Vagabon‘s Laetitia Tamko has only been writing her own music since January of 2014, but she’s been playing rad shows at rad venues and making a bevy of cool musical friends since then. Vagabon was actually recommended to me by fellow Musicians Talk Making It interviewee Katie Capri of Fern Mayo; when I first saw Vagabon, they were playing at this amazing Planned Parenthood benefit at Silent Barn. Tamko, a native of Cameroon, is a great person to talk to about successfully making music because she started out without any fancy equipment: her first instrument happened to be a very cheap guitar.
“I was reluctantly gifted an acoustic guitar from my parents for my 17th birthday,” she said. “It was like the equivalent of those First Act guitars they make for kids … they got it from Costco. I learned the open chords then never touched it again until January 2014 when I began writing songs that would eventually be performed as Vagabon.”
As a result, Tamko says that it didn’t cost her anything start playing out. And like I said, she’s moved up quickly: Vagabon is her first band, and got started when Tamko started practicing the guitar again in early 2014. Vagabon is Tamko and a “revolving door of cool people;” she’s been able to meet them just by being around the music scene.
“I’d say going to shows helps. I’ve met really great people that I’d love to work with by either going to or playing a show.”
At the beginning, much like with her cheap guitar, Tamko worked with what (and who) she had. The first person to join her in Vagabon was the only “musical friend” she had.
“I had all these songs written, and soon enough he began playing second guitar to my songs.”
They added a drummer and performed as a three piece for a year or so, but eventually the lineup changed to Tamko on vocals/guitar, Eva Lawitts on bass and Elise Okusami on drums. Tamko and Okusami met, as musicians are wont to do, at a show.
When I saw Vagabon at that Silent Barn show, they were joined by Gabrielle Smith of fellow amazing Brooklyn band Eskimeaux. It was pretty great. And apparently, the first Vagabon show was at Silent Barn as well, in March of 2014 with Told Slant and The Flies?.
“I remember being so into Told Slant and being elated that Felix (from the band) wanted to play a random Thursday evening with a total stranger,” Tamko says. “Now Felix is a good friend of mine and I always remember that first interaction of me sending them a demo and getting a response.”
I asked about the dreaded Pay to Play scams that are the scourge of a lot of music scenes (not just New York). Tamko says that while she’s heard of this phenomenon happening elsewhere, where artists are expected to sell a certain number of physical tickets in order to be able to play a venue, she’s never had to pay to play in the DIY scene here.
“Usually you are the one who gets paid, even if it’s just for transportation or just three drinks,” she said. “From my experience, you never have to pay to play.”
When you listen to Vagabon, their songs are sweet and raw and honest, with Tamko’s smoky, ethereal voice soaring over cool guitar and drum parts. I asked her about her writing process:
“I write all the songs and my guitar parts then bring it to the band and they write their prospective parts,” she said. “I consider the Persian Garden EP the songs that were first written. The narrative is embarrassingly transparent and the first song I wrote from the collection was ‘Cold Apartment Floors.’ It was inspired by many different things as it tends to hop around in stories but mostly about feeling like you missed out because you didn’t share a specific sentiment.”
And her advice for newer musicians on writing their own material is to follow her lead:
“Let it come from a genuine place,” she said. “Nothing trumps music that is honest.”
Tamko was born in Cameroon and currently lives in Bushwick. The thing that I know about Cameroon is that it was also the birthplace of the first-ever winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Bebe Zahara Benet, another stunning performer.
A thing that I know about Bushwick is that that is where they keep some of my personal favorite places to see music, which are also Tamko’s favorite places to play:
“My favorite places to play in Brooklyn are Shea Stadium and Silent Barn,” she said. “I also love Baby’s All Right, but unlike my two other favorites, Baby’s is not all ages. I love Silent Barn because they are very supportive of Vagabon, and along with Shea Stadium they are working hard to remain standing while the all-ages spaces continue to diminish increasingly.”
Tamko says that the best gig she ever played was that Planned Parenthood fundraiser, while the worst was one at a bar on the Lower East Side. As opposed to Shea Stadium or Silent Barn, where people go with the express intention of seeing rad live music, this bar was where Tamko realized that “people don’t go to bars to watch anyone play their stupid songs.”
But lots of people want to hear Vagabon play their songs. The best thing that Tamko has heard about her music, she says, was, “I cried.” The worst? “Cute.” Ahh, the old “you’re a lady musician, how precious” attitude. Love that.
You can listen to Vagabon on Spotify. I asked Tamko how they got on there.
“I actually don’t know how to get on Spotify. Jeanette Wall, who runs Miscreant Records, is a powerful powerful human who put out the Vagabon EP in 2014. She handled all of those things!”
Vagabon isn’t signed to a single label, but the aforementioned Miscreant Records is a very big source of support for Vagabon.
“When I met Jeanette over at Miscreant, she saw me play alone and after the show, mentioned an interest in putting a Vagabon tape out through her label,” Tamko said. “I’m so grateful she did!”
So what we’ve learned from Vagabon is, work with what you’ve got. Be honest with yourself and your music. And get out there and play, even if you’re just playing on an instrument from a store mostly known for selling bulk mayonnaise.
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