The Inimitable Intimacy of Vagabon

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Vagabon. Photos by Ebru Yildiz

“I feel so small/My feet can barely touch the floor,” songwriter, producer, singer and multi-instrumentalist Lӕtitia Tamko sings on “The Embers,” the opening trach on Infinite Worlds, her debut LP as Vagabon. This intimate imagery is common in Tamko’s work: feet dangling from a seat on the bus, smoke seeping out of a bedroom window, the hollow space sprouting between two people falling out of love—each, in Tamko’s world, is a sign of life. Her songs explore the intersection of loneliness and companionship, drafting new ways to question how our own words might sound different when met with validation, uncertainty, or silence.

These ideas have been percolating in Tamko’s songwriting for some time now. Infinite Worlds is partially built on song-sketches developed for the 2014 Vagabon EP Persian Garden; “Vermont II” lives on as “Fear & Force,” in which Tamko and Frankie Cosmos’ Greta Kline build an echo chamber in which anxieties ring out as incantations; there are revamped versions of “Sharks” and “Cold Apartment Floors,” as well. Comparing the recordings is a fascinating insight into Tamko’s thoughtful creative process.

We spoke with Tamko about seeking inspiration from the mainstream, the importance of respect, and how to find home.

Are you playing solo for this tour?

This tour, I’m playing by myself. I have an SP-404, which is a sampler, and a guitar and a synth. So I alternate, and sometimes play two or three at the same time.

How does playing alone versus playing with a band feel different for you?

Both of them are an exercise for me. I love to make music alone at this point. I hardly want creative input, so sometimes it’s really freeing to be up there by myself. I know these songs like the back of my hand. I wrote them, so I can just worry about doing what I know. Sometimes when I’m playing with other musicians in a backing band situation, I’ll listen out for other things or arrangements are a little different. Both are fun. Both give me something good, too. But I don’t feel like I’m missing anything alone, because it’s very much the way this music exists. This is my thing.

Especially when you’ve been playing certain songs on Infinite Worlds for years—the same for all of the songs that were on Persian Garden.

I’ve been playing them for about two years now, but on the record, they’re reconstructed. I feel like they’re new songs. If I had put different lyrics to those same instrumentals, people would think it’s a new song. Me and my co-producer Chris [Daly] worked really hard to make them into new songs and to capture that. But I’m also making new stuff that I’m really excited about. I’ve been playing a new song on my set on this tour that no one’s heard before. It’s very like, “trap beat,” you know? And I love it. It’s not on the album. It’s very new, and probably for the next record or the next EP, or whatever’s next.

When you test out something new in front of a crowd, how does it help you process it?

Whenever I play it, I just say that it makes me feel alive. It’s a little scary to play a song that I’ve never played out before, or that I haven’t really practiced before. So when I do, I’m like, ‘Oh, I don’t know how this audience is going to take this, but it’s a workshopping thing for me.’ I’m always touring. This is my second or third full time around the country in a six or seven month period. I’m constantly touring, so the option to be in my room and sit there and workshop these songs—it isn’t an option, basically. I’m hardly there. I have to workshop on the road to maximize my time. That’s what playing this new song is all about. I want to try different melodies out, try different synth parts, you know? And tour is the perfect time to do it.

While listening to the record, I was thinking about the ideas of location and geography and home that come up. I’m wondering how you conceive of home, or what that means to you—especially when you’re touring so much.

I think that a lot of people think of home as a place where your loved ones are, a place where you grew up, or a place where you migrated from. For me, home is a physical or emotional space where you completely feel like yourself. You’re not hyper aware of your surroundings, you’re just safe in this bubble. And no one has to be in it. It doesn’t even have to be a tangible place. It can be a state of mind, just feeling at ease. I think I’m constantly in search of that, of finding that ‘home’ feeling, especially when I’m constantly traveling and constantly on tour. Displacement is a huge part of my life, so it’s kind of hard not to think about it or for it to seep into my songwriting.

Especially when you can search for it in so many different things, or in other people.

Oh my god, yeah. You can find home in people. I find that comfort in being onstage sometimes. Home is not always great. Home can be really uncomfortable sometimes. There can be bad times in your home if it’s a place, and there can be bad times if you find home in a human being. There can be bad times if you find home in your brain. It’s not this euphoric magical land. It’s just that you know there’s space for you to feel safe there. That’s where those themes fluctuate between all the time.

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If it’s perfect, it probably isn’t home. 

Exactly. That would be vacation or something. Like, ‘It has all you need and you could never ask for anything else!’ That sounds like a resort to me, not home.

When you are writing songs, what influences you? It sounds like place is pretty important, but are there other musicians or writers?

Oh, I love so many—a lot of my friends are some of the best songwriters in my opinion. I think Greta [Kline] from Frankie Cosmos is an incredible songwriter. Elaiza Santos [of Crying, 100%] is an incredible songwriter. Mitski is an incredible songwriter. I find a lot of strength in my friends, and those three are some powerhouse people in my life. Whenever they call me on tour and just offer support, it’s really genuine, and it’s not for anything other than giving each other comfort. They inspire me a lot.

