Drunk Online to Crunk Online: How Jay Som’s Songs Went from Bedroom Musings to Hard-Won Art
The 22-year-old, Oakland-raised singer's music is raw and intimate and the opposite of clichéd, cookie-cutter indie rock.
It was high school when Melina Duterte's music teacher gave her one of the school's Macbooks, a microphone, and some recording gear to take home for spring break. Some kids go on vacation, binge drink, or sit and veg out in front of a TV, but Duterte's plan was to write songs in her bedroom—she just needed better equipment than her shitty Dell; she wanted to continue fooling around with GarageBand, the recording software they were learning to work with in class. "I feel like it's always been me that's pushed for this recording thing, [but] he was the only real person that has ever said 'you should probably do this' and 'you're good at it'," she says of the teacher who let her stay after school every day for six months to work on her songs, thus helping with the evolution of her solo project, Jay Som, before it had even a name.
Last Friday the Oakland-raised songwriter put out Everybody Works, a 10-track record of blistering indie rock (her second release on Polyvinyl following last year's Turn Into). Today we talk from our own respective bedrooms, except the 22-year-old's transformed her's into a studio, moving the bed to make room for a drum set, and christening these quarters EMA Studios. It was here where she hunkered down for a quick turnaround of her new album. "The three week process was kind of just self-imposed and all my fault for doing that," she admits of the time. "I was highly caffeinated every single day and that was a very unhealthy time for me, but it was also sort of fun."
When her now signature guitar fuzz is dialed down you can hear an intimacy in her recordings that seems particularly apropos for someone who is used to working alone—like Alex G in his bedroom, or Elliott Smith under a set of stairs. Her music softly echoes sentiments of an artist who's spent her quiet time reflecting on life's shortcomings. In songs like "Take It," she considers being small and human in a world that's not always what we expect it to be. "My home it feels so small / I see the walls cave in," she sings. "To the sky that's above: is that all you've got? / Take your thumb off my pulse / And leave me with nothing more." Elsewhere, on the record's title track, she talks about what it really means to work for your art: "Hey, you're a rock star / But do you have the time? / Did you pay your way through? / The right place, the right time?" For Duterte, this profession isn't about luck but work. "Try to make ends meet / Penny pinch 'til I'm dying / Everybody works," she sings, ending on the same two words that are so important to her that she decided to use them as her album title. "I think it was very important for it to be the album title," she explains. "It's sort of this mantra I've had in my head for the past few years, due to frustration of trying to make music into a career. Also, in part it's kind of a note to self to remember that everybody is working towards something."
Duterte is the daughter of first generation Filipino immigrants who settled in San Francisco's Bay Area. Both have musical backgrounds: her father worked as a DJ before she was born, providing Duterte and her brother with a library of cassettes (Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson, Earth, Wind & Fire); meanwhile her mother, an avid karaoke singer and hobby guitarist, bought Duterte her first guitar for her eighth birthday. "That was definitely one of my first memories of picking up music," she remembers. For nine years of high school Duterte played trumpet in her school's jazz ensemble and concert band, ensuring she's more than at home onstage, but it was the music she penned in solitude, with just her guitar, that would eventually nudge her into the solo spotlight. Initially Turn Into was a slender collection that made its way into the world when, around Thanksgiving in 2015, she posted it on Bandcamp after one too many glasses of wine. The songs were written in her late teens, a few short years after she came up with the Jay Som moniker using an online baby-name generator. "I was in a pretty dark place during Turn Into, most of it was angry, confused, and sad," she says of the songs which all seem to speak to one person directly—a friend or romantic relationship that didn't quite add up to all it was expected to.
Still, these raw, jangly songs caught the ear of Chad Heimann, talent agent for Salty Artist Management, who decided to bring her onto his roster that included Mitski. This then snowballed into Polyvinyl optioning to re-release Turn Into, putting it out right before Duterte's subsequent 2016 summer tour with Mitski and Japanese Breakfast. "To be around these two powerful very strong-willed and very talented women every day, for like 30 days was eye-opening for me," says Duterte. A longtime fan of both artists, the singer looked up to them long before they shared the same stages night after night. The fact that Duterte was standing alongside fellow female Asian-American performers did not escape her notice. "It was something I was very aware of prior to the tour," Duterte says. "I've never seen a billing like that and if I was 13 and had the opportunity to experience that, I'd probably freak out. I think about that special tour every day and I'm still incredibly grateful to have been a part of it."
Times are changing for artists like her, and unlike her. The indie community's increased diversity is being celebrated by larger audiences and in big ways. The success of label peers PWR BTTM, artists like Vagabon, Julien Baker, and, of course, Mitski, and Japanese Breakfast, has opened new doors for the queer community, people of color, women—essentially artists who aren't white guys. She hopes her audience will be similarly diverse. "I feel like we sort of have to work 10 times harder to be taken seriously while with men in music, especially in indie music," she says of her role as a female musician. "It's like handed to them. It's like a given, it's a four-piece white male rock band and they sound like Alt-J and it's very tiring to see that."
Everybody Works is both mesmerizing, enchanting, and at times, boldly poppy. Gutsy songs like "Baybee" showcase glittering keys, vintage funk, and mock 80s synth practiced by artists like Connan Mockasin and Alex Calder. Meanwhile, "One More Time, Please" sounds a lot like a hook-driven song from one of her biggest pop idols, Carly Rae Jepsen. But most tracks are built on layered chords that sound like a dream you can't quite put your finger on. Was it a good dream? Was it horrific? Could it be both? That's Jay Som's lo-fi recording style—an airy and twinkling descent one moment, a brash and experimental tonal build up the next. She lets her vocals take a backseat on some some of the fuzzier tracks, like "1 Billion Dogs," so that they come into focus as complex, crunchy combos of reverb and dreamy percussion. With some of the tougher subject matter, like the chorus of "Everybody Works," where she's penny pinching to survive living off of her work, she comes out with her vocal range swinging.
"I'm still reflecting on the album," she explains. "Every time I listen to it there's something new and it's like, 'OK, I know why I wrote that.'" She says she works to make her lyrics honest, and because of that, they usually come out self deprecating. "I want someone to hear a song and be like, 'I know what that means,'" she says. Self deprecation aside, she sees her move into the music industry as it stands right now to be both positive and inspiring. Unlike her humble beginnings on her shitty Dell laptop, spending spring break solo, huddled over a borrowed computer, now she's working alongside artists who, like her, were once doing this all alone—perhaps physically, but mentally isolated too. Now is their time. "Everything just keeps getting better," she says of the past few years. "People are getting the attention and exposure they deserve and it makes me so proud to be part of music right now because it's changing right before our eyes. Of course, you have people writing articles, and you've got white dudes complaining that indie music isn't the same anymore, but you know, fuck them basically," she adds with a laugh.
Nikki Volpicelli is a writer living in Philly. Follow her on Twitter.
Photos by Cara Robbins.