Jay Som interview: "The central theme of the album is about finding your peace and finding your voice and settling into that."
I called Melina Duterte at her home in California on the morning of Valentine's Day, a few weeks ahead of the release of her highly anticipated new album as Jay Som, Everybody Works. Despite her admitting that she hadn't yet had her much-needed coffee, Duterte was bright and buoyant in talking about the genesis and crafting of the songs that make up her excellent new album. She was animated in talking about the lyrical genesis, and also full of genuine and vibrant emotion when the conversation moved on to other topics of conversation such as Valentine's memories, karaoke songs and the upcoming Mount Eerie album.
Jay Som's excellent new album Everybody Works is out today.
Let's talk about Everybody Works; I understand that became a mantra for you for this album, what does it mean to you?
That's true. It tied into general themes of the album. For that song specifically, it's basically about being broke and trying to turn music into a career, a job that's financially viable, and it's definitely about being frustrated about working hard for something that feels like it should be a passion, something that feels like it should be easy to do. It just kind of turned into this note to myself, like a mantra.
It also seems like a response to some people who say that making music isn't working; do you come across that ever?
Hell yeah I do! There's a lot of people that just don't care, they think it's the regular rock'n'roll stuff like drugs and sex. But it's different for everyone, I'm not gonna judge.
Before we get into the music itself I'm curious about the album cover; is that an owl on it?
Like an animal owl? No! Do you see one?
Really? No, I don't think it is. I think Rob Carmichael, who did the cover art, he made collages of architectural and industrial designs. But no I did not see an owl!
Maybe I'm looking at it cross-eyed.
Well that's kind of cool!
Yeah, and I know you're an animal lover so I thought you might have put it on there.
OK let's talk about the music itself; I was shocked to learn that Everybody Works was entirely recorded and produced in your bedroom, like your previous album Turn Into, considering how different it sounds. So I guess my question is, what's changed?
What's changed is I think I've gotten better, a little more refined. When I was working on Turn Into I was still learning how to record and mix. I still am, but the time between Turn Into and Everybody Works was a really long time, so I've had time to hone in on my personal skills for recording and mixing, and learning different microphone techniques. And I've been listening to a lot of different music too, so that's been very informative.
What kind of stuff have you been listening to that's different?
When I was working on Everybody Works I actually went back to the kind of music I was listening to in Middle School and even when I was little. I was listening to funk again, this R&B that I really like, and also pop music.
Which pop classics?
Pop songs from now and early oughts pop songs. I was listening to like Britney Spears and stuff. And even the pop stuff now like Bruno Mars. Not just pop, but also I was pretty influenced by Yo La Tengo and The Pixies for this album. Especially the sounds and their dynamics.
Nice. Let's get into the album itself. It starts with 'Lipstick Stains', which is quite a daring and honest way to open - kind of saying "this is me, this is my album" - did you always know you wanted to start it like that?
It sort of was the intention, but it actually came a little later in the album process. It was actually a little snippet of a song that I made for the outro of the song 'I Think You're Alright' when I play it live. So I made up the 'Lipstick Stains' part, I wrote that specifically to play it live. I ended up liking it a lot, so I just put it in the album and I kept coming back to it and thinking that it should be an intro. Originally it was supposed to be vocals and guitars, but then I ended up making it more orchestral.
Speaking of the orchestral bits, what's in there? Sound like loads of stuff
We've got piano, my really bad out of tune piano, I've got some trumpet, accordion, acoustic guitars and I think that's about it. I just mixed in a bunch of simple stuff.
And you play all of it, right?
Yeah I do.
The production is amazing. Did you know that you were gonna be able to layer everything so well?
I think it just became very natural. I naturally like to layer a lot, a lot. I'm told I do that too much, but I think there's a certain beauty about layering so many instruments. There's beauty in repetition.
'The Bus Song' comes next, and this has already been something of a hit. Everyone I've told that I'm interviewing you, they've been like "ask her about the bus, why does she love the bus!?" Do you have any specific bus stories or moments that inspire this song?
When I was living in San Francisco, there were a couple of months when I was taking the bus all the time to get to work. And it was a pretty lengthy bus ride, like 40 minutes, so I just had time to reflect and people watch and make up my own stories. I think it's like a common thing in SF to encounter really strange people that are really smelly or usually on drugs, and people that just yell at you. I think a lot of people have those encounters on the bus. One time someone smoked a bong right next to me on the bus. It was a very interesting experience.
That's crazy. I lived in LA for a while and every time I got on the bus there was someone smelly or crazy on there. I think it's the California sun does something to people.
There's trumpet on the end of ‘The Bus Song’; you went back to the trumpet after a few years of neglecting it - how did that feel?
I played it for like 9 years and then I stopped for 3, because I just lost the interest to play it. But then I think I started listening to jazz a little more heavily. One of my favourite trumpet players is Chet Baker, and I was very inspired to pick up the trumpet again. I just don't know why I stopped for so long. It was the first instrument that I fell in love with.
The song '1 Billion Dogs' - why is it called '1 Billion Dogs' for starters?
Uhhh because I could not find a title. Sometimes I just don't care about song titles. That was kind of a cute and kind of ridiculous song title. But actually I think there are like a billion dogs in the world, that's like a stat. It makes no sense and is not related to the song at all, but y'know, it happens.
The song itself, the lyrics, relate to a very specific kind of feeling. What was the moment that you're expressing? The "head through the ceiling" moment.
It's a feeling of desperation and motivation. It's a very simple song about just feeling tired. And also there are vices in life that make us feel better, make us feel right, like drugs or alcohol, or using other people, and I think that's what that song's about in a general sense.
The guitar solo is radical. It's so jarring when it first comes in, but then it really works. How did you come across that sound?
It's actually like me making fun of myself, because I tend to put a guitar solo in every single song that I have. That was actually the first take, and that was just to get the levels set so that I could kind of hear what the solo would sound like if I did it, and then I just kind of fooled around a bit and I ended up liking it, so I kept it. It sounds very silly.
It's hard to justify it, but it does sound really good.
'One More Time, Please' - you've got some field recordings in this one.
Yeah, it's like the ambient noises people in my house walking around. I have a lot of samples of my roommates just moving around and talking in the house.
It sounds like someone snoring in it...
That's what I hear. In a way that works with the song, not in a way that makes it sound weird. So it's just ambient house sounds?
Basically, just like room sounds.
Why did you decide to do that?
I decided to do that because I was recording a lot of piano for that song and the piano's outside the room where my computer and everything is, so I kept having to walk back and forth, and my footsteps were super loud. Also my roommate was talking pretty loudly while playing video games, so I had a lot of these unwanted sounds, and by the end of it it just sounded right to keep them in the track.
Then we come onto 'Baybee' which I think most showcases your love of pop; your pop sensibilities shine through most here. It sounds triumphant, despite the lyrics being downcast.
It's probably one of my favourite songs on the album. It's actually the second song that I wrote, after 'The Bus Song', and when I had those two as the first demos of the album I was like "what the hell am I doing?" because I had these two very opposite songs. 'Baybee' originally was not supposed to be on the album because I thought it was too left field, but I ended up keeping it because I feel like it shows a pretty true part of me, it shows my influences. I really love funk guitar and driving bass lines and also simple lyrics as well. Simple, straight to the point lyrics. All in all it's also meant to sound like a celebration song as well.
'(Bedhead)' starts off low, but finishes powerfully. Is the story of the stutter true to life?
Yeah I actually used to have a slight stutter when I was younger, so I didn't really talk a lot to people. I kind of used music and being onstage for school band and jazz band to overcome my fear of being in front of people and talking to people. That song went through a lot of changes; it wasn't originally supposed to sound like that. The demo had drums on it, this pretty thrasher-y boom-boom-ka and driving, fuzzed out guitars, and there were so many other guitar parts, especially towards the end. I ended up scrapping everything and I had this one track and I thought it would sound really cool if it was pitched down an octave, and so I ended up pitching everything down and I ended up liking that better.
Do your experiences of having a stutter play into your like of quiet singing and burying your vocals a little?
