Melina Duterte isn’t messing around. Well, she kind of is – but in a way that’ll make a lovely sort of sense to anyone who’s in a band in their early twenties and wants to go somewhere. But she certainly isn’t messing around with her music; her sophomore album under the moniker Jay Som, Everybody Works, was released in early March, and immediately became a hit amongst fans and critics alike (have an obligatory citation of an 8.6 ‘best new music’ rating on Pitchfork). Consequently, Duterte’s quickly having to get to terms with the explosion of attention. “I’ve been making music for a very long time, so the insane press coverage has been overwhelming but super cool at the same time.” She says, “I’m more aware of my strengths and weaknesses now that I sort of feel this light pressure due to a much larger audience listening.” The record is a joyous and rewarding listen, a glorious mix of songs to curl up, dance, and headbang to, and you can’t help but get the impression that Durterte’s life includes the same ups and downs.
The first thing you notice in Everybody Works is Rob Carmichael from SEEN Studio’s artwork; “I remember having a wonderful chat about how I wanted the album artwork to be connected with the themes of maturity, growth, and humanity in the record. I really liked how he included collages, city backdrops, and kind of mundane architecture mixed in with these bold colours.” It’s this marriage of the spectacular and the mundane that’s expressed most clearly in the breakthrough single from Everybody Works, ‘The Bus Song’. With “why don’t we take the bus / you say you don’t like the smell”, Duterte intones the smile inducing lyric with endearing sincerity. “But I like the bus / I can be whoever I want to be” is a disarmingly simple sentiment, but also a sweetly optimistic one, imbuing day-to-day action with a life affirming concept; an uplifting summation of Duterte’s open-mindedness.
Duterte alludes to struggles in her earlier life; “I’ve been through a lot in the past,” she says: “I had to grow up faster than I thought I needed to survive”. Through this lens, a lot of her music makes sense – there’s a melancholic undercurrent to a lot of the songs on Everybody Works that pervades in the musicality and the lyrics. ‘(bedhead)’ in particular has a woozy spaciness that’s reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine. It’s an achingly gorgeous track, engulfing the listener in a hazy sonic blanket, whilst the lyrics are just as poignant: “my words turned into ash / they went nowhere / as if I’m barely there”.
There’s a desperation that becomes tangible. But in true Jay Som style, Duterte doesn’t let herself give into negativity: “I’ll take what’s left of my strength / and get on my feet again”.
It’s a resilience that comes through when I ask her about her challenges as a musician, too. “I’m still dealing with how to navigate myself in such a fast-paced environment where routine record cycles, touring, financial stability, mental health, etc. become main priorities. Being easy going and open minded is what keeps me sane for the long run – that also applies to my music.”
Asked about musical influences, Duterte responds with tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. “I tend to wear my influences on my sleeves and sometimes I’ll just straight up rip someone off, but it’s mostly for fun.” she says, before reflecting more closely on the importance of saluting to where your musical style comes from: “I think it’s important to study and modestly acknowledge the roots of your influences, and wear them like worn in sewn patches.” It’s an eloquent analogy that manages to perfectly sum up the sensation of listening to Jay Som’s music. There’s a comforting familiarity there that feels like being serenaded by a friend while you sit at the end of their bed at their parent’s place – appropriate for an album that’s been written under a “chill routine of being in [her] bedroom and doing whatever feels right”. Even in the more propulsive tracks like ‘1 Billion Dogs’, Duterte’s vocals offset the noise with a gentleness and subtlety that gives the music a rich and layered texture.
From here on out, it seems to just be a case of carrying on and seeing what happens next for Jay Som. “It’s been less than a year since everything started happening,” Duterte says, “and life just consistently gets more insane”. The organic progression that Jay Som has experienced as a project is an encouraging argument for doing what you love and sticking at it; Deturte put out her first track on Bandcamp in 2012, and her first proper release ‘Turn Into’ (reportedly drunk on Thanksgiving) in 2015, which is when this writer discovered her music. Back then she had a modest but seemingly committed following; now she’s toured with Mitski, and is by all intents and purposes an international star. Duterte retains the disarming and charming modesty of someone who’s struggled for their craft, however, and flicking through Jay Som’s Facebook page elicits dumb grins – there’s a sense that they’re a band that’d be an absolute joy to spend time with.
Everybody Works finishes with a powerful, drawn out number that solidifies the idea that Melina has a determination that won’t falter; “I’ll be right on time / open blinds for light / won’t forget to climb”. Ending on this note suggests that we have a lot more of Jay Som’s music coming, and in 2017 a figure like Melina Duterte couldn’t be more welcome.
By Daniel Johnson