At 22 years old, Melina Duterte is a hardworking maverick. Under the name Jay Som, she exhibits her well-practiced skills on her debut full-length album, Everybody Works, set for release on Polyvinyl Records on March 10th. Written, recorded, and performed almost entirely on her own, each part of the album is unique, and it becomes more complex as it plays on.
Starting with some previously-written material and improvising the rest on the spot, Duterte created the album in her bedroom in three weeks following a U.S. tour in June and July of 2016 with Mitski and Japanese Breakfast. Flowered with influences from her father’s funk and R&B record collection, her mother’s background of singing and playing guitar that started when she lived in the Philippines, Carly Rae Jepsen’s album E-MO-TION, a childhood of technical music training, and current indie music peers, Everybody Works has the mark of maturity far beyond the years that Jay Som has existed.
Duterte says she pulls some of her views on music-making from her parents’ history in America. “I am Filipino-American, both of my parents moved from the Philippines to live here. My dad left when he was seven, so he was kind of young. My mom moved over here when she was in her 20s. I grew up in a very obviously Filipino household with those cultural customs because my mom is just like that.” Melina explains, “I was supportive because I knew they understood their position in the US, like everything wasn’t going to be handed to them, they knew they had to work hard and they did work very hard when I was growing up. At a young age I really understood that, it definitely tied into my views of music.”
She Shreds recently spoke with Duterte about making ends meet in the Bay Area as a creative, finding support in like minded people, how she executed the recording of Everybody Works, playing the trumpet, and the origins of inspirations in formative years. The album is available for pre-order now.
She Shreds: Did you grow up in the Bay Area?
Melina Duterte: I was born in Walnut Creek, [California] but I was raised a little bit in Pleasanton and then when I was five I moved over to Brentwood which is still the East Bay area, it’s about 30-40 minutes away from Oakland. It’s [a little] too small to be called a city, too big to be called a town. It’s this pretty safe, suburban place with lots of old people and lots of corn, and that’s what it’s known for. So, I basically grew up there, moved over to San Francisco and lived there for a year, and now I’m in Oakland.
In Brentwood, I was playing music but it was mostly just by myself. I think there were some bands that were popping up every once in awhile but there were no venues, no community of musicians, and if there were, it was pretty small patches, like clique-y kind of groups. I had my close friends and we all kind of played music together and we were in a couples bands.
Can you describe living in the Bay Area as an artist or musician for anyone who may not know what that’s like?
Living in the Bay Area kind of feels like a fantasy, especially San Francisco. When I was living there, it kind of felt like a fantasy city because California itself is very beautiful, and the Bay Area is really beautiful—there’s a reason why people wanna live here. Good weather, nice people, open minded people, diverse, in general terms. But it really is so goddamn expensive, it’s insane to live here and survive as an artist. Still I love it here, I definitely wanna die here.
I’ve met so many interesting and thoughtful people here and I’ve made so many connections.
Was guitar the main instrument you started writing songs on?
It was! It’s funny though, so when I was eight years old, I got my first guitar. My mom bought me a guitar, a nylon string that I still have. I was like, “Mom! I really wanna play guitar!”
I grew up in a pretty musical household, my dad was a DJ and he just had his old records and his old cassette mixes that he’d play all the time. I would go through his records and he played a lot of funk music and R&B. I was raised on that kind of music. I started to take interest in guitar, so I did that. But my main instrument for basically most of my life was the trumpet. I played that for about nine years and it was pretty formal, kinda disciplined learning of the trumpet, I was in wind ensemble, orchestral bands and also jazz was my main thing.
I started writing music and recording music at the same time and that was when I was 12. And that was like during the LimeWire age, so I was illegally downloading a ton of music while also buying physically stuff from Barnes & Noble all the time because they had a pretty cool CD section.
You said your family is really musical. Were there any other forms of music making besides DJing? Did anyone in your family play guitar, make art, write songs, sing?
Yeah my mom played guitar. She used to play guitar when she was younger and she also sang. he still sings now, like in choirs and she does it for fun like in karaoke. She basically taught me how to sing, she was always singing and I kind of picked up on it. It was a very natural kind of thing. If you have someone in a household who is always singing and who’s always doing karaoke, you’re gonna pick that up.
