Meet Vagabon, engineering student and self-taught guitarist turned rising indie star

Multi-instrumentalist Laetitia Tamko chats with us ahead of the release of her self-titled sophomore album.

vagabon Laetitia Tamko
Image: Tonje Thilesen

In 2017, Laetitia Tamko caught the attention of the indie-rock world with the album Infinite Worlds, a collection of powerful yet intimate guitar-driven songs. Two years on, the musician known as Vagabon seems to have taken the title of her breakthrough record to heart. Her new self-titled album for Nonesuch Records eschews homespun guitar-forward sonics for supple electronic textures, opening up new horizons (or worlds, if you will) for Vagabon.

That’s not to say that Tamko’s made a sharp left turn – experimentation is in her DNA. A multi-instrumentalist, she played guitars, synths, bass and drums on Infinite Worlds. She’s spoken openly and admiringly of pop, rap and hip-hop. If the hypnotic layers and lo-fi samples of Mal á L’aise, the mid-album cut from Infinite Worlds, signalled Tamko’s interest in expanding the Vagabon sound beyond guitar rock, the extensive tour behind the record confirmed it.

“When I started to write this record, I was touring Infinite Worlds and playing guitar at over 350 shows – my relationship to my guitar was strained,” she says. “My guitar and I needed some space. I wanted to pick up another instrument to inspire me to have new ideas as my ideas on guitar were a bit stale at the time. Now after making this album, I’m back to writing on guitar.”

Ironically, Tamko acknowledges that heavy touring helped build up her confidence as a self-taught guitarist. “Playing my songs live over 300 times has given me an opportunity to practice the instrument in a way I wouldn’t have if I were just playing at home,” she says. “Mostly because the touring environment encourages me to be my best.”

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vagabon Laetitia Tamko
Image: Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images

To build a home

The Cameroon-born, New York-raised musician picked up the guitar when she was 17, learning from instructional videos that came with the Fender acoustic her parents bought her from Costco (she still plays guitars by the brand today). But when she enrolled in engineering school, she dropped it. “There was no time while getting adjusted to college and such a rigorous curriculum to play guitar,” she explains.

Tamko later returned to the instrument in college, and in 2014 recorded a demo, Vermont. 10 months later, she released an EP, Persian Garden. A month after releasing her breakout record Infinite Worlds in February 2017, she quit her engineering job to pursue music full-time, even dabbling in songwriting for others: the song Flood from her forthcoming album was initially intended for a prominent pop act, but Tamko couldn’t bear to let the composition go.

“I’ve been learning that I can write a good song really fast when put up to a challenge,” Tamko says of what she’s taken away from songwriting gigs. “It’s made me put the heat on myself to take that energy to my own records and stay in a mode of writing instead of taking long breaks.”

And there are good songs aplenty on Vagabon, with raw guitar riffs taking a back seat to drum machines, synths and strings. Many of the tracks were written on tour, when Tamko only had her computer and Apple’s Logic Pro: “I would do little sketches of songs but they would not materialise until I was home, in a steady place,” she recalls. The way the record developed – written on the road but completed at home – is evident in the serenity and intimacy that suffuse it.

vagabon Laetitia Tamko
Image: Tonje Thilesen

On Vagabon, Tamko uses her guitar in service of a greater mood. Gentle acoustic-guitar strumming helps ground Secret Medicine, while a fingerpicked melody opens the standout In A Bind. The latter, in particular, was inspired by the great Ali Farka Touré, one of several African artists whose music Tamko has loved since childhood, though the influence of their polyrhythms on her own music only surfaced later on.

“Since I was a baby I was listening to West and East African music, so subconsciously those rhythms stuck around in my head,” she says. “It wasn’t until I started writing songs on guitar that I realised how much it stuck with me.” She also names Vieux Farka Touré (Ali Farka’s son), Afel Bocoum and Diblo Dibala as influences.

Tamko’s a seasoned touring musician, having embarked on long jaunts both solo and with a backing band, and will be supporting Vagabon with an extensive tour of the United States this fall. Though she’s all but guaranteed to have her trusty Roland SPD404 and Korg Minilogue by her side, longtime fans might see her with a new rig, seeing as she refreshes it every tour or six months.

“I like getting gear on tour in cities or towns I wouldn’t normally go to,” she says. “I definitely like getting gear from boutique makers because they care so much about their work and it’s such an honour to play gear you know has been loved.”

Vagabon is out 18 October on Nonesuch Records.

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