Three years ago, when the musician Laetitia Tamko was playing her first gigs as Vagabon to an audience of just two people, she thought nothing of referring to herself intimately in the third person: “Run and tell everybody Laetitia is a small fish,” she howls in “The Embers,” which evokes vivid memories of a young girl on a school bus, dwarfed by older students — and compares her to a minnow in a pool of bloodthirsty sharks.
“I was like, ‘No one’s going to hear this. I can be playful,’” she recalled on a recent morning. “‘And I’ll never have to talk about this.’ And now, here we are.”
Here’s where we are: The 24-year-old Brooklyn-based musician is about to release her debut album, Infinite Worlds (out Friday), on which the irresistibly catchy “The Embers” is the lead single. Since those fallow beginnings, her audience has sprouted considerably, through shows at beloved Brooklyn DIY venues like Silent Barn, Shea Stadium, and Market Hotel, as well as opening for the likes of Frankie Cosmos and Speedy Ortiz frontwoman Sadie Dupuis’s solo project Sad13.
Before releasing her 2014 EP Persian Garden, she workshopped the songs on the road, and many of them have made their way onto Infinite Worlds: “The Embers” (originally known as “The Sharks”), “Fear & Force” (formerly “Vermont II”), and the gutting “Cold Apartment” (or “Cold Apartment Floors”). The songs still maintain the DIY grittiness that marked the original demos, but with her maturation there is now a greater sense of control over the arrangements.
“This whole record is about control,” she explained. It turns out, name-checking herself in “The Embers” was all part of the plan. “It’s good for me to have my name—my brain, my vision—all over it. It’s not something anyone could take away from me, and that was really important to me. I know how to do all of these things; I’m going to do them; and you will have to respect me.”
It’s an attitude that probably serves an outsider to the clubby Brooklyn DIY scene well. Born in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon (she was fluent in English and French), Tamko moved to Harlem when she was 13 so her mother could attend law school. A self-professed math-and-science person, Tamko studied engineering at the City College of New York, albeit without any intention of being an engineer. Still, the sheer rigor of the degree seeped into other realms of her life; when she started writing and performing music her junior year, it was with the discipline of a scientist. (After college, she started making up for her absent liberal arts reading, including Dana Ward’s poetry collection The Crisis of Infinite Worlds, from which Infinite Worlds borrows its title.)
Studying in a field that still skews overwhelmingly male, Tamko, possessed of a quietly strong voice that gets louder and more urgent as she talks about young women entering STEM fields, got really good at speaking up for herself. “Being the only one in the room doesn’t freak me out,” she said, recalling naysaying professors and competitive classmates. “I also thrive off of proving people wrong. I’m a Scorpio.” So Brooklyn’s insular music scene, which also tends to skew quite male (and quite white), didn’t faze her at all. “I was ready for it,” Tamko said.
Now, she’s selling out venues like Baby’s All Right, where she’ll play her record release show this Friday, and Webster Hall, where she opened for Frankie Cosmos at the end of last year. She didn’t tell her family that she was moonlighting as a musician until that November performance, where she played in front of 1,500 avid fans. Until then, when she was on tour, she claimed she had simply been “traveling.”
“I wanted to present it when I felt like I had something to show,” she explained. “Plus, this is so unheard of in our family. I wanted to be like, ‘Look, this is something meaningful.’” After all, her mother, who graduated from UPenn’s law school after arriving from Cameroon, was a formidable judge. “My mom,” Tamko said, “she’s a boss.”
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