Interview: Jay Som’s Melina Duterte finds camaraderie on the wonderfully lush ‘Anak Ko’
The first time I saw Jay Som (Melina Duterte) perform live, it was back in 2016. Opening for the-then relatively unknown singers Mitski and Japanese Breakfast, Duterte rounded out the now-legendary triple-bill of critically acclaimed Asian American female artists. But at the time, all I knew about Jay Som was the name, and the two official songs that she had released under it (“I Think You’re Alright” and “Rush”). To me, Jay Som (at the time, I had no idea that that was a name that was birthed via baby-name generator) represented a sound that I had never heard before—one that was echoey, handcrafted, and lush. As she played—noticeably solo—on that stage, she exerted a quiet confidence that didn’t completely mask her nervous energy. I still remember her awkwardly introducing a “song that she wrote about taking the bus” (which brought some scattered chuckles from the LA crowd), before smoothly segueing into “The Bus Song” and other gorgeous songs like “I Think You’re Alright” and “Lipstick Stains”. At the end of the set, however, I recall asking her about “Rush” and why she didn’t include it in the set. Surprisingly, she confided to me that she didn’t really like that song, and that her label made her release it. It was a small interaction, one that still makes me chuckle silently to myself to this day—but it made me wonder… if this great song was one that she disliked so much, how does one that she does like sound?
Fast forward three years later, and Duterte has given me more than enough answers to that question. Turn Into, Duterte’s unofficial debut, showcased her misty, bedroom pop producing talents and pushed them centerfold. 2017’s Everybody Works further refined that knack for producing, establishing her as a master of the craft within the span of two albums. Just like that, Jay Som became a band that cemented itself as a mainstay in the indie music scene, drawing accolades from many a music publication for its distinctly self-made sound.
But on Anak Ko, Jay Som’s third and latest release, the album became an experiment of sorts. Sobriety became a driving factor for the album—an ironic twist considering that Turn Into was uploaded to Bandcamp amidst a drunken haze. Duterte also packed her bags and moved to sunny Los Angeles, a near polar opposite of the foggy Bay Area. No longer that lone performer on that 2016 stage, Duterte further drew in collaborators from within the Los Angeles music scene, developing her sound in expansive directions with their help. Her lush love songs which were perfectly encapsulated in that pristine world invited others in, leading to chaotic songs like “Anak Ko” and disjointed, swelling songs like “Devotion” and “Peace Out”. “Tenderness” has the potential to lend itself to a gorgeous full band arrangement, while “Crown” shows off some lovely instrumentation. And for the first time, she’s not playing all of the instruments on the album herself.
Largely conceived within a one-week retreat to the neighboring Joshua Tree National Park, Anak Ko (“My Child” in Tagalog) captures those same tender feelings she once championed while adding some prickly, moving parts. It’s an album that’s continually allowed Duterte to deepen her production toolkit once more. Just like Maria Medem’s cover art for Anak Ko suggests, the songs here evoke that late sunset feeling, capturing the stifling dry heat of the LA sun within its warm narrative. Even amongst this new wave of bedroom self-producers, Duterte’s sonic fingerprints yet again shines the brightest.
We were lucky enough to talk to Duterte about her current album cycle, her newfound collaborators, and her bright future as a music producer… for herself and for others.
Anak Ko is an album that finds you collaborating with various members of the indie music community (Justus Proffit, Laetitia Tamko, Annie Truscott, Taylor Vick etc). What was it like working with all these different people on this album compared to when you made your first two albums? Does it feel any different?
It felt like the perfect time to have people join me on the new record. I got to the point where I was tired of hearing myself play all the instruments. Also, I have so many talented music friends to offer fresh styles into the songs.
How does Maria Medem‘s cover art for Anak Ko represent this album as a whole?
Her illustrations are so beautiful, simple, and captivating! The Anak Ko cover makes me think of the feeling of isolation and the freedom you can feel from being alone.
Do you have any advice for anyone hoping to self-produce their own albums?
Practice a lot! It takes a while to build up a consistent work ethic to get to a point where you have your own sound. Listen hard to other musicians and pick up tricks from them.
Have you found support within the Asian American community for your music?
Absolutely! I’ve noticed more Asian people coming to my shows lately, it fills me with so much pride and joy. It feels so special to be in a room full of likeminded individuals that have a similar background and universal struggles and basic love for music. I think literally just being a queer asian femme identifying person in music right now speaks volumes for people that look just like me. I didn’t have that when I was younger so the support means the world to me.
In a recent interview with CHIRP, you’ve mentioned that you wanted to do more producing in the future rather than just touring all the time. Already, we’re starting to see that happen with your contribution to Chastity Belt’s upcoming self-titled album, which you co-produced. What is it like working on projects other than your own?
I love helping people with their music! I love singing and recording my own music but I find more joy recording other people. Having a skill set that can directly help people with their musical vision is something I pride myself in. I get to offer my own perspective and experiences but I also get to learn about others and find inspiration from that.
What would you have in your ideal production studio?
I would want wayyyyy more room and more outboard gear! Also a ton of plants everywhere and all the instruments you could dream of. And a lot of dear friends to work and help out.
Now that you’re living in LA, do you still like the bus?
I like the bus! But I don’t take it in LA lol.
This interview was conducted via email by Li-Wei Chu.