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Vagabon’s Many Faces

How Lætitia Tamko’s Album Explores The Multifaceted Self

On October 18, 2019

Lætitia Tamko’s Vagabon begins and ends with a full moon in Gemini. When I mention that Gemini Moon “leads with the thinking mind, even when talking about feelings,” she laughs; she just, literally, wrote the song on a full moon in Gemini. All the same, she admires the resonance of this second meaning.

Tamko, who performs as Vagabon, is a Gemini rising herself and identifies with its central definition: a two-sided being with an often-changing mind.

“This is the first album I made where sonically and lyrically, they feel like two different entities merged into one,” Tamko says. “I feel like sonically — without the vocals, without the lyrics and the melodies of my voice — it leads with thinking. But with the songs as a whole, I would say [they lead with] feeling.”

Vagabon, out October 18 on Nonesuch Records, showcases Tamko’s ceaseless self-exploration, nagging rootlessness, and inescapable yearning. Throughout the record, she’s a singular, self-scrutinizing body, standing solitary amid the blur of others’ comings and goings. As this album exists outside of genre — R&B? the ineffable “indie”? the tracks repel definition — it feels like a body unto itself.

Drawn to both “first thought, best thought” and tapping into a “beginner’s mind,” on Vagabon Tamko experiments with new instrumentation and effects, and then archives her organic discoveries within the album. A beginner’s mind begs openness and exploration, and with a series of tracks tied together mostly in theme and voice (and less in melody), each song is an exploration unto itself — just put the bouncy pop single “Water Me Down” next to the driven, slow grind of “Flood.” Ever in that exploratory mindset, Tamko records alone, where such sonically variable tracks are made uninterrupted.

“I tend to be in isolation in general — I’m a homebody, I’m a nester — and because it’s a part of who I am, my character, my personality, it’s bound to trickle into the actual contents of the music,” Tamko says.

It’s unsurprising, then, that so much of the album focuses on isolation, whether it’s the speaker on “Full Moon in Gemini” who puts self-care first and knows “I’ll be done / When you won’t be around anymore” or the simple plea on “Please Don’t Leave the Table” that adds after its title line, “I’m still eating.”

Deep synth pairs with Tamko’s well-deep, syrupy alto in a cascade of surprises, from the hymnal choir of “In a Bind” to the echoey “Flood.” Tamko, aware of how different Vagabon is from its drum- and guitar-led predecessor, 2017’s Infinite Worlds, deliberately ordered tracks to guide listeners through this new experience. Perhaps most significant to the album’s story is the standout track “All the Women in Me” — it conjures generational power, female legacy, and the multifaceted self in only three and a half minutes. Originally the album’s title, Tamko wants it to serve as an “explanation” of the record, an ode to those who came before her (“I use [‘Women’ in the title] very non-gendered, in that I’m talking about the people who are very much marginalized, minorities”) and a big sister to those who are coming up.

“It’s kind of also speaking to how many versions of me are on this whole album and how many versions of me I’m so fortunate to be able to explore freely,” Tamko says. “Acknowledging that privilege and honoring the women who allowed for me to be able to freely express so many versions of myself.”

“The more that people like me are able to have a little bit of power, to have a little bit of say, the more we can leave the door open for other people like us to have more power and more say.”
Lætitia Tamko

When she was younger and had just moved from Cameroon to the U.S., Tamko’s musical ancestors very much lived on MTV and the Grammys: Her world was populated by the likes of Fefe Dobson, Mariah Carey, and Mary J. Blige. Those pop stars taught her how to command a space and how to employ a work ethic. Later, playing in DIY spaces, she found community among other musicians and realized that there were multiple paths to making music her livelihood.

“I’ve found so much comfort in the friendships that I’ve made and the folks who are really invested in non-jealousy, non-gatekeeper culture… I’m really interested in forming community around Vagabon, community around the messages that are really important to me and helping other people come up, and kind of smashing gate-kepeer elitist music industry stuff,” Tamko says. “The more that people like me are able to have a little bit of power, to have a little bit of say, the more we can leave the door open for other people like us to have more power and more say.”

Curiously, the album ends with a reprise of the first song, but with another singer; Tamko is absent. It sounds like another lover, singing Tamko’s song to a lover of their own. How much do we repeat our own destructive patterns? How many versions of ourselves can we see in Vagabon? The album takes us through a hall of mirrors, confronting our own faces at every turn, cut into a hundred jarring angles. Hopefully, as Tamko sings on “Water Me Down,” we can learn from this introspection: “I’ll take my time next time / And I’ll do it right.”

Profile Picture of Caitlin Wolper
Caitlin Wolper

Caitlin Wolper is a writer whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Vulture, Slate, MTV News, Teen Vogue, and more. Her first poetry chapbook, Ordering Coffee in Tel Aviv, was published in October by Finishing Line Press. She shares her music and poetry thoughts (with a bevy of exclamation points, and mostly lowercase) at @CaitlinWolper.

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