Inspirations: Vagabon Journeys to Faraway R&B Worlds on Dazzling Sophomore LP


Inspirations is a Billboard interview franchise that examines the process behind new standout releases. 

Behind her first full length as Vagabon, the Cameroon-born, New York City-based Lætitia Tamko, endeared herself to Brooklyn's DIY community, scored Best New Music honors from Pitchfork, toured with Tegan and Sara, and earned a flurry of offers from prominent indie labels to release her highly-anticipated follow-up. But when she quit her job in in electrical and computer engineering to take Vagabon full time, the 26-year old had no intention of taking the rumbling indie rock that defined 2017's Infinite Worlds for a victory lap. 

"No one's exclusively listening to one thing, so I want an album to be kind of like a mixtape," Tamko tells Billboard days before the Oct. 18 release of her self-produced, self-titled sophomore album on Nonesuch Records. "Maybe it's to my detriment, but I haven’t yet looked at albums as [making] super-cohesive things that don't jump around." 

Recording for the same label as storied shape-shifters like David Byrne and Jonny Greenwood, Vagabon sprawls into worlds unknown. Where Infinite Worlds only hinted at digital textures (mainly the Logic-crafted instrumental centerpiece "Mal à L'aise") its follow-up basks in sunset synth-scapes alongside oases of elegant strings, horns, and background vocals. And Tamko hasn't forgotten the first instrument she taught herself: On the heartbreaking "In A Bind," the album's most striking song, gentle guitar fingerpicks nestle a reverie of humid synths and wisps of choral smoke. 

Speaking on a Billboard podcast two years ago, Tamko said she'd love to play a show in Cameroon, but admitted the whole idea felt worlds away. "I haven't been back home in nine years so I'm a little out of the loop," Tamko now says, "but [playing in] Africa in general is not as far-fetched as it was then." 

Between reaching new audiences and expanding her sound, Tamko swells with ambition. "I want to carve out my own lane. I want others to see that I'm growing. I want to produce other [musicians]. I want to do big shit. I want to play late night, I want to do it all. That's my most honest thing. I just want to be me, the biggest thing ever to come out of Cameroon." 

Below, the Vagabon leader guides us through the sounds, words, people, and places that helped her realize those ambitions. 

Retro vinyl designs. "The cover art is a direct inspiration from vinyl that was coming out of Africa during the '60s, '70s, and '80s," Tamko says. "There were a lot of vibrant blues, yellows, and oranges, with these cool typefaces. If someone's picking stuff out at record stores, I want them to want to own it." 

Music that "slaps." "I'm listening to a ton of hip-hop all the time," Tamko says. "I don't rap but I just wanted to make something that slaps — something that hits the same way as the hip-hop." While crafting Vagabon, Tamko found this energy in uptempo R&B music, from the Mariah Carey records that dominated radio when she first moved to New York in the mid 2000s to recent albums from SZA and The Internet

Specifcially, the "Crazy In Love" brass section. "Speaking of the 2000s stuff, I recently put together why I was so interested in horns," Tamko says. "Beyoncé has a lot of horn hooks… After you stop listening to the song, the part you want to keep humming is the horn part," she says of the 2003 smash. Tamko cites Beyoncé as a reference for "Please Don't Leave the Table," which features her friends Sasami Ashworth and Melina Duterte on French horn and trumpet, respectively. 

Irreplaceable gear. A couple instruments hold particular value for Tamko: an SP-404 sampler she's been performing with since her mid 2010s DIY show days and an MS-20 synthesizer she's had just as long, which she used for the bass synth lines throughout Vagabon. "I was going to a friend's bedroom to record all of those parts with the MS-20. Having this place to go was pretty sentimental for me in making this record."

Tamko crafted much of Vagabon in her own home as well, often fleshing out song bits she'd come up with on the road. The rumbling indie rock of Infinite Worlds was born from New York punk venues like Shea Stadium and Silent Barn; but with those spaces now closed and Tamko playing larger rooms, her sound evolved with her surroundings. "I can't play really loud guitar or drums in my bedroom in New York City," she explains. "So the music naturally took on the scenery's sonic landscape." 

Books that take the edge off. "Reading is one of my ways of escaping anguish while making music," Tamko says. "The song 'Secret Medicine' came after I was reading this book, a translation of Rumi poems." Other books Tamko enjoyed during the process include The Feel Trio by Fred Moten and Women by Chloe Caldwell. 

Challenging choreography. In the music video for "Water Me Down," Tamko breezes through a series of intricate dance moves, under the guidance of collaborator Derek Nemechek. "It's the most upbeat song I've ever made — I just wanted a visual depiction of me being joyous," she says. But performing it to her standards was a hard-earned process. Over three weeks in Orange County, Tamko logged regular three-hour rehearsals with Nemechek and her backing dancers to make the routine appear convincing throughout the video's many camera angles. "I love dancing but you won’t catch me dancing that full throttle anywhere but an African wedding," she says. 

Her new label. In the wake of Infinite Worlds — released on the small indie Father/Daughter Records, which Tamko retains a strong relationship with — the bandleader fielded offers from approximately ten different labels. Late in the game, with Vagabon nearly completed, she decided to go with Nonesuch. 

"It felt like a power move on my part," she says. "The reason I signed with Nonesuch is because it's a classical music and art label. They have long-term career artists and that's what I see myself becoming. I'm excited to be in the company of Björk and Laurie Anderson. My A&R, Kris Chen, who used to work at XL Records, has done all these amazing things for artists like Vampire Weekend and Ibeyi… I wanted to be in a space where the label does things I don't know anything about that I can learn from and I'm doing things the label doesn't know about. That makes everyone do their best work."