Mutuals is a PAPER series dedicated to conversations between musicians and comics. They tend to be some of the most interesting people in the room and do very different yet remarkably similar things for a living. From navigating a stage persona, to the writing process, to their precarious industries, there's a lot to discuss. Plus, we realized they were all already hanging out.
The dream of creative friendship is for everyone's artistic success to happen at the same time. Such has luckily been the case for comedian Mitra Jouhari and musician Laetitia Tamko, AKA Vagabon. The two recall meeting for dinner in Los Angeles during the Before Times, just as Jouhari's Adult Swim show Three Busy Debraswas getting greenlit and Tamko's self-titled album was entering the final stages of completion. Jouhari had a feeling "like something big was going to happen" for both of them.
Since then, Debras has been commissioned for a second season, while Tamko's Vagabon has been met with critical acclaim and will be featured in Janelle Monáe's upcoming thriller Antebellum. Even with COVID-19 thrown into the mix, that's a pretty good 2020.
After a readjustment period, the two performers are staying focused on the silver linings as their respective industries remain shut down. PAPER got them both on a Zoom call to chat about their twin career trajectories, whether or not musicians should riff between songs during live shows, and the weird lack of drama on Selling Sunset compared to its Bravo rivals.
Laetitia: Some of our mutual friends have been able to be creative during this time. Where are you on that side of things?
Mitra: It's been such a weird time, because my show's writer's room has happened. Like the entire second season of Three Busy Debras we actually just finished yesterday. So we have written an entire season of television in this time, but it's weird to do that while I also don't really feel creative. I feel very lucky that our show already existed before this. We knew the world. I think if we'd had to create a universe, that would have been a lot harder, but we had new writers, which was very energizing. The previous season, it was just us and our director, and this season we had a small staff, but a really great one. But there were definitely days where I was just manufacturing energy to keep things going. On a personal level, I've had not one idea.
Laetitia: Well it can be hard to have a surplus, I imagine.
Mitra: Yes. I feel like prior to this period of time, I was always somebody who could spin multiple plates. Have a writing day job and have new material. So, I'm very grateful to have been in therapy during this time, because that was a very difficult adjustment of just being like, when I'm done with work, I am done for the day. The well is dry. I shouldn't force myself to try and write, because it's not happening. That was a major adjustment.
Laetitia: Well, congrats on finishing a whole fucking season. I'm over here like, what have I done?
Mitra: I slept for 12 hours straight last night. I left my body.
Laetitia: I remember when we went to dinner at Little Pine and you were telling me Debras had just gotten picked up.
Mitra: Yeah, I remember being a period of time where we were both like, "Something big is about to happen."
Laetitia: It's so cool that in that time, your show has come out. You've seen the first season, you've written the second season. It's kinda wild.
Mitra: It's crazy. I mean, same with you. It's wild how much has happened. That night was so exciting 'cause we both were in sort of parallel experiences, and it's kind of tracked that way for the past couple of years. Your album coming out — I think both of us were in places where we had a lot of creative control. Like, that album is so you.
Mitra: So much of my work is incredibly collaborative, and I know there is collaboration in music, but so much of what you do isn't that. So how do you serve as your own barometer of what's working? You're basically collaborating with yourself, playing all these instruments.
Laetitia: That's a really good point, because collaboration has been on my mind lately. I think in the past or recently, since I was making my self-titled record that just recently came out, I was like — first of all, I'm really self-assured in what I need to make. This doesn't necessarily mean that people will like it, but I know what I want to make. And I was lucky enough, or maybe lucky's not the word, there's a little bit of luck involved in success I think in any art medium. Not that no one works, but I do think it's timing, it's the right place, right time, right people around you. So for this one, I knew that I was not— I didn't go to art school, I didn't go to music school. I never had lessons, and for me, it has created a little bit of a conflict between how I saw collaborators. And I just wanted to make sure that I knew that I wasn't dependent on anyone. I'm discovering what my voice is before I can bring other people in to bounce ideas off.
