Vagabon on her honest songwriting, working with rappers, and staying sane on tour

Laetitia Tamko's 'Infinite Worlds' debut album is one of 2017's sleeper hits

Laetitia Tamko, aka Vagabon, doesn’t tend to keep things to herself. Just last week on social media, she was sharing her glee at visiting London’s tourist hot-spots (Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and Dishoom, FYI). While on tour, she’s always open about her struggle to maintain level-headedness and good mental health. And speaking to NME, she just about manages to keep the lid tight on a secret project she’s working on with “one of my favourite rappers.” But it’s this nothing-to-hide mentality which makes her 2017 debut ‘Infinite Worlds’ so special. Re-released in the UK next month, after picking up word-of-mouth success in the U.S., the album finds triumph in putting brutally honest thoughts to tape. And she’s equally honest about her ambition of breaking through the indie, guitar-led confines of this brilliant first work.  

On Twitter, you speak openly about the tiny difficulties of touring life, the things that build up. How do you stay level-headed on the road?

L: Part of my openness is that I’m talking into the void, I’m not sure who’s reading it. You’re working so much on tour. There’s so many intricacies. And even though it’s the best job I’ve ever had, it’s still a job, and it’s hard. I started running a lot. I’m not a typical runner. It’s been really good for my self-care and mental health. There are other things, but I’m trying to find a formula of what works for me, because I think it’s different for everyone – what they want to do, how often they want to tour.

Is it true you offer out free love advice to fans on your merch stand?

L: I played London and it was like, ‘Hey, I have merch. It costs money. But I also have free love advice if you don’t have money. You don’t have to take it. It might be bad!’ What do I know about relationships? I tour all year. It was a mixture of people who wanted merch and others who’d go, ‘I have this situation’. My advice is much like my Twitter, so it’s just me being a goofball. Being able to hang out afterwards is the best part of touring, for me. You can see these numbers when you’re online and the guys who’ve listened, but it’s amazing to actually talk to these people in real life.

You quit your engineering job in March to focus on music. Until recently, how much did you have to balance that work with the slog of releasing music and booking your own shows?

L: I was between [2014 debut EP] ‘Persian Garden’ and [2017 debut album] ‘Infinite Worlds’, while double majoring in engineering. I hadn’t finished, but I was recording this album at the same time. I was teaching myself drum, bass and synths for the record, while graduating in the most difficult academic program. It was the hardest time of my life. But I’m a very resilient person now.

How did you actually find yourself in the New York indie scene, when you started making music?

L: I found myself in [New York venue] Silent Barn. There was me, Porches, my friend Mitski. We all played to ten people in someone’s apartment. I was just getting started. I was an onlooker at one point. I was fortunate that when I put up those demos on Bandcamp, I had no idea about this community yet. I didn’t know indie music was a thing. I didn’t know how far you could take it. I had no idea how to cultivate this community. I’m just glad that it found me, and that I was able to do the work to stay within it. You can find a community like this and not make it your job, but for me it was important to do that, to make it my livelihood.

For guitar-based acts in the UK, until recently there was a real lack of cooperative scenes. It’s felt more competitive for some time.

L: I always talk about access when referring to my music. Bandcamp exists, and that’s an unreal thing. The phrase ‘do it yourself’ means so many things now. But today, you’re a great guitar player if you have a shitty guitar but can make it sound great. A lot of musicians don’t have much to work with. I mean, there are rich punks. But I had very little to work with, and I just tried to make the best of it. I’m competitive against myself. Talking about it now, I’m grateful that people found it and encouraged me to keep going, because I certainly did not know what I was getting myself into.

Lots of musicians start out on Bandcamp and they prefer to keep releasing music themselves. When did you decide signing to a label would be the right next step?

L: I did the self-sufficient thing before seeking out a label because I didn’t know people got money to do this. I vibed well with Father / Daughter. Jessi Frick who runs that label just gets it the most, beyond other labels I talked to. Turning down money from other labels felt ok to me. For me, it was just important that this album landed in the right hands. I just want to have the agency to be the kind of artist I want, to change if I want. I just want that control over myself and what I decide to put out. Not that a label will take that away from me, but when you’re a new artist I think it’s important to establish those things first, before a lot of hands get into it.

What was it like supporting Tegan and Sara, a group who make this outward-facing, joyous pop music, and who play such big stages?

L: It was super eye-opening, on so many levels. I wasn’t familiar with Tegan and Sara prior to that tour. Sara just DM’ed me on Twitter and reached out. When you’re playing huge spaces like that, you don’t expect the headliner to come out and see your set. But they watched me every night, they were super sweet people and they had so much advice for me. They’ve been doing this for 22 years, and it bangs every time.

Did a part of you prefer playing stages that big?

L: It was a different world. What I loved: I’m an audio snob, so working with a monitor engineer and someone front-of-house made me so happy. And going on stage on time was amazing.

There’s such a raw power to the way you sing, especially live.

L: I think it came with time. I’m a very timid and shy person in real life. A lot of people comment on what happens in-between songs, and the drastic volume drop where I whisper, ‘Thank you everyone.’ Part of it is I’ve been playing for quite a long time, so I’m coming into my own and I’m becoming more confident. My first shows were in underground punk basements, where you don’t get monitors, you don’t get anything. It’s hard to scream and make it sound good. I’m not sure what I do with my voice, but I’m really thankful for it. In the music I’ve been working on, I’ve been really experimenting with it.

‘Infinite Worlds’ is spoken about as an indie record and guitar-led. But I also get the sense you won’t be constrained by those boxes, going forwards.

L: It’s really fun. With time and with the other stuff I’m working on, people will start to see Vagabon as something other than rock or indie. I have a lot of tricks up my sleeve. I’m working with one of my favourite rappers – I’m not rapping, but… I wish I could say everything! It’s really exciting. I love songwriting, I love producing, and not everything I produce works well for me. So to be in the studio with someone who I used to listen to on the radio… I’m excited to just be a musician, whatever that encompasses. Whether that be touring or producing. I’m going to make whatever feels good at the time, and I think I’m gonna feel good about that. So long as I feel good about it, I’m golden.