I wouldn't say those are directly related, I'd say it's a stylistic choice. For certain songs I prefer them to not be heard because I feel like the vocals are also an instrument and can be treated as such. It doesn't have to be black and white; the vocals don't always have to be front and centre. It's an intentional thing.
'Take It' is definitely the most confrontational you get on the album. Were you angry?
Oh yeah, I was angry as hell! I don't really think about that song a lot, and sometimes I feel like I'm still figuring out what all of my songs mean to me. I did this album in 2 weeks, so it was kind of like this compressed time. Playing them live now, I'm still figuring out what they're about. 'Take It' is sort of like a sassy song to people in my life who give me a hard time, and also looking up to the sky and saying "is that all that you've got?" Trying to be assertive.
On the title track, 'Everybody Works', you've got the repeated "you don't want to see me like this" outro - are you directing that at anyone specifically? It feels like a different emotion to most of the song.
I think that's directed towards personal friends and family, people that are around me that support me or not support me. You don't want to see me in this state of mind mentally or physically, in an unhealthy way.
'For Light' is the crescendo finish of the album. Tell me about lyrics like "my sandpaper tongue crawls out" or "I'll break to chew on glass."
Hmmm I should do my homework about my songs, because I just don't think about it. Parts of the lyrics from that song I took from these short poems that I was writing. They have a sense of finality and closure in a sense. I think it ties into the central theme of the album, about finding your peace and finding your voice and settling into that. I guess that's what 'For Light' is about, but I like to let people think for themselves what they could be about.
Did you ever think about including 'I Think You're Alright' on the album?
I didn't! I kind of did, but then I realised that that song is a little old now. It came out in 2015, and that was a different stage of my life and it just felt like a one-off. It will always be very dear to my heart that way. I didn't want to overkill that song. I'm still playing it live all the time. That's the only one that people sing along to, which is why I play it.
Just wait a little bit and everyone will be singing along to the new songs! How are you finding playing the new songs? What's your band set up?
It's really fun! I'm on guitar, my friend Oliver is on guitar playing lead, my friend Dylan plays bass and Dylan plays drums. It's a classic rock band formation: two guitars, bass and drums. I got some backup vocals too.
It works, but with the new songs it's hard to come up with parts for the instruments that we can't translate on stage. We don't have an extra member to play keyboards or extra guitar parts, so there's a different art playing music live. It's a little harder to do. They're basically all my best friends and we've been playing together for so long, and we trust each other, so we fall into a rhythm, it feels easy.
As we're speaking on Valentine's Day, I thought I'd ask if you have any particularly memorable Valentine's experiences?
I do remember one, I think it was when I was about 10 years old, and I gave a Valentine - one of those beautiful, cute little Valentine's where you can tape candy onto it, and it had this cheesy Valentine's pick up line on there - and I brought it to give to my crush. I didn't tell her it was me, but I put it in her cubby, and I saw her take it out, she looked at it, she made this ugly face and then she gave it to someone at her table. So that will always break my heart. I'm not the same anymore because of that.
I know you're a karaoke fan - what do you think about karaoke as a Valentine's date?
That sounds amazing. That sounds great as a date for anything, not just Valentine's. I'd just do that anyway.
What's your go-to karaoke song?
My go-to is 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' by Bonnie Tyler. That's kind of a hard song to sing, but I don't care. That's the kind of song where I stand up on tables to sing.
You're a hip hop fan, do you ever try to do hip hop at karaoke?
I try not to, because it usually ends up really bad. Maybe I'll do a Tupac song...
I know you're a Mount Eerie fan, are you excited for the new album [A Crow Looked At Me]?
Oh yeah, I really am. I'm ready for that album to just crush me into pieces. I'm very excited just because I think this is a great thing for Phil [Elverum] to do for himself, and not just for us as listeners. I have so much respect and admiration for him. It's awful what he's gone through and what he's going through now, but for him to put out this new piece of work is incredible.
Have you heard the single, 'Real Death'?
I have and I cried a lot to it. It's too much. I'm not ready, but I'm also so ready.
Finally, are you excited for your album to come out?
I am so excited. When I finished this back in October I was like "I'm ready to release it!" - but typically I had to wait. But I'm at the point where I need people to listen to it now.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 12th March 2017.