Photo: Lindsey Byrnes (courtesy of Grandstand Media)

Jay Som Is Not Saving Dream Pop. It Doesn’t Need to Be Saved.

Jay Som speaks to PopMatters about handling expectations, agents of change, and how her newfound sobriety influenced her new album Anak Ko.

Anak Ko
Jay Som
23 August 2019

Melina Duterte doesn’t know this yet, but we’ve met before.

It was a scorcher in Detroit and Duterte had just finished a raucous and spellbinding Jay Som set at 2017’s edition of MOPOP Festival. For context, Michigan indie kids never really got their music festival until MOPOP came along. There was a one-off edition of Australia’s Laneway that never returned, and Movement is a must-see for anyone casually interested in techno. But there was little diversity in the summer live music scene, and through most of my time in high school, I was limited to big tours making their half-hearted stop at the local amphitheater.

I was grateful just to be at any outdoor Detroit event with bands I loved, but one of the main reasons I bought a two-day pass was to see Jay Som. Everybody Works, Jay Som’s sophomore album and breakthrough effort, was fresh in my memory, so I dragged my best friend away from his scene-y art gallery internship to belt out “The Bus Song” in a dusty riverside field.

Everybody Works was being marketed by the music press as something of a shoegaze project, and I’m pretty sure the term “shoegaze” comes from the fact that bands like Ride and My Bloody Valentine were notorious for looking down at their buffet of effect pedals when they performed, aka “gazing” at their “shoes”. To my surprise, Jay Som’s set gave us none of that. It was a smiley jam session, escalating to the point where Duterte broke a guitar string, one of the most gratifying things I saw that weekend.

However, the real Kodak moment came after the performance when I “ran into” (a.k.a. waited in line to meet) Duterte and the band at a meet-and-greet tent off to the side of the main stage. As I was handing her an Icelandic króna note to sign (it was the most valuable piece of paper I had on me), we made eye contact, and I blurted out the most overwrought compliment that came to mind: “You’re saving dream pop!”

No smirk is more vividly implanted in my head than Duterte’s after hearing me say that.

“Did it really need to be saved?” she responded. Checkmate. I felt a little silly, but it happens. I was a 19-year-old music nerd overwhelmed by meeting someone I genuinely admired, and she could tell. We took a picture and went our separate ways.

Two years later. Duterte is gearing up to begin her new album cycle, and I’m entering my last year in college. I get the chance to interview her, and obviously, I have to bring this up. I think long and hard about how I’m going to spin this into a question that isn’t just “Do you remember me?” So, I reach and come up with something about how terms like “dream pop” and “bedroom pop” get summoned so often when writers discuss her music. Shouldn’t that just grind her gears?

Her response is refreshingly honest. “I’m not gonna deny it. Sometimes I make something and think ‘Oh my god, this shit is dream pop, and sometimes I’m like ‘this is shoegaze as hell.’ That’s my favorite music. That’s what I grew up on.” She’s not hiding from “dream pop”, even if she isn’t necessarily saving it. Thank god.

“Bedroom pop”, on the other hand, is one she can’t wrap her head around. “That’s something I’m grappling with because you see people like Clairo and a bunch of artists that are called “bedroom pop”, but, by definition, they’re not. It’s kinda like how people back in 2009 were calling “lo-fi” a genre, even though it’s not one at all. It’s just the means of how people have to record.”

She’s right. People who throw around the term “bedroom pop” are often more concerned with DIY posturing than whether the music was recorded in a bedroom. Interestingly enough, her latest record, Anak Ko, is her most grandiose production yet. It’s her first album where she doesn’t play every instrument and her first since moving from the Bay Area to Los Angeles to become a full-time musician.

Her increased profile after two years of touring has led to heightened expectations, and understandably so. After all, she released her first album (2016’s Turn Into) in a burst of drunken spontaneity on Bandcamp, and now she’s completing an album months before its release with a world tour already mapped out. “I think I’m just nervous because I know that there are more people listening now,” she says. “As much as I try to kind of hide it, I do know that there are expectations, in a sense.” She stops herself. “Actually, maybe I’m making those up.”

She’s not. If there’s one thing I’ve learned while interviewing artists, it’s that, early on in your career, the stakes get higher with every release. A few years in the industry will change you. Change is something that comes up a lot on Anak Ko, whether it be the forthright “I wanna change” line on “Devotion” or the coda on “Peace Out”, where she continuously tells herself “Won’t you try to be anyone else?”

When asked about the shift in perspective since Everybody Works, Duterte points out that very little of it has to do with music. “I think what has made me grow up so much for the past three years is realizing that I can always say no,” she notes. “I think I had a big struggle with that because I was a wide-eyed young person and when you’re a wide-eyed young person you want to say yes to everything and seize any opportunity that is presented to you because you’re afraid that your time is up soon.”

Learning to say “no” has been a primary means of Duterte protecting herself from the unnecessary whirlwind that encompasses you if you overcommit in music. She mentions her newfound sobriety. “That was a huge thing,” she points out. “I think I feel like I have to be sober to be in this music industry.”

She mentions how the music industry plants this huge pressure on artists to conform to drinking culture, how every show is an invitation to blackout. After all, your workplace as an indie musician is usually bars and clubs. Instead of giving artists tickets for food or even some extra money, the norm is to throw bottles of Jameson their way until they politely decline. While fun at the time, the consequences built up. “It’s too much of a depression-fueled thing to go through,” she says. “I was tired of blacking out all the time. I was tired of not being a reflection of myself.”

It’s tough to find good art that isn’t honest, and it’s hard to make honest art when you don’t feel like a reflection of yourself. Duterte realized this when attempting to subscribe to the expectation that artists need to “go experimental” on their third album, that evolution only comes with a full sonic overhaul. “I thought I really needed to go crazy,” she says, “but that felt so not genuine to my core. I learned to focus less on being ambitious and more on trying to stay true to my songwriting and workflow.”

A line off Anak Ko‘s single “Superbike” encapsulates this nicely: “I’m not the type of fool who needs to read the room.” For Duterte, however, this line says more about gender than anything else. “That’s an inside joke about the men in my life and just men in general. I feel like, as a woman, you’re born into being so emotional and being in touch with yourself. And to have that similar connection with men is really hard, and I’m always around men when I’m touring.”

Duterte cites her move to Los Angeles as a catalyst for her branching out, particularly by letting other musicians take up space on the album when her past albums have all been solo endeavors. It’s a change she welcomes with open arms (“I was sick of hearing myself drum”) but, to complete the album, she isolated herself from the city and took a retreat to Joshua Tree. “I wanted to be alone because I was super distracted by all of the prospects that L.A. has to offer. I just wanted to force myself to be in a different environment for one second.”

While full immersion into the spoils of the L.A. music scene might make you want to live like this forever, Duterte nods to fleeting nature of such a set-up, something she started to embrace while making this album. “I don’t want to be so set on the fact that this is something I am gonna do forever,” she says. “I remember thinking I want to have other interests; I want to have other hobbies. This is the first time where I have been thinking about the future more clearly.”

For now, what we have is Anak Ko. And while it’s easy to get caught in the relief of it being finished, the anticipation of a grueling tour, and the wave of reactions that are flooding in as we speak, it’s most rewarding to focus on the album that’s sparking it all. “I don’t have a relationship with Anak Ko right now,” Duterte admits. “I don’t really know what it means to me yet. I just know that this is the one I’m most proud of.”