Jay Som's Melina Duterte on self care, songwriting and sudden success

Melina Duterte aka Jay Som. Photo by Marc Fong.

Melina Duterte aka Jay Som. Photo by Marc Fong.

By: Dan Agacki

Jay Som is the moniker of Oakland's Melina Duterte. Her music career started on a whim, with nine demo tracks posted to Bandcamp. The songs quickly gained traction and were eventually re-released by Polyvinyl Records. The demos, reissued as Turn Into, were a home recorded batch of shoegaze indebted rockers. Her follow up, the newly released Everybody Works, shows a leap in songwriting as well as recording without losing the unbridled charm of her demos. In an 18 month span, Duterte has gained quite a buzz and experienced an unexpected whirlwind of success. Through all of these happenings, she has managed to stay grounded and cling tightly to her humility.

With Turn Into and Everybody Works you recorded and played entirely on your own. I know people who can play numerous instruments, but having the mindset to do that and record it as well seems so ridiculous.

It kind of is pretty ridiculous when you think about it, but it's all just practice really.

I can't really think of women who've done that in the past. There's probably someone obvious I'm overlooking.

There are a couple out there. I know there's Grouper who does that. I love Grouper. She does all of her stuff. Also – I forgot her name, she's a DJ but she also produces and mixes her own shit, and it's really good. I think it's insane how small the number of female producers are out there. Hopefully it starts picking it up.

Do you write your songs on guitar?

Usually I start out with an idea, record it on my voice memos and come back to it, get a scratch guitar and then just build from there.

Do you ever start writing songs on other instruments first?

I tried doing that with piano but I'm not a very good piano player, so I usually just stick to the guitar or bass usually. Whatever's easier, you know?

I guess I kind of assumed you didn't try to write songs on trumpet.

Oh no [laughs]. That's too crazy.

Are there any instruments that you want to learn?

Definitely the violin. I tried learning that. My Uncle gave me a violin as a present from Australia. He gave me one of those Dummy books, like Violin For Dummies. I tried to do that but I was really bad so I just gave up. I don't know, maybe something crazy like the bagpipes would be chill.

Were all the songs for the new album written after the previous album?

There weren't any leftovers. I started doing demos after Turn Into was released on Bandcamp, and that was back in March before I started getting managed or before I even signed to a label. I kind of sat with those demos for a couple months. After I came back from tour [with Mitski and Japanese Breakfast] and moved into a new place, I took half of those demos and then wrote new ones on the spot while I was recording. So it was a really crazy process.

It sounds like an outpouring of creative process.

Oh yeah, that's why coffee exists.

How was your approach to writing this album different to writing the songs on Turn Into?

I took a more traditional approach. I think I was a lot more focused, more serious about what I was doing, but also trying not to be too serious. Kind of just wanted to stick to my roots of the way I write songs and arrange them. Since it was such a short and stressful period, I didn't really have time to reflect on what I've made, so I'm still figuring out what it means to me I guess. It's a weird feeling.

Was there anything you were trying to achieve or improve upon while working on this album?

I think I spent a lot more time trying to make everything sound more organic. I did a lot of one take recordings where I just wanted to play the entire thing through. I didn't do a lot of punching in. So there are a lot of mistakes on the record that I really wanted to keep in. I'm not a super big perfectionist when it comes to that. I think that was a pretty intentional thing I wanted in the record.

Mistakes give personality to the recordings.

Yeah, yeah.

Were there things you wrote that ended up getting thrown away because they didn't seem to fit?

“(BedHead)” was the song that went through the most changes. It originally had drums and bass. It sounded way more aggressive than it does now. I kept experimenting with it and nothing positive came out. I wasn't really feeling it and I kept throwing the song away. But I eventually came back to it and I finally found the right sound that I wanted for that song.

That was one of the songs I had written down as one of the outliers. That and “One More Time, Please.”

Oh yeah. “One More Time, Please” was written very fast. I think that was one of the last songs and I rushed it because I got too excited about what I was doing and I got scared I would lose all the ideas. I preformed them and recorded it super fast. I kind of regret doing that because I wanted to spend more love on it, but I like the way it turned out, I guess.

Have you had a moment where you thought “This could be something, this could be a career”?

I think I had that recently, like last year. After I went on those tours it really solidified that sort of thought because it was more like a trial run. Like, I'm getting opportunities. This is cool, I got signed, but can I do it? Up to now, I realize that it's very possible. And it's a very weird thought too, because I feel so young but I feel old at the same time.

Preferring to do things solo helps a lot because then you don't have to worry about money as much.

You don't have to deal with other people's feelings and their shit versus you, you kind of have to trust yourself. And it's also kind of nice. It's kind of like a form of self care, trusting yourself, which is one of the most important things. I feel like I've just started to get a grip on that.

Is this your first headlining tour?

It's like a co-headlining tour, for our Courtneys tour. Yeah, basically it is.

What are your future plans?

I think I'd like to just continue for now, like this year, do the full touring experience. Just do that for a while and think about what's going to happen with the next record. That's the thing, I don't know, everything keeps happening so fast that I sometimes don't have time to think about what I want to do because it's already happening. I just want to take it how it comes and see what's up.

All of a sudden one week I saw you were on Pitchfork: Rising and a week later your record got Best New Music.

Yeah, I don't get it. It's great, but it's also like what? [laughs]

Jay Som will be appearing at the Cactus Club on 3/23 alongside The Courtneys and Dogs in Ecstasy.