Vagabon: Gritty Shit, Gritty Instruments, Gritty Recordings

By using the indie-rock template singer-songwriter Laetitia Tamko crafts a unique identity.

From the tumbling, distorted guitars to the lo-fi aesthetics and oblique wordplay, Vagabon’s debut album Infinite Worlds seems like a case study in indie-rock revivalism — a paean to the genre’s halcyon days when bands like Built to Spill, Pavement, Yo la Tengo, and The Breeders ruled the roost.

Yet to hear Laetitia Tamko — the creative force and sole member of Vagabon — tell it, that sonic similarity is the result of osmosis and not some longstanding fealty to the slacker icons of lore. Growing up in Cameroon, Tamko had little exposure to contemporary American sounds, and it wasn’t until she moved to New York and attended college that she started playing music.

“I have never really listened to any of those older bands before — most of what inspired me was listening to my friend’s bands play in basements,” says Tamko, who will play at the Swedish American Hall on Sept. 28. “I made this album with gritty shit, gritty instruments, gritty recordings. Everything was a little shabby, because that’s all that I had access to. So I think that’s where the sonic comparison to those old indie bands comes from.”

For an artist who has been only been plying her craft for a few years, Tamko wields a meticulous command over her music — and she’s on the roster of San Francisco’s Father/Daughter Records. Infinite Worlds is one of the best releases of 2017, showcasing Tamko’s heartbreaking, meditative prose, her powerfully disarming voice and an array of guitar sounds that range from shoegaze blasts to fingerpicked silhouettes.

(Daniel Dorsa)

The album almost acts as a real-time documentary of a relationship dissolving, as Tamko’s emotions range from seething self-awareness on tracks like “Cold Apartment” to plaintive regret on “Fear & Force” to bitter defiance on “Cleaning House.”

Despite its anguished themes, Infinite Worlds is not a morose album, difficult to digest. Tamko sprinkles in moments of levity, such as “Mal à L’aise,” a wordless, ambient number that acts as a palate cleanser and offers evidence that Vagabon’s future could develop beyond the current guitar-based template.

Many of the songs were written during a time of tumult several years ago, and Tamko has been perfecting them in a live setting as part of her relentless tour schedule. With the passage of time taking some of the sting off those memories, Tamko said that performing them live acts as a form of catharsis.

“I can bring myself back and step outside of myself and look at the person who wrote those songs,” she says. “I can kind of identify with that person, but I also think, ‘Now I’m here, and now I’m better.’ I can tap into the raw feelings I had when I wrote those songs, but I can do so without all the emotional difficulty.”

Tamko said she will unveil new, reimagined versions of those songs during her current headlining tour, which is her first as Vagabon. This starring run of shows is only the latest in a string of personal and career triumphs for Tamko this year. Tamko Infinite Worlds has earned widespread critical acclaim, and Tamko was recently featured in The New York Times as part of a story on women in rock.

“There is no way I could imagine this year,” Tamko says. “I think that in my head, I might have tried to manifest some things, but the ways in which they’ve been actualized have been a complete shock to me. It is all happening so fast, but it all feels welcome. It feels right.”

Vagabon, with Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, Thursday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m., at the Swedish American Hall, 2174 Market St. $12-$14;

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