Interview: Vagabon on the "Delicate Broad Strokes" of Her New Sound

New York-based singer-songwriter Laetitia Tamko, who records under the name Vagabon, has made a career out of learning quickly and along the way.

Vagabon - Vagabon

The turnaround time from first picking up a guitar to releasing her first record Infinite Worlds—which was awarded Best New Music by Pitchfork and landed on plenty of album-of-the-year lists—and playing her songs around the world was minimal compared to most musicians.

Like so many others, she learned to play guitar largely off YouTube videos and self-teaching, a symbol for her DIY work ethic that extends into her new self-titled record, which she bravely opted to produce nearly entirely on her own—not long after seriously diving into Apple's Logic DAW while on tour. So, from early on, every day has been a learning process.

"I don't think I fully processed [the pace] until it was dying down," Tamko says. "It's both a blend of fast and slow living. I started this whole journey in 2014, which, when I think about that, I realize how crazy it is. I felt that there were so many things at play in the universe—that nothing to do with me—that can happen for an album reaching so many people, or allowing me to travel America and Europe many times, so I just took it as it came and barely had a moment to think about it. I just wanted to be constantly working and striving to be better."

Vagabon - "Water Me Down," from Vagabon

Infinite Worlds came so quickly, and the cycle lasted so long, that the idea of a follow-up record was non-existent, taking a backseat to tour, interviews, appearances, and catching her breath. "It wasn't until late in 2018 that I was like, 'Oh shit, I think I have to write another record,' she jokes. "I couldn't tour Infinite Worlds forever. I tried to find new places to draw inspiration from because my life was so different then."

Although her first experiences with Logic came on Infinite Worlds' track "Fear & Force"—for which she made a drum beat, and the song "Mal a L'aise," where she made a collage of instrumentation—it wasn't until being packed in the backseat of a touring vehicle with a laptop that she began practicing Logic like she was doing homework, taking lessons from personal exploration, friends, and YouTube, a process not unlike the one she used to learn guitar several years prior.

She soon found her production voice, which she calls "intentional minimalism with delicate broad strokes," guided largely by her strong gut compass, the same compass that allows her to use a DAW and not be overwhelmed by the endless options.

"If I'm writing a song on guitar, I can't play the drums at the same time," she says. "So there was a lot of freedom to be experimental. So I got to work with things that I never could before like vocal layering and sampling. The opportunity to work on Logic just opened up these doors of how I could think about the arrangement, song structures, and those delicate broad strokes. There are just so many things that I could do that I never would have been able to if I were writing on guitar... Melodies come quick and easy to me, I do it all day long. The challenging part for me is figuring out the colors of the arrangement, figuring out what outfit I'm going to dress the song in."

Tamko took deliberate steps to portray a sense of confidence and to be visible in everything from the tracks themselves to the decision to place herself on the cover in front of a vibrant, attention-grabbing red background.

"Even the album art for this record was very intentional," she explains. "I thought about it a lot, I kept a lot of mood boards. It's like the Jay-Z song ["Public Service Announcement"] where he says 'Allow me to reintroduce myself.' This record allowed me to do that. Infinite Worlds were a very healing thing for me to make and solidified what music meant in my life. And this record was me stepping out of being timid and shyness. I wanted everything to be bold, striking, intense, centered. I wanted this to be a record that, visually, if someone picks it up they know they have to own it because of their curiosity about what it is."

When pressed about production inspiration, she hesitated to name any specific artists, rather pointing to R&B as a whole, however, she found emotional value in Frank Ocean's 2016 masterpiece Blond.

Vagabon - "Flood," from Vagabon

"The duality between active listening and easy listening is something that wowed me about that record. And production-wise, every time you listen to it, there's something new to hold onto, something new that's your favorite. Just having a queer black person be able to put out this kind of a record that does so well, in the year that it did, just knowing that it can exist is inspiring to me."

Similar to Blond, Vagabon is a deceptively acute record. It can be a catchy car-ride album or, it can be an ocean with countless details that enrich Tamko's broad strokes, like the lush synth lines that hold up the vocals of "Water Me Down," or the hi-hat rolls that drift throughout all of the mid-tempo jam "Flood."

Unsurprisingly, Tamko has succeeded in making another captivating album while taking an untraditional path, once again showing that there's no one way, recording technique, or set of checkboxes needed to make an impactful, lasting record.

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