Could you elaborate a little more about the title track “Everybody Works?”
Right before I wrote that song, like literally before, I was looking at my bank account and it was negative ten dollars. I remember thinking to myself, “what the hell am I doing?” I was living in San Francisco, living paycheck to paycheck so that I can have this music career on the side, like more so as a hobby.
That was the first time I was getting frustrated with myself thinking I was dumb for assuming I can do this successfully without risking and sacrificing sports many things. That line about my parents was directly related to when they were basically telling me, “You can always come back and live here. You don’t need to be there”.
It would always come back to me saying, “I need to do this because it makes me happy.”
When I say “everybody works.” it’s kind of this mantra. It’s a note-to-self saying everybody works, everybody’s working on their own set of problems and goals. It’s not just financially, it can be mentally and other things like that. [It’s] kind of saying to myself, “you’re not the only person in the world that’s having problems.” It gives me this comfort knowing that I’m not alone.
Can you talk about the recording process a little more?
The recording process for this album was slightly frustrating and stressful only because I knew it was crunch time. I got off my second tour of the year and moved to a new place directly after, so the room was quite messy with my instruments/equipment and miscellaneous bedroom items. It was more chaotic than methodical because I wasn’t giving myself breaks and I kept drinking coffee at inappropriate times. sleep at 4:00 AM then wake up at 10:00 AM, drink coffee, then drink some more coffee at 6:00 PM. I was alone most of the time and the only human interaction I had for those three weeks was with my roommates who were very supportive.
I know there were some songs that were improvised on the album. What was the most surprising thing that you gleaned during the recording process?
I was pretty surprised with how orchestral and I guess, epic certain new songs ended up sounding. “One More Time, Please” came out of nowhere and sort of confused and excited me because I rushed the writing and recording process to get all of the ideas out. I tend to be scared of losing new ideas due to the fear of never having them again, so I’d end up stressing myself out in a positive way. The number one roadblock for me was trying to be assertive by nailing every take straight through and not punching in, it was a super repetitive process that made me want to pull my hair out.
What kind of amp do you use and what are some favorite or essential pedals that you use for recording and touring currently?
I use a Roland JC 77, it’s the smaller version of the 120. I just got some EarthQuaker Devices pedals. On the record, for chorus effect, I use their Sea Machine chorus, that’s one of my favorite pedals. Definitely this vibrato pedal that I have, I think I use that every single song, I really like warble effects, it’s called the Red Witch Empress Chorus.
Any contemporaries in indie music, specifically people of color, that you look up to or that have impacted you?
Maybe because it just happened but definitely Mitski and Japanese Breakfast. I think I say that because that tour was very very special to me. Going into it, I’ve never seen a bill with just three women of color, let alone women that look like me, too. I don’t have specific people that I always look up to but any time I see queer, non-binary people or anyone online that’s making music, I always feel automatically supportive of them and I think it’s great that people are putting themselves out there because people like that need more opportunities, especially in a music scene that is predominately white and male.
I’m sure the climate will be different as you are emerging into this new realm of the music industry. Are there any things you’ve noticed about it so far?
Yeah, sometime I feel like I have my feet in both ponds, kind of like there’s the DIY side, the side I was around more for the very beginning stages and now I’m also doing these bigger things at bigger venues and industry kind of stuff. I think what is kinda weird is having to sell yourself, because I feel like people assume that you should have this persona, kind of this fake face so that you can become this liked person and sometimes that doesn’t reflect on your art. With my project, it’s always been based on comfort and solitude, so I’ve just been alone, but that’s my zone. That’s where I’m the most comfortable. Being on stage, the live stuff and even some press stuff is still something I’m getting used to.
What do you have planned for the future of Jay Som?
I want to continue touring a bunch with my friends this year and in the future. I’ve already got some demos down for the next album and want to spend more time working on that by getting better and experimental at my performance with other instruments. I basically just want to keep recording myself and other musicians/bands because it’s too much fun.