In Under The Influence, The A.V. Club asks a musician to pair three of their songs with a non-musical influence.
In a recent Pitchfork profile, Laetitia Tamko was hailed as “an indie rock game changer.” It’s a big claim, but listening to Infinite Worlds, out February 24 on Father/Daughter Records, it’s easy to see it’s warranted. Tamko doesn’t take a traditional approach to music, having picked it up in high school only to abandon it in pursuit of an engineering degree. Tamko was raised in Cameroon, then moved to Harlem and Yonkers, New York, and had little exposure to music that wasn’t wildly popular until she fell in with the likes of Frankie Cosmos and Told Slant. At the behest of her friends, Tamko began recording and releasing her music, remaining singular in her approach throughout. The A.V. Club spoke to Tamko about three of the songs from Infinite Worlds and how various experiences helped the record come together.
Laetitia Tamko: There is someone in New York named Dan Goldberg who used to organize these shows on top of a mountain in Cold Spring. It would be an all-day thing on Saturdays, and we would go up the mountain, and at different stages in the mountain—at the top of the hill, or at the frog well, or in an abandoned Cornish mansion—people would perform. I guess I had that experience and that imagery in my mind when I did “Mal À L’aise.”
The A.V. Club: Who had you seen play there? Did you ever play one?
LT: I played at the abandoned mansion, which was kind of like—I got down into the debris, and everyone was watching from these elevated places that you can tell used to be windows. And everyone’s really attentive, because it’s so intentional. Basically, you’re committing nine hours of your day to do this thing. So I thought it was really special in that everyone who went knew what they were there to see and fully paid attention and appreciated it in that way.
AVC: How did those experiences inspire this song?
LT: It inspired it in many different ways. The first way would be the story that I wrote for “Mal À L’aise.” The French part is about that experience specifically and was just in one of my journals or something. And also that track has a sample that’s from a New York-based musician and friend who I met through the mountain shows. We met at a mountain show, and coincidentally, I ended up sampling a song of his, and his voice is on the track as well. So it kind of was influenced both by the person I sampled for the track and what I chose to write about.
AVC: Was there anything you were trying to capture in terms of the sound of the song as to what those shows and experiences made you feel?
LT: I was trying to capture a sonic collage of sorts. That explains the use of samples or just sampling someone else’s song, which is something I haven’t really done and released before, but it’s something that a lot of the music that I listen to [does]. That’s just normal in rap music or in hip-hop or in pop. So in honing my producer chops, for lack of a better term, it’s very purposeful in its sequencing and its placement, and it’s supposed to serve as a sonic collage of different textures and also a precursor to the things that I’m working on now.
AVC: The album doesn’t really follow one form. Did you feel worried that people wouldn’t know what to do with a record that doesn’t adhere to a single sound?
LT: Sometimes. I sometimes cringe at the labels that get applied to me. I think it always varies depending who you talk to or the music that they listen to. Something as minute as what I consider to be like early 2000s R&B ad libs, some people might not even recognize that. But some people who listen to 3LW or those bands will probably be putting it through some sort of filter that’s very reminiscent of that time, so I think it depends who’s listening to it and what their perspective on music is. But also, as a producer, I love that I can have little hidden gems for people who are open to that.
LT: “Cleaning House” is pretty personal and is inspired by conversations I was having with people in my life at the time, regarding whether you have agency to assert yourself in a position or in a position that’s not fully actualized. Most of the song is quoted, which I don’t think is recognizable if you listen to the song without reading a lyric sheet, but a lot of those lyrics are in quotes or are paraphrased from conversations I was having at the time with different people in my life and thinking, “Well, I am this because I choose to call myself this.” It’s kind of like dressing for the job you want, not the job you have—that weird thing. Trying to make others understand how you see yourself versus what their perception is.
AVC: You’re not shy about wanting to be successful, which is kind of the opposite of most people coming up from DIY scenes. Do you ever feel like that’s something you have to rectify?
