Photo: Cara Robbins

Emotional Engineer: An Interview with Jay Som

After releasing music in relative obscurity, the basement-pop of Melina Duterte's Jay Som is suddenly taking the world by storm.
Jay Som
Everybody Works

It’s been a period of many changes for Melina Duterte. The Oakland-based bedroom recorder has been adjusting to her rising profile since the release of her latest full-length, the lush-yet-intimate Everybody Works, an effort that’s received a good amount of both critical and public praise. Despite the sudden uptick in attention, though, Duterte, who goes by the stage moniker Jay Som, has been patiently working her way to this moment.

“It’s been pretty recent since the record came out. About two weeks ago, I think? It’s been generally positive and I’m always grateful for anyone that listens to my music,” the 22 year old Filipino-American says before she briefly interrupts the conversation. “Hold on. It’s just a little loud right now. I’m going to move somewhere quieter. I’m at this hotel in Chicago and it’s super loud since I’m close to this airplane base.”

It’s a very common narrative for someone who’s now experiencing the more rigid formalities of going on tour. You arrive at your current destination, wake up and do press, perhaps a radio appearance or two, play a gig at night, and do it again the next day. But Duterte still retains a meek and deferential attitude, even if some of it does overwhelm her. “I’ve been pretty consistently surprised with the amount of people that come out and watch us, and how respectful they are. So it’s been pretty ideal,” she affirms. “The only thing that has really changed is the acknowledgment. Especially the press and music publications thing. I did not have that before, and now I’m getting tagged on social media with reviews.”

Duterte finishes that statement with a deep breath. She’s now starting to understand how the promotional cycle works after receiving a good amount of buzz, and it’s only natural to feel bowled over by all the welcoming embrace. But Duterte still feels like she hasn’t drastically reworked her approach from 2015’s Turn Into, a more understated release that already hinted at her indie-rock songwriting abilities. “I think I’m taking the same DIY approach that I always have, though in Everybody Works my performance, and producing, is better,” she clarifies.

Everybody Works sounds significantly more ambitious than Turn Into in both scope and sound, with songs that find a playful middle ground between fuzzy guitar rock and moody dream pop, and even smooth exotica, an assessment that Duterte agrees with even if she didn’t feel any high-stakes pressure after her signing with major indie label Polyvinyl. “The actual recording and mixing process took three weeks, and that’s an insanely short amount of time,” she says. “I stretched it out just a little bit just because it was the first time I had a deadline, and I was working on it for hours every single day because I’d never taken a whole body of work seriously. But other than that I didn’t do anything super crazy. It’s mostly what I’ve done before, just a little different.”

Even if audiences are now beginning to listen and appreciate Everybody Works, Duterte had presently distanced herself from the album until not too recently. She thought about how much her musical sensibilities had changed since she first released Turn Into via Bandcamp through emo-informed label Topshelf, and how she allowed herself to reflect on that period of crushing self-doubt. “I’ve been reflecting on it, actually,” she considers. “I listened to it again recently and noticed that it is a little brighter than Turn Into, and also in terms of how cohesive the sound is versus the lyrics. I kind of made an intentional thing where the music and the sound of it is happier and positive, and it’s juxtaposed with some sort of dark meaning. I don’t know if that’s something that I like to do,” she laughs.

That sense of cohesion is certainly an asset in Everybody Works, in view of how there’s a glut of ideas spread throughout that are spiritually reminiscent of classic nineties lo-fi records. Every track offers a new experience, and it’s in balancing both cohesion and spontaneity where Duterte plays to her strengths. “I like periodical musical moments when things just happen once,” she says. “I’m really into that. I like repetitiveness, but sometimes my favorite parts in songs are when they just happen once. I just say what I need to say.”

Duterte is now beginning to see the bigger picture when approaching her records, an outlook that she at first felt uncomfortable about since she’s been used to writing, recording, and producing on her own accord. Even if she went through a similar process while writing it, she was also keenly aware of how she had to meet certain expectations. “There were certain disasters in display of the new record,” she recounts. “I now had the label to worry about. But I also felt like I had to politely entrust more people to get it done, but I kind of detracted from that, too. If I were to make music for people, to be accessible, then what’s the point. So I stuck with my gut for this record.”

Dutarte is merely channeling her efforts after a full decade of writing music, having started at a very young age since she was brought up in a very musically-diverse upbringing. But even if she’s dabbled with more studious and classical forms of songwriting, she’s primarily allured by pop songwriting. “Would I want to continue the other thing?” she thinks to herself. “I think it was more of a Plan B, to be in that territory of furthering my studies in music, performance, and classical while in college. I always had a mindset that, ‘if it’s something that’s always there, and if I’m interested in it,’ I can always go back to it. But right now I feel like I’m definitely doing what I want to do.”

But for the time being, Duterte is happy to be writing a style of music that explores her vast musical taste, even if she likes to maintain a healthy degree of control. “I think that’s my go-to, the natural way I tend to write,” she says. “But sometimes I tend to be a little bit self-indulgent, but hopefully it still relates to people. And whenever I think about my lyrics, or the meanings of songs, it’s usually the last thing in the process. It’s something that I’m still working on, but I still think it’s really cool when people say my lyrics connect them to something.”

As she’s in the midst of her current tour, Duterte is wholeheartedly focused on what lies ahead while engaging with local scenes, an activity that she profusely values. She’s been known for constantly plugging other artists on her own twitter account, and she has no plans of dismissing that anytime soon. “I think it’s super important,” she effusively clarifies. “I always talk about this with my band members, and even other musicians. It’s very important to be kind and support the people you’re sharing the stage with. You’re creating this kind of experience for a new set of people, and I just feel like they deserve attention. There’s no reason to be catty, jealous, or too cool. When I really like a band, or an artist, I want to support them, and I think it’s important to support each other.”

With the increased attention, and the accolades that come with it, though, she’s also reminded of how there’s some things that are better left distancing yourself of. There’s always some minor gripes that can disrupt an otherwise smooth promotional schedule, like dealing with rowdy spectators or people on the Internet. “I’m starting to see this as a bad habit,” referring to how she can’t stop herself from reading any sort of outside criticism. “Then I started to read a lot of bad comments and realize how nasty people are on the Internet. They do not think about what they’re doing. They just put it online. It’s very easy to just get behind your computer and not care about what a human being thinks.”

Still, it’s a small price to pay when things have really changed for the better for Dutarte. “But that’s the … thing that’s like changed,” she pauses and laughs midway, as she she’s just remembered something that’s better left unsaid. “I feel like that’s something I shouldn’t do anymore.”