You don’t have to spend much time talking to Melina Duterte - better known by her nom de indie rock Jay Som - to get the sense that she’s one of the most together, grounded individuals currently making records.
You can tell she cares deeply about what she does, but her voice—none more laconic, and Californian to a tee—rarely rises above a murmur. Still, it takes even less time during our interview for this to be severely put to the test.
Duterte has just started explaining why she decided to leave the Bay Area, which she called home for almost her entire life, for Los Angeles, calmly explaining how young artists are being priced out of San Francisco when she asks me to hold on for a second. Her friend has just run into the room.
“Fuck, that scared the shit out of me!” I can hear her say to Melina. “Are you OK?”
She quickly apologises to me for the interruption, nervously laughing as she picks up her thread from earlier. “So another thing about living in California is that you get earthquakes.” It’s 4 July, and our interview just got interrupted by aftershocks from one of the year’s biggest quakes. Her assessment: “Those never feel good.”
Our interview, quake and all, comes six weeks out from the release of the third Jay Som album, Anak Ko. Duterte often sees the words, a Tagalog phrase meaning “my child” scattered across text messages from her mother, and as such, it’s a fitting title. A more concise, focussed collection than its predecessor, it seems like an unfailingly open-hearted and compassionate work. While not disagreeing, Duterte isn’t so sure that’s an entirely accurate assessment.
“I feel like there are many intentions for this record. I have a very good relationship with it right now, but I feel like I can’t understand it or fully think about how it makes me feel—or what I want people to get from it—until it gets released. It’s in such a weird middle place right now.”
By the end of this month, you’ll almost certainly have heard—and been spellbound by—Anak Ko. But as Duterte speaks, it feels almost unfair on her to have to deal with yet another liminal period in the process of bringing the album to the world. While her career has seen an uninterruptedly upward trajectory, the ensuing frenzy that came with the release of her breakthrough album Everybody Works barely gave her a chance to catch her breath.
“I was this young wide-eyed kid, thrust into this crazy indie music industry world,” she says of her 2017. “It was very fun, but I learned a lot about myself, and how overwhelming it can be to put yourself out there when most of the time all you care about is the music and the making of it.” The relentless touring meant that Melina had to put herself on the back burner for a while, which also meant that her ability to write was somewhat hampered too.
“I’ve tried writing on tour before, but there are too many distractions. Even though you have so many hours to yourself, and you’re in this van all the time, or in a hotel, and you’re in the venue just for three hours to play a show, it’s the same routine over and over again. But at the same time, you’re with four or five other people, 24/7, and you don’t feel like you’re in your zone.” Coming off the road gave Melina the opportunity to, as she puts it, “think about my relationship with music, and even my mental health, and my physical health too.”
So during those eighteen months of downtime, she reflected on how to keep herself level. She quit drinking, became a vegan, and moved to L.A. “I’ve always wanted to move somewhere else. I lived in the Bay Area my whole life up until I was 24. The music community there is pretty small, but it’s very tight-knit, and there are some amazing people doing stuff there. But at the same time, it’s undeniable that it has become this hobby of sorts because everyone’s basically working full time to afford rent.”
If it sounds unromantic, and maybe goes against your ideals of what being a musician is all about, this might be disappointing to read. Sadly, though, even though she’s fortunate enough to be in a position to pursue Jay Som full time, Melina’s is the reality for all too many up and coming artists. “I think my MO has always been if I can pay rent and pay my bills comfortably, then that’s success to me.”
"My MO has always been if I can pay rent and pay my bills comfortably, then that’s success to me.”
Having recorded all of her music herself, she began producing for other artists including SASAMI and Chastity Belt which, as she puts it, gave her more perspective on the wider process of creating music. “It’s such a personal thing to have someone record your music. Sometimes it’s easier with friends, but you learn a lot about how comfortable you are with showing people your writing and singing. I learned so much about – not only creating with other people but learning about how to work best with people and communicate. I’ve had to really practice my skills in making people feel comfortable with me.”
And while there were still a few new Jay Som tracks released here and there—one of them, 'O.K., Meet Me Underwater' may well be her best—the focus was on herself. The songs for Anak Ko were mainly written in isolation, shut out from the rest of the world in a Joshua Tree cabin, sifting through “voice memos of ideas” and working them into songs. The decision seems to have come, in part, from the increased scrutiny that came with the release of her last record.
“Demoing for Anak Ko, I really had to stop thinking about Everybody Works and stop comparing the albums. But I think that’s a natural thing that happens to people that release records that are so public – you know, you’re signed to a label, it’s being distributed worldwide, and a lot of people on social media have a lot to say about it. It’s like ‘Argh, you’re talking about my music to me?!’”
Despite the seclusion that went into the writing of Anak Ko, the process gave Duterte a chance to throw every idea she had at the new songs, before paring things back. “There were moments where I wanted to be super ambitious and experimental, and I thought I had to do that because it was my third record” she explains. And, having recorded everything by herself since the age of 12, she cites a huge range of equipment as inspiring new ideas, singing out Strymon’s array of reverb pedals as bringing about some “super crazy” sounds. “I definitely feel like I’m more comfortable when I’m at my home studio. If I’m able to record something, I can have an idea and hear all the parts in my head, and I feel like I can execute it better”
Having been solely responsible for how her records sound for 13 years, you can understand the reticence to let go, but Duterte does at least has a sense of humour about the position she’s carved out for herself. “I do love the control,” she chuckles. “Anyone that records sort of gets that perfectionist side of them bugging them. And I feel like that bugs me a lot, where I can’t step outside of myself and see my music from a different perspective. If I have all the tracks that I can layer enough where I’m like ‘Oh my god these are too many instruments’, then I’ll start to mute tracks or delete them and realise ‘This is the song.’”
