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How Vagabon Found Her Voice in a Suburban Costco

Singer-songwriter Laetitia Tamko is an Artist You Need to Know

Vagabon

Learon Coleman for Rolling Stone

Costco sells everything from diapers to coffins, a kind of lifecycle in retail. Laetitia Tamko’s most vital purchase at the super-store came somewhere in between childhood (baby formula) and adulthood (vinyl siding): the dinky starter Fender she picked up at age 17.

“I love Costco,” Tamko — who writes and records contemplative songs as Vagabon — says as she strolls through the entryway of a chain store somewhere in Brooklyn on a recent Friday night. Her pace is much more leisurely than those of the people surrounding her, with their carts full of $4.99 rotisserie chickens, bulk apples, and jumbo bottles of olive oil. The air is tinged with the aroma of Kirkland apple pie and pierced with the wails of toddlers.

Tamko, 26, walks bright and unruffled among the sea of products, her close-cropped hair matching her bright-orange NASA jacket. She’s about to release her self-titled second album, a record that expands her toolkit from bedroom indie rock to pop to African music to trap and back again. Talking to NPR, who premiered the album back in October, Tamko called Vagabon a “flex,” an exercise in eclectic music-making. She played every part and sang every note on the new album — going from six strings to anything she could conjure from the depths of Logic.

Tonight, though, she’s on the hunt for the same model of guitar her parents purchased for her at the local Costco in her one-time hometown of Yonkers, New York. That instrument helped turn a curious aspiring musician into an entirely self-reliant one, an artist who works with what she has with a remarkable precision, no notes left behind.

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“When you start to learn on instruments that aren’t the best, you can actually get pretty good,” Tamko says as she mounts the escalators to the second floor. She thinks the little Fender she’s seeking might be near the enormous produce locker, an indoor arctic-blast zone crammed with utility-sized trays of salad greens. “And it came with a very crucial instructional DVD. It wasn’t so much about the guitar really, it’s that I had access to the DVD, which was a very convenient mode of learning. It was what my parents could afford.”

Tamko was born and raised in Cameroon until age 13, after which her family of academics moved to the U.S. so her mother could get a law degree. She wanted to go to music school, but her practical parents guided her toward computers and electrical engineering. They spent some time in the Bronx before moving just outside New York City to Yonkers, where their mathematically-inclined daughter first started trying to make music. Late nights after finishing her homework, Tamko would go to her room and practice songs she heard on the radio — Taylor Swift, or anything else with a guitar.

She went on to study engineering in college, graduating at the same time to nicer instruments — first a Danelectro guitar (a brand favored by the likes of Beck and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck) and eventually a Fender Strat. “That’s definitely the guitar for me,” she says as she navigates her way into a haunted holiday forest of Halloween skeletons and plastic Christmas trees.

Tamko keeps going past a nearby karaoke machine as she talks about becoming Vagabon. The first song she wrote under that name was “Cold Apartment,” a spare track that showcases her rich, deep voice and a crash-down chaos of guitar and drums; it ended up as one of the highlights of her 2017 debut, Infinite Worlds.

“[Making music] is just following something that is speaking to me and bringing it to fruition,” she says. “I’m making whatever my gut is screaming for me to make.”

Tamko mostly works in her bedroom studio in Brooklyn. She wakes early to create, and when the sun goes down, she stops. Sometimes she does calculus to unwind, looking up project sets online to clear her brain of the day’s work.

Everything she makes in those sessions, she keeps. “There are no outtakes,” she says. “I work on every song until it gets to the point where it’s done. It allows you to really explore what the song means. Usually I can get a song to the point where I feel it sounds like it should. I see it through.”

That attention to detail is evident in Tamko’s music. Each song feels intentional and self-contained, from ruminations on being a small fish (“Sharks,” off of her 2014 EP Persian Garden) to songs about race and identity (“Wits About You,” from her most recent album). They’re all beautiful and sharp.

Tamko honed her sound through the early 2010s on the Brooklyn DIY scene, playing venues like the Silent Barn (rest in peace) and figuring out how to bring her one-woman project to the stage. “It felt like the exact space I needed to be in,” she says. “I felt like I was seeing the potential of how I could feel. It was the beginning. A humble beginning.”

Soon, she left her day job as a computer engineer and went on the road with Infinite Worlds, feeling more confident about her music and her ability to perform. With the new album, Tamko says she’s starting to find her place more clearly. “It was coming from a place of confidence,” she says. “The first one was coming from a place of processing and feeling. This one is about having more space for myself and writing music about that experience.”

Finally, Tamko reaches the end of the aisle. There’s not a guitar in sight, but there is a kid, fingers dancing erratically across an electric keyboard. Maybe he’ll take it home and play it every night while his parents are asleep. Maybe he’ll just leave behind fingerprints.

“It’s worth it for the autonomy over your music,” she says of her solitary process. “It’s worth it to make exactly what you want to make. It’s worth it to stay true to your vision. It’s long and it’s painstaking, and maybe it’s not forever, but this is my second record. I’m still finding my artistic voice, and I think it’s important to not silence it too early.”

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