Tonje Thilesen

How Laetitia Tamko Found Vagabon in Herself

Following two years of touring, the Brooklyn artist revamped her sound to reconnect with her creativity

By Max Freedman

Imagine writing and recording deeply personal songs you expect only a few people to hear. Then, imagine tens of thousands of people across the country hearing them instead. Then, imagine playing those songs, night after night, to ravenous crowds of those people, in city after city, for years on end. Sounds exhausting, right?

Laetitia Tamko, who performs as Vagabon, would know. Her invigoratingly scrappy guitar-heavy 2017 breakout Infinite Worlds reached more people than she ever envisioned, with accolades including Pitchfork's ever-coveted Best New Music tag. She then toured the album for two years.

When she finished touring, she was more than just exhausted: She became so anxious and hesitant about continuing her musical career that she couldn't bring herself to write new songs. "I would get home from tour and just put my guitar down. I didn't want to touch it anymore," Tamko tells MTV News.

But she wouldn't dare give up that easily. To reignite her songwriting spark, she gravitated towards new instruments, especially ones she didn't own, and took full control of her music's production. "I would go to my friend Eric Littman's house pretty often. He has a lot of gear that I don't," she says. "He'd show me around the synthesizers and how to patch in the sounds that I want. I would go there when I came home from tour with my laptop and my ideas."

As a result, her self-titled sophomore album — Tamko's first album for legendary Warner-owned label Nonesuch, a move she only half-jokingly calls "a flex" — could pass for the work of an entirely different artist if not for Tamko's unmistakable singing voice, which is simultaneously round, bright, warm, and comforting, like the sun rising over a forest at dawn.

When writing the album, Tamko sought to, in her words, "touch things I didn't know that well. That ended up being a keyboard and programming drums. The synths on [the album] are just what Eric had. I [still] don't even have those!" Writing with such unfamiliar instruments proved pivotal for the album’s creation: "I'm constantly trying to tap into the naïveté I felt while making Infinite Worlds, when I didn't consciously know what I was doing," she says.

Compact, electronic instruments were also convenient. "Living in New York, you have to pay for a practice space to be loud," Tamko says, and "when you're constantly leaving, it's hard to justify even paying rent." Without a room where she could make her guitar shout, Tamko says that Vagabon became "an exploration of how to make music when I don't have the space to be loud."

Vagabon is thus entirely devoid of the overdriven power chords that defined Infinite Worlds. When Tamko does use guitars on Vagabon, they often take the form of finger-plucked acoustic notes couched in gorgeous, ambient synths, such as on the serene "In a Bind," "Secret Medicine," and "Every Woman." Tamko credits these songs' unclouded nature with her love of the "hammer-ons and pull-offs of African music," which first introduced her to the guitar.

For the most part, though, the spacious, almost grayscale Vagabon is comprised of electronic elements. "I was doing a lot of exercises to get over my anxiety about making a second record," Tamko says of her shift to electronics, "and I started maxing a mixtape, which was just looping a sample, just writing for the fun of it."

She ultimately built the brass-flanked, pitter-pattering Vagabon highlight "Please Don't Leave the Table," which features close friends and fellow musicians Jay Som on trumpet and SASAMI on french horn, from a snippet she wrote during the Logic session that birthed the mixtape. The song showcases Tamko's newly emphasized R&B and hip-hop influences, as do the pulsing bedroom pop of "Water Me Down" and entrancing dream pop of lead single "Flood."

"I was really interested in drum- and vocal-forward recordings," she says of the two genres' impact on Vagabon. "On Infinite Worlds, I was really afraid of my voice. This time around, I wanted to really explore the different ranges and depths of my voice."

Just as her voice does, the sounds comprising Vagabon traverse sonic palettes as readily as they cross mental states, reflecting the LP's traveling origins. Across the album, Tamko manages the remarkable feat of cohesively uniting distinctly different styles — dream-pop, bedroom-pop, folk music, brass-heavy trap journeys — under one engaging roof. Although she visits all sorts of destinations, the path she travels among them remains perfectly clear throughout, just as on a tour.

Touring played a pivotal part in Vagabon's genesis. For most of the album's songs, Tamko let the seeds of ideas she wrote while touring blossom into gorgeous, fully bloomed forms. Even when she got off the road, she composed with touring in mind: "When writing Vagabon," she says, "I was thinking about what a one-hour Vagabon set looks like... and how I would like to tour an album."

Among the most exciting new additions to Tamko's live set are two songs she cites as the album's theses. On "Wits About You," after a cavernous chorus in which Tamko murmurs over lightly vibrating synths, she almost entirely silences these synths to uncompromisingly center her voice, which delivers a paean of inclusion and representation. "I was invited to the party / They won't let my people in / Well then, never mind / We don't wanna go to your function," she whispers, sounding as strong as if she were roaring. Simply put, a space that doesn't welcome the marginalized doesn't truly welcome anyone.

The album's other thesis, "Every Woman," is far less electronic, boasting only synths that are ambient and easy to miss. Over a collage of warming, finger-plucked acoustic guitar and comforting intonations, Tamko stands up for her fellow marginalized people. "Every woman I meet is tired," she sings, later issuing a sweeping call to arms: "We're not afraid of the war we brought on / And we're steady holding down the fort."

Of "Every Woman," Tamko says, "I wanted to create that feeling that others have created for me where I've felt so seen, heard, understood, and stuck up for. In writing the song, I wrote it for me, but I wrote it for so many people." She feels similarly about the near-silent midsection of "Wits About You," for which she removed pretty much every instrument other than her voice because "I wanted to be very explicit in what my making music is all about, what I stand for, what I do, and why I'm doing this."

Tamko didn't want to remind just listeners of her mission. She also needed to remind herself why she makes music. In writing Vagabon, she ultimately countered her post-tour burnout and rekindled her passion, and one goal above all helped her stay grounded, even as she tackled complex topics: "I wanted to make songs," she says, "that I can play for another two years and feel really happy about."