Interview: Jay Som mastermind Melina Duterte on the long road to the whirlwind of Everybody Works

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Jay Som | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN
Jay Som | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

It’s still only March, but we’re already expecting Everybody Works — the sophomore LP from Oakland indie rock project Jay Som — to rank high in year-end lists come December. It’s an impressive showing from singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Melina Duterte, dabbling in brisk and reflective dream-pop as readily as full-throttle garage punk. Released via Bay Area indie imprint Polyvinyl, its sonic textures fondly recall the spirit of that label’s late 90s / early aughties roster — Ida, Matt Pond PA, Rainer Maria — but Duterte’s approach is very much her own, very much of the now.

She made a national splash last year, a whirlwind 12 months following a decade of studying music, and that activity was in part due to a solo tour in support of Mitski and Japanese Breakfast, as well as a run opening for Honeyblood as a four-piece band. The latter is how we’ll see Jay Som tomorrow night at Boot and Saddle, playing alongside The Courtneys. I caught up with Duterte by phone to talk about studying music from a young age, nerve-wracking solo gigs and the process of making Everybody Works.

The Key: I was introduced to you last year, as I feel many listeners probably were, on your tour with Mitski. That was one element of this really big year for you – there was Turn Into, the I Think You’re Alright 7” on Fat Possum, you signed with Polyvinyl, and now you have a new record coming out this year. Take me back to before any of that started. Did you expect it to unfold the way it did?

Melina Duterte: It’s so interesting to think about that, because Turn Into was written in the span of like two years. Basically, I started writing it like right after high school. I started fleshing out all of the ideas of all the songs and I kind of kept those with me for a pretty long time. I had about 20 demos or so, and then that day that I chose to put Turn Into online, I picked nine songs out of the twenty demos, and just put them up. And everyone’s like “oh, it’s so casual, she doesn’t care.” But really, I did work pretty hard on the songs, and they were with me for a long time, and I just wanted to release them – finished or unfinished. After that, it spread around locally from word of mouth, friend to friend, and started getting a little bigger. And it kind of got into the hands of Polyvinyl. It was just very strange for that process to happen so quickly, putting me where I am right now.

TK: When you say that it got into the hands of Polyvinyl, was that before you went on tour with Mitski and Japanese Breakfast, or was it a result of it?

MD: It was before the Mitski tour. I think it was like a month before I went on tour. My manager and I were kind of doing everything at once – finding labels, booking agents and publicists – we were talking to a bunch of people to sort of form this team, and to support me for this tour and it all happened in like the span of two months. It was crazy.

Jay Som | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN
Jay Som | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

TK: Both Jay Som records, Turn Into and the new one Everybody Works, feature you doing everything, for the most part. All the instruments, all the production and mixing, it’s basically your project wholly and completely, correct?

MD: Yes, yes, completely – it’s my baby. [laughs]

TK: What was your background musically and instrumentally going into the project? You mentioned writing in High School. Had you been just kind of studying these instruments for years and then decide to put them all together?

MD: So I started writing songs, in a serious manner, when I was 12. I was already playing guitar at the time and I was learning trumpet. I played trumpet for about nine years and that basically took up a big part of my life musically, because it’s an instrument that takes a lot of hard work and music theory studies. I was doing that throughout elementary school through high school, and I was planning on going to college for jazz. But you know, I wanted to do [my own] music instead.

So the time that I was starting to write music at the age of twelve, I was also starting to learn how to record music, and I did that for years. I was putting up music on Myspace. It’s just always been something that I’ve done. Later I was putting up songs once a month, on like Bandcamp and Soundcloud, and I just kind of got used to that. But for Turn Into, I guess it’s more guitar-based, and during that time, I was still figuring out my sound. And also, I started learning the drums. That was the first time I played drums. The song, “Ghost,” was the first song that I ever recorded with drums, and like a week before that, I bought my drum set. I was pretty fresh in that album.

TK: So the Mitski tour, was that your first big U.S. tour, or had you gone outside of the Bay Area prior to that?

MD: That was my first national tour. Prior to that, I would go on like small, DIY west coast tours, with some friends and this band that I was in called Summer Peaks. We regularly toured once in a while. But it still didn’t compare to that tour. It was like a month and a half, and we were playing huge rooms, and I was so enamored and inspired by Mitski and Japanese Breakfast. It was just like a wild time for me.

TK: The new record feels very much like next level from the first one. It feels like, as you said, you kind of established your voice with Turn Into, and here you’re trying different things with it, going in new directions. Would you say that being on Polyvinyl give you more resources to work with, as compared to when it was this total DIY project? Or do you feel like your songs were going in that direction anyway?

MD: It was a mixture of both. I think that if I didn’t have Polyvinyl, I wouldn’t have had certain resources, like the ability to not work a day job for the time I was recording Everybody Works. And also the ability to buy better equipment and whatnot. Regardless, it still would have been in that direction because the production and songwriting time from Turn Into and Everybody Works was a pretty long time, so I was already developing the sound in between then. I think that’s a funny thing, that as a listener you forget that the artists are actually making music constantly. It may be fresh and new to you, but we’ve been working on it for a pretty long time.

Jay Som opening for Japanese Breakfast and Mitski at PhilaMOCA | photo by Rachel Del Sordo

TK: I see that a lot. As a listener, you might catch onto an artist’s first record and it seems super fresh and new to you, but you don’t know the years that went into not just working on the record, but also working the record, getting it to the right people on a management level, a promotional level, so by the time a record surfaces to the listener, the artist is already well on their way to making the next one.

MD: Exactly. I’m already working on new songs. I have some demos, it’s crazy to think about.

TK: The two shows I saw you play in Philly, you were solo. I understand you’ve got a full band behind you now. Could you contrast both those approaches?

MD: For the Mitski tour, the reason why I was solo was due to the restrictions of having too many people to come on tour. And it was way easier because I ended up being solo and by myself, I stayed in the van, it was easier that way. I think that was kind of like the way everyone wanted it. Like having the opener be solo, having the next one be a band and build the show. It was very like intentional, and I was okay with that. But I personally hate playing solo. [laughs] It kind of scares me a lot.

Doing solo arrangements, versus live band arrangements, is a totally different thing because you have to recreate all these parts in this live setting, and that can be kind of nerve wracking. I prefer playing full band, because I really like the idea of emulating the record but not exactly the same. It’s very enjoyable for me. My band members, I love them all – they’re all my best friends, and we’ve all been playing music for such a long time. They put their own sound, their own spin to my music, and I trust them completely. When we work on it, and rehearse, it’s more about making the audience feel something maybe like a little different than what they’ve been listening to on the record.

Jay Som performs at Boot and Saddle on Friday, March 31st with The Courtneys. For tickets and more information on the show, head to the XPN Concert Calendar.

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