Laetitia Tamko on learning to produce, sequencing an album, fully committing to music
April 16, 2018
interview by Nat Harvie
photo by Ebru Yildiz
So you just got back from Iceland? You were stuck there for a little while?
Yeah, we were stuck in Iceland due to a storm. It was the final date of a two-month tour. It was kind of like, “Wow, I guess tour just keeps on going.” Iceland Airwaves [Music Festival] was the first time I'd been there and what a special way to visit, to play a show with so many people. It was wild. I saw the Northern Lights for like three minutes. That was really special.
When I first started listening to your music, some friends told me that you're an engineer. I assumed that meant you were a recording engineer, but you actually went to City College of New York for engineering. What specifically did you do there?
Computer engineering and electrical engineering, so basically software and hardware.
And you were still working as an engineer when Vagabon was really starting to take off?
Yeah, I was working full-time as an engineer and going to school full-time. I got my engineering job before graduating so I was going to school full-time and recording on weekends then going to work full-time as well. It was a lot up until a few a months ago.
Beyond balancing the logistics of that situation, would you say that working as an engineer and possessing that training impacts the way that you work as a musician and the way that you work in the studio?
I think in their practices they're very separate because I didn't do anything having to do with audio directly. I did work on circuits a lot and circuitry is a big part of musical instruments and gear, so I have a way of putting all these conceptual things that I learned to use, but I think it's more of a left brain/right brain kind of thing where engineering school taught me diligence and failure and more life things that I needed to take on than it did practical things that I use in my music career. When I was making Infinite Worlds, I was able to be so raw and open because music wasn't my world. It wasn't even a world that I felt that I could say I was in at the time. In hindsight, having something that exercises my right brain and something that exercises the left helps take the pressure off of each.
It seems like you’ve gained notoriety somewhat quickly in the past few years. You've said in a couple interviews that when you decided to quit your engineering job and divert your energy more toward Vagabon that if you were going to do music, you were going to “do it forever.” What does that mean to you?
I don't think that I'm popular and I don't think that I got popular quickly. Playing has brought me to a place where it seems that way. What I meant was that once I realized it was a possibility, I was really going to do it and that just means go full-throttle in it. Of course it's terrifying but I have lived another life. I have lived with another career. Being 23 while I was making this record and realizing that I've lived so many different lives, have come into other jobs that have nothing to do with music at all, I was more brave and willing. A lot of people in my community who I love dearly are in a position where sometimes, when you know too much, it can actually hurt you more than help you. That might be knowing how the booking game works or knowing how tour goes or having been on a lot of tours that drained you out. So I think for me it was like coming in with fresh eyes and hands and being ready to go in it completely. That meant figuring out ways for this to be my job forever, which is not just continuing to put out indie rock records and touring them and sitting at home and then doing it again. That's not the idea I have for myself of being a musician or an artist forever. I will be getting into it completely by doing all the things that I want to do and not just limiting myself to, “Oh, I made an album that people like, so I'm solid.” This is work. It's a job that I love and so many times it's difficult. It's so different from a hobby because sometimes when you don't want to do it, you have to. That's what I meant by "going into it completely.” This is my life now and this is my job now no matter what. Obviously, as you would with a regular job, if I'm not feeling well, if I'm sick, if I need to take care of myself, I'm allowed a day off. I don't take them very often but I very much look at it as working—because I am. I dedicate a lot of time and energy to it. People are always saying, “Take care of yourself on tour.” I worked really hard to learn how to do that. I just want people to realize that there are humans—real, struggling humans—on stage. It's cool to be on a pedestal and that feels great and kind of serves the purpose of stroking the ego. But being encouraging when people are into the work that you're putting so much work into feels so important. A lot of downfalls and demise helped me learn from people who have taken the ego thing as the only thing.
Your first EP, Persian Garden, was recorded in a basement in Brooklyn. Your most recent LP was made at Salvation Recording with Chris Daly. How did you first connect with him? Was that through Father/Daughter Records?
