On a particularly hot July day in 2014, Laetitia Tamko, who makes music under the moniker Vagabon, played in a cramped kitchen atop the Bushwick DIY venue Silent Barn. To those familiar with the institution, it’s dubbed “upstairs,” a space where lesser-known acts are welcome to perform to smaller audiences than in the main room on the ground floor. About 20 sweaty bodies were piled into the well lived-in space, all crouched as Tamko shared songs about feeling small, while sitting large atop a barstool. The crowd, myself included, stared up as she strummed an acoustic guitar, as what was left of the sun streamed in through the window behind her. When she finished the set, kindred spirit Mitski took the stool; last year, she topped critics’ best of lists. This year, it’s Vagabon’s turn.
Tamko sits across from me at Modern Love, a recently opened vegan joint in East Williamsburg. It’s her favorite restaurant in New York. “I’ve been vegan for two and half years,” she tells me, admitting she was a meat-eater up until then. “I’m a Scorpio. I’m extreme as fuck.”
That she is. Her debut LP, Infinite Worlds, shapeshifts in a way only someone completely allergic to self-prescribed limitations could morph—it moves with a certain fearlessness that lives in people who never considered doubting themselves. It’s a confident quality, a Scorpio quality. “I don’t remember where I came up with Vagabon,” she explains over truffled poutine—her recommendation. “Recording not under my name came from people not being able to pronounce it. I don’t want to have to correct people anytime anyone says my name wrong.”
Tamko started playing guitar at age 17, four years after relocating to New York from her native Cameroon. She taught herself basic chords, but would soon to abandon the instrument when she started college, studying engineering at the City University of New York. “My thought process was ‘I’ve made a few MySpace pages, I can be a computer engineer. That’s all you need to know!’” she jokes. “Out of all the technical fields, engineering is the least amount of years.” It’s also the most creative—art is founded on making, and within engineering, scientists visualize. “I grew to really love it. I built so many things that seem impossible.” Tamko tells me that going to college and studying something technical was expected in her family, but that didn’t mean it came easy to her. “I was never good at math or science in high school. I definitely failed many math tests,” she laughs. “The education system is really fucked up in America. The things that they pretend to prepare you for are not the things—not even baseline standard—when you try to study technical things in college. It was a feeling of ‘I got to catch up.’”
Catching up—being internally motivated by external pressures—plays a part in Tamko’s music, too. Her story begins almost accidentally: In 2014, a band from western Massachusetts found an early demo of a song, “Vermont,” she uploaded to Bandcamp. They asked her to play Silent Barn—months before the Mitski gig—and she fell in love with the practice. Soon others started asking her to play shows. “I always knew I was going to make an album, but there were some things I needed to focus in on first,” she pauses. “I was preoccupied with learning as much as I could and feeling like I had wasted time because I started late. I was so focused on how everyone had been playing since such a young age, or had been in bands. I was trying to keep myself motivated while feeling like I had wasted a lot of time when I should have been practicing. I’m super motivated by pressure. It’s all done by me.”
Tamko is a born performer. “I’ve been singing forever in child groups,” she explains. “I tried out for teenage talent shows. I never got past the first round. They didn’t see it in me. This was a very small town and competition, everyone sang covers. I never sang covers. I wrote songs. The judges were like, ‘We just heard a Beyoncé cover. You can’t go to the next round.’” That never deterred her, and moving to New York only further fueled the flame. “Everything felt really exciting and new. I was a drama queen when I was younger,” she smiles. “My mom would have friends over and I would insert myself in the middle and start dancing and singing. No one asked me to do that. I was like seven, forcing everyone to watch me.”
Post-graduation, Tamko’s ceaseless energy transferred to music and Vagabon became a serious pursuit. It’s still a growing process. “I’m not that chill. ‘I’ll do this until I hit this accolade.’ I don’t have that in my brain,” Tamko says. “I’m not satisfied and I don’t know what can satisfy me. As long as I’m not satisfied, I’m going to constantly keep doing this. If something amazing happens I’ll take a minute, pat myself on the back but then it’s like, ‘What next? This is not enough for now.’”
In some ways, the person on Infinite Worlds and the person seated in front of me seem far removed from one another. The record begins with “The Embers,” Tamko sweetly singing, “I feel so small.” It sounds like a personal admission of insecurity, but has the potential of something much larger, a political observation: Women are made to feel small, women of color even smaller. “It doesn’t feel like two different people but I think [back then] I was very unafraid to embarrass myself,” she explains. “But I was also telling on myself. I was ratting myself out and felt comfortable doing so. Now three and half years after I wrote it, it’s a song that I’m still singing but it means nothing to me. I don’t feel like I’m in the same place anymore.”
Removing herself from those expectations—of making herself smaller—has helped. It has made for a dynamic indie career in three short years—but it doesn’t go without issue. Songs of smallness, about the politics of position and representation, can often be misread as invitations to tokenize identity. “I won’t answer ‘What’s it like to be a black woman?’ questions anymore,” she says. I ask if people point out that she’s a minority in a predominantly white indie rock space. She jumps, “I’ve lived in this body. Don’t you think I know that?”
When dessert has been ordered and dinner comes to an end, Tamko tells me she doesn’t feel any sort of responsibility but sees the power she’s earned. It turns out it’s a power she’s always possessed. “I just want to be an option. I want to seriously attempt things and assert myself in a position that goes beyond girls who look like me,” she explains. “Asserting yourself in a position of something that a lot of people need to see, I needed to see that and as long as I’m able to do that, I’m going to do that. There’s no plot here. There’s no objective. This is me. If it helps someone, it helps someone. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. It feels good to me.” It feels good to us, too.