LT: For me, the decision to play music was the decision to do it forever, whatever that means. Whether I’m releasing records as Vagabon, as Laetitia, as whatever I decide to call myself, or if I’m writing records for other people, or if I’m writing jingles for Nike—and I don’t know if Nike’s evil, I haven’t researched it—but I see myself being a musician for a very long time. I think my outlook comes from the fact that I don’t see any other option. I can’t see this being a phase, and I don’t see myself eventually retiring to the town I grew up in and moving into my parents’ house that I inherited. I don’t see those visions for myself, because it’s not my world.
And also, before deciding to do music in a way that is very purposeful and being dedicated to it, I was an engineer. My world was math and science, so I feel like I’m very prepared, and I’m very sure of the steps that I would like to take, and I don’t feel that guilt because I’m not super shortsighted. I have friends who are just like, “I just want to release my song on Bandcamp under an anonymous name,” and I listen to those albums probably every day. And I respect that part of it. But I also demand respect on my end.
I’m the first person to try to pursue art in my entire family. I have an entire family that I take care of. That’s, like, super personal stuff, but my world is different and I don’t compare myself to others. I respect everybody’s objectives and their agenda as long as it doesn’t hurt people. And I also demand respect for my objective and my agenda. But I also don’t care if they don’t get it. I feel like I’ve lived a lot of lives that at this point it really doesn’t matter. I feel like if I’m a good person, and if I continue to be a good musician, then I’m doing great.
AVC: You said a lot of these lines were direct quotes from conversations. Do you write down things you hear so you can use them in songs later?
LT: I do that a lot. Most of the time when I’m on tour, I keep a journal. I think it’s good for my brain. And sometimes when I’m back home and flipping through all these experiences that I had on the road, some of them include dialogue with other people. For “Cleaning House,” I’ve seen this in a lot of different poetry books, but just breaking up a poem or a song or a piece of writing so the first three lines are about one experience and then the next four about an entirely different experience, and that’s what “Cleaning House” is like.
The dialogue part was almost verbatim from a conversation, but just in thinking about my songwriting aspect of this, saying something like, “You will raise your voice and talk aloud / But once you didn’t have a voice at all”—that’s a quote. But there is a difference between just saying “you said” and omitting the “you said” and then saying that lyric.
AVC: Do you like leaving those things open, so that you know it’s a quote but other people can read it an entirely different way?
LT: I do. I also find that, for myself, I left it open mostly to pull what I wanted from it, because when it’s being said to you and then you repeat it, it has a different meaning. So now when I sing that song, and I sing those parts that were quoted, I feel like it has a life of its own. It now has a different meaning.
AVC: What about this song made you want to use it as the album’s final track? Was that something you knew going into making the record?
LT: That unveiled itself later. It was a tough one to record, and the final recording was a live recording that happened accidentally, which is why I decided to keep the voices at the end. I didn’t know my friends were listening. But this song was inspired by a place called Panther Meadow on Mount Shasta in California, and came from a voice memo of just me being on Mount Shasta.
AVC: How does it relate back to that place?
LT: Most of the lyrics for that is the idea of a person being a well of water. I’m very familiar with fetching your water from a well growing up and putting the bucket on your head. It was tradition. It was what everyone did. It was a way of life. I kind of had that image of someone being so open with their resources or having themselves be a resource for others. No one really checks in on a physical well until they need something and the well can’t provide it. So using the well to describe a person is pretty much the inspiration behind the song writing on that one.
AVC: Does that relate back to how you view your work and the things you put out into the world?
LT: Yeah, as a person, as a musician, I think I’m pretty resilient. But in offering up so much of yourself, just as a well offers up its resources, you kind of need to tend to it as well. So there are a lot of people who can put you on a pedestal, and your resources can be depleted. Mine can. Artists’ resources can be depleted. Not just the resources used to make this music, which hones our craft, but also personal resources—what you have to offer, what you have to give—so it’s important to check in on that humanity part of people or of things that provide vulnerable or emotional resources.