If there's one record this year that conclusively lays to rest the stigma of home recording as some lo-fi, perfunctory exercise, please let it be Jay Som's second album Everybody Works. By herself in her Oakland residence, Melina Duterte (23) made a panoramic pop masterpiece so sonically rich, you'd wonder why people would even bother spending gazillions to record in a professional studio.
Duterte takes pride in making her music sound as great as possible within the most economical of means. "In this day and age it’s pretty easy to release music by yourself and make it immediately accessible", she tells Drowned In Sound over Skype. "You don’t need a professional music studio anymore. I think that’s the beauty of home recording, the fact that you can learn so many things on your own. There’s nothing black and white about how music is supposed to sound. I really encourage people to try it themselves, because it’s just a lot of fun! I’ve worked in real studios before, which was really nice, but with Jay Som specifically, I prefer working by myself in my own makeshift studio."
You have to be bold to follow up a sweeping doozy of a track like 'Baybee' with a feverish, withdrawn lament in the vein of '(Bedhead)'. But somehow, Jay Som's total vision never succumbs to her immense musical range, which spans from Carly Rae Jepsen to Death Cab For Cutie. She name-dropped Broadcast, Mount Eerie, and Steely Dan in the past. With Everybody Works Jay Som isn't just satisfied transfixing the listener with an immediately winsome prowess for melody and composition; this is a record that takes you to all sorts of places. The music's sheer pop crunch isn't applied as a crutch, but a lever that goads Duterte's vivid and restless self-scrutiny.
Even within the songs themselves, she never stays in one place very long. ‘One More Time Please’ initially sounds like a nimble smooth jazz/quiet storm workout. Halfway through the song, she pulls you close with this gorgeous, aqueous sequence as if locked in a slo-mo moment of intimacy rendered amidst a quivering ambience. As for the ultimate payoff, Duterte defiantly rips out a guitar solo that's the total and utter antithesis of the song's sultry jazz leanings: a moment of passionate soul-scorching catharsis.
Everybody Works is brimmed with similarly satisfying moments, where Duterte pulls a sequence of about-faces that would be considered fearless if they didn’t manifest themselves so naturally and effortlessly. That being said, you can tell she puts an incredible amount of detail into arranging, recording, and writing her songs. But unlike a lot of pure pop bliss, she retains these small idiosyncratic details – be it a buzzing phone (‘Take It’) or kitchen banter (the aforementioned ‘One More Time Please’) between roommates – honestly reflecting the environment where Everybody Works was conceived.
"I did take more of a traditional approach for Everybody Works than my previous album Turn Into, but I wanted it to sound pretty organic. I left in a lot of ambient noises. Like the noises that my roommates make if they were talking about stuff. And also just random sounds in our house or the click track that was playing. It’s funny because you can hear my phone buzzing in almost every song if you listen closely enough. On ‘Take It’ you can hear it the loudest and I just kept that in there. It’s more about making the music sound homey and familiar."
During our conversation, Duterte is stricken by a nasty cough, the remnant of a bad cold caught during her US tour. Skyping from Iowa City during a two-day drive in between shows, she’s nevertheless in good spirits. She tells us the crowd response during the shows has been great in wake of her album release, particularly on her anthem ‘The Bus Song’, which can always count on a jolly riposte of "But I like the bus!". "Yeah, that happens almost every night, especially at sold out shows. People have been making videos of that, and honestly, that’s so nice. It’s funny too, because it makes me want to cry, hearing people sing along to ‘The Bus Song's chorus. I wrote that song about a year ago, but it still feels very recent to me. Having people singing along and having fun is like…" Duterte then lets out a brief gleeful yelp. "I’m not sure if I’ll ever get used to that."
One of the biggest catalysts for Everybody Works has been her tour with Mitski and Japanese Breakfast, two other artists that prove that great indie rock isn’t predominantly represented by the white male demographic. “Yeah, that tour did change my life, musically and professionally. I met a lot of people that are still my best friends now. Part of that was because this was my first national tour and I went by myself; it was pretty scary but at the same time it was fun. I was going to places I had never been before and playing these really big rooms. Playing for audiences that were so respectful, with lots of young girls of colour going to the show. It really changed everything: it was definitely an inspiration for the album.”
Duterte is still getting used to the idea that being a musician can also be a livelihood if you play your cards right. Especially during the streaming era, it doesn’t seem as viable a job as working in a restaurant (which Duterte had previously done), so it’s easy to be discouraged by your own doubts, or by next of kin envisioning something different for you. To make ends meet, you have to be willing to work really hard, regardless of what you do. Or, as Hutch Harris of The Thermals once wryly put it: "I got into this business to avoid real work and to be cool, which I thought to be a lot of work". Duterte identifies with that sentiment. “I think it’s totally necessary to have a side gig nowadays. You can’t just be signed to a record label and you can’t just tour anymore. That’s the case for a lot of musicians out there. I was at SXSW recently, and I met a lot of musicians there whom I’ve been listening to. And all of them hold jobs. If you wanna live somewhere, pay rent and do music, it’s never going to be easy. It’s hard to be a musician anywhere.”
