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Vagabon Finds Infinite Power In Being Small

Laetitia Tamko discusses her momentous debut, ‘Infinite Worlds,’ with MTV News

Laetitia Tamko isn’t a fish, but she is small — at least in stature. On Infinite Worlds, her debut LP as Vagabon, the 24-year-old singer expands, crafting self-aware, immersive scenes of reflection and discovery. So when she refers to herself as a “small fish” on anthemic single “The Embers,” and later giggles, you almost don’t believe her. Yet we’ve all occasionally felt smaller than we should; sometimes you’re the little fish, and sometimes you’re the giant shark who “hates everything.” Infinite Worlds uncovers the limitless wisdom and power to be found in all the moments in between.

Tamko, who was born and raised in Cameroon and moved to New York at age 13, wrote her first EP in college, when she was beginning to assert her place in the world. “It was a time in my life when I needed that outlet,” she tells MTV News. “The words just kind of came organically.”

Now, with Infinite Worlds, she’s grown even mightier. “No longer yearn to be gentle, pure, sweet, not intimidating, yet sure,” she declares on “Cleaning House," a bold, confrontational ballad. Tracks like “Minneapolis” take indie rock to soaring new heights, and yet Tamko says that she doesn't listen to a lot of rock music. Instead, Infinite Worlds was mostly inspired by '90s R&B and African artists like Ali Farka Touré, Manu Dibango, and the Lijadu Sisters. Infinite Worlds, while vast and enveloping, is a pure expression of identity, driven by the magnificent force of Tamko herself.

MTV News spoke with the artist about her album, gaining confidence as a songwriter, and the politics of the DIY scene.

MTV News: You were an engineering major in college. How did you first start writing and playing music?

Laetitia Tamko: I was always into music, but how I came to play it was finally meeting someone who was in a band. I had no friends in bands. My life was school, my life was math and science. It just seemed really impossible to actually do. All I [had heard of] were people who were really huge ... huge pop stars. That didn’t seem real to me.

Once I started seeing the way that other people did it, I started opening the part of my brain that wanted to do that. And knowing that I didn’t have to give a fuck, and I could just make whatever I wanted, whatever I was feeling... I started to revel in that fact.

On “Cleaning House,” you say, “You will raise your voice and talk aloud, but once you didn’t have a voice at all.” What were you thinking about when you wrote that song?

Tamko: “Cleaning House” is, lyrically, my most political song. In terms of what I was explicitly writing about, it was evaluating what my place is, what my brother’s place is, what my sister’s place is, in the world.

There’s a line: “You only get to talk that way because we enabled it.” It’s kind of like when people take from a culture, or take from people, without respecting those people. Or you choose when you want to appreciate people who aren’t like you. That whole song is written in quotes, and it’s all things that I either want to say to people, or people have said to me. It’s me assessing how I’m perceived. I like to think of myself as a very conscientious person, which is a strength and a downfall. I feel like I can see everything through a mirror. It can get very loud to know what the world actually thinks of you.

Every time I see a person of color, a woman of color, a queer person, a trans person, smiling and thriving, I’m like, “That took fucking hard work. I know it did. I know you went through an intense part where you were like, ‘What’s my place here?’”

Just look at what’s happening on the radio. Almost everyone is black. The fact that Atlanta trap is considered pop music now, or the fact that you can go to a Danny Brown concert and it’s all kids who don’t look like Danny Brown. That’s reaching a level of accessibility that’s just beyond.

A lot of “Cleaning House” is me giving power back to myself, and to those who are literally leading an entire resurgence of strength in people who have been torn down for so long.

You got your start in Brooklyn, where the DIY scene often is not as diverse as it should be. Do you think that's starting to change?

Tamko: At least in my perspective, things are changing. I’m seeing more [non-white] people on top — not just exist, but be on top. The people that I’m seeing dominate are not the people who are the majority. That’s already huge for me, having those people that I can talk to and relate to in some way.

Just knowing all the people who are like, “Fuck what you think this should be.” Or, “I’m gonna take this as far as possible.” That already is so extremely impactful in terms of the bigger picture.

I also try not to put too much pressure on those people, including myself, to like, be that. But not shying away is already such a great start. And eventually, maybe we won’t have to talk about it.

In addition to “Cleaning House,” there’s also “Cold Apartment,” and there's a lot of imagery involving houses and homes and interiors throughout the record. Is finding a home, either physical or emotional, something you’ve struggled with?

Tamko: I’m a lot more stable now, but I moved around a lot when I was writing and recording this album. There was a lot of instability, a lot of being broke. Searching for that physical place and that emotional place was on my mind pretty frequently, so it does come up. When you’re living your life on the go, you’re always wondering what’s next. When my friend comes back and I’m no longer dog-sitting, what’s next?

There are a lot of references to size and height — you call yourself a “small fish” in “The Embers,” and at the end of the record you say, “I’d grow taller.” It’s so vivid and uniquely female.

Tamko: That line [in “The Embers”] was written at a time when I was feeling very inadequate in a lot of ways. I was angry because I’m such a perfectionist, and when I feel like I’m not doing something enough, or someone makes me feel like I’m not doing something enough, it riles me up. So that reference to being small meant I felt small, and that my confidence was low. But it’s really become a thing because I’m actually small. Like if I was taller, it could just mean emotionally small.

You know when you see little kids on a bus, and their feet are dangling? I’m sometimes that kid. So I thought that imagery was really funny, and it was great to tie that in to a not-so-funny thing. That whole song is kind of funny.

You actually laugh on the recording!

Tamko: I do! It was just fun.

And on the last song, “Alive and a Well,” when I say “I’d grow taller / I’d stand strong,” that’s just about me keeping it together. You know, notes to self: Stand tall, don’t walk with your head down. You are powerful.

Infinite Worlds is out now via Father/Daughter Records.