It’s mid Friday morning in late March, and Melina Duterte is in her hotel room in Chicago’s North Loop. Duterte, the creative force writing, recording, and producing as Jay Som, is set to play a show that night at Schuba’s Tavern in Lakeview (near Lincoln Park), though the combination of time and miles spent on the road recently, in addition to the lack of coffee, have led to a pretty amusing mix up as we kick off our conversation.
“Oh! I thought you meant the band Linkin Park,” Duterte says, with bashful laughter. “Sorry, my thoughts are all jumbled up right now. I woke up right before this call.”
It’s hard to blame Duterte for the mixup. The East Bay native’s life has been turned upside down recently – from working, going to school, and making music part time, she’s now spent the better part of the last year playing her music in venues across the country, thanks to the success of her two self-recorded albums, last year’s Turn Into and this month’s Everybody Works. It’s bedroom-pop in the truest sense: both albums were crafted at home by Duterte, and capture that hushed intimacy and DIY-aesthetic common to the leading lights of the genre.
Some albums have the ability to transport you somewhere you’ve been before even on the very first listen. Everybody Works, Duterte’s latest release as Jay Som, is one of those albums that immediately transports you somewhere you’ve been before. It feels warm, lived-in, and familiar by the end of the very first track, and I found myself questioning whether this album was released in 2017 or 1997 – for all the right reasons. There’s a special kind of magic to an album that can make you feel like you’re 16 again, sprawled out on your bed, with volume cranked up loud enough to drown out the din of your window AC unit – and perfectly happy.
Jay Som plays Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right on March 29 and Washington, D.C.’s DC9 on April 1. Everybody Works is out now on Polyvinyl/Double Denim.
Brightest Young Things: You went on Tour with Mitski and Japanese Breakfast last year, and you remarked that as three Asian-American women in indie music, you felt that you were on a mission. How is that mission going so far?
Melina Duterte: It seems like it’s still going on pretty strong. I think for that tour specifically it was just so present in the air – the fact that all three of us are Asian-American women, and I’ve never been to or played so many shows where it was predominantly women, and women of color, and young women. That was so rare, and it was phenomenal. It changed my life. It definitely made me view live shows differently – it’s not just about playing music anymore; there’s more to it. And every night when people come up to me and say these kind things, like my music has helped them get through a break up, or finals – simple stuff like that consistently surprises me, and makes everything worthwhile.
BYT: Having listened to Puberty 2 [Mitski], Pscyhopomp [Japanese Breakfast], and Everybody Works – all three of you are writing music about real, fully fleshed out people with real emotions.
MD: Yeah! Exactly. And it also goes to show that if more people that are marginalized have more opportunities to showcase their work and their art you get different perspectives, especially in indie music, which is predominantly white and male. We need different stories, and we need them to be out there now.
BYT: What guides and frames your songwriting process? Is there anything that you feel is “off-limits” about yourself that you’d rather keep out of your music, or are you continuing to explore these things as you mature as a songwriter?
MD: I think it’s the latter. I don’t put too much focus on my songwriting, which is kind of weird – especially the lyrics and the meanings of my songs. Lyrics are the least important for me and they always come last. They’re a little harder for me to do and I don’t like to overwhelm myself, especially with music, so I tend to take space for the writing process. I think I’ve still got a ways to go with my songwriting abilities, and I’ve got to practice more and explore further and be more inspired with things. But yeah, I’m not crazy about being political in my music or anything like that.
BYT: You’re based in the East Bay, where you grew up, but I know you also spent some time living in San Francisco proper. The region is better known nowadays for the tech industry – and the rising cost of living means that it’s increasingly harder to be an artist there. How is the music scene and community there? How has your environment shaped your approach and outlook as an artist, if in any way?
MD: Yeah. I was raised in this kind of suburban town in the Bay Area, about 40 minutes away from Oakland. Oakland and San Francisco were the towns we went to watch shows – they were so close by, and there were so many historic venues. That shaped how I see music; I went to so many concerts there and DIY house shows. I was surrounded by this very musical environment while I was there, and if you explored a bit more on your own you could find your favorite local artists, and what not. It’s pretty fertile ground for making music, just playing around in the Bay Area. It is not a dead scene – I don’t know why people think it is! [Pauses] I mean, I do, but… [Laughs]
BYT: Don’t worry; you’re good! It’s sort of like the perception of D.C. – people sleep on it in terms of being a city that producing quite a bit of art, and a lot of bands are from here. But to some degree, artists have to leave town to make it big. I think Oddisee is the most talented rapper from the area, and he’s a D.C. guy, but he had to move to New York to really take off. It’s a shame. And San Francisco – and the Bay Area – was once the cradle of counterculture and “out there” artistic expression.
