“This tour has changed my life.”
As cute as the many buttons pinned on her go-to striped tee, Melina Duterte’s sweet guitar licks and ‘woozy’ dream-pop vocals are striking a chord with fans on her first North American tour. Duterte, better known by her moniker Jay Som, has been making and releasing music since her middle school days under various names on MySpace. The 22-year-old from the San Francisco Bay Area is about to wrap up her first tour with Mitski and Japanese Breakfast, and announced on Friday that she’s been signed to Polyvinyl Record Company.
This tour has been personally impactful for Duterte, but it’s also been a step forward for Asian-American women in music. “It’s been so incredible. First off, I always say this all the time and it still shocks me, but this is I think the first time in history that there’s been a tour with three Asian American women on one bill. I love both of these artists, but also like—to be a part of that? Man, that’s sick. It’s really fun,” said Duterte.
She describes herself as “completely unknown,” but there’s no doubt the singer-songwriter has been getting some much deserved spotlight during her opening sets for Philadelphia-based Japanese Breakfast and New York indie rock queen Mitski. “This tour has been helping a lot with that. But enough that people are [still] like ‘Who’s that? Who’s that little girl?’”
Her debut album is due in 2017, and Duterte’s Turn Into released late last year is being reissued through Polyvinyl Records. The 9-track lo-fi album is fantastically fuzzy. Her catchy guitar riffs and equal-parts compelling and soothing vocal harmonies evoke a warm and nostalgic tone. “With Turn Into, I didn’t really plan it. I just collected all of these songs because people were asking me when I was going to release an EP… one night I was at home and I had two glasses of wine and I was like ‘Ehhh, I’ve gotta release some damn songs for people to listen to,’” explained Duterte. The response Duterte has received for Turn Into has been overwhelming, reaching listeners internationally as well as locally though it was released independently with little fanfare.
Duterte has been writing and sharing her music since her middle school days, under now retired monikers Platonic Sea Lion, Mother Knows Best, and Real Talk Real Talk, all hosted on her old MySpace music pages. While bored one day in grade 12, she finally found a name that stuck using the Wu-Tang name generator made famous by Childish Gambino. “I always feel bad when someone asks me where my names from because they end up being disappointed. Like, does it have super great meaning? It translates to “victory moon,” it was like in a different language. Also there are actually tons of men in the world who are [named] “Jay som,” so I hope I don’t get served,” she said with a laugh.
Unlike Turn Into, Duterte says that her 2017 full-length album has been more fawned over and dissected. All of her upcoming album’s demos are finished, but she’ll be working on them for a while until they’re ready to be shared with fans. “I Think You’re Alright,” side A of the 2-track vinyl released in June, is a track Duterte’s really proud of and feels brave for releasing. “[It’s] very personal and I also worked pretty hard to make the song have a certain emotion. With any song that’s intimate like that, you’re worried that they’ll hear it. I guess like even in a live translation, performing it is kind of strange too because you’re instantly transported to that time.”
Duterte has been compared to Frankie Cosmos, another sweet alternative indie-pop singer-songwriter who got her start as a preteen releasing her songs via Tumblr. Though she has a somewhat similar story, both their sound and lyricism are quite different—save for their mutual love of dogs. However, casting a wide net when comparing femme and women up-and-comers in music (and really any other creative field) isn’t a new phenomenon. Likely because they’re on tour together she’s also been compared to Mitski, even though the two have utterly different sounds and performance styles. Duterte weighed in, saying, “I think that’s also the way that like, journalists, media and other musicians treat women and [their] music too. They see a woman with a guitar and they’re like ‘Damn! That’s just like another woman who plays the guitar!’ It’s exactly like that.”
It’s yet another way music journalism can fail women, femme and other marginalized musicians. Whether it’s tokenizing or making generalizations by applying wild comparisons to these artists, it nonetheless affects how we look at and value them and their work. When done in isolation, comparing smaller artists to big(ger) ones as a substitute for evaluating and considering their independent work is lazy and harmful—especially for artists who already face obstacles in having their work be seen and consumed beyond their identities.
It’s important to respect what these artists are creating by taking them seriously in reviews, interviews and stories—