Jay Som’s will Hard-Working Dream-Pop

“My heart is beating so fast,” Melina Duterte spurts out. “We just had a connection. Did you see that?”

It’s a Friday afternoon in West Oakland, and I am sitting at a plastic children’s table-and-chair set with Duterte. We’re at the Cat Town Cafe, where felines up for adoption preen in hammocks and roam among a scaled Oakland Tribune Tower and a miniature “Tacos for Los Gatos” truck. A mural of the Golden Gate Bridge depicts a looming Catzilla. Our mission: to drink coffee and chill with the cats. That secret locked-eyes moment, then, was with a slightly tentative, black-and-white domestic shorthair named Huck.

Duterte is a noted animal lover with a tattoo of her childhood dog Yung Yung on her arm. She once named a pet guppy fish after Jónsi, from Sigur Rós. An especially brisk cut from her sparkling upcoming album is admirably titled “1 Billion Dogs.” The Cat Town Cafe is one of Duterte’s favorite places in the city, where she recently relocated after a year in San Francisco. (She grew up in the nearby East Bay suburb of Brentwood.)

Idyllic as the picture of cats and coffee may be—one of Duterte’s favorite bands, Broadcast, is even gliding out from the cafe’s stereo—things were not always this way for the 22-year-old, who records music as Jay Som. She has risen in the past year on the effort of 2015’sTurn Into, a self-released collection of impressively architected dream-pop, as well as the narcotic big-screen-beckoning torch-song “I Think You’re Alright.” But success only came after what Duterte calls a “dark period” of grueling overwork and perilous self-doubt. She funneled her emotions through Turn Into, though, and its title proved prophetic. It was eventually put out on tape via emo-oriented label Topshelf before indie stalwart Polyvinyl released it late last year.

At times, Duterte’s low, hushed voice and precise arrangements make Everybody Works sound like an alternate-dimension Lorde record. Texturing her songs with keys, trumpet, and even accordion, Duterte collages her interests: vivid guitar rock, spectral 4AD dreamscapes, orchestral confessionals. Most beguilingly, the album is anchored by a wondrous pair of slinky funk jams, “One More Time, Please” and “BayBee.” “All of my songs are so different, but you know it’s me,” she says. “I just don’t like staying in one place at all.”

A bespoke pop sensibility shines, and her sharp lyrics make quotidian moments gleam. “The Bus Song” captures the free sense of anonymity that only cities allow. “I feel like everyone is very self-conscious of their image,” Duterte says. “But in the city you can have your own persona. No one is going to judge you.” As she curls the album’s opening lyric into a poetic phrasing—“I like the way your lipstick stains/The corner of my smile”—it has a subtle power. When I mention these lines, she succinctly says: “I’m not afraid to sing about women.”

Duterte lives on a residential street in a charming mustard-yellow and mint-green house, in a neighborhood that she says is full of DIY spaces: punk houses, warehouses, “opened abandoned places.” Thetragic fire that killed 36 at Oakland’s Ghost Ship warehouse just a few weeks prior is still on the minds of all—one nearby cafe placed a memorial of amethyst and flower petals at its register—but a pluralistic sense of community has persevered. “I’m very, very proud to be a part of the Bay Area music scene right now,” Duterte says.

Like Turn Into, Duterte recorded and produced Everybody Works in her bedroom—but where her first collection bears the unvarnished edges of a home-recording, it’s astonishing to learn the sleek new record was made the same way. It’s patently 3D. In her room, black soundproofing foam covers each wall; Wild Nothing plays from her computer; a poster hangs for a sold out Chicago date of the Mitski tour. The room is strewn with six guitars, endless pedals, and a drum set that consumes most of its space. Outside, there’s a persistently out-of-tune piano. “I kind of like shitty pianos,” she notes.

Duterte’s outward inclination is towards simple things. She drives me around in her PT Cruiser. She is dressed in humble blue flannel and black jeans. She calls herself a “homebody and a couch potato.” “Melina is incredibly easygoing,” Mitski tells me. “Not in the ‘chill’ and somewhat oblivious way people are when they’re described as easygoing, but in that she seemed to take things as they come and remain pleasant to everyone around her in situations that would have stressed me out.”

But in the car, Duterte spiritedly sings along to two beloved records:Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION and Blood Orange’s Cupid Deluxe. “E•MO•TION is one of my favorite albums,” Duterte says with a tinge of glee, and Carly left a discernible mark on the funk songs at the core of Everybody Works. She describes, too, her deep admiration of Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, in his transformation from Saddle Creek emo as Lightspeed Champion into a legitimate pop force. You get the sense that Duterte’s ideas are only beginning to manifest.

Your first record is called Turn Into; what did you turn into?

It’s mostly about wanting to turn into something, wanting to change, to be a better person. A version of myself that I’m happy or content with. It’s a very sad album for me. [laughs] I was in a very dark place during that time, very angry at the world.

Why?

I was in school and working full-time; I worked in food for four years, in delis and cafes around the Bay Area. I did community college for two years, and music was just a hobby. I was at this weird point in my life where I was like, “Why am I doing this music thing? I love it, but it’s not financially viable for me.” I was having some family problems, too. I felt like I shouldn’t be doing what I was doing. Because if you’re an artist, you’re kind of looked down upon by regular people. You’re looked at as lazy, like it’s not a real job, which is unfortunate. I had people telling me: “You need to go to college and study business or become a nurse, you can’t do this for the rest of your life.” That made me very disappointed within myself. It was a very confusing time.

