In the age when meritocracy increasingly seems like an outdated utopian goal for the music industry, it’s nice to witness an artist making it big solely based on her talent and hard work. Melina Duterte, an indie musician who goes by the stage name Jay Som, began the project in her bedroom while attending community college and working part-time jobs. The efforts paid off in the form of her first record, Turn Into, an unofficial collection of unfinished songs uploaded to Bandcamp and later re-released by Top Shelf and Polyvinyl. Then 22, Duterte’s songs had preternatural wisdom and featured an impressive array of sonic influences. Her 2017 follow-up, Everybody Works, brought Jay Som closer to the mainstream, fleshing out those elements while helping her to vent her frustrations with being a struggling artist.
Duterte’s latest record, Anak Ko (“my child” in Tagalog), finds her at a much more stable place in her young career. Like her previous two records, Anak Ko is only a little over 30 minutes and goes down easily. But it’s also softer and more introspective than her earlier works. The first track, “If You Want It”, begins with familiar imagery: “I can remember / the words were forming in your mouth.” It brings to mind the song “Lipstick Stains”, the first song on Everybody Works, which began “I like the way your lipstick stains the corner of my smile.” Both lyrics start the records off in an intimate place, awaiting a kiss or a hushed revelation.
Despite a jaunty guitar line, “If You Want It” is a bitter ode to the twilight stages of a relationship. At the beginning of the second verse, the upbeat progression gives way to warped guitar, momentarily bringing the song to a darker and more disorienting place. A crescendo of piano after the second chorus is an unraveling of sorts or a grand release of pent up tension. “Superbike”, the album’s first single, is a much simpler song. Riding a ’90s-inspired guitar riff off into the night, the track foregrounds the record’s preoccupation with movement. It’s a pleasant song, but it feels in some ways more like a memory than an in-the-moment narration.
“Nighttime Drive” — the third single — sets a similar scene. The two tracks are probably the most accessible on the record, and they appropriately bookend some of the more experimental songs that find Duterte searching for internal peace. Anak Ko is very much an introverted record as a whole, but “Superbike” and “Nighttime Drive” externalize her personal transformations and find beauty in movement.
Elsewhere on the record, Duterte flirts with a more abrasive sound. “Peace Out” sounds like PJ Harvey dialed back a few notches as she sings, “Won’t you try / won’t you try to be anyone else?” If “If You Want It” is the tentative breakup of an unhappy couple still willing to piece their relationship back together, then “Peace Out” is the final kiss-off after a climactic fight. “Anak Ko”, the title track, is the most dynamic in the bunch, and it’s also one of Jay Som’s most cathartic. Over a simple drum line, Duterte’s voice takes on a new gothic edge. Halfway through the song, the music builds into a powerful climax, and after it breaks, her voice returns, modified to sound both robotic and infantile. “Somewhere I can build it,” she sings, hoping for a place to start anew.
In past interviews, Duterte had talked about being bullied when she was younger, and her music has offered her both an escape and a means of making a living for herself. Anak Ko seems to really reckon with the debris left behind in the wake of change. It takes strength to move on even when it’s the best thing to do, and Jay Som’s music expertly toes the line between dissatisfaction, sentimentality, and hope. Duterte is both bitter and nostalgic about the past, and she’s both hopeful and scared for the future.
“Crown” and “Get Well”, the last two songs on the record, look back regretfully. On “Crown”, Duterte sings, “You’ve never had to follow through / You’re single now, still out of tune / You climb the ropes to second-best / You’ll do it all over again.” It’s a deft bit of songwriting that works better as poetry than as a straightforward narrative. “You climb the ropes” conjures up the image of an embarrassing gym class, and “You’ve never had to follow through” seems to be chiding either a lover or Duterte herself for being too cowardly to act on promises. “Get Well” is a gentle sendoff to a sick acquaintance: “How do you find peace / With a drink in your hand?”
But there’s a lot of love on Anak Ko, too. “Tenderness”, the second single, is a gorgeous ode to new love, and unlike most of the other songs, it isn’t tinged with distance or melancholy. “Devotion” is a sauntering track with tricky drum breaks that dissolves into a chorus of angelic voices: “I wanna change,” they chant. It sounds like a prayer.
Anak Ko isn’t a showy record, nor does it radically differ from Jay Som’s previous efforts. But the intricacies of the instrumentation, and especially the subtle power of Duterte’s songwriting, prove her polish as a musician. Jay Som makes personal records, and it seems as though she’d be just as happy making music only for her ears. Luckily she’s been generous enough to share it with us as well.