Music

Jay Som’s Melina Duterte: Making Dreams Come True and Living a Musical Life

Making Music By Herself

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Melina Duterte always dreamed of being a musician, but she thought she'd be playing jazz, not rock. Before she started recording pop tunes as Jay Som, she was an accomplished trumpet player. "In middle school and high school, I was heavily into jazz," Duterte said. "I was in lots of jazz bands and a jazz honor group in high school. I was going to go to college to get a jazz degree, but became more interested in recording and writing my own songs. Playing standards in jazz bands was informative. When I started composing and performing, I was used to playing in front of an audience. I could improvise and knew complex chord changes."

But at the same time Duterte was pursuing her calling as a trumpet player, she was getting interested in pop music. "My mom is a guitar player and an incredible singer," Duterte said. "She played around the house when I was a kid and bought me a guitar when I was eight. My dad was a DJ. I heard Earth, Wind & Fire; Michael Jackson; and lots of funk and R&B around the house. I learned how to explore music by myself in elementary school. I was pretty much a loner and listened to the CDs I discovered through my headphones.

"I taught myself guitar by watching lessons online. I was about 12 years old when I started recording and writing music. My dad brought me to Guitar Center and got me my first real microphone. Prior to that, I was recording in my bedroom on a webcam attached to my laptop. In high school, they had a music production class. I learned how to produce, write songs and record at the same time. I also started sharing my music on line."

While she was still in high school, Duterte put 20 songs up on MySpace under the name Jay Som. "My folks are from the Philippines. Jay Som means Victory Moon, although that may not be an actual translation. I can understand Tagalog when my parents speak it, but I'm not fluent myself." After MySpace, Duterte moved on to Bandcamp and released Turn Into, a collection of demos recorded in her home studio. "It was three or four years worth of songs. When I started getting serious about writing, I bought more recording gear and experimented with mixing and recording with different mics. I taught myself drums on a kid's beginner drum kit."

After graduation, Duterte took production courses at local community colleges. She left her parent's home in Brentwood and moved to Oakland, immersing herself in the East Bay's DIY music scene. She started playing in bands and touring. Meanwhile, Turn Into was getting thousands of hits online and generating interest from record labels.

Duterte put together a band and toured as Jay Som, earning positive reviews. Between dates, she was in her bedroom studio, recording and producing her debut record, Everybody Works. After its release, she moved to Los Angeles. "The Bay Area was becoming too expensive and I didn't want music to become a side project. Down here, I can produce other people and make a living doing what I love."

During the process of the move, Duterte was working on her second album, Anak Ko. Polyvinyl released it on August 23rd. "'Anak ko' is what my mother calls me when she texts or calls me on the phone. It translates to 'my child.' I thought it would be an endearing phrase to latch onto.

"I went up to the Bay Area to record tracks by my touring drummer, Zach (Elsasser). I also recorded an LA drummer, Justus Proffit. Some of the songs were written around those beats." Duterte took the tracks to an apartment she rented for a week in Joshua Tree. She fleshed out the songs, wrote the rest of the lyrics and recorded her guitar, bass and vocal parts. "I was demoing songs at the beginning of 2018. It took a year of composing and planning and a month to record and mix.

The care Duterte puts into every song is evident as Anak Ko unfiolds. Her wide-open arrangements weave threads of ambient pop, rock, funk, R&B, and folk into her own sound. "If You Want It" opens with a simple repeated electric guitar hook and an anguished vocal. The singer yearns for the past, as she watches her former lover play the field. Icy distorted guitar notes and bright keyboard textures convey the conflict between loss and frustrated desire. Duterte's breathless vocal on "Tenderness" puts the first flush of new love on display. Elsasser's complex R&B backbeat slips into a swinging, jazzy tempo on the chorus, while Duterte's muted bass runs, sunny keyboard fills and swooning vocal harmonies fill the air with the warm ambience of infatuation. The almost inaudible vocals on "Peace Out" portray emotions being held in check as a troubled relationship comes to an end. Duterte sings "Won't you try to forgive" over and over, a mantra of guilt and regret that builds to an outburst of rage, expressed by cymbal crashes and distorted lead guitars that drown her pleas in a wall of noise. Throughout the record, her quiet vocals express the distress of unrequited love and troubled relationships with a restraint that makes the songs bristle. Her singing is complimented by her impressive work on guitar, bass and keyboards. The music's full of unexpected twists and turns, moving from dream-like chiming chords to concise, rocking guitar solos.

"When I write a song, I know what I want it to sound like, but by the end of the process, it can become something different. As a songwriter, you have to cater to the song and see what it needs. That's part of the production process, for sure. Working by yourself isn't like being in a band, where people chime in and you get work done faster, but I like being by myself in the process. I'm a perfectionist and worry about every little detail. As I've honed in on my skills and craft, it's become less of a negative thing to be by myself. I want to continue making albums this way. It's more challenging than being with other people."

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