words by sammy maine
photography by cara robbins
Melina Duterte has had a phenomenal year. Since opening our own ‘The Human Noise We Sat There Making‘ compilation at the end of 2015, Duterte has, under her Jay Som moniker, put out the gorgeous Turn Into record, signed with Polyvinyl Records and went out on a bunch of tours, including a jaunt with Mitski and Japanese Breakfast. In March, she released her much anticipated full-length Everybody Works and has subsequently been out on the road for the past few months. “It’s honestly been quite disorientating,” she explains of the past few months. Duterte has just got back from another tour and although she sounds tired – “I had bronchitis during the entire last week [of tour] and it just messed me up” – she speaks with a thoughtful, animated tone.
She’s currently staying in L.A. and as cars beep and dogs bark in the background, Duterte says that although the tour was a little long this time, it was still hugely successful. “It was so much fun. I met a lot of people who have been listening to the records for such a long time and when they want to say hi after the show, I think that’s really important and cool.”
Although she enjoys the togetherness that comes with a tour, when it comes down to the actual material, she prefers to work solo. Everybody Works was written, recorded, played and produced entirely by Duterte in her bedroom studio. It took around three weeks, with Duterte writing almost half the LP on the spot. “I finished the album back in October so I had enough time to digest my own record because even during the four or five months that it was just sitting there waiting to be released, I was still figuring out what the album meant to me,” she explains. “One thing that stuck out to me was that I definitely stuck to my guts for this record and I think, in the truest sense, I tried to really be myself and not let any outside sources influence me. I’m really happy that I did that because I probably would’ve had a completely different record.”
Leading up to the release, Duterte struggled immensely when it came to her finances. Living in San Francisco, she was working in food and trying to balance her jobs – both full-time and part-time work, while trying to do music and pay her rent. “It’s hard to be a musician anywhere and there definitely is still a big idea that music isn’t a real job and it’s not as serious and it sucks because it is actually a really hard job,” she explains. “It’s different now because I’ve got my foot in a slightly higher level but there are so many intricacies with music and business and how they intertwine with your personal life as well and it is a little overwhelming and I feel like a lot of people don’t understand that.”
Prior to making the record, Duterte says she was simply excited to get started. Although struggling to pay her bills, she says she didn’t feel any pressure and with the resoundingly positive reaction to the record, Duterte says that the results were ultimately rewarding. “It’s so incredible to have people say so many nice things and people who come out to the shows and say ‘hey, these songs mean a lot to me. I’ve been spinning the record and having a really tough time and your record has really helped’ – saying stuff like they can connect to a lyric or a guitar part because I know how exactly how that feels; to feel that way towards a record or an artist. It’s just a very special feeling and I want that feeling to continue.”
“It is a little strange,” she says of now being the artist instead of the fan. “I felt that way towards a lot of artists where they have helped me in so many ways, like sometimes you just have the right song in the right time and it is kind of strange but it is something I have learned to accept and embrace because these people that are saying that; they don’t have to tell you that, they can keep it to themselves so for them to be so vulnerable and open about that is so important to me.”
Duterte began writing music when she was 12 – “it just grew up that way, in building my foundation of music” – with her first song stemming from a collaboration with her best friend. “It was about Taco Bell and it was really bad,” she says, laughing. But it was the influence of Seth Cohen’s favourite band that really got the ball rolling. “When I was 12 I was really into Death Cab for Cutie. They are probably the shining light of why I even started writing and recording music,” she continues. “I was very into Chris Walla’s production style and I was also really into Ben Gibbard’s writing and I was very influenced by their album We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes. I remember listening and thinking ‘I want to do this. I’m so curious. Like, how do they do this?’”
This curiosity led to a trip to the local guitar centre with her dad, who ended up buying her a ‘really shitty’ microphone. Teamed with a ‘crappy’ Dell laptop, Duterte began her songwriting career. “It was pretty emo to be honest,” she says. “Oh but the first song I ever put on MySpace was a cover of Outkast’s “Ms.Jackson” and then I also covered “New Slang” by The Shins. I really hope they’re not out there anymore!”
Speaking of MySpace, Duterte enthuses about the internet’s role in her quick rise on the radar (she released her first album after drunkenly uploading it to Bandcamp). “I really love living in this time now for music. Just the ability to release your own music and sell it at your own price and make your own merch. It’s truly a DIY time for music and I do see the internet as a positive and vital to the direction that music is going right now in terms of digital and even physical too,” she says. “I think the case for a lot of artists right now is how you start it is by uploading music on bandcamp or soundcloud – those help immensely. And for people who start their own record label too. There’s just so much you can do on the internet and I couldn’t have done anything without the internet; that’s the entire reason why my music is being heard.”
And it’s not just her music that’s been given this platform – she says that the communication that stems from the likes of Twitter and Instagram has allowed a network of artist support to flourish. “It’s been so nice to contact some of my favourite artists and say ‘hey, I fucking love your music, please tell me when you’re in town and we can hang out’. There’s such a big community of musicians that love each other and support each other and the access of the internet has helped so much with that,” she says.
Everybody Works explores the impending doom of adulthood; of fearing your future and the uncertainties that come with entering your early twenties. At a Jay Som show, you’ll likely hear the crowd take part in “The Bus Song” – “But I like the bus!” – and it’s through Duterte’s vulnerability and openness in exploring these themes that allows some sort of reprise for those of us feeling the same.
“When people cite that song, they always talk about how they could to relate to that first verse and the chorus. I feel like a lot of people can relate when they’re living in a big city either if they’re there for work or for school,” she explains. “When I wrote that song, I was living in San Francisco taking the bus to go to work and I remember always looking around me and seeing all these people and thinking that all of these people have so many different stories but no one really cares because everyone is so unique – you don’t have to try to be someone versus if you’re living in a small town where everyone knows each other. It’s kind of that push-and-pull of living in a city – how it can overwhelming but it also feels so exciting in a way.”
Although she’ll have to continue to live in a city for her career, Duterte does dream of living on a farm some day. “That’s something that I’ve always wanted ever since I was younger but especially now – which is dumb because I gotta keep doing music obviously – but I think it would be so, so nice to be kind of isolated a little bit and just tend to the farm and have a very simple life and nice weather – I just think it’d be beautiful.”
She explains that when she was a child, her parents were best friends with people that had farms; “so we would go there all the time and hang out with their ducks and horses and chickens. I was raised around animals. Animals deserve the world – we don’t deserve them,” she says before she yelps down the phone. “Sorry, a bee is like, maybe attacking me right now!”
Whether it’s a sign that the animals aren’t quite ready for her yet, it’s clear that Duterte is an artist that thinks about the bigger picture. But for now, the immediate future holds a change of scenery, as she moves from San Francisco to L.A. “I’m looking very forward to moving out of the bay area. I love it a lot, I’ve been there my whole life but it’s time for a change.”
“Everybody Works” is out now via Polyvinyl.
Buy it here.
Jay Som is touring the UK/EU next month, see the dates below: