Melina Duterte orders a beer at Amnesia. She knows the bartender, Greg — they’ve seen each other’s bands around town — and though it’s a sleepy Thursday evening in this part of the Mission while the Warriors play on television screens somewhere else, a million concerns seem to whirl around Duterte’s head. The 22-year old Brentwood native is due to launch a tour with her solo act, Jay Som, alongside Mitski and Japanese Breakfast. In a few days, she’ll be on a plane to New York for her first national tour, where she’ll play her take on dream pop blitzed with punchdrunk fuzz rock chords to new audiences. She’ll make her way back for a couple shows in the Bay, but before that happens, pay attention — you need to know Jay Som.
Things are moving quickly for her. She’s already been lauded for her writing by national media outlets like Pitchfork, MTV and Stereogum. Critics hail her disarming, forthcoming lyrics; the words of “I Think You’re Alright” — which details a painful one-sided relationship — seem too relatable, and the song’s increasingly distorted guitar lines wistfully allegorize a familiar, helpless descent into desperation. “I’ll be your old broken TV, your stuttering baby, your puppy when nobody’s home,” she sings. “I’ll be your cigarette ashtray, come back when it’s too late, worship you till morning comes.”
It’s actually only been a few months since Duterte signed with her new manager and “got serious,” but that’s not to say she hasn’t been productive for years. Duterte has been making music since 2012, and last winter as Jay Som, she spontaneously released an EP yielding a mélange of “finished and unfinished” songs. — but only after receiving requests for new music from fans she had never met.
“I had two glasses of wine so I was relaxed that day,” she says. “I collected all of these songs from files on my computer; I didn’t think about track listing or order. I just released it one day, and it got good coverage. Friends of friends were sharing it and I think that’s how it [spread], just organically, people were passing it to each other, saying check this out, check this out.”
The journey to the moment Jay Som released the EP was an eclectic one. When Duterte was 8, her mother gave her a cute nylon-stringed, child-sized guitar because she was obsessed with learning to play the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps,” and a couple years later, she was given a trumpet. With the encouragement of music teachers, she learned to play jazz.
Experience with the instrument became hugely beneficial for Duterte as she began crafting songs later. The discipline required to learn to play it forced her to understand narrative and the complexities and dynamics of chord structures.
“It takes time to develop your embouchure, and you’re also learning how to read notes, and listen to other trumpet players too,” she adds. “That definitely helped with my melody lines and chord progressions and [in realizing]how certain melodies fit in the structure of the song.”
That understanding has become the foundation for Jay Som’s songwriting. Though she had at first tried emulating her musical heroes in making music to the format of major pop songs, Duterte quickly found that her niche was creating with more fluidity and spontaneity — not unlike jazz musicians do. When she’s recording songs, as she’s found, most of the production decisions are unplanned; they come naturally while she’s in the studio booth.
“Sometimes I just come up with a chord progression on the spot, record it, listen to it, obsess over it, take away parts of it that don’t need to be there and change the structure,” she says of her process. “I always see lyrics as coming last. They’re not that important to me.”
That Jay Som’s lyrics are just an eventual component to the songs is surprising, given the praise she’s received from critics for her frankness. The single, “I Think You’re Alright,” as she says, might be the exception — Duterte was forced to embrace honesty in her writing more ardently than she had before. “It’s my favorite song I’ve written, just because I felt like I had to be very brave in writing that song because it’s private,” she says. “It shows that vulnerable side, it’s not just a cute love song.”
And as she says, her next work will likely be just as emotionally wrought — which will be challenging.
“For the next record I’m scared about the pressure I might feel for being casual about it. I want to work harder, because I know I can make it sound better than the last one. It was such a different period of my life; I was really confused and angry at the world, but I’m still proud of it.”
For all her work, Jay Som has steadily gained fans — none of which are more dedicated than those here in the Bay Area. It’s something she’s thankful for, particularly following a recent trip to Los Angeles, where Duterte was surprised by the lack of interest she saw in concert audiences compared to those at shows in San Francisco.
“It was one of the weirdest shows,” she says. “Everyone was drunk and talking that entire time.”
When she asked a friend why the L.A. audiences she saw were so aloof, she was told there were just too many shows for audiences to invest in. “They’re just used to seeing all these bands every single night in different venues that they don’t care about the music.”
That’s not the case in San Francisco. Audiences in the Bay engage and pay attention. Even the bands help each other. As she says, many musicians here in the area are friends, so they collaborate on bookings and play in each other’s lineups. Sometimes, they even find themselves at the same bar on a sleepy Thursday.
“I like how incestuous it is — it’s like family,” she says. “We’re supporting each other.”
Photo by Marc Fong