Mitra: I think I had that. I think I'm in the middle of that, where so much of the work that I've done has been in writer's rooms or working in trios and that question of what does it look like, what does it sound like, when it's just me? I mean, I'm not on the other side of that yet, but I definitely relate to that conversation. What happens when I don't bounce ideas off of people before deciding that they're good?
Laetitia: Right, right. I think what you're doing is cool. It's almost like we're doing it a little bit in reverse of one another. For me I'm really grateful for all the success that I've had, but I still recognize how new to this I am. I've been making music for five years. I've been playing music for five years. So I'm just trying to understand myself so that now when I collaborate with other people, I know exactly how to talk, speak the language that's productive. Kind of releasing the ego of doing it all and being like, okay now, like if I did collaborate with someone, if I did let someone take some of the reign, will this be better?
Mitra: What I'm realizing is like, I want to do stuff alone. And if I want to do stuff with other people, I need to think that those people are incredible. Because I think with any healthy collaboration, part of that foundation is knowing what makes the other person so special. There are things that I know that I do very well and I trust myself to do. And there are plenty of things where I'm like, why would I talk about that? I don't know anything about that. And I can have opinions because I'm smart and I am experienced, but I certainly am not the person who needs to be signing off on certain parts.
Laetitia: Right. Yeah. That's, that's such good insight. I'm curious. I have a question to ask you that I've just been meaning to ask friends who are comedians and that write for other people. I need to think before I talk. There's something in the comedy world where people write for others, jokes and stuff. And I've been thinking about how, obviously there are songwriters, not every pop star wrote that song that they're singing. And then there are other people who write all their songs. So have you ever written jokes for a musician? For banter?
Mitra: No I haven't, I would love to do that.
Laetitia: Because as a non-funny musician, I've thought about that. You can tell me if it's stupid.
Mitra: I don't think it's stupid because there are some musicians where they go from song to song. They don't want to talk in between. I've been to concerts where the musician is telling stories in between. It's awesome. But there's also like, when the song ends, "thank you," new song, and that's also great. But I'm in, if you want that, I'm in.
Laetitia: I kind of do. I'm just so shy and the thing that I'm good at is playing music. And then when it comes to talking, it depends, honestly, it really depends.
Mitra: I just think like you and I are kind of very similar in our fields and I think one thing that I'm trying to reconcile is, I mean, it's so funny that Patti and Sasami did [a PAPER mutuals interview] too. Because I think they represent similar things, whereas I think with my closest friends, I'm most familiar with their work and then naturally have the greatest impulse to compare myself to that work and that type of performance. It's realizing that l'm not my friends, so why would I try and do things like my friends? I don't feel that as much with strangers, but when I see my friends and I feel so close to it and I realize I'm not like that, I'm not gonna write the funny, hysterical song that Patti is writing, but if I keep my head down and do my very specific thing like there is power and value in that too. All that to say, if you don't want to tell a story —
Laetitia: —then I don't have to. No, absolutely. I think, first of all, I'm really glad Patti and Sasami did one 'cause I just introduced them, not that long before quarantine.
Mitra: I remember because I was very sad that I couldn't come that night.
Laetitia: You couldn't come to karaoke. We missed you. We missed you a lot. But yeah, I think what you're saying is definitely spot on, and it's a really good perspective of just being close to your friend's work. But I definitely am self-assured in what I do. It's just that when you do something, I don't know about you, but I can imagine that you're always looking to challenge yourself or to improve on your onstage persona, or even just on your craft in and of itself. And so I tend to kind of look around, not so much in a comparative way, but kind of like, okay, how can I get better? Is there a layer of this that I hadn't considered that could add to this, or even me going on this new record, I went into like choreography and dancing and stuff. And just thinking how can I make this an elevated experience.
Mitra: Yes. I think it's just having those honest conversations with yourself and also maybe the next time you're on stage, try it and prepare for it, and then if it still sucks, then don't do it.
Laetitia: Yeah. All the show reviews are like, she stood very stoically singing song after song. I'm like, Jesus, I seem so not fun.
Mitra: But I've seen you live and it's cool. I'm not watching it being like, God, I wish that there was a huge choreography element and hilarious story. You're there to play music.