She laughs as she tells me about piling some twenty guitar tracks onto the album’s shimmering lead single 'Superbike', a song which sounds like it should have soundtracked a thousand nineties coming-of-age teen dramas—or, at the very least, one scene of adolescent pining in My So-Called Life. Duterte baulks as she considers her current task of arranging it to play live. “I’m at the beginning stages of ‘Oh my god what are we going to do for the live show?’ I feel like we end up making the live shows a little more classic rock anyway.”
And while that track isn’t Anak Ko’s focal point, it is the song people will likely cling to the hardest. Melina does it a slight disservice describing it as “the fun one off the record”—the album’s writhing opener 'If You Want It' and the shuffling Tears For Fears-esque 'Tenderness' give it a good run for its money. But as an opening statement, she feels it serves its purpose well. “That song is definitely the fun one off the record. It’s meant to be this buoyant, happy, Cocteau Twins song, so I’m really glad that people were super into it.”
The rest of the album isn’t quite so straightforward, though, and the involvement of her live band in the studio was a major factor in allowing her to expand her sound into weirder territory. “There was a point where I couldn’t hear myself drum or mix myself anymore because my drumming’s so fucking bad I had to edit all the time. So it just made sense to have a bunch of my amazing, talented music friends play on it, and it felt good to be on the outside being able to focus on mixing them.”
“There were moments where I wanted to be super ambitious and experimental, and I thought I had to do that because it was my third record”
The title track is Jay Som’s most oblique moment yet, an ambient centrepiece which breaks apart before your ears like the more experimental moments on Death Cab For Cutie’s Transatlanticism—a formative influence of Duterte’s. She credits her guitarist Oliver with helping her bust the song open. “We messed with this Eventide Pitch Factor pedal for an afternoon, and we basically made the song that way. He was coming up with these crazy Portishead swells and floaty leads and stuff like that, and we both got to mess around and improvise and it became this chaotic…song.”
The violin coda on the country-leaning 'Nighttime Drive' had a slightly more grounded—if no less ambitious—inspiration. “I was listening to the Walker Brothers and was thinking about the orchestral pieces in these sort of pop songs from the sixties and seventies. So I thought it’d be funny to put bombastic strings in the song out of nowhere, and it was really fun in a cool way.”
And 'Get Well', the bass-driven hymn which closes out the album, swirls around in search of a centre which never quite materialises. Decorated with a Yo La Tengo-like organ drone and some atmospheric pedal steel playing from Seattle musician Nicholas Merz, Duterte describes its origin story as “super cute”. “I was jamming with my girlfriend one night—I was playing bass and she was playing guitar—and she played this one riff that worked perfectly with the 'Get Well' thing I was working on. So one half is my idea, and the second half is her idea.”
There’s also the small matter being on the road for the remainder of the year, and trying to put into practice the things Duterte has learned about herself, as well as thinking back on the experiences she’s had on past tours. Over the last two years, Jay Som has played shows with some of their formative influences, including Paramore and Death Cab, as well as opening a now-legendary triple-bill with Japanese Breakfast and Mitski.
“It’s so surreal,” Duterte says, still clearly stunned by the situations her music has found her in. “I was actually talking to Ellen from Palehound about this last week. We were both relating how insane it is to be in contact with basically all of our favourite musicians and influences and people we’ve looked up to since we were kids. With her, it was like Kim Deal talking to her like they were friends. And with me with Death Cab and the Paramore tour—it was like, are you fucking kidding me?”
Of course, as her own star has risen, playing more shows with more musicians who shaped what she does, she has become a little more circumspect about the whole thing, if not completely without awe. “I’m usually very nervous at first because, when you’re a kid, it’s so exaggerated. Like, you’re so into this person or this band, and they’re untouchable. So for that to happen ten years later is really funny. But at the same time, they’re just people. When you meet them, they’re super nice, they have emotions and they go through shit all the time. They love music, and they’re still just trudging along with their lives...it’s cool that you can get on the same level with them.”
Unsurprisingly, though, it was her two stints supporting Mitski—in 2016, and earlier this year—which gave her the most food for thought. “She’s very welcoming and open about talking about the process of becoming more successful in public. To see someone like Mitski persevere and basically build herself through all the shit that she’s been through was super inspiring. She gave me lots of advice on how to say no to stuff, and how to think for yourself and do things for yourself besides music, and not trying to appeal to others. She’s been through so much—like, the really bad parts of the music industry—and I just feel like she built herself from the ground up.”
It's insane to be in contact with all of the musicians we’ve looked up to since we were kids. For me with Death Cab and the Paramore tour—it was like, are you fucking kidding me?”
The touring doesn’t begin until people get a chance to let Anak Ko into their world, though. Wrapped in gorgeous artwork courtesy of Spanish artist María Medem, who Duterte contacted via Instagram, the sleeve really does look like how the record sounds, and what it represents. Against a backdrop of a hazy, Fruit Salad sunset, it looks at first glance like the person on the cover is making the leap from the small piece of rock to the big wall. When I ask to what extent the androgynous figure clad in a striking blue outfit is meant to represent her, Melina assures me I’m reading far too much into things.
“I really saw myself in that character, which is in some of her other illustrations, because I did karate when I was a kid. She made it look really awesome – like a Japanese-inspired risograph. She’s not necessarily kicking, but it also looks like she’s dancing too.”
In a weird way, though, that sums up Anak Ko pretty well. You can see as much of its writer in it as you can yourself. You can kick out to it, but it’s just as effective a soundtrack for swaying and swooning. It’s the sound of someone getting better and, the way things have been going for Melina Duterte, she’s not going to stop there.