No, I made my record before any label was involved. It was completely done and mixed and mastered before a label even heard it. I was pretty guarded with my stuff. Before I met Chris, I didn't know anyone who recorded music. We met up and Chris really loved those songs and was overly generous with his space. There were so many nights when I would just sleep in the studio. I was teaching myself a bunch of new instruments for the purpose of Infinite Worlds. It was my first time really playing the drums. It was the first time that I picked up a bass or a synth to learn it. Chris being generous with the time and the space was crucial because I was able to just sit down and figure things out without any pressure of timelines or, "How much money is it going to cost me if I need to do five takes instead of three?" The recording process was a challenging one, but it was really special, too.
Coming from the somewhat lower-fi Persian Garden, how did you decide to make Infinite Worlds in a commercial studio and have it mastered professionally?
It felt like the formula. Persian Garden was an EP of demos that had a life of its own beyond something that I ever thought it would, but it was shittily recorded and it was never meant to sound good. Understandably so, a lot of people had a hard time with those recordings. There were so many people that wanted to hear these songs but the recordings were kind of rough. With Infinite Worlds, it was more about putting a better quality piece of work out. It was about now caring about sound and now knowing what I want and being completely in charge, versus Persian Garden, where I felt so much imposter syndrome. I was just starting out and these were the first songs I ever wrote. You use what you have access to. Back with Persian Garden I knew no musicians and by the time Infinite Worlds came around, my whole group of friends were musicians, so naturally I had access to a bunch of people who had been doing it way longer than me. That jump felt pretty organic because even between Persian Garden and Infinite Worlds I was touring the country pretty consistently with my friends, so I had been building up to putting a record out.
Did some of those friends end up being the sessions players on Infinite Worlds?
No. I don't love having friends involved at this time because I've had experiences where that’s gone really wrong and friends can feel more of an entitlement over work that you've done. With Infinite Worlds, there are not that many session people but I would give credit to a person who played something that I wrote but I couldn't play as well as they could at the time. For example, on "Cleaning House,” I would write a drum part and miss something on every take or not be used to playing drums on a click as a five-month baby drummer. So it would be, "I'll show this to you and then you can just play it." While all those people deserve credit for all of their work, I still feel that it's important to have and to let women be the producers on their albums and be the person who wrote that cool part or arrangement. That was really important to me, and maybe even stubbornly so, but it was crucial that it happened. It's important to say that it's not about stroking the ego.
You're credited as "co-producer" on Infinite Worlds. What does that role mean to you in terms of the work that you did in the creation of that record?
For Infinite Worlds, it meant really knowing the sound I was going for. For example, “Let’s throw a phaser onto this,” or, “How about we pluck the strings from under the grand piano instead of playing the actual keys?” or, “Let’s drop the guitar and I'll program some beats or add a synth.” It's really a question of how the album is going to look. “Mal à L'aise” was made completely in my bedroom on Logic in the middle of the night. Producing to me means the execution of the vision. The artist has a vision and producers can help bring it to life. I helped bring my own vision to life.
Specifically with “Fear and Force,” are you using Logic to make those beats as well? How did you create that song?
Yeah, I used Logic to make that one. That's my number one go-to in most of the programmed beats that I have and now it's all I use to record. I'm now way better of an engineer than I ever was making Infinite Worlds. I use Logic and Ultrabeat almost every day at this point. It's just really simple stuff. You just go in and tweak all these sounds and a lot of them were just stock sounds. You make it work. That’s another point of how the production came in. Sometimes I might have wanted an orchestral kick even though I put in an 808 kick. With the beat-making stuff, it was the most baby thing but it was what I was capable of at the time. Since then, it's really been one of my favorite things to do.
For playing live, do you just have those beats loaded into a sampler?
Yep, into a Roland 404.
How do you see your role in crafting your own media changing as you become a more experienced producer and a more fluent engineer?
