Indie Rocker Jay Som Talks SXSW, Starbucks and Leaving the Bay Area

Jay Som plays Lost Lake Lounge on Thursday, April 6.
Jay Som plays Lost Lake Lounge on Thursday, April 6.
Cara Robbins
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From the outside, Melina Duterte, who plays under the name Jay Som, appears to be an overnight success. At just 22, she has already positioned herself as indie rock’s newest critical darling.

She earned the coveted Best New Music accolade from Pitchfork for her debut album, Everybody Works, which was released last month on Polyvinyl, the prestigious independent label that's home to American Football and Of Montreal. Mitski took her on her summer tour, and, more recently, the New Yorker found plenty of nice things to say about Duterte's intimate and innovative indie-pop sound.

However it looks from the outside, all of the accolades (and the quickly growing fan base) are actually the result of years of trumpet lessons, family karaoke nights and studying music theory, in addition to countless hours spent writing and recording songs alone in her bedroom — the best of which were compiled on 2016’s well-received Turn Into.

Westword caught up with the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist ahead of her Thursday night show in Denver.

Westword: You’re fresh off a hectic South by Southwest schedule. How did it go?

Melina Duterte: It was pretty overwhelming, to be honest. I ended up losing my voice. On the last day, we had two shows, and it was just awful, because I could not sing, and it hurt so much. That festival killed me. You’re playing for such a compressed amount of time. If you have a lot of showcases, you’re packing up and going directly to the next one. It was hot, too. I think my favorite part was meeting all of the other musicians that I’ve listened to for years now.

Like who?

Number one was Girlpool. I hung out with them a lot. They’re really, really good people. They make awesome music. It’s fucked up how good they are.

You haven’t taken a break from touring since SXSW. How are you managing?

Right after South By — like two days after — everything went back to normal. We went back to the regular touring schedule, and it’s so much better, because you have time to sit in the car and drive. There’s more time to relax a little. I’m used to touring now. It feels like regular life.

Do you ever write on the road, or do you prefer to do it alone and in one place?

I definitely prefer to do it alone and in one place. It’s just easier that way.

I read you recorded Everybody Works alone over two weeks.

Three weeks.

That seems like a super-intense three weeks. What was that like?

I did the demos back in March of last year. From March to October I was on tour, so I was just sitting with these demos. By October I had a deadline from my label, and I freaked out, but it was really fun, because I pushed myself to finish everything in three weeks. Coffee helped a lot. I wasn’t sleeping, which was bad. It was my first time ever doing an album as a body of work. I guess I just didn’t know how to time-manage myself, but it was still a very positive experience.

So what’s your Starbucks order?

My go-to is a grande mocha. Lately I’ve been getting the green matcha tea frappuccino. It is so good, but it’s very sweet. Everything at Starbucks is super-sweet.

Let’s talk about the title of Everybody Works. To me, it seems like you’re thinking about having a job to make ends meet but also about the emotional labor of being a person in the world. What made you decide on that title?

It connects the common themes of trying to make music financially viable for me personally and – I’m sure a lot of people can relate to this fact – that you have to sacrifice a lot mentally and financially to do what you like. Even if you end up doing it, it can be confusing and overwhelming to try and make that into a career. That title is a mantra that I had in my head for a while before things started happening, and I was just doing music as a hobby. It’s a reminder that we’re all working toward something.

The deck feels even more stacked against you as a working artist since you’re in the Bay Area. What are your thoughts on the way the Bay Area treats artists and creative communities?

It really sucks. It’s very unfortunate that a lot of these creative people are being pushed out. There aren’t many opportunities for them to thrive. It’s so weird to see the Bay Area change so fast. It used to be very, very vibrant.

Where might you consider relocating?

I was thinking about New York. Most likely L.A. sometime in the future. I love the Bay. I’ve been there my whole life. I think it’s time to live somewhere else.

What was your original connection to Bay Area DIY?

I was mostly a show-goer. I went to a lot of house shows and all of the venues in SF and Oakland when I was a teenager. Jay Som started in the Bay. It all started in the Bay with word of mouth. I owe a lot to the Bay Area.

As you’re getting such rave reviews of Everybody Works and your live show, how do you keep the hype from going to your head?

I do have a bad habit of obsessively reading reviews. A lot of people tag me in stuff. I realize how nasty people are on the Internet. It’s like stream of consciousness. People just don’t think about what they’re saying when they type. I try not to let it get to my head. It’s very hard. Even when I was doing Everybody Works, I was thinking, “Oh, I have a new audience. Should I make this accessible?” But I think that if I ever got to the point where I was making music for other people, to appease them, then what’s the point?

Your musical background is a bit all over the place, between growing up with a karaoke machine, studying music theory and playing the trumpet. Is there any one element that shaped you the most?

It was the trumpet. I did that for nine years. I learned everything I know now about music with the trumpet. I was doing so much with it. I was learning music theory with the trumpet, and I was involved in activities out of school, and I was getting lessons. It was a very important instrument for my life.

How did returning to it as an adult while recording Everybody Works impact your perspective?

It reminded me of why I love playing music so much. It’s not like I forgot, but I think picking that up again gave me so many nostalgic memories of playing music and learning and having fun with it. I think it’s pretty important to remember that music is fun.

So there’s a history with that instrument that you don’t have with piano or guitar or other instruments.

Yeah. I’m not a piano player. I don’t really consider myself a guitar player, either. The trumpet, that’s my baby.

But turning to another element of your musical development, what's your go-to karaoke jam?

“Total Eclipse of the Heart,” by Bonnie Tyler. It’s bad. I don’t even sing it. It’s like screaming.

Jay Som, 8 p.m. Thursday, April 6, Lost Lake Lounge, with the Courtneys, 3602 East Colfax Avenue, $10, 303-296-1003.

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