Vagabon wanted her new album, “Sorry I Haven’t Called,” to provide some relief for people after a few hard years. In order to do that, the artist, whose real name is Laetitia Tamko, decided to retreat from the world to write it.
“I have friends who live in Germany, and they told me about this house in the countryside of Germany. Being the dreamer that I am, I was like, ‘Hmm, I can see myself in a house in the countryside of Germany. That sounds nice,'” she tells POPSUGAR. “For me to sit down and make an album — I’ve only made three albums, but it seems to always start with a little nugget of a dreamlike thing like that that can get my fires going.”
The strategy worked, and the retreat ignited her creativity. The result is her most electric, expansive album yet.
Vagabon broke out into the indie scene with her 2017 album, “Infinite Worlds,” and followed that up with 2019’s well-received self-titled project. But a few years into the pandemic, like many people around the world, she found herself with a lot to think through.
“I changed a lot as a person, as we all do in that span of time, but especially a lot of grief,” she says. But all the grief and suffering that characterized that moment in time inspired her to take her music in a new direction. In the midst of a terrifying moment, she wanted her work to spark “catharsis and joy,” she says.
To conjure work that could do that kind of alchemy, Vagabon turned to dance music. “I really wanted to play with dance, while still making an album where you can listen to the words and hopefully glean a lot or feel a kinship with them,” she says. The product is an album that is packed full of honeyed sounds, glittery rhythms, and rich instrumentals. Both bittersweet and euphoric, it twines contradictions together to cover a full spectrum of emotions.
“Experiencing personal grief in my own life really put a sense of urgency to what I wanted to do with my music, and that was to experience a catharsis and joy.”
There’s also a coolness to “Sorry I Haven’t Called,” a sense of abandon and ease that Vagabon recognizes within herself as well as in her new music. “I do feel more confident than I ever have. . . . I think I’ve also found a confidence in my voice, which is really nice to showcase,” she says. On “Sorry I Haven’t Called,” she shows off entirely new vocal dimensions, allowing her voice to grow larger and stronger.
The lead single, “Can I Talk My Sh*t?” is a prime example of her newfound confidence — it’s about being unafraid to say what you want to say and leaving the party when you want to leave. The same goes for “Autobahn,” which is about a “lawless highway in Germany where there were no speed limits,” she says, recalling the way the song just spilled out of her one day. “The car’s still on. I will go where it serves me,” she sings on the track, a clear proclamation of own autonomy.
While the album started out from a place of isolation and retreat, it’s very much tied to community and collaboration. “Autobahn” was written with a friend, for example, and though Vagabon produces most of her own work, after she finished the album, she happened to meet producer and Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij, who helped her add finishing touches and new instrumental lines. For inspiration throughout the project, she also listened to a lot of Brazilian music, as well as the bands Lamp and Mid-Air Thief, she says, with Frank Ocean always in “constant rotation.”
The result is an album that’s somewhat resistant to categorization. Sometimes there are touches of Phoebe Bridgers, other times echoes of Ocean, but mostly the sound is all her own. While “Sorry I Haven’t Called” is a much more danceable, experimental album than her other work, her early sound — which led to her being labeled an indie rock artist — was born out of her involvement in New York City’s burgeoning indie scene in the early 2010s.
“I just found a community in New York City of other artists who were in college, like me,” she says of the days when she was just starting out. “We put on our own house shows, and it was just kind of this community mindset. No one really thought it would be a job. I feel fortunate to have stumbled upon a really great community of artists, a lot of whom are indie superstars now.”
She played her first show ever alongside none other than verifiable indie superstar Mitski, for example. “We just played a show together in someone’s kitchen upstairs at Silent Barn to maybe 15 people sitting on the floor. She raved about me. Mitski is one of my closest people,” Vagabon says. She remembers playing at since-shuttered venues like Shea Stadium with the likes of Japanese Breakfast and Florist, and crossing paths with comedians like Jaboukie and Patti Harrison. “It was all about community building. We kind of all came up together. . . . We talk about it to this day,” she says. “We were babies together, and that’s what makes it feel pure.”
With roots in a DIY, community-based scene, metrics-based markers of success like award shows or charts feel far away. “I made my first album in a bedroom in a house, and I put it on Bandcamp, and, surprisingly, people heard it. Coming from that ethos, I think it’s hard to even believe that Billboard charting could be a thing,” she says. “My expectations of myself are maybe a bit unusual right now. . . . I’m almost feeling like, with those years came almost like a washing away of my personal expectations to do the linear route.”
“I feel fortunate to have stumbled upon a really great community of artists, a lot of whom are indie superstars now.”
Instead of pursuing the dopamine-flash of virality, she’s focused on building a fan base centered around real connection, and that loyal foundation of showgoers and vinyl-buyers has held her up over the years. But even a consistent community of fans like Vagabon’s is rare in a volatile music industry.
“I wish that, obviously, that the conditions for artists were better and less exploitative across the board, across the industry,” she says, citing the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes. They’re exposing the fact that many working actors and writers still struggle to meet their basic needs, she notes — and of course, that’s also the case for musicians.
Ultimately, she does see a world where many artists, not just a few stars, can have fruitful, full-time creative careers. “I think it’s important to have those conversations so people know that there can be sustainability in the arts outside of the top one percent,” she says. “We could do that.”
For now, she’s looking forward to bringing a little joy to her own community of supporters on tour. She grew up singing gospel music at church during her childhood in Cameroon, and this inspired her to start playing music of her own, she says. She still loves the way music can bring rooms of people together in the spirit of something greater, if only for brief moments in time.
“I really like to commune over the music. I want to see these rooms full, and I want to see them moving and bursting with people having fun,” she says. “That’ll be the greatest thing that I could receive from this.”
“Sorry I Haven’t Called” is out Sept. 15.