How Jay Som balanced bliss and anxiety for Anak Ko, her best record yet

Melina Duterte on quitting drinking, facing her fears, and embracing the notion of family.

September 10, 2019
How Jay Som balanced bliss and anxiety for <i>Anak Ko</i>, her best record yet Lindsey Byrnes

As Jay Som, Melina Duterte is one of a few indie musicians in the late 2010s who has been making music that feels truly and sonically boundless — a constant exploration of the many variants of indie rock, from shoegaze’s soft glow to Slumberland-era indie-pop’s sugary crunch and everything in between. It’s an approach that feels lovingly lifted from the 2000s, a time in which indie could mean anything ranging from frizzy electronic abstractions to rustic, story-driven folk rock, and it’s no surprise that the 25-year-old Duterte counts herself as a student of the era.

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“Rock at the time was so prevalent, and it had this amazing momentum,” she recalls while sipping on the dregs of an iced coffee in the conference room of her publicists’ NYC office. “I grew up with guitar music being the most contemporary sound, but I was also raised on ‘70s funk and R&B, so it was a mixture of genres from all eras.” Her third album as Jay Som, Anak Ko (which translates to “child” in Filipino), features more blurred boundaries between genre than ever before, from the soaring guitar heroics of “Superbike” to the lovely, muted disco of “Tenderness.” Following 2017’s breakout Everybody Works, Anak Ko is Duterte pushing her sound and style to places she’s never been before, a showcase for her own explorations and where the creative mind can travel.

Above all else, Anak Ko sounds glistening and smooth, like a duck sailing on top of a lake — a result of Duterte’s increased focus on self-production since her endearingly scrappy 2015 collection Turn Into. “Production is where my passion lies, so I wanted to focus on that and get better at it,” she explains. “After two years of growing up fast and not having enough time to get better at writing songs and producing, I wanted to focus on it when I had the time.”

Her recent-ish move from the Bay Area to Los Angeles helped adjust the focus on studio wizardry (“It got easier to become aware of what I wanted to do, as well as to take more time to do things over again instead of going with the first take”), but at a pivotal point during Anak Ko’s creative gestation, getting out of the city for a week-long session in Joshua Tree was equally essential. “I was so distracted in L.A. — so many venues and shows every night, so many family members and friends passing through. I wanted to isolate myself to finish what I needed to finish. It was mostly fun, but also scary.”

The creative process behind Anak Ko found Duterte balancing bliss and anxiety, as the inevitable stress of following a breakout album like Everybody Works weighed on Duterte in the studio. “That was a period of my life that was exciting but also scary — I hadn’t experienced the music lifestyle in ways that other people had,” she recalls while discussing her headspace over the past few years. “I kept overthinking things and was in my head a lot. It took a while to get out of that funk and decide that I just needed to make music that I wanted to make.”

How Jay Som balanced bliss and anxiety for <i>Anak Ko</i>, her best record yet Lindsey Byrnes

How did you discover music when you were younger?

MTV and VH1 were very much still popping in elementary school — and soundtracks. The O.C. soundtrack really opened my eyes up to music. The internet wasn’t around, so you couldn’t just open up Spotify to the indie chillout playlist. So I’d go to Barnes & Noble’s entertainment section, which was just so full of different collections of music. I’d pick out covers that I thought were cool, and I discovered so many alternative bands and rap music just by buying CDs all the time. It was all very physical.

Do you miss physical contact with music in that way?

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I do. It was really special at that time. Digital was still coming up — there was LimeWire, and downloading stuff illegally. When everything was physical, there was more of a challenge, and it made the music more special. You had to force yourself to really listen.

I had a digital jukebox music player that was so clunky and big. You could put a couple of albums on there. [Laughs] The Radio Dept.’s Pet Grief was on there, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ whole collection.

In recent years, social media has taken hold of artists’ narratives in indie.

