For Lætitia Tamko, aka Vagabon, escaping the US to Germany was the sensical thing to do following the death of her best friend. In a small lakeside village, with no phone service, restaurants, shops or entertainment to divert her pain, Lætitia reckoned with the loss. She’d experienced a tragedy; an integral figure in her life and relationship to music was now gone. But her grief fast-transformed into a strange, unexpected freedom - one that invited an unravelling, both personally and musically.
It’s only 9am in New York when the Cameroonian-American, self-taught multi-instrumentalist joins our call today. She’s not entirely sure what timezone her body is in, having returned home from the buzz of LA, and doesn’t have too long to settle. There’s a sense of adrenaline-fuelled glee as she anticipates the release of her third studio album, the Rostam co-produced ‘Sorry I Haven’t Called’: a swirling reinvention tied up in grief and personal revelation. This month, she’ll begin touring the record throughout Europe, supporting close friend Arlo Parks, which, following a four-year live hiatus for the musician, is daunting. But she says there’s “something special about doing the tour with one of my best friends.”
The pair, who met through mutual pal Lindsey Jordan (better known to us as Snail Mail), turned “letters into calls, into FaceTime, into [the rest]”. Although ‘Sorry I Haven’t Called’ will drop while she’s on the road, Lætitia says being with Arlo is the best place she could be when it happens. “It’s not often that you meet someone you feel so connected with,” she smiles. “The thought that I will be with one of my best friends to hold me in that sensitive time of releasing this body of work - that I’ve been working on for three years, on and off - is really comforting.”
Amid rehearsals and “practising which songs we’re [joining for] in each other’s sets”, the prelude to dropping ‘Sorry I Haven’t Called’ has been surprisingly smooth-sailing - aside from a niggling anxiety that fans might have forgotten her during the interim. Her debut, 2017’s ‘Infinite Worlds’, was a quiet hit, while touring for its self-titled, critically acclaimed 2019 follow-up was cut short for obvious reasons. In a 2022 podcast, Seek Treatment with Catherine Cohen and Pat Regan, she confessed this too caused a sense of mourning. All this grief, yet ‘Sorry I Haven’t Called’ is completely liberating, and her smile starts to peer through in all she says.
Partly inspired by Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time - specifically, a quote which reads, “If there is one thing as noisy as suffering, it is pleasure” - Lætitia decided to switch gears for LP3. It wasn’t easy, but in that very sleepy, very isolated German village, as time washed over her, loss welcomed an odd change. Through sonic catharsis, she began to careen towards a life of self satisfaction. “I expected to have really sad songs pouring out of me and the opposite happened,” she explains. “The [Proust] line about pain, pleasure, noise - it resonated. I documented my grief in a way that is not what I expected.”
Throughout the record there’s a fearlessness towards life; a bravery to seek pleasure even if it contradicts pain. It’s not a rarity that such juxtapositions exist - many artists turn to escapism in turmoil - but Tamko hadn’t avoided anything at all. In the aftermath of loss, when a deep-dive into sorrow is expected, she instead asked: What if we dive back into life instead?
“I think grief is freedom. You find something so unbearable that it completely breaks you down. You become a newborn,” she nods. “None of the old stuff works. None of the things that used to make you happy, make you happy; the things I used to care about, I no longer care about. That’s freedom. It’s forced upon you. When you have to restart like that, you get to make new rules for yourself.”
“I think grief is freedom. You find something so unbearable that it completely breaks you down. You become a newborn.”
These new rules - letting go of insecurity, taking life a little less seriously, unapologetically seeking catharsis - have thrown much of the established Vagabon sound out the window; on ‘Sorry I Haven’t Called’, Lætitia re-engineers it from scratch. She leans into upbeat pop and bedroom house sensibilities not present on her heady, indie debut, written from deep within the New York punk scene, nor on the airy electronica of ‘Vagabon’, when the artist began playing in experimental landscapes. “For the first time, I feel like I’ve found my sound,” she says proudly.
Lyrically, the narrative of ‘Sorry I Haven’t Called’ differs from the cavernous introspection that patterned previous records too, instead reading like smoking a joint in a friend’s attic room, hanging out a window, catching up on not only grief but resentments, insecurities and jealousies amid dusky, summery shit-talking. It’s light, casual, and communal. “Can I talk my shit?” she asks on the opening track of the same name - a daydreamy, vivacious soft-pop banger, inviting listeners to “feel lightness” about dark conversations.
“I’ve been enjoying finding humour in my writing lately. A lot of the lyrics come from real [conversations]. I found that, when I let go - whatever letting go was - I started to talk the way I talk to my best friend,” she says. “I grew up reserved culturally, and there was a euphoric feeling when I wrote exactly what I had just said to my friend. I want the listener to know that it’s not that deep. It’s deep, yes, but it’s not that deep.”
Lætitia’s resistance to life’s malaise is felt on lead single ‘Carpenter’, a confessional on avoidance and fear that, on the contrary, is led by joyously soft tropical pop and gentle afrobeats. On the aforementioned ‘Can I Talk My Shit?’, she narrates a high stream-of-consciousness, and on the smoky pop noir of ‘Autobahn’, she shares she will now only follow roads that serve her best interests. There’s a warmth vibrating through ‘Sorry I Haven’t Called’, a promise to honour the joy her late friend brought to her life.
It’s poetic that, during her youth, Tamko’s mother would mostly listen to music for ceremonial reasons - primarily Western and Central African music - and today ‘Sorry I Haven’t Called’ will too serve its own sacramental purpose, one of ushering in a sonic reinvention while cementing the legacy of a friend. On tour with Parks, she hopes the stage will offer catharsis through the formation of a communal atmosphere, together with the “smart listeners” she’s garnered over the years. Although ‘Sorry I Haven’t Called’ is complete, Lætitia’s healing is only getting started.
“I’m only two years in [to this loss]. I remain curious about where this journey will go over the years,” she says. “But there is freedom that comes with dealing with such unbearable grief.”
‘Sorry I Haven’t Called’ is out now via Nonesuch.
As featured in the September 2023 issue of DIY, out now.