Freak-Folk Rising: Vagabon's Laetitia Tamko Tames Her Demons in Real Time

Tamko’s early songs are simple, sometimes eerie snapshots of loneliness.EXPAND
Tamko’s early songs are simple, sometimes eerie snapshots of loneliness.
Adrienne Grunwald

Vagabon frontwoman Laetitia Tamko says she often can't bear to look at anyone right after a set. "It's like they just caught me naked," she tells the Voice, sitting in her skylighted Bushwick living room beneath a wall tapestry of a serene forest. "I just bolt out, and I'll always come back, but I have to re-collect myself a little bit."

It's a good thing she made an exception for Jeanette Wall, with whom she stopped to talk following a set in July 2014. The founder of Miscreant Records had just seen Vagabon perform as part of an all-girl lineup at Brooklyn's Silent Barn and told Tamko she wanted to release her EP. At the time, the freak-folk act consisted solely of the 23-year-old and her red guitar; Wall vividly remembers hearing Tamko spout the line, "You're a shark that eats every fish!" from the song "Sharks," a plaint about feeling small in the face of aggression. The words, according to Wall, seemed to escape her mouth in a rush of pure catharsis — and while the imagery struck her as funny, the song was sad, honest, and "cinematic, like a conversation and a fight."

The EP, called Persian Garden, comprises simple, direct, sometimes eerie snapshots of loneliness and frustration, and represents a collection of the first songs Tamko ever wrote. Vagabon has gained a following as she's toured the country (now backed by bassist Eva Lawitts and drummer Elise Okusami), and news of her has spread by word of mouth. Tamko — who will perform these as well as songs from her next album at a return appearance at Silent Barn this week — says she never imagined that so many people would hear what she calls the "archives of my memories."

And she has a lot of memories, not all of them completely sorted out. "I often tell people that I just fell into [music]," says Tamko, who considered herself a music novice when, at seventeen, her parents bought her a Fender acoustic from Costco (she taught herself to play using the accompanying instructional DVDs). Only recently did she remember how completely music had filled her childhood in Cameroon, where she lived until she was thirteen. Every Sunday, her parents' friends convened with their instruments to play and dance, with Tamko singing melodies she'd heard from her mother and grandmother as they cleaned and cooked.

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But all these skilled singers, thumb piano players, and hand drummers didn't consider themselves musicians — including Tamko's father, who's alluded to having sung on several West African jazz records. Music was something done to pass the time, no more extraordinary than knowing how to ride a bike. Tamko thinks her father won't elaborate simply because he can't conceive of why it would be interesting.

The household didn't exactly go quiet when Tamko's family left Cameroon for Westchester. She still listened to Whitney Houston on her Hello Kitty stereo as she cried in her room, a teenager with no friends — and an African girl in a white, suburban school — but music took a backseat to education. Vagabon, born in Tamko's late college years, evolved behind white lies to her parents about nights and weekends spent in the library. Only after Persian Garden was released did they finally learn their daughter was a musician, one whose artistic career was taking flight.

Listening to the EP now, Tamko says, she can hear the fear and powerlessness in her voice; it's the voice, she says, smiling, of someone overwhelmed by parental pressure to pursue a computer engineering degree and unsure of herself artistically. The songs don't actually come across this way, but a few tours later, Tamko's growth as a musician has taught her to trust herself.

The new songs she's recording read as incitements to herself: to own her success and defy anyone else to claim it. "You only get to say these words because we enabled it," she sings on one. "You were only a casualty and I'm cleaning house again." Even the spare, haunting lead track of Persian Garden, "Cold Apartment Floors," has, since its release, undergone a radical rearrangement. What used to be a lament about the end of a relationship has been transformed into an angry cry — as if Tamko's music were not just catharsis, now, but also therapy. Maybe her onstage magnetism is related in part to the voyeuristic draw of watching the artist tame her demons in real time.

"Laetitia is a skilled musician, but she plays in a way that often feels untrained," says Chris Daly, the New Paltz–based producer behind Salvation Records who is recording her new material. "Sometimes when you don't know or don't care, things can happen that are absolutely magical. She has a lack of inhibition, an ability to just sing from the gut and heart and have it be so honest and real."

Being so honest — perhaps a reason Tamko feels so naked after shows — has its risks: not just overexposure, but the threat of being mischaracterized despite her candor, a worry that can be especially acute for a black, African woman among indie rock's predominantly white faces. "I struggle with wanting to just make music and do my thing and not have a face, but I also want to be visible," says Tamko of constantly being described as a "black woman musician." How, in other words, to "perform as myself, in just the way that I was made" without people defining her work reductively?

Tamko wrestles with being constrained by the same music world — within Brooklyn and on the road — that has given her purpose and community, even if it remains disconnected from a past she's proud of but hasn't fully brought into her present. She points out, for instance, that while she couldn't even speak English when she arrived, there's no trace of a Cameroonian French accent in her speech today. "I wish I got the accent," she says, and laughs.

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