How Sobriety And Desert Seclusion Inspired Jay Som’s Excellent New Album, ‘Anak Ko’

Lindsey Byrnes

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When you’re a burgeoning indie-rock hero who insists on recording every album at home, it’s important to have friendly neighbors. Melina Duterte, the 25-year-old musician and mastermind behind Jay Som, appears to have lucked out. She recorded all of Anak Ko, her effortlessly inventive new record, at home in Los Angeles, without incident. Except one.

“The only complaint we’ve gotten was from our neighbors next door, who asked our landlords if we could not do karaoke at 2 a.m.,” Duterte says. Not a regular occurrence in Duterte’s shared three-bedroom house — it was her birthday celebration — although she does have a deep-ingrained fondness for karaoke. “It’s a Filipino thing for sure,” she offers. “Everyone does it, but Filipinos love singing other songs.” Indeed, there was a karaoke machine in her living room while she was growing up, and she once spooked some elderly bystanders on a seniors’ cruise with her intense rendition of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse Of The Heart.” Which is a striking mental image, considering that Duterte is polite, warm, and far from intimidating when you meet her.

We’re chatting in the Manhattan offices of Jay Som’s PR firm, in a meeting room/storage closet bizarrely outfitted with a Ghettoblaster and several avant-garde paintings. Colorfully dressed in pink socks and a purple button-down, Duterte is just back from a live session at WFUV in the Bronx, which prompts her to remark on New York’s perennially defective subway. (“We went to Japan recently, and their train system is flawless,” she raves.) When she leans forward, I can see a tattoo of her childhood dog on her forearm.

A lot has changed for Duterte since the last time I saw her in person. That was in early 2017, when she played a rousing show at Baby’s All Right, shortly after the release of her career-making second album, Everybody Works. That was a transformational album, an unusually perceptive mix of slinky grooves and fuzzed-out guitars all tied together by Duterte’s deeply generous songwriting; it’s no wonder her life and career have been subsequently transformed. Back then, pretty much every article about Jay Som led with some variation of the words “Oakland-based” or “Bay Area music scene.” Now she lives in Los Angeles. And for the first time, she is financially supporting herself entirely through musical pursuits. Indeed, she is more successful than she ever imagined back when she wrote “Everybody Works,” a song about the bleak economics of an indie-rock career (“Try to make ends meet / Penny pinch ’til I’m dying”). And, after a winter of blacking out a few too many times, she quit drinking.

“I don’t feel like I’m the same person,” Duterte says, reflecting on that 2017 gig. “I grew up in the past two or three years. I feel like I had to really sacrifice a lot of my personal life so I could be comfy with my musical life, because you have to mesh them together to be a happy person.”

One thing, of course, hasn’t changed: Though Duterte now lives in a city that’s home to some world-famous recording studios (Sunset Sound, The Record Plant, etc.), she still records everything at home, in a room even smaller than the one where she recorded the last record. (There’s room for a bed, a studio desk with her iMac, a rack of guitars, some preamps, and not much more.) “I choose to do that partly because I’m a perfectionist when it comes to recording, but partly because it’s so much cheaper,” she explains. She also relishes the challenge — and autonomy — of mastering music production, which she describes as her passion. If you flip through the CD booklet for Everybody Works, you’ll find this Prince-like declaration: “All tracks composed, arranged, produced, and performed by Melina Duterte.”