It’s a weird time to live right now. I’m very reluctant to come back to social media in the same way I was before. It’s super special and cool that you have direct access to talk to your favorite artists, but you see everything those fans post, too, and not everything is always nice. You can get in your head about certain opinions, or the way people write about you. I have a weird relationship with social media now — I’m very scared of it. I’m more private now, and I value privacy more than ever. I like that you can pick and choose parts of your personality and career to share with other people. You don’t have to share everything about yourself, but people want that, and I’m aware of it. Your entire life is like a Black Mirror episode.

What phase of your life do you think you’re in right now?

I feel like I’m in the beginning stages of my actual adulthood. I never viewed turning 18 as adulthood, because I feel like such a kid. Even two or three years ago, I was like, “I have no idea what the hell is going on. I don’t have a personality or identity.” But now I feel like I’m getting into the phase where I have more of an idea of what I want and the people I want to be around — what my reflection is, and how I want people to perceive me.

What was adolescence like for you?

Pretty painful. I was a huge loner. I had my headphones on all the time. I immersed myself in music because that was my escape — my heaven. I wasn’t that good at school because I was very sad and felt alone, but I was really involved in the arts and finding friends that were the same way. Music has always been the biggest part of my life.

As you’ve gotten older, has it gotten easier for you to open yourself to people more?

I think it’s stayed the same. I think about my childhood and my emotional maturity at that time, because the way I communicated with my parents was rare. I was open about my feelings. That was the main struggle my parents had — “You’re a kid! You don’t know what you’re talking about.” But I was very open about the way I feel, and I still am. I’m always trying to get better at communication and listen more — to actively talk less at the people I love, and strangers too. It’s really important.

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What does family mean to you?

This record has a lot more to do with my personal life in that sense. Naming the record after a phrase in Filipino language was very important because I wanted to connect more to my culture, family, and roots. I feel so much more connected and understanding about what my parents had gone through. I’ve never had a kid or had to pinch pennies to raise children, in order to be at a place where you can be marginally successful.

How Jay Som balanced bliss and anxiety for <i>Anak Ko</i>, her best record yet Lindsey Byrnes

You recently worked on the forthcoming album from Chastity Belt. As a solo artist, how does your personal and artistic approach change when you work with others?

It helps me grow as a producer, listener, and friend. You’re communicating with people in different ways because you want to respect their vision. It’s very similar to having a part-time job — you have to reach a certain goal, and you can’t let your ego get in the way. Collaborating is something I want to do for a long time. If I feel burnt out from touring, I want to focus on helping other people. I want to share my skills and knowledge with them, because if you have it, you should share it.

You stopped drinking while making this album, which is something a lot of touring musicians and younger people in general are doing. What’s changed for you because of sobriety?

A lot can change in four years. It may seem like a short period of time for others, but it was a compact whirlwind of a time in my life. I had to deal with being thrust in the music world and talking about it all the time. “How do you feel? What kind of person are you?” It was an invasive feeling from people I don’t know. I was getting used to it, but also welcoming it. Stripping away alcohol made me face my challenges more head-on, because when you do that, you’re dealing with your emotions head-on. You can’t escape. You can’t go into a different state of mind anymore. From there, you can really assess what you need in the moment and process your feelings.

It’s really encouraged to drink alcohol on tour, and in music in general. You drive six hours to a venue, and instead of giving you money or food, they give you drink tickets or a case of beer. You’re drinking on the job, you’re getting fucked up, you’re blacking out, and you’re not being the person you want to be — and it always gets worse. Alcohol is never the solution. I get why people drink, but for me, it wasn’t the right tool for me to grow as a person.

What are your fears?

I sometimes feel convinced that everyone around me is resentful of me, for any reason — for my success, my personality, the way I am. It’s usually not true, and you don’t want to assume your friends are resentful of you. But the way artists are treated these days, you get so caught up comparing yourself to other people and worrying about what other people think about you, because you’re always online. You’re constantly thinking about yourself, and you don’t get the time to step out of the box and think about the people in your life around you. These feelings are increasing with time, so I’m trying to stay more open, aware, and humble than I was before.

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Catch Jay Som on tour starting September 11. Check out her tour dates here.

How Jay Som balanced bliss and anxiety for Anak Ko, her best record yet