Everybody Works Together: How Jay Som Found Power in Collaboration on Anak Ko

Melina Duterte returns with her finest work yet

Music Features Jay Som
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Everybody Works Together: How Jay Som Found Power in Collaboration on <i>Anak Ko</i>

Jay Som’s album covers have gotten more abstract, more blurred, over time.

It all began with a photograph of some flowers, taken on a family trip in Italy, which graced the cover of 2016’s Turn Into. By the time Everybody Works came around in 2017, the visuals were more opaque and obscure: an owl, shrouded by an inverted orange barn. You could maybe still make some sense of the image, but it took some effort.

Now, we see a dancing woman—presumably Melina Duterte, the mastermind behind her project Jay Som—but she’s a simplistic cartoon, positioned on top of a crumbling bench. The sun is setting in the distance behind what might be a power line, maybe the Bay Bridge in her native Bay Area, a place she no longer calls home. It’s her most abstract artwork yet, but the album it shields is anything but. Anak Ko, out today (Aug. 23) is Duterte at her most direct, showcasing her newfound confidence, maturity and power in community. You can’t see her face, but it’s not hard to imagine her smiling as she looks towards the horizon.

“There is a constant theme in this new record where I can be pretty sassy and spicy to people, but there are a bunch of songs where I’m very loving and want to give affection,” Duterte explains. “I think that’s a reflection of my personality. I’m not as afraid anymore to write about expressing myself cathartically. If I need to write a song where I’m like, ‘Fuck you!’ then I’m going to do that. If there’s a song where I’m like, ‘I love you so much, please get better,’ then I’m going to do that too. I’m less afraid now.”

She says her new ability to write from a more assertive perspective is the product of having to grow up really fast. And it’s been a whirlwind last few years for Duterte, graduating from Bandcamp obscurity to an indie star of sorts, even releasing Paste’s number album of 2017 along the way.

But in that period, particularly since the release of Everybody Works, Duterte took stock of her career and tried to figure out what she wants out of it. No more putting her music on the backburner. She was also done treating the songwriting process as a solitary endeavor. She accomplished both of these objectives by hopping on Highway 5—“the most boring drive in the world,” she says—and moving 300-plus miles south to Los Angeles.

“I got tired of working these service jobs six days a week and doing music as a hobby and not having enough time to focus on my passion,” she explains. “I was starting to record EPs for people and mix records and stuff like that, but it was smaller and mostly just homies. And then, when I moved to L.A., I was introduced to so many people, like Sasami Ashworth, who was one of my first friends who I got really close to in L.A., and she gave me so much work and we worked together on projects and I met people through her and I just kept meeting people. Once you meet this person, then you meet this person and this person. I think that was such a good influence on me when I first moved here. It really motivated me to be around like-minded people that had the same work ethic. You want to be challenged. You want to be around people who inspire you, and I think L.A. gives me that.”

Duterte worked on 10 different EPs and records last year, and she’s already behind at least five this year. Her newfound collaborative spirit has influenced her new record, Anak Ko, to a staggering degree. Just look at the album credits: Vagabon’s Laetitia Tamko, Chastity Belt’s Annie Truscott, Taylor Vick from rising bay area act Boy Scouts and Justus Proffit. On Everybody Works, even her bandmates—drummer Zachary Elsasser, guitarist Oliver Pinnell and bassist Dylan Allard—were relegated to background vocals. Here, they play much more of a role.

“When you introduce new voices and a new playing style from someone else, than it gives the track a different meaning,” Duterte says. “It gives the track a different vibe and that to me was really cool because I got to let go of my perfectionist side and really say to people, ‘Can you play this? Listen to this and do whatever you can.’ They’re so talented that obviously it’s going to sound good. I’m so happy with the way that everyone contributed to it. Most of all, it was really fun to be able to hang out with everyone.”

And you can hear that teamwork in the album itself. Deep background vocals give Duterte’s lyrics more bite on “Peace Out.” Vick provides a sort of call-and-response on lead single “Superbike,” her “Somebody tell me” refrain like a friend comforting Duterte, assuring her everything is going to be OK. Indie country artist Nicholas Merz’s pedal steel guitar on album closer “Get Well” leads to the most expansive sounds to ever feature on a Jay Som record: a slow-burning soundtrack that sees Duterte ride off into her album cover sunset.

Anak Ko is a stunning record, one that shows off Duterte’s improved production skills, undoubtedly the result of working on so many of her friends’ music over the past few years. There are production tricks abound, perhaps most notably on the title track, which sees a fingerpicked acoustic guitar devolve into atmospheric chaos, only to be resolved by a bizarre muffled vocal that brings to mind the tail-end of Kanye West’s “Runaway.” It turns out she’s using a keyboard—the same one that Sigur Rós employs—to sample her own voice and play it like she would a synth, singing “Somewhere I can feel it” as her voice purposely cuts off.

“It’s probably the most fun that I’ve had from this lifestyle,” she says. “Not only do I get to tour and do Jay Som stuff, but I sometimes have the time to work on the production side, which is what I really want to do with the rest of my life. I get to really hone in on my skills as a songwriter and producer and give that to people. I’m always trying to help people. It teaches me so much about the way I write music and gives me ideas from other people that I can steal.”

Happier than ever, Duterte is becoming a force to be reckoned with in the indie music community, not just through her own music but through her work with others. Her album cover art may feature a drawing of a woman alone, but the record you pull out of the sleeve is a dance party with all of her friends.