The thing is, Duterte never set out to "become a musician" to just make a living. To her, music was always a personal exploit first and foremost. But as a home recording artist, she isn’t exactly a dilettante either: she studied music theory and jazz for nine years, and the first instrument she learned to hone was the trumpet. It also wasn’t something she set out to share with the world from the get-go. Prompted by the whim of a few sips of wine, she uploaded her first LP Turn Into on Bandcamp without much expectation. But, well, things turned out quite differently. People caught on, and Jay Som’s following grew organically from there.
It’s quite astonishing how Duterte manages to etch highly personal musings into perfectly formed pop, without the emotions feeling burdensome. A lot of it has to do with her hushed vocal delivery, which almost serves as a floating sonobuoy amidst the sonic riptides. Somewhat unconventionally, she expresses most of the inner blemishes through her command of sound and instrumentation. On the cavernous, angsty ‘(Bedhead)’, there’s this odd moment where the song sort of ‘stutters’, as Duterte solemnly whispers "Take what’s left of my strength and get up on my feet again".
That’s exactly the moment when the song briefly opens up and disperses some light before pulling the drapes back together. “I think for that song I wanted some sort of transition, to signify a change in the song, to kind of wake the listener up”, Duterte states. “I thought of that glitchy electronic part. It wasn’t deliberately this crazy experimental thing I wanted to try. Funny, a lot of people think it’s a mistake, something that wasn’t meant to be there, like a faulty CD player. Friends would message me, like: ‘I don’t think that’s supposed to be there, I want my money back!’”
Duterte admits that the song is very personal; as a kid, she used to stutter. Could that strange transition in ‘(Bedhead)’ be a tribute to that? “Well, I never really thought about that”, she answers. “But it’s cool that you made that connection though! I think that’s more towards the subject matter of the song. ‘(Bedhead)’ is definitely about music, and being on the stage for a big part of my life has shaped my assertiveness, becoming a confident person. I’ve been through some dark times because I felt lonely and I was being bullied at school. I felt like no one could help me. Making music, sticking to my wits and strength has helped me through a lot.”
Watching the iconic video for ‘Baybee’, shot entirely with 16mm film, we see a confident person. Duterte rides the Ski-lifts at Cannon Mountain, New Hampshire with swagger and a million dollar smile, plus an understated magnetism that matches the song’s glimmery charm. Duterte however, didn’t feel all that confident shooting the video, the first one in which she appears herself. “It was fun, very fun. I haven’t really watched it. Well, I did, with my eyes closed. One day I will. I’ve seen it behind my shirt. It was very awkward to sing toward the camera and watching that is very awkward too! It’s kind of like hearing yourself talk. Except it’s ten times worse, because you actually see yourself dancing and singing.”
It goes to show how radically an outsider’s perception can differ from what a person might feel and think between the ears, especially in an age where people can carefully engineer their public profile. “A large part of my life was about doing things out of my own comfort zone, so I could become comfortable down the line. That’s something I’ve always done, even now”, Duterte emphasizes. These days, she has to step on that stage a lot of times, lifting other people’s spirits, even when hers could be low at that very moment. It isn’t a burden to her, but a privilege. After all, music was the sole coping mechanism that allowed Duterte to ascend in the first place. “Getting bullied for being a girl, being Asian, being gay, I got all of that out of the way when I was a kid. I still think about it a lot. I’m pretty proud of the way I handled everything back then. I think I realized… elementary school and high school is probably the worst. I just felt like: ‘I’m just going to be quiet and not mess with anyone.’ I just focussed heavily on music from there.”
Now, Duterte has found the necessary perspective to pursue her goals. Being bullied isn’t fun when you’re the quarry, but in time, the skin becomes thicker and thicker. Serendipitously, you become a better person when you heed to perseverance. Duterte agrees. “Yeah, years of learning through mistakes and learning through pain, I feel that really builds character and sets you up for the long run. Thinking of all those experiences I’ve had with really terrible people that would say the meanest shit to me. It sort of taught me all the ranges of human emotion as a kid. You’re forced to grow up and look at the world differently when it’s stacked against you.”
Duterte tells DiS she is determined to make it work, somehow. Not only is she already demoing new Jay Som stuff, she wants to expand her horizons and produce for other people as well. With such poise, wisdom, and heart, it’s obvious Duterte has yet to reach her desired mountain peak. To quote her song ‘1 Billion Dogs’, which finds her gleefully riffing on Yo La Tengo’s ‘Sugarcube’: "Going up, up, up, up, up, up!"
Everybody Works is out now via Polyvinyl and Double Denim Records. Jay Som will play The Great Escape Festival (18 - 20th of May) later this month. For more information, please visit her official website.
Photo credit: Cara Robbins