I think the thing that I get the most overwhelmed about is this feeling of needing to be a multi-hyphenate where it's like, if you're a comedian, then are you also a writer? Are you a stand-up? Are you an actor? Are you a million other things? And it's like, I'm really not a stand-up. I like doing it because I think it's a good place to tell jokes that I wouldn't put in other places, but I really like to focus on my writing and my acting, and my self worth comes from my writing. So that was something I realized in the past year or so. If I don't get my self worth from going on stage telling jokes, then why am I doing it five days a week?
Laetitia: Did you have a time where you were doing it five nights a week?
Mitra: When I first moved to New York, I was doing comedy every single night, live. It was all that was available to me, and it did feel good. And it did really matter at that time. But then I hit a point where I was writing on shows and that was the goal. But I don't really have a lot of long term goals just because I wasn't expecting to get to do comedy. I initially went to college to study neuroscience. Weren't you like a programmer or something?
Laetitia: Oh my god. Yeah, I went to school for computer engineering.
Mitra: So many people are like, I knew when I was two years old that I wanted to be a musician or whatever. As someone who didn't set out to do it from birth, do you feel like you have long term goals? Or is it sort of just like, this is so crazy.
Laetitia: That is such a good question. And I'm really glad we share that. Not a lot of people that I've met making stuff right now have that duality. And it's also interesting, 'cause we're both kids of immigrants. I don't know. Did you grow up in the US?
Mitra: I did.
Laetitia: Were you born here?
Mitra: I was born here. My dad immigrated around the revolution. But I've been back a few times.
Laetitia: I have different phases of being able to see into the future or not. The last few years of my career have been like, all right, I guess this is happening. But I am able to see a future in a weird way. I almost try not to say what I see in the future cause it's almost like, "Yeah, okay, sure." But I'm gonna win a Grammy, I just know it. And it's weird to say that. And I really try not to say that to anybody unless it's friends and a really private situation. But everything that has occurred up until this point makes it feel like some sort of destiny. 'Cause I really didn't search that hard for this.
Mitra: Right. I mean, I think that it's about it finding you, but also I feel a certain sense of urgency and desperation, because it just didn't feel like something that was ever going to happen. I would say a simultaneous sense of urgency and desperation, but also comfort, because it was so not going to happen and now it's happening. Maybe it just makes sense that it's happening? I don't need to question it so much. There's definitely the sense of, "I can't believe I'm here, what am I doing here?" In dark moments. But for the most part, I think there's just this sense of, this is so crazy so I guess I'll just keep going.
Laetitia: Exactly. So I'm curious, what was your first writing job and what year was that and how did you feel?
Mitra: My first writing job was in 2017. I moved to New York in 2015. I was a writer's assistant on a late night show called Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. And then I got staff writing on a show called The President Show, which is another late-night political show on Comedy Central. So that was my first writing show, but it really reinforced this feeling of being in the right place at the right time, because the man who was hosting that show is named Anthony Atamanuik and he was my improv teacher a year before or two years before, something like that, maybe just a year before, but he thought I was funny there. So yeah, it just was this feeling of like all the work that feels sort of worthless sometimes in the moment is totally worth it. And taking that time to train and get to know myself and be in places that I didn't know if they mattered at all, they do matter. And they don't guarantee that things are gonna work out, but they certainly help. So that was a very cool moment.
Laetitia: Yeah. Wow. And correct me if I'm wrong, but from moving to New York in 2015 to getting your first writing job in 2017, is that the usual path or is that sooner than some people. Like obviously there's no formula, but...
Mitra: Yeah. I think it's definitely fast. I had been doing college improv, so there was a lot of little foundational stuff that I had in terms of just knowing someone who knew someone, but it was all so intentional. I started doing comedy my second week of college and it just immediately made sense. And I'd always been good at school, but I had never felt motivated by anything. I started doing comedy and I felt motivated. I was like, okay, like, this is what I'm doing, and after my first internship in New York, which was for The Daily Show, I dropped out of school. 'Cause I was like, I know people in New York now. I'm never going to know people in New York again, so why don't you just drop out right now? See if it works. And then if it doesn't work, then I'll go back to school. I'll at least feel like I tried. I had a teacher in high school who didn't try, and I felt so connected to her. 'Cause I was like, I can see this exact thing happening to me. And she really pushed me to just go and try because no one else really was. And I just kept thinking about her.