This makes me think of your new album’s title, Everybody Works.

“Everybody Works” is literally about that. Everybody has their own set of goals they’re trying to achieve. Everybody works mentally, at their jobs, to be better. It’s this weird mantra I always think about. For me personally, the album is definitely about finding some peace within yourself, in the stages of adult life where you have to settle and find what is right for you.

 

Who is an artist that’s changed the way you think about music?

Phil Elverum from the Microphones. The Glow Pt. 2 was the first record I heard that was totally different from the music I was listening to in middle school. The Microphones was just weird music, very raw, it seemed unfinished. It’s soul-crushing, it’s so fucking sad, and I just didn’t know that you could make that kind of music.

Listening to the Microphones, it’s like you’re stepping into Phil Elverum’s world. Your record is also atmospheric in that way.

That’s what I want. His lyrics are really weird, too. Sometimes they don’t make sense. That inspired me to be as vague or as blunt as I want. I saw Phil Elverum play at a place here that shut down, the LoBot Gallery—he was touring at the time in his truck by himself and I was high out of my mind like, “Oh my god, that’s Phil Elverum.” I also saw his band Mount Eerie at the Chapel in SF and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever been to. I actually cried.

I read that you were super into jazz and playing jazz trumpet in high school. When did you start playing trumpet? How did that influence the way you think about music?

It was fifth grade. My teacher brought a bunch of instruments into class, and when he played the trumpet, I was like, “That’s the one!” It’s loud, brassy—it’s just a confident kind of instrument that I really identified with. Also, none of the girls played it, so I wanted to be different, too, in a sense.

The trumpet takes discipline. I did it for about nine years, and I was studying music theory. My senior year, I was the section leader—I was first chair. I was doing honors band, a musical, and also stuff for a church. I was always playing, always surrounded by different musicians, always listening to trumpet players. I was very immersed with this instrument. I read about all the intricacies of it. It was my number one thing for those nine years.

It’s weird, but I don’t really consider myself a guitar player. Sometimes I feel like I play my guitar like it’s a trumpet. What I love about jazz is—it’s not like you’re just playing this instrument, there’s more to it. It’s so complex. It’s very attuned to your emotions and what you’re feeling in that moment.

You also play accordion on the album—how did that come about?

It’s actually my dad’s old-ass Italian accordion from the ’70s. It was in our storage thing outside and it was all dusty and gross. I started playing that back in 2008. I tried to make it sound like a violin, like an orchestra.

I read that you and your parents would do karaoke in the living room when you were growing up—why do you think your parents were attracted to karaoke?

I know everyone does karaoke, but it’s kind of a Filipino thing—my parents were both born in the Philippines. Go into any Filipino person’s house and their parents probably have a karaoke machine. My mom taught me how to sing. My dad was a DJ in the ’70s and ’80s, too—like really cheesy-ass disco. In the pictures he has an afro. I still have the tapes of all the mixes he did. He just had a lot of records around the house and would play them.

Did any of them make a big impression on you as a kid?

Yeah. The first genre of music I fell in love with was funk, like R&B. I was surrounded by that all the time. I was always listening to Earth, Wind & Fire and Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey.

You can hear that influence pretty clearly on “One More Time, Please.”

I wanted that song to sound like Steely Dan. I love Steely Dan.

Do you feel like karaoke influenced the way you sing?

It has, now that I think about it. With karaoke, some people sing really dramatically. I got used to that type of singing because my mom’s a dramatic singer. She kind of yodels. But I learned how to tone that down throughout the years, from listening to my favorite singers—like the singers from Yo La Tengo, very low-key, and also when I started listening to My Bloody Valentine. I learned that I like to sing in a very quiet, boring manner. That’s, like, my thing.

I actually thought of Lorde’s voice, maybe because it’s low, the first time I heard your new album—I’m not sure if you’re into her.

She’s amazing. I love pop music. I don’t know if you’ve heard about my love for Carly Rae Jepsen.

What’s your favorite Carly Rae song?

“Boy Problems.” She’s so underrated. She’s just a great pop star. A lot of the sounds on my album are influenced by her music—I’m not ashamed to admit that.

It’s cool to hear you talk about both Phil Elverum and Carly Rae.

I love hip-hop, too. I love watching interviews with Tupac. He’s very eloquent and he’s respectful.

With your singing, sometimes it feels like you’re telling someone a secret. You have lyrics like “Our pinky promises/Were never meant for this” on “Remain,” and you sing “Are secrets still a thing?” on “The Bus Song.” Is that all intentional?

It is very intentional. I like my singing to be intimate, like I’m right there with you. I like doing that live, too. I just sing quiet. A lot of this work—I’m solo. At it’s core, it’s all about the comfort in solitude. Sometimes with my work, I’m very private about it. Sometimes I feel like: “I don’t have to share this song.” It’s about taking that courageous next step to show people how you can be vulnerable and show that you’re human, in a sense. Sharing art, it’s not for everyone. I’m still working on that.