“I feel so small, my feet can barely touch the floor, on the bus where everybody is tall” Lætitia Tamko sings on the opening track of her album Infinite Worlds. ‘The Embers’ is a sombre offering that explores the notions of being the person that looks in from the outside – never really fitting in and feeling the weight of the world around you. However, Tamko and her project Vagabon are far from being something meagre or insignificant; Infinite Worlds is a celebration in being different and carving out a space that is entirely your own.
Tamko has recently been on tour with Allison Crutchfield and enthuses about the reception she’s received while out on the road. “Knowing that people are discovering [Infinite Worlds] every day is also making me discover new things every day about the music,” she says over the phone ahead of show number 38 of a mammoth 41. “It’s been really nice to see how much it’s connected with people and getting to talk to them all after the shows when I’m doing my merch.”
Infinite Worlds isn’t Tamko’s first release as Vagabon. In 2014, she released the Persian Garden EP and although she’s always been passionate about music – “it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do” – she kept her music separate from her family life. “I consciously didn’t tell them [about making music],” she says. “I’m a very private person in general especially with creative projects because I’m just afraid of speaking about things before doing them. I’m the first one to explore anything artistic in my family and so I think I wanted to introduce them to this in a way that will legitimate it.”
Tamko grew up in Cameroon before moving to New York just in time to start high school. Although she was surrounded by music for her entire life – her mother would have meetups with friends where traditional West-African songs were sung as group chants – she didn’t initially pursue it as a career. Instead, she headed to college to embark on an engineering major. “Engineering school is something that I’m really proud of; I’m not someone who is naturally a genius or naturally great at math from a young age. I taught myself to ace it,” she explains, adding that the focus she needed to finish the course has enabled her to excel at the logistics of a music career. “[Music] is an incredibly tough job,” she continues. “You’re working on being more skillful at it. You’re working on making it better, you’re touring, you’re expelling all this energy. I’m doing a job and I treat it as such. The same as when people show up on time and do the best that they can do; just because I’m my own boss, it doesn’t mean that it’s not a grind.”
A lot of labour went into the initial stages of the Vagabon project, with Tamko honing her skills and her voice for years. Her vocal delivery on Infinite Worlds is a masterclass in dynamics, with Tamko able to tell a story through soaring outbursts or subtle, hushed confessions. “The first music I owned was like, Mariah Carey, Destiny’s Child and Whitney Houston so I was like, ‘I am so not a good singer’,” she says, laughing. “Compared to those people I’m not but it’s been really nice to discover my own voice and to make it work for me and I think that’s what all of them have done. They don’t all sound like each other. So I think I’m discovering it every day and knowing how to change my range and get it better.”
The introduction to Infinite Worlds came with the beautiful ‘Fear & Force’ – “it best embodied the growth that I had made since Persian Garden, as a musician and as a producer” – before the release of power-pop single ‘The Embers’. Originally titled ‘Sharks’, Tamko explains how the initial meaning of ‘The Embers’ has evolved into something more powerful. “It’s kind of like when Kendrick Lamar made that song ‘Alright’, like, “we gon’ be alright”,” she explains. “To Pimp a Butterfly is such a sombre record and it’s touching on a lot of topics that are very real but it’s not a happy record – it’s not meant to be happy, it’s not meant for dance clubs but that song, sticking that in there, it’s triumphant. Like all this shit is happening but we’re going to be fine and I think for me, ‘The Embers’ turned into a song that said ‘we’re going to be fine’. I may not be as big or as experienced or as confident or as fortunate as some folks but I am good, y’know? It’s all okay.”
After the reception Tamko has received, 2017 has definitely been more than okay for the artist. Looking ahead, Tamko has already started work on the much-anticipated follow-up. “Vagabon as a whole, essentially, will encompass whatever music I decide to make,” she explains. “There are many different ways that I could take it and I’m really excited about that possibility.”
Infinite Worlds is out now on Father/Daughter Records. Vagabon plays Dot to Dot Festival on 27th May. Check out ‘The Embers’ below.