Laetitia: There's such a fearlessness to that. I reconciled with a similar thing in school, because I graduated and then I had a job as a computer engineer before graduating, and so I kind of knew what my plan was. And then I went on tour the summer after graduating, I went on my first-ever tour in 2015. Literally, the timeline. I went on my first-ever tour when I was like, "Holy shit, this is it." And I'm on a DIY tour. I mean, I'm sleeping on the floors. I'm camping. It's not glamorous. 15 people are at the show, it's someone's house. I'm sleeping on fucking beer bottles, it was rough. But I was still like, "This actually makes me feel something very different." And I had a moment of, "Do I take this job?" I was in New York, and the music community in New York is what held me in those early years. And so I was like, "Okay, I'm gonna take this job and basically make money and work on my album." So while I had this job for a year and a half or something, I was recording my record on the weekends. And then the month my record came out, I quit my job because it just took off. And I had this thought of, "You know what? I'm leaving a job that pays me like 60k a year which, for like a 22-year-old or whatever, is a fucking shit ton of money. I'm leaving this job for a really uncertain thing, but whatever. I have the skill, I have the skill and if I need it, I'll come back to it." And I just haven't needed it since, and that's kind of cool.
Mitra: Yeah. I would always read interviews with people where it's like, "If you can see yourself doing anything else, don't be an artist." Why? That really got in my head because I was like, "Well I can, I know exactly what I would do. There are options."
Laetitia: Oh my god. That honestly currently gets in my head, because there are all sorts of different artists and musicians or whatever, and I'm around a lot of people who are — I'm coming back to not being trained, you can tell I have something about not being trained. But a lot of people who are really, really talented around me, like went to school for classical music, know how to like read music, know what the fuck, which key shit is in. And I'm purely — I'm not trying to discredit myself, but a lot of my work is based on complete and utter feeling. I'm just often feeling like those folks, they have such a discipline to say, "This is the only thing I've ever wanted to do. When inspiration strikes, you're at your desk." And I'm like, "Usually, I'm not. Usually, I'm watching Bravo."
Mitra: Oh my god, wait, what do you watch on Bravo?
Mitra: I just watched the new taglines for [The Real Housewives of] Potomac.
Laetitia: [Gasps] I didn't know they were out.
Mitra: They just posted the new house lines. Do you watch Potomac?
Laetitia: I do. I love that you go one step deeper than me, because you know what the taglines are before the show airs.
Mitra: They just posted them! I'm on a thread of people who watch Potomac and it just got… I'll text it to you.
Laetitia: Oh, my God, okay. I can't wait. I love the Potomac, I love Atlanta. Obviously, Atlanta feels like the best, just like OG.
Mitra: I'm on… I was late to watching Housewives, so I've been watching them all. So I'm at the end of season four of Atlanta.
Laetitia: Okay. Wow. I'm so happy for you that you have so much…
Mitra: I didn't start it for a long time because I was like, "I know that once I start...
Laetitia: You're going to be into it.
Mitra: …it'll ruin my life.
Laetitia: You know what I surprisingly love watching on there? Million Dollar Listing.
Mitra: Yeah, have you watched Selling Sunset at all?
Laetitia: Yes, I just binged that. Did you watch that?
Mitra: I just started watching it.
Laetitia: Okay, I'm into it. I'm like, eye roll, but also into it.
Mitra: I think what's so funny about it is that the drama's really bad on Selling Sunset.
Mitra: The episode that I watched was the new episode, the first episode of the most recent season, and the whole drama was that a woman didn't tell another woman that she was engaged.
Laetitia: Getting engaged! Yeah.
Mitra: I was like, "That's it?" That was a whole episode.
Laetitia: Yes, they're really making it up. They're really playing it up. But I'm obsessed with looking at the houses; that's the best part, how much it goes for. I'm into the whole negotiation. Everyone's negotiating.
Mitra: I'm obsessed right now with Atlanta. I'm really obsessed. Phaedra is like… I've been warned not to get too attached to Phaedra, that it takes a turn. I don't really know anything about it. I've tried to not get any "spoilers" about it. But right now, I mean, meeting her and her lying about her pregnancy and being like, "Yeah, I'm seven months pregnant, but my baby's fully cooked." It's the most iconic introduction to anyone in reality. And then right now, she's doing the funeral home stuff.
Laetitia: Oh, yeah, she's a hustler. I forgot about that. She's just like, "I'm a lawyer. I do embalming." Yeah, but I love reality TV. I watch a lot of it, not snobby about it at all. I'm not just sitting at my desk with Logic open, just waiting to get an idea or even trying to get an idea. And that's been something that I'm curious about: how your ideas work and flow and if you're a slow writer. People have different methods. I'm pretty much a slow writer, because I also do everything alone.
Mitra: I really believe in letting your mind rest. I've never ever liked sitting at a desk being like, "Alright, crack the knuckles. Time to write."
Laetitia: Right, yeah.
Mitra: It never works for me that way. I've really tried to be that person. I've tried to set aside an hour every day and just go, just free-write. I don't have that level of discipline, I think, and it just doesn't work for me. I definitely get ideas from watching trash TV. And I think a lot of my ideas recently have come when I'm doing pottery.
Laetitia: Yes! I had a pottery question.
Mitra: I've never really had a hobby before since I started working in comedy. Because comedy was my hobby and when it became my life, it was like, "Great!" My hobby is my job. My job is my hobby. I'm obsessed with work. But I had always wanted to try pottery. I'm not a very visual person, so I tried getting paint and canvas and I was just like, "What? But pottery is so meditative and so focused. You just have to be present the whole time. And it's about just a little bit of technique and responding to material. And I can be like, "I'm going to make a cup." And then it doesn't have to be more complicated than that. And I think that has allowed my mind to rest or at least go somewhere else, because I'm not thinking about other stuff when I'm doing pottery. I'm just making pottery. Often, I'll have an idea that night or I'll think of something, I'll think of something while I'm putting my stuff away, because I've let my brain recharge. I'm not very good about doing that. You need to recharge.
Laetitia: You have really have to be consciously making a decision to know when to step away, because there are no work hours. There's no "live for the weekend." It's working all the time.
Mitra: And it's like, I love what I'm doing, so I want to be doing it all the time. But I have come to realize that I'm not doing myself any service by working 24 hours a day.
Laetitia: Exactly, yeah. I had that realization when I was working on the self-titled record. I was running a lot, I was actually training for a marathon. And I was like, "This is the thing. This is going to be my hobby now. I run." I can focus my energy. I would do calculus before going to the studio because I started to feel that urge of "This is overtaking my life." I can't sleep because I'm thinking about my record. I can't see people because I'm thinking about my record.
Mitra: Even when you see your friends, all you talk about is…
Laetitia: Exactly. And let alone if you're talking to a friend who doesn't do what you do, you really realize that you have nothing to talk about.
Mitra: I have friends from Ohio that care about what I do, but I'm not going to get into the weeds of being like, "Yeah, we're negotiating the contract and we're trying to get me to bump up…" That's boring. And I have nothing going on, so yeah.
Laetitia: While I was making it, I was really interested in, "How can I not be so involved in this that it does a disservice to my work?" And so running became that. Running and doing math, calculus, became the things that I did every morning so that I reminded myself that I could be good at other things, even if that day was not a good writing day or a good vocal day or a good recording day.
Mitra: It's a big part of it is what you do and what you are, but you are a lot of other things, too.
Laetitia: Yeah. I'm really grateful for quarantine for showing me that. I could have only gone here forcefully, where I just stopped working. I wouldn't have done that voluntarily. I really wouldn't have.
