Laetitia Tamko is a songwriter, singer and guitarist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her musical project Vagabon's cassette release ‘Persian Garden’ is one of my favorites of the year. The band recently finished a summer tour, and after being enthralled with their live show, I wrote to Laetitia asking about her tour experience. She told me about being on the road, growing up in Cameroon, coming to the USA just before 9/11, her songwriting process, and bandmates.
K: First I want to know how tour went. This new lineup you're playing with is so spectacular! Y'all seem like you've been playing together for some time, have you? Also, did you grow up seeing much live music or live performances and were they inspiring to your work in Vagabon?
L: Tour was amazing, enlightening, tiring. I want to do it all over again for as long as I can. I'm really happy with how it turned out, I'm also really proud we pulled it off.
This iteration of Vagabon is brand new. We went from being a four piece to being a three piece; we went from a jazz drummer (Zeb Stern, who is the drummer on the record) to now have Elise Okusami; from having a lead guitarist (Eamon McMullen who is also on the record) to now, I'm the sole guitarist. Elise has been playing with Vagabon for two months and Eva has been playing with Vagabon for seven months now and Vagabon has been alive for a little over a year. The three of us have only been playing together since April. So two months.
I didn't grow up seeing live music or having exposure to art for that matter. Culturally, my childhood was different, and the duality between the country I'm from and the country I live in now, informs what I do in Vagabon. Things I conjure up creatively don't draw from any real influence aside from experiences and reactions to places I've been. I started writing 'Persian Garden' before even having a band to play with.
You said you're from a different country? That's interesting to hear that Vagabon is so influenced by geography. What made a big impact or influence on your growing up, in terms of pop culture? TV, movies, billboards, music, whatever.
I was born and raised in Cameroon. Growing up TV that was not international. Stations would play either Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or Dragon Ball Z, with French voice overs. In our house, we weren't allowed to watch more than 30 minutes of TV everyday. It was a very militant, academic-driven kind of household my parents created.
Music was always around though, many people were listening to music. I listened to a lot of makossa growing up, which is a popular style of funk music. Makossa was actually born in Cameroon and Manu Dibango is regarded as the king of Makossa because he made it really popular in the 70s. Michael Jackson actually sampled the line "mamako, mamasa, maka makossa" from Manu Dibango's song and all Cameroonians went wild.
Sometimes we would travel to the village, we call it “Le village / De l'Ouest". The village is beautiful, vast lands and mountains and it’s always much cooler in temperature than the city. There are street merchants selling sugar canes and bananas and everyone grows their own food. In the village there is a style of music made by Bamileke people (my family is from the ethnic group called "Bamileke") called "bensikin" which is broken english "Bend Skin" and there are dances for bensikin. Listening to bensikin music now makes me really nostalgic for how beautiful the village is.
Did you start playing guitar or singing in Cameroon? Maybe just casually as a kid?
I started playing guitar in high school and I've been singing for fun since I was a small child in Cameroon.
When did you move to the States?
Summer of 2001. Whatta time to come to this country!
Oh wow so that would be like just before 9/11 right? What was that like?
I remember what it was like for my parents, terrifying and I would assume made them think about their decision to migrate here. It was scary because we did not speak English at the time and we watched the French news on the internet to learn about what was going on in our new city. As for me, I only remember school being evacuated and then my parents did not hip us to what was going on and why school was just not going to happen for a while. I didn't know there was an attack until school resumed and that's all everyone was talking about.
What do you look for in music collaborators? I know you've played with a few different musicians in Vagabon. What works and what doesn't?
I initially wanted to have a strict band lineup that didn't change and in a less pressure-filled way I'm still striving for that. The first iteration was formed when I didn't know anyone who played music except for those in my band. I didn't know what I wanted out of bandmates both technically and emotionally. It's important for me to be in, and provide, a supportive and productive band dynamic for myself and the people I work with.
What works: uplifting each other, helping each other, supporting each others projects. What doesn't work: entitlement, superiority complex, competition amongst band mates.
I've learned a bit more about what I want from bandmates and that my expectations to play with good people are not out of reach.
If you feel comfortable generalizing a bit, what typically are your biggest challenges in working with male musicians?
My last iteration of this band was with two guys and Eva joined a few months later. I think challenges arise when there is entitlement and power dynamics. I love seeing bands play where the energy between them is great and vibrant and that energy cannot be achieved if bandmates discredit each other. I'm really happy about playing with Elise and Eva in this new Vagabon because we are good musicians in our own ways and when we get together and merge it’s really great and a lot of fun. I feel like the three of us are a force, haha.
You truly are! It is a joy to watch you all play together. When you write songs, what is your process like? Lyrics or guitar first? Both at the same time? When you play a song for Elise and Eva is it 'finished'? How do they get involved?
Thanks! It feels fun to play with them. I write all the songs with just guitar and vocals first. And I bring it to bandmates whenever it's finished. Granted, some things are subject to change once they add their parts to it and I want to alter the vocal melody or my guitar to fit what they're doing. It is taking me a really long time to write our new record because I'm essentially writing the songs to completion and Eva and Elise come in to fill it up and add their sparkle.
When you were last inspired to write a song, what was that like? Maybe it was yesterday or a year ago, whatever, I'm just wondering what happens in the life of Laetitia where you end up being like "ahh, gotta write something down!"
I've been having a really hard time writing songs lately. I wrote something today that I will probably not like tomorrow. When I was writing Persian Garden, it was quick and painless and before I knew it, there was enough for an EP. This time around it’s long and painful and I’m learning a lot of new things about my voice and my writing. It's been 9 months since Persian Garden and it's been the same amount of time since I've written a song I feel like is "complete."
The song I wrote today is about a house near the Cronton-On-Hudson aqueduct that I use to run by when I was a teenager. Every mile on that aqueduct was numbered by what looks like tall water wells made of cinderblocks. I've had that imagery in my head for a long time.