It’s a dilemma that plagues every young artist who unexpectedly finds fame.
You pour a lifetime worth of angst, emotion, and turmoil into your debut album, not for the purpose of financial success or fame, but as a cathartic, necessary outlet to document your personal story. If someone listens to your work, it’s a blessing, not a baseline.
But what if people do listen to your debut album? And what if the critical response to the record is full of plaudits — what can you possibly do for your sophomore effort to match that acclaim?
For Laetitia Tamko, the 25-year-old rock musician who performs as Vagabon, that unnerving scenario required a challenging and deeply introspective look into her art. The result has been a bold creative pivot that has cemented her status as one of the genre’s most fearless and innovative members.
“It was daunting to consider my next move, but also exciting — I think those two things existed in the same space,” says Tamko, who will open for Angel Olsen at the Fox Theater on Saturday. “I wanted to be a better producer, a better songwriter and a better singer, and in order to be all of those things, I couldn’t do what was safe and what I already knew how to do. There may have been this expectation that the first record was written in cement, and I had to follow that template, but I didn’t want to make the same album twice. I thought that would be boring.”
Infinite Worlds, the debut album from Vagabon, was all raw, frayed emotion, with Tamko plaintively detailing the dissolution of a relationship, often accompanied by just a single guitar in a true embodiment of bedroom indie rock. The album’s ghostly, haunting austerity resonated with many listeners and critics heaped praise on the effort.
Tamko’s follow-up, self-titled effort is a study in contrast. The songs are warm, atmospheric, and woozy, with the guitars being swapped for synthesizers, keyboards, and drum machines. Whereas the tracks of Infinite Worlds were forceful, direct, and brusque, the songs on the second album are formless and airy, lacking the traditional song structures that defined her debut.
For Infinite Worlds, Tamko said she wrote most of her songs by sitting down with a guitar and sketching out a verse-chorus-verse format. For the new record, she said most of the tracks were written in a loop, where she would take a section of the song and play it on repeat, building out the elements from a particularly striking snapshot in her brain.
The songs are drenched in mood, with tracks like “Flood” and “Water Me Down” slinking aqueously underneath a ceiling of undulating synths and rhythmic, incessant drum machines. There is a remarkable self-assurance with the new material. If Infinite Worlds was about punching up — bravely tackling the people holding Tamko down — the self-titled album is about learning to live with oneself.
That is most evident in the prominence of Tamko’s voice, a fearsome and versatile instrument that artfully conveys a range of emotions. On “Home Soon,” a shimmering, amorphous art pop number that feels like Kate Bush crossed with Talk Talk, Tamko coos peacefully throughout the four-minute track, but on “Please Don’t Leave the Table,” she finds all the high notes, spritely singing amidst a backdrop of insouciant jazz sounds. “In a Bind” finds her on the opposite end of the spectrum, dropping her register to evince the depth of the gentle finger-picked ballad.
“This album was all about finding confidence in my voice,” says Tamko, who was born in Cameroon and emigrated to the United States when she was a teenager. “I had this previous fear about how weird my voice was and I really became more assured of myself by touring and practicing so much. For this album, it was really important for me to use my voice as an instrument.”
In the process of transforming her style so dramatically, Tamko created an album perfectly representative of today’s music landscape, where genres bleed into one another and taboos are broken with ease. Growing up in the lo-fi, Bandcamp-inspired world of the internet, Tamko’s first album naturally fit the DIY nature of her environment — emotionally honest, abrasive indie rock. But on this album, elements of hip-hop, soul, R&B, jazz, and pop effortlessly bleed into the material, sanding down the rough edges of her earlier work.
“There is more space than ever for me to fit all these different things under my belt,” says Tamko. “If there is crowd surfing and moshing at the Lil Uzi Vert concert and his favorite band is My Chemical Romance, there can be room for me to move away from indie rock. I think it shows that black kids contain multitudes and we no longer feel the need to stay in one box.”
That buoyant spirit has helped carry Tamko beyond the uncertainty that followed the breakout success of her debut album. Despite being a working musician for just five years (she was a scientist in her past life), she has become an undeniable star on the indie circuit, garnering glowing reviews in the pages of The New Yorker and The New York Times, helping to skew the image of what an independent rock musician should look and sound like. The meteoric rise has taken Tamko by surprise, but not to the point where she feels compelled to shrink back from the spotlight.
“I always knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know I was going to reach this point, or come anywhere close, really,” says Tamko. “I think there are a lot of other artists who are hindered by their fear of not being perfect, but I’m really not concerned with that, and I think that helps me grow as a musician. This is all about archiving this timeline of me turning into the best artist I can be.”
And that is why the journey continues for Tamko. She understands that when the world stops to listen, you cannot waste your opportunity to speak.
Vagabon with Angel Olsen
Saturday, Dec. 7, 8 p.m., at the Fox Theater, 1807 Telegraph Ave., Oakland $35;
The writer is both performative and confessional in 'You Never Had It: An Evening with Bukowski.'