagabon.com

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