There's a track that I just finished and I played every instrument on it. I produced the whole thing and it's something that I'm really proud of and something that I think will be really surprising to a lot of people. That's a leap from what I've done and that's my intent with the next record and the next and the next. I constantly want to be growing in a direction that feels good to me. I constantly want to challenge myself and keep things exciting for myself. Infinite Worlds was kind of a statement for myself in terms of being self-sufficient and knowing that I could do these things on my own. Now that I know I can, I don't feel the need to be stubborn about it anymore. I was kind of anti-collaborator, against anyone touching anything. Anything gets vetoed by me. If I do not like it, we have to redo it. This time, I know how to do this all and I'm looking forward to taking a back seat after touring for a whole year. I'm looking forward to having an engineer just give me the best mic. I don't want to be in the same place of the record taking four months longer because I want to make sure that I know which mic sounds best for my voice so I try them all. Now I'm touring constantly and solidifying my songs, so whoever I bring to them, they will inevitably know that they're working with a producer. That way it can be just like having help. It's exhausting to do everything by yourself and I'm not time-efficient at all. I have a fear of telling people what to do when I don't even know how to do it. It becomes, "How do I explain this drum part I have in my head? Fuck, I have to play it! I just have to learn how to play to get rid of this problem in the future.” It felt like growing pains. Now I'm just trying to sit pretty and say, “Well, here is 80% of an album. Let's make it sound like 2,000%!” Sometimes the demos are the best performance and you just want someone in the room who can recognize that. It's easy to get stuck in your own head when you are engineering and you have all of this emotional attachment to the music that you're making.
How do you think of that dynamic as it relates to your idea of "fresh eyes and hands"? Has gaining all this experience made your studio work more challenging in any way?
Being alone, without a band, without collaborators, I kind of use new material in the way that comedians use new material. Comedians have been embarrassed so many times. Even if I miss a note, I have so much time to recover and I have so much time to pull the audience away from my mishap. Being on tour for a year now, I started workshopping my new songs on the road. In between songs, I started playing beats, not telling anyone they were new, and just going for it. I'm really able to grasp what I need to work on, to change. I get to figure that out and I get to use my audience as my fresh ears.
Infinite Worlds feels like it has a pretty well-defined arc. How did you decide the order of songs?
The sequence of this record is really important to me. I thought a lot about how I like to enjoy an album. I do not have any attention span so I don't like really long albums. My album is not long, for that matter. I also like having a contemplative part of an album that lets you sit with what you just heard, especially if an album can be loud or intense or just too much and hits you one song after another. Obviously it's all personal choice. Maybe there's a formula that fucking Warner Brothers knows about or something, but I don't think anyone I know is aware of a formula. “The Embers” is a song that I saw people connected with from the moment I played it for the first time and never really stopped. I thought, “What better way to show the new version of ‘The Embers’ that I arranged right off the bat than as the first track?” The first song is special but the second song, for me, determines if I keep going on with a record or if I put it down for a little bit, so it was really cool to have that be "Fear and Force.” It shows you a whole different direction where you hear a guitar, you hear the same voice, but then you hear electronic components and wonder what comes next. It was important to not put all the pop songs on the first side. That's a little boring. I wanted the listener to keep guessing where it would go next. "Alive and a Well” is a closer. It’s one that was supposed to be a practice run and the engineer ended up recording. It's kind of a great way and a funny way to end the record. I had my friends in the studio and was just going to record this simple song on guitar. That's how I push sequencing.
It's such a funny skill because you don't really get to practice it. You can only do it every time you make a record.
Playing live also provides a lot of perspective for that because you see the reaction and take it all in. It helps to sit down and say, "Okay, what is the right time for this song to come in?" I think there should be bangers sprinkled everywhere, a little light sprinkle of bangers around the album, and everything else will round it out because you never know what a banger is until it comes out, anyway.
In an interview from last March, you said, "It’s just so easy for me to find talented people who don’t get recognized or highlighted as much... I have the ability to bring up others, just as others have brought me up." I think a model of abundance really resonates with the ethos of Women in Sound. Can you speak a bit more to that idea?
It's hard to speak on that because I don't try. It's one of the few things in my life that that I do not try about. Just open your eyes—everyone is there. Hire people. Ask them. I have a backlogged list of amazing musicians. I just don't even have enough tours to offer them. That's how many people I want to take on without even trying. I just find them. It's totally possible if I'm not thinking about it and I have this long of a list. Just do it!