Artist To Watch: Jay Som
“Jay Som has always been based around the comfort of solitude,” Melina Duterte tells me over the phone from the Bay Area, where she grew up and currently lives. The Oakland resident has been making music for over 10 years — at 22 years old, essentially half her life — and her project reflects self-taught and hard-earned experience, largely learned alone. “Being by myself and making music all the time… That’s where the art is. That’s where I’m the most creative, and that’s where my cathartic process for everything is. It’s what makes me feel 100%.”
As an artist, the natural course of progression tends to expand outward, but Duterte seems intent on doing everything on her own, at least for the foreseeable future. (“It’s not that I don’t ever want to collaborate with anyone. It’s just that, for now, I really like working by myself,” she says.) After putting out a steady stream of under-the-radar releases, 2015’s Turn Into — an admittedly hastily-assembled collection of demos and incoherent thoughts spontaneously uploaded to Bandcamp — struck a nerve. It was reissued by Topshelf Records and then Polyvinyl Records, the latter of which signed her and are releasing what’s billed as her debut full-length.
That album, Everybody Works, bears the weight of the trial-and-error that came before it. Remarkably, it feels like it comes from a place of insularity while also projecting itself outward. Recorded entirely by herself in her bedroom last fall after returning from tour, Everybody Works is a sparkling testament to Duterte’s skill as both a songwriter and producer. Her self-imposed solitude invites a multiplicity of perspectives — you can sense that in both the variety of sounds explored on the album (no two songs sound alike) and in its lyrics, which focus on the emotional labor that we put into our relationships with others. Jay Som’s music is in constant conversation with itself, playing out imagined situations and precarious interpersonal give-and-takes with the pressure of reality looming behind.
“Baybee,” the album’s third single (which we’re premiering above, along with a video directed by Charlotte Hornsby and Jesse Ruuttila), is a great example of the way in which Duterte maps out the inner workings of her mind to tangible results. “If I leave you alone when you don’t feel right, I know we’ll sink for sure/ I’ll play your game once more if you don’t feel right,” she sings in the chorus. It’s a song about giving up a part of your own happiness to placate someone you care about in order to preserve something that feels worth saving, and Jay Som presents that predicament in a sunny reverie.
That theme pops up repeatedly in Duterte’s writing, most effectively on “I Think You’re Alright,” a devotional slow-burn that was released on a 7″ last year. On that song, she offers to act as someone’s support system to her own detriment — it’s a weary complacency, sighed out because being together and working through it is preferable to being alone. That contradiction at the heart of the project is what makes it so enthralling, and the attitude carries through to Everybody Works, which is largely about settling for what you have and making the best of something that may not be entirely great. But instead of approaching the act of compromise with pessimism, Duterte embraces it as a necessary facet of life.
On the album’s title track, she melds her personal ethos — which amounts to something like Good things come to those that put in the time — to her professional work ethic. “Try to make ends meet/ Penny pinch ’til I’m dying/ Everybody works,” she sings. “Right before I wrote that song, I had this moment where I was looking at my bank account and it was negative. I was so frustrated with myself because at the time I was living paycheck to paycheck, doing food jobs and working on music on the side,” she explains. “I was feeling stupid because I was risking a lot of things financially so that I could do music, and I was looking at other people that were famous and was getting jealous and confused. Like, How did they do that?”
So Everybody Works acts as a sort of note to self; that someone’s perceived success in life carries with it an invisible cost, that everybody puts in the work and eventually will get a reward proportional to their effort. Of course, Duterte’s not blind to the advantages a certain class has in life, but in her own insular world, if you spend a decade making music, eventually the payoff will be worth it. If you put the effort into making a relationship work, maybe it will do just that. The takeaway from Everybody Works is that self-determination is the way to go, and Jay Som as a project proves that being your own best ally is the path to success.