Laetitia Tamko’s speaking voice is as sultry and instantly soothing as her singing voice, and that’s saying something. Connecting with me via Zoom from Paris, where she was touring with Arlo Parks, the artist who makes music as Vagabon greeted me smiling, seated in the borrowed bedroom of a friend’s child. It was just days after the release of her third LP Sorry I Haven’t Called, an album she calls “a miracle” to have even been made.
It’s not a record about grief – in fact it’s quite whimsical, sassy, sexy – but most of these songs were born out of the chosen solitude she afforded herself to mourn the loss of a dear friend and musical collaborator, Eric Littman, back in 2021. What emerged when holed up in Germany for a time were lyrics and sounds that introduced new parts of herself to listeners. Sides of her that she’d perhaps unwittingly obscured in her music before, when channeling mostly sadness.
“As I was making this album, I was aware of the fact that I could write an album about what I was feeling…but I wasn’t in a place where I could do that on song. It might come up on the next thing, but I just wasn’t ready to explore that part of it. The part I was interested to explore was what I was doing as a result. Changes in me that were coming up. That’s what I wanted to explore, how I was changing rather than my processing my loss. I didn’t know how to write about it yet.”
Like it’s customary in her native culture (the African country of Cameroon) to shave your head when mourning the loss of a loved one, Tamko said that grief offers the chance to reinvent yourself. “It gives way for that newness or for us discovering who we want to be in the next chapter.” And for this new chapter, musically, Tamko opted to lean into different aspects of her personality and say things on the record that she might previously have just shared with a close friend, or in “the most safest of space.”
“I’ve discussed some pretty serious things on records in the past, but most of it is just all of my pain. So I was like, ‘What if I just – and this is going to sound crazy, but – what if I take up space with how funny my friends think I am, or how, like, playful my friends think I am? What if I put that into the picture?”
And so we get songs titled “Can I Talk My Shit?” and “Anti-Fuck” and “Made Out With Your Best Friend” (“and he loved it,” she taunts). While the album title Sorry I Haven’t Called might seem apologetic, the overall tone of this record is irreverence, a “this is my whole self, take it or leave it” challenge. Vagabon’s visual elements, from the striking cover photo to the costumes and choreography of the music videos, reflect Tamko’s newly adopted (or finally revealed) confidence.
But there’s still plenty of warmth on the record, to be sure, like on the first single “Carpenter,” and on “Nothing To Lose,” which she started writing on one of the last occasions she saw her dearly departed friend Littman. Her vocal range has expanded thanks to working with a voice coach. “For the first time, I was paying care to this instrument and figuring out what I could do with it,” she said.
“Lexicon” is a pop-perfect single Tamko worried was too sweet, she told me, but trusted her co-producer Rostam to make fit on the record. “I knew what was good about it, but I’d exhausted all the options that I could do by myself. That’s a song that he [Rostam] had the most production hand in. Our collaboration makes it a song that just feels good, and like, what’s so bad about that?”
In addition to robust percussion like the trap drums on the kiss-off anthem “Do Your Worst,” Tamko artfully incorporated horns and a Hammond organ (which carries the melody on the spare and gorgeous “Autobahn”).
“Anything I make is inherently experimental because I’m experimenting. It’s true,” said Tamko. “I often feel like I am a songwriter and a producer before I am a singer, before I am a musician, because I write all of these songs with production in mind. And not just in mind, but in practice, as well. I focus a lot on building a world in my albums. I’m a fan of artists who have, you know, 12 records and you can see not just an evolution, but you can see their changes as individuals…what they are excited about.”
Four years since her second and self-titled album (that gave us the squishy, seductive “Water Me Down”), Vagabon’s built a different world on Sorry I Haven’t Called, but brought along with her the gifts of her former selves. And her choice to collaborate this time, to allow Rostam help her refine the sounds, was actually an homage to Littman, who set her up with tools (“he gave me my first synthesizer”) and trained her on production techniques early on, then let her rip.
“Eric said ‘You are a producer. You don’t need me, you don’t need anyone.’ And so I’ve produced all my albums to this day as a result of that. He was the only person I let into my musical world, and I felt like I was almost honoring him by collaborating with others this time. It feels like honoring Eric and what he brought to my life, the generosity of sharing and the generosity of opening up that world and letting it become magic, you know?”