An interview with rising indie rocker Jay Som

Polyvinyl Recordings/Courtesy

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Visit Jay Som’s Facebook page and you’ll find that Melina Duterte, a lifelong Bay Area native and current Oakland resident, describes her music project’s genre as “Woozy.” Perhaps it’s an allusion to the fateful Thanksgiving night last year when Duterte got on Bandcamp and drunkenly posted Turn Into, a self-recorded and produced collection of nine “finished and unfinished” songs. Or maybe it was just a playful response in the optional field in Facebook.

Even taken in its maybe tongue-in-cheek sense, “woozy” also pretty perfectly captures Jay Som’s DIY sound: The dreamy, lo-fi bedroom pop of Turn Into envelops listeners in a lush soundscape with a blend of blanketed guitar musings, Duterte’s ethereal vocals and her elegiac lyrics.

Duterte signed with revered indie label Polyvinyl over the summer, which will release Jay Som’s official debut record in 2017. (“I finished it last month, super eager to get it out,” she said in an interview with The Daily Californian.) Earlier this year, it reissued Turn Into, giving the album its proper due with a solid fuschia reissue and a limited edition green marble starburst.

This Friday, Jay Som will celebrate Turn Into’s beautiful physical release with a show at Brick & Mortar Music Hall in San Francisco. The Daily Californian spoke with Duterte about showing vulnerability through music, the importance of angsty teen songwriting and Asian-American representation in the indie subculture.

Daily Cal: When I was listening to Turn Into, a lot of the lyrics sounded like a kind of letter to someone. And I also read that songwriting was another way for you to express yourself for times when you can’t usually communicate in everyday life. Was it scary to show a vulnerable side of yourself, to introduce these feelings and put it out there?

Melina Duterte: It’s very hard for everyone to express their feelings. Especially in this medium, in music when you’re putting it out for people and they kind of contort it or connect with it in their own way or come up with their own meanings. That’s a beautiful thing, but for me personally, I find it hard to talk about my songs are about. I feel very private in that sense; I’m still working on it. But it is important to show honesty and vulnerability in your music because everyone goes through it.

DC: What was it like revisiting and re-releasing Turn Into, now that you’re in a different phase in your life?

MD: Strange, because of the process that it took to get it here. When it came out in November, it took a couple months and it was growing locally. It was passed between friends and a few people online. Then, it got a little bigger when more people started listening to it. And at that time I was, like, “Whatever.” Some of the songs are unfinished, and I had them for two years. They were random songs that were put together.

At this point now, listening to it, I feel more proud of it than I did before. I used to really hate it and didn’t understand when I listened to it. But now I’m like, “OK, this is cool, I understand.” It’s still strange because it’s weird to see it in physical format because it’s on vinyl now.

DC: Yeah, it is. Because in your late teens, I feel like you’re still kind of trying to figure out who you are. And now when you’re older in your 20s, it’s trying to figure out what to actually do with that information.

MD: That’s so true. When I was writing those songs, I was very angry at the world — angry growing up, entering adult life. Now, I’m in this stage where I need to struggle into it. It’s funny to me to release and talk about music that I wrote such a long time ago when I had a completely different mindset. But that’s just the beauty of music.

DC: What’s the different mindset you have now? Was there a different process in the songwriting?

MD: I tried to make a different process with this album, because I felt this unnecessary pressure from a new audience I was getting — getting attention now that I’m on a label. I felt this weird need to make it perfect and work really super hard at it and nitpick it. I was in my head too much. But what had happened was that I reverted back into the way I wrote Turn Into, which is being very relaxed about it while I was recording and finding inspiration in other music. For this album, it will show a kind of growth and maturity in my songwriting and performance because I think that’s gotten better.

DC: You recorded and mixed Turn Into all on your own. What was that like, because I feel that it would involve a lot of trust and confidence in yourself.

MD: Oh yeah, of course. At that time, I was still solidifying and learning music production. I started when I was 12 and I had a laptop. I used this program called Sony Acid Music Studio, and then from that it went to Garage Band.

For Turn Into, I listen to it now and I’m proud of it, but I can tell I was still in my baby phase in production. It was more fun than hard. I wasn’t really thinking about the music production because I wasn’t really thinking of people hearing it. I was just thinking about my friends, a few people. It was just more fun than “let me just sound technically proficient.”

DC: Is the new album also similar to Turn Into in that you’re continuing to produce and mix it on your own?

MD: Yeah, completely. I always make it clear that for this project especially, I always want it to be 100 percent me in terms of the writing, the playing of the instruments, producing and recording. Because I feel like that’s the right thing to do.

DC: This year, you were touring around the country lot. Were you in the midst of writing for the new album at the same time too? How did everything work out?

MD: Yeah the past eight months it was extremely wild, crazy, stressful, but in a good way. It was a very positive experience for me. The Mitski tour was phenomenal. That was the most amazing tour I could be in for my first national tour. I was by myself too, but everyone on tour was very cool, and I made very close friends; I’m still friends with all of them now. And the Peter Bjorn and John tour was super crazy because I’ve been listening to them when I was 13. Also the drummer who plays in my band, Zach, also really loved Peter Bjorn and John, so we were freaking out watching them every single night.

Also, (Zach) goes to Berkeley by the way! Shoutout to Zach.

DC: Seeing you, Japanese Breakfast and Mitski is very empowering because the indie scene feels … not diverse all the time. How important is it for you to see more representation and be a part of that in the music scene?

MD: It is so important; it’s not talked about often because the indie music scene is predominantly white male. And it’s been that for a very long time. For that tour to happen, with Mitski and Japanese Breakfast, was so mind-blowing to me because if I saw that when I was younger, I would freak out. And I would make sure to see that tour because that’s very rare even during that time to see that type of representation. You know let alone even an all female-identifying tour, but also all Asian-American women … it’s crazy! We need more women in music.

Jay Som will be performing at the Brick & Mortar Music Hall tonight.

Contact Adrienne Lee at [email protected].