VAGABON: IT’S HARD, BUT SHARE IT
illustration by makan negahban
The music industry needs more people like Laetitia Tamko. After moving from Cameroon to New York City when she was just a teenager, she left behind her engineering diploma and her full-time job to explore a completely different path and to create something genuine on her own terms. At twenty-five, she built on the encouragement she’d received from the city’s DIY community and began performing as Vagabon in 2014. Her recent debut Infinite Worlds was one of the most heartfelt releases of last year, and speaking with her was a breath of fresh air during an otherwise painful and soul-searching time in music history. Vagabon performs at the Bootleg Theater on Wed., May 9. This interview by Bennett Kogon.
You played every instrument on this new record—that makes it feel even more personal.
Vagabon: This record is a healing thing for me and I really needed it to be my own. I previously released a cassette of demos in 2014 where I wrote all these songs, but I let a lot of people’s hands touch it. By the end of it, I didn’t really identify with it that much. For this new record, it was important for me to do it all by myself. It was also a way for me to turn revenge into a productive thing because there have been those people who have discouraged me. I know I just said all those great things about community, but there’s always that one guy who’s like, ‘You can’t play guitar.’ But then I’m like, ‘Fucking watch me—I’ll play everything on the record.’ I don’t really like being told I can’t do something.
That’s something many people encounter in their lifetime: that feeling of turning your back on something that you’re ‘supposed’ to be doing. You were ‘supposed’ to be an engineer, weren’t you?
Vagabon: It was always apparent to me that I wouldn’t live my life as a career engineer, despite going to school and then working an engineering job full time. Growing up, everyone around me always told me that education was your ‘way out.’ And that’s like, out of poverty, out of Cameroon, out of suffering, all these things. Sure, a lot of people may think that’s a capitalistic mindset, but it’s also survival. I didn’t come from the family where you went away to college. Engineering school started with, ‘You have to be academic. It has to give you a job immediately that will pay for your life because no one else is going to.’ I taught myself to be good at math and science almost simultaneously because in STEM there are still hardly any women. These were some of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Learning something so labor intensive while not having a passion for it is one thing, but there’s also being good at something that you don’t have a passion for. I got a lot of stress from that. With Infinite Worlds and starting to realize that my life was taking another direction, there was no way I wasn’t going to just be an engineer because this is what I wanted to do my entire life. My parents used to scold me a lot about being stubborn and I’d get so mad. It’s like I am constantly searching for something in this fucking shitty world. If I can find something that helps me and can help heal other people, I’m good.
You’ve created something very heartfelt, something we need right now in music. The DIY scene that you became part of in New York seems to have really helped facilitate that kind of growth and openness. How can a community benefit those who are part of it?
Vagabon: It can be so encouraging and inspiring to be around a bunch of musicians who are supportive of one another. Most of my records are demos from my bedroom which is the most real performance that I was able to capture. That’s mostly because I’d only ever been singing in my room. I think ‘community’ was even just someone telling me I should put my songs up online. I’ve been touring for a couple of years without a record and being a part of it all has made me feel so much better about releasing music that is vulnerable and emotional. The encouragement I’ve received has allowed me to put something out no matter what it sounds like, even if I feel it didn’t sound great. There’s so much fear with sharing something so personal and my friends and community of musicians have given me—and also get from me—this encouragement that’s like, ‘It’s OK. It’s hard, but share it.’ It’s a point of healing for me. And like any group of people, there is critique to it and I want to be really explicit about that. We’ve all been reading the news and I can easily go down the same path of critique for it.
This has been a tough year for a lot of creative communities. What do you think we need to change about the music industry as a whole?
Vagabon: I want to preface this with like … ‘What the fuck do I know,’ you know? I think we are all still processing since this is all happening very much in real time. I don’t want to put myself out there as someone with the answer, but for me personally, I think a lot of things navigate from a place of ego. I think it’s important to not idolize our idols. This is obviously not a resolve for people that we support that are disappointing us with their inappropriate actions and gross behavior. When we like someone’s music or someone’s comedy or someone’s art, I think it is important that we remember that there is a human being that is not on a different level than the listener, observer, or the person consuming this art. I’m sure fame, popularity, and all that stuff is fucking nice … but it always trips me up that there are all these huge leaks of power and then people get taken down from this pedestal. Maybe it’s just a cautious thought of who is on this pedestal.
You’re from two unique cultural environments. How has each shaped you?
Vagabon: Being born in Cameroon and that being my culture but also growing up in New York and being exposed to everything here—it’s been kind of insane for me. It informs so much of the person that I am, my world view and my outlook on certain things. I’ve only started to realize that the way that I see the world also means how I view things like failure, money, or poverty—it’s so different than a lot of my peers that I have been around and have been inspired by. Having been in New York for so long, I finally feel so grateful for growing up the way that I did and having a different perspective of the world. It makes me really equipped for some of the things that I have dealt with.
I was reluctant to ask about your background because it seems like media outlets have grabbed the opportunity to say things like ‘Look at this girl from Cameroon!’ when you have more than just one story to tell. How do you want to see yourself represented?
Vagabon: I want to be a part of artists having control again. That has kind of manifested into somewhat of a career path in my head. Apart from all these things that I have opinions on, I am mostly trying to achieve artistry in a way that feels good to me. I just want to keep making things for people who are open to whatever I decide to put out. I believe there should be some sort of trust between me and the people who listen to my music that allows me to be an artist in the purest form. I want it to feel like there is a community between me and the people at my shows, or between me and the people who listen to me online because they can’t get to a show. I want it to feel like the community that I started up on that made me love performing so much. People should feel as invested in this as I am, but they should also understand that I am a person and I can make music that evolves in different ways. That’s something that’s number one for me. I just want the freedom to make things as I want them with room to grow, and I hope that people will follow along with it.
VAGABON WITH JULIE BYRNE AND SK KAKRABA ON WED., MAY 9, AT THE BOOTLEG THEATER, 2220 BEVERLY BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 8:30 PM / $15-$17 / ALL AGES. GET TICKETS HERE! VAGABON’S INFINITE WORLDS IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM FATHER/DAUGHTER / HOUSE ANXIETY / BARELY DRESSED. VISIT VAGABON AT VAGABON.BANDCAMP.COM OR VAGABONVAGABON.COM.