Lætitia Tamko's pretty slammed at the moment. It's not really her fault. She's in Austin experiencing the melee of South by Southwest for the first time, and getting her on the phone amid the countless distractions proves difficult.
"I'm so, so sorry. Can I have another 15 or so?" she says once we finally connect. "I'm really almost close to being done with this craziness."
She's not being bitchy or demanding, nor does she even sound flustered. In that brief exchange, it's obviously that the girl behind Vagabon exudes a compassion and humility admirable for someone in her position. She's already been written about by dozens of music journalists hungry for their 15 minutes with the rising star. Vagabon's recent debut, Infinite Worlds, reveals an inimitable voice amid a smashed-up blend of recklessness and elegance. The album was bestowed an illustrious Best New Music tag from Pitchfork, alongside a profile that called her "an indie-rock game changer." So yeah, she's pretty busy these days.
But then, "busy" is sort of her default setting. Before she was headlining the main stages of the biggest festivals in the U.S., Tamko studied at the Grove School of Engineering, a highly respected yet relatively affordable branch of City University of New York. While a student, Tamko abandoned her musical pursuits entirely, devoting herself instead to the intense dedication the program demanded.
"You have to be focused to get through it, but not necessarily love the shit out of it," she says. "It's an incredibly difficult major, so you can't really get by without being incredibly focused."
Upon graduating, Tamko continued her self-imposed regimen of learning all the instruments she required to perfectly build out the songs in her head. Eventually, those songs ended up on a Bandcamp page with low expectations, until a showcase at Brooklyn's Silent Barn introduced her to a scene she'd otherwise been completely unaware of, and which was unaware of her.
After two years of quaint performances in small venues and opening slots in larger ones supporting the likes of Frankie Cosmos and Allison Crutchfield, Tamko moved up to such prestigious stages as the annual Pitchfork Festival in Chicago. It's a sudden boost in audience, to be sure, but Tamko maintains that her intent remains steadfast, largely to the discipline and focus she acquired as a college student.
"I can play a living room for eight people, and I've played for 1,500 at Webster Hall, and I pretty much do the same thing," she says. "It's not in my nature to say, 'This gig is smaller so we can chill.' I might win over 10 people, and that's still a significant number to me."
Infinite Worlds is one of those once-a-year surprises that appears on the indie-nerd collective consciousness and becomes a seemingly overnight sensation. Tamko displays an uncanny ability to create an atmosphere of such morose, mournful clarity out of little more than undistorted, finger-picked chord progressions. Tamko's restraint places volume and silence in precise moments that imply a dramatic action superseding the sum of its parts. In a runtime just under 30 minutes, Tamko encompasses Adderall-fueled goof punk, Weezer-esque sways of slushy fuzz and, most impressively, pin-drop-quiet reflections on lost love. It's hard to imagine a recent engineering student of only 24 having the deftness to interpret such a wide array of sounds. But Tamko's response to flattery proves a humility and humor that seems impossible to fake.
"I don't think I have a persona." she says. "If we met up, you'd see very quickly that I'm just myself. I believe in being genuine and honest and real. That's all I'm about. I'm just keeping it real."
SEE IT: Vagabon plays Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., with Allison Crutchfield and the Fizz, and Soar, on Sunday, March 26. 7 pm. $12 advance, $14 day of show. 21+.