Mitra: Totally. It feels like you're also making very elaborate meals that look beautiful.
Laetitia: That is true. I'm cooking a lot. I'm baking. I'm just attuned to the things I couldn't really do for myself before. I'm happy for the space.
Mitra: Yeah, it sounds like you're doing things one thing at a time.
Laetitia: I'm playing piano without the intention of writing or putting it on a record. I'm just playing it for fun. Like remembering playing music for fun, not for capitalism.
Laetitia: Yeah. Like what's that? Are you still keeping up with your pottery?
Mitra: I am. Yeah, I'm a member of a studio that's close by, and I go two times a week. Basically we have shifts because of quarantine. I'm going tonight and I think I'm getting stuff from the kiln tonight, which will be very exciting.
Laetitia: What's that?
Mitra: They fired the pieces. So I painted them and then they put them in the fire basically, so the paint dries and it looks pretty. I'm getting, I think, some finished pieces tonight, which is cool.
Laetitia: Amazing! Do you just kind of offer them to friends? Do you sell them? Do you just keep them around?
Mitra: I've got a couple in my house, but I've just been giving them to friends who want them. I've just been sending pictures to people and being like, "Do you want this? No pressure." I don't want to foist my hobby on people. But I've got a good sense of which ones are dogshit and which ones people would maybe want in their home.
Laetitia: That is so sweet. That is so nice.
Mitra: It's been really lovely because yeah, I've never made anything that you can hold, and that is exciting.
Laetitia: Oh my god. I love that. I need to get a hobby.
Mitra: Well, it sounds like calculus is your hobby.
Laetitia: Yeah, when I'm recording only.
Mitra: That is the craziest thing I've ever heard.
Laetitia: Yeah, it's pretty weird.
Mitra: I think it's cool.
Laetitia: Yeah. So, I hate this question, but I'm going to ask it to you. What are you doing next? Now that Debras season 2 writing room is done, do you have something else or are you just chilling for a minute?
Mitra: I'm going to an AirBnb next week. It'll be really nice, not too far from here. But just to see a different location will be really nice.
Laetitia: I'm moving. And yeah, I mean, I'm super uncomfortable going back to New York where all my stuff is. So, it's kind of a weird timing. But yeah, I'm moving. I'm softly working on my next record, not that intensely.
Mitra: That's cool.
Laetitia: Like, I can't believe it. I feel really irresponsible. But I'm just, I worked for three years and then a pandemic happens. So, whatever.
Mitra: I think it's great. I feel the same way where it's like, I don't think there would have been a choice to slow down unless by force. And the relief that I felt in early March, when I realized that I had to cancel everything for the rest of the month, really was this moment for me where I was like, "Wow, if I'm this excited to not do any of this stuff, maybe I shouldn't be doing it."
Laetitia: Obviously, at first when all the shelter in place was happening, I was like, "Shit." Because I had a whole headlining tour lined up, two months, and festivals, and I knew how much money I was going to make and I could take care of my people. And so it definitely was devastating for me at first. But I was lucky. There's this track on my new record called "Home Soon," and we ended up doing an orchestral version of it. Right before the pandemic hit it got locked into this movie called Antebellum that Janelle Monáe is starring in. And I was like, "Thank the fucking Lord that I just have a little bit of something to sustain me while I figure out what the music landscape looks like for an artist like me." Because we're not making crazy cash on Spotify.
Mitra: I think the nice thing has been, everyone is in this position, which doesn't really make it better. But I feel comfort in at least knowing no one's like rocking this time. No one's really thriving, which obviously I wish everyone was thriving, but if like…
Laetitia: Yeah, let's all do it together.
Mitra: There's still panic, but a layer of panic has been rubbed off.
Laetitia: It's weird for me as things start to open up and knowing that my job specifically is not going to actually be available to me. It will be one of the last things that is happening again. Like could you imagine a festival? Other people are more likely to go back to work in whatever new capacity than I am able to play a festival.
Mitra: Well I'm ready to risk it all...
Laetitia: I can't wait, it will be me and you at the show.
Mitra: My dream!