MD: Yeah, it changed so fast due to tech culture and gentrification. It is slowly dwindling the art and music community, but it doesn’t mean it’s over. There are so many hardworking people in the Bay Area that are still trying to make it happen, but unfortunately there aren’t many opportunities or spaces for artists to do anything, and it’s pretty sad.
BYT: Obviously, what happened at the Oakland Ghost Ship was a tragedy for so many reasons, including the loss of human life. Now politicians are using it to crack down on DIY and artistic spaces; it’s sad on so many levels.
MD: It’s been really fucked up. And it takes a tragedy like this for the greater public to be aware of what’s happening in its own community, and it’s very sad. But I also feel like it has made people a little stronger and has brought communities together. It’s still hard for people, though.
BYT: What keeps you in the East Bay? Why stick to Oakland and the Bay Area instead of making the move to a different music city, like New York, or LA, or Austin?
MD: [Pauses] I think just because I was born and raised here, and it’s so beautiful all the time. The weather is awesome, it’s next to the water, the people are very open minded. I mean, the thing is, I’m not going to live there forever – I do have plans to look at other places, especially this year and next year. I definitely want to die there, though. [Laughs] But I’m not going to live in the Bay for a long time – I’d like to be in a new environment some day. Most likely LA. It [The Bay Area] is so good, but it’s so expensive.
BYT: From what I’ve read, it sounds like you were somewhat hesitant to go into making music full-time – partially due to where you were in life, partially due to the external pressures from family and friends, who maybe don’t understand art as a career. And I think a lot of people can relate to that. What do you wish you had known back then about making the leap to being a full-time artist?
MD: I think especially right after high school, I wish I had known that school is always there and you can go back to it – it doesn’t matter what age you are. I’ve had so much experience meeting people on the road, people who are keeping regular, office jobs while making music as a hobby for years and years, as well as professional musicians who are in the same boat. It all boils down to the fact that you shouldn’t let school tie you down.
And obviously, there are certain factors like family, as well as your own long-term and short-term goals that can mess that up, but I feel like especially in a time like now – where it isn’t financially viable to be an artist, and education and tuition are so, so expensive, it’s so confusing and overwhelming to be a student and be an artist as well.
You have these kids that are working so hard – they’ve got like two jobs, and going to school full time, and helping out with their family – doing monthly adult payments – how can they live? [Laughs incredulously] How can they actually live? Just knowing that there are hardworking people like that, and being surrounded by those kinds of people in my family makes me so, so grateful for what I’m going through. It’s insane.
BYT: That’s somewhat of a recurring theme in many of the conversations I have with artists that are trying to break through. More often than not I hear about people holding down a couple of jobs just to make rent – and it happens all around the board. It’s not like I can make ends meet solely off writing about music at this point.
MD: Exactly. You can’t just do one thing anymore. It’s very hard! I worked full time for almost four years, and it kind of breaks your character. But at the same time, I think it makes you a little stronger – in particular if you’ve got a service industry job. I talk about this a lot with other musicians and writers, too. It can make you a kinder, stronger person; it can also make you jaded, though. [Laughs] It can be overwhelming to think about that.
BYT: You recorded Everybody Works at home, as well as Turn Into. Do you think you’ll ever want to go into a professional studio to make your music, or do you need the intimacy and close quarters? What is it about recording at home that works for you?
MD: I really like recording by myself because I have that control, and I don’t have to work with other people to decipher them. It means that don’t have to deal with conflicting schedules and emotions. But also – I’ve been doing this since I was like 12, so it’s just been the thing that I’m used to, the natural process of how I write and record; it’s always been that way. I’m never going to say no to the studio; I’ve been in the studio before with other bands and I liked it, but I think for this project, I really like wearing multiple hats. It’s just something I prefer. It means that you have to trust yourself, and your gut. You don’t have a second opinion.