I love Erykah Badu as a performer, a singer, a writer—she’s top of my list of people that are completely incredible. I also listen to a lot of rap and trap music, and Young Thug is very inspiring to me. I read somewhere that he does a lot of reference tracks, him and Future. So, they’ll get a beat and they’ll get into the studio and they don’t know what their rap is gonna be when they get in. It’s just forming a melody with nonsensical words. That’s amazing. I always do that. It’s good to know that rappers also make reference tracks to remember melodies. Sometimes it could be words that don’t make sense. It could be real words that are not necessarily poetic. I feel like I do that sometimes where I don’t write songs on paper or anything. I just make something and whatever comes up, I end up recording, whether it’s on my phone or as a demo.

Then I heard the recent Santigold record, and that blew my mind. I’m really excited about music, and it’s nice to be partially excited about my friends’ music, and then a lot of pop music.

Pop gets such a bad rap. 

Oh man, I don’t know why. Those people are killing it. And someone’s gotta be at the mainstream, you know what I mean? Someone was making the argument against Young Thug to me by saying, ‘He’s just a mainstream rapper.’ And I was like, ‘You have no idea what he means to people.’ Even in the rap and trap communities, to have a black and male-identifying or male-bodied artist talk about gender fluidity and wear a dress on his album cover in that scope—that’s huge. We need that. People who look up to him need to see that because I think a lot of people in independent music communities forget that this is a bubble. A lot of people aren’t tapping into it and they still need to see this shit.

I think pop music is so sick. Yeah, there are so many indie people doing it and killing it and inspiring people every day, but we also need the Solanges, who are millionaires. We may not see all of ourselves in them when it comes to economic stature or class or whatever, but their bubble is large enough to reach people who don’t have to search to find it. You don’t have to look that hard to see Young Thug in a dress, but you do have to work really hard to see all of us in independent music communities. You have to seek that out or be brought into it. It’s not readily accessible. So when we talk about pop music I think it’s important to think about how accessible it is.

Not every town has a DIY scene where these conversations happen. 

Exactly, and people listen to the radio! So we do want a rapper who is black, who didn’t grow up in middle class wherever, saying, ‘Fuck gender.’ People need to hear that on the radio, because everyone turns on the radio.

Could you tell me a bit about the process of teaching yourself instruments?

Learning guitar was out of want. It was like, ‘I have all of these words written down and they could be songs, but I have no accompaniment for them, so I should learn the instrument that I perceive to be the easiest.’ It’s probably not the easiest, but I perceived it to be. So that was the first level of unleashing like, ‘I could do that.’ But in making this record, I really wanted to assert myself as a musician and try really hard to escape the ‘singer-songwriter’ thing, as if that’s all that we are. And I see this a lot with a lot of women who have so much to do with their albums, but people are just like, ‘She has to be the singer.’ And yeah, we’re singers, but we’re also producers. We’re beatmakers. We’re drummers. I really wanted to learn what I was talking about so I had a leg to stand on while fighting against those things.

I also have a very specific vision. I’m not confused about what I want. For my songs, I just had to find ways to execute what was in my head. It took me a long time and I’m still learning so much, but in making this record, I feel good about being like, ‘Yeah, me and Chris sat in the studio for days and weeks and we really honed this thing.’ He doesn’t play on the record, but he’s the engineer and also co-produced it. We spent so much time together that I was like, I could do collaboration with the right person.

In terms of collaborators, what makes a good one for you?

One: respect. They have to be respectful. Two: they have to understand what I’m doing, and understand it in that they know that I know what I want. I have no issues asking for help when I need it. But when I don’t need it, I don’t want it.

Collaborators also need to like my music. Whether it’s an engineer, someone coming in to produce, someone coming in to do a session—they need to like it. If you don’t, it translates for me. That’s mostly what I’m looking for. If you have respect, talent can be learned. I never thought that I would be able to do this, even though I wanted to. I never thought that I would actually be able to do this. So in my head, I never prioritize someone who can shred but is kind of disrespectful or entitled or sexist or whatever. At that point, I don’t care if you can shred—because a lot of people can learn to shred. I wasn’t born shredding. My collaborators have to be respectful and willing to learn.

Did it take a while to build that with the band you recorded with?

It definitely takes time. There’s a lot of trial and error, especially if you’re playing with musicians you haven’t known for that long. You don’t know what kind of characters they are and being in a band together can inform everything. I use a lot of different people as my backing band. They’re musicians who just do their session work, so it works. They do their thing and I think we all have fun when it does get to happen. But a lot of trial and error, and I think that’s why I like the consistency of me. Relying on people is very hard for me.

It must be interesting touring by yourself because you’re the only person you have to rely on, essentially. 

It’s kind of crazy. I’m learning it as I’m doing it. You just have to hop from the stage, to the merch table, to pack up your own things. Everything happens so fast. This is exhausting, so I’m starting to understand why people have collaborators and bring sound engineers and tour managers. I’m not in a place to have those things, but I get it. It’s a lot for one person, but I’m on a fucking mission. It feels like I’m doing what I’m supposed to.

—Cory Lomberg

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