It’s only 28 minutes long, but Infinite Worlds covers a lot of ground. The first full-length record from the New York-based Vagabon — the pseudonym of Lætitia Tamko — stays true to its title, providing a complex, multifaceted introduction to the artist behind it (not counting her 2014 EP Persian Garden). There’s defiant indie rock, R&B-tinged balladry, brash and anxious punk, and synth-driven sound collage — and that’s just in the album’s first half. It’s nothing if not ambitious, and Tamko’s reach never exceeds her grasp.
“I’m into a lot of different music, and a lot of the music that I listen to every day doesn’t sound like the music I make,” says Tamko, who is currently touring as the opening act for Birmingham native Allison Crutchfield. “I think that I grab a lot of different things from a lot of different artists and genres and instruments. And so in sequencing this album, it was very purposeful. Like, ‘What is the emotion I want to evoke in the listener from the time they start the record to the time they finish side A to the time they start and finish side B? How do I keep them rewinding the record?’”
With Infinite Worlds, Tamko seems to have found the answer. The record has received a bevy of critical acclaim, with Pitchfork hailing Vagabon as “an indie rock game changer.” The A.V. Club, meanwhile, called the album a “flawless, genre-hopping debut.”
Tamko recently spoke with Weld about her creative evolution, genre experimentations, and the value of all-ages venues for up-and-coming musicians.
Weld: You released Persian Garden a little over two years ago — and both in terms of songwriting and production, Infinite Worlds seems like a huge step forward. What has that evolution been like from your perspective?
Lætitia Tamko: All the songs that were on Persian Garden were the first songs that I’d ever written. It was on a new instrument, writing songs for the first time, recording them a week after writing them — and now they’re out into the world. The process was very quick and very raw. I didn’t really know much of what I was doing except for expressing myself.
I think over the years since that came out, I’ve just been honing my skills in how to be a musician with longevity or a musician that challenges themselves [so] that every body of work that they make is true to them but also offers a very true and pronounced sign of growth. In thinking about Infinite Worlds, it was important for me to really think everything through, from the production to the songwriting to the sequencing to the colors of the album.
Weld: The clearest examples of that evolution are the reworked versions of older songs that appear on Infinite Worlds. Your song “Sharks,” for example, has been reshaped into “The Embers.” What was the process of revisiting those songs?
Tamko: Those songs are so fun for me to rework, because I had sat with them for so long. “Sharks’” new vocal came pretty organically, because it was a song that I found people really loved when I played it live on tour, and it was a song that people constantly referenced. I knew that I hadn’t beaten it to death yet, to use that terrible term. [Laughs]
[While] touring a lot, and trying to keep things interesting for myself, I am constantly rearranging my songs. Much like when Kanye pulled down The Life of Pablo and reposted it with edits — I’m not Kanye, so I can’t do that, but I have the same thoughts — and I think a lot of musicians and artists have the same thoughts.
I toured Persian Garden for two years, and in all those tours, I had to make it interesting for myself and interesting for people who were seeing me for the second, third, or fourth time, but also for people who were seeing me for the first time. Then when it came time to be in the studio and record them, it just clicked, like, ‘I’m going to play it just like I played it live.’ That’s something that people who hadn’t gone to my show weren’t privy to.
Weld: Infinite Worlds also has the track “Mal à L’aise,” which, as an instrumental electronic track, really deviates from the lyric-driven rock of the rest of the album. Where did that come from?
Tamko: That song was the last song off the record that I did. It was not recorded in the studio; it was recorded in bedrooms. It came about from a conversation I had with a friend who makes music, and he’s kind of the person that, whenever I want to demo new songs, I go to his home studio and he has all these synths that I could never afford. It’s a playground for me.
That [song] came together after I did some vocal work on his record and in the same vein, I wanted to display part of our collaborative relationship on the record. He had this one song that I don’t think he’d even titled or released or anything, … and I was like, “Holy crap. I have to sample this song.”
I was looking for something to tie the album together in a way that I wanted to, to break up side A and side B very obviously. So when I heard that track of his and wanted to sample, I knew I wanted to put trap hats on it. I knew that I wanted to put in a boomier bass drum and make it five minutes long. That piece was a collage of a lot of different things.
It was also just me flexing my production muscles. A lot of music I listen to is hip-hop or rap or pop music, and producers are constantly sampling songs that they really love. I really wanted to make a collage of a lot of different sounds that I loved, and remix elements and put in a weird French-speaking part and stop singing for a track.
Weld: A big part of your musical beginning happened at the Silent Barn, an all-ages venue in Brooklyn.
Tamko: I played there a lot, yeah. Silent Barn was the place where I played the first Vagabon show in the winter of 2014. Ever since then, basically, I just kept booking my own shows there, or people and musicians would ask me to play shows. In the subculture in New York, there are a handful of venues that are all-ages, and Silent Barn is one of the prominent ones, along with Shea Stadium [a Brooklyn recording studio and venue]. There was such a time when I found myself playing there every weekend.
It was just from being very active and honing my live set and my skills as a live performer, because I think that’s its own thing, like recording is its own thing, and then being a presence live is its own thing. So really, all-ages venues around New York were where I was playing every week and getting pretty good.
Weld: Other members of the Silent Barn community are starting to see real success nationally — for example, Frankie Cosmos. And now, you’re beginning to reach a larger audience, too. Is there something about that community that facilitates that success?
Tamko: There is so much talent in New York, and there are so many bands, and it can be really difficult, I think, to penetrate any subculture where there are just so many people who are so incredible. Every night there’s a show, and it can be really tough, but it can also mean that you’re around some of the most inspiring musicians and hard-working go-getters.
… It’s pretty inspiring to be around. And having friends who have an idea of what you’re going through, or having friends who are constantly on the road and you never see them — it’s kind of weird, but it’s also pretty cool and pretty inspiring.
Tamko: I think [all-ages spaces] are really important, honestly. I know that most of this tour is in all-ages spaces. I’ve never been to Birmingham. This will be my first time, so I’m really excited.
I think it’s really important to keep them open and continue to support them and see live music there, because the people who need to see this are probably not over 21. And by “this,” I mean examples of themselves in what seems like a very real and legitimate way. Some of the best music I’ve ever seen from the most down-to-earth people are at all-ages venues.
Weld: When people write about your music, there’s one common reaction that seems to follow you around — this sort of surprise at the novelty of a black woman making indie rock. Do you worry about being pigeonholed by that kind of coverage?
Tamko: My natural instinct was to say, ‘I can never be pigeonholed,’ which is pretty sassy. [Laughs] But I think that I’m going to fight very hard against that, and I’m going to make it very hard for people to do that. That’s just by being true to myself.
Like most people, I’m very nuanced and complex and multi-dimensional. I can’t control what people write or what they look at me and see, but what I have control of is my music and the things that I decide to share with people. So, you know, next record I may go full-on trap! I just feel very confident of whatever it is I want, and I’m hopeful that the initial shock and the sensationalism can just, like, stop.
Vagabon will open for Allison Crutchfield and the Fizz at the Syndicate Lounge on Saturday, March 11. Doors for the 18-and-up show open at 8 p.m. and the show begins at 9 p.m. Tickets are $8 in advance and $10 the day of the show. For more information, visit facebook.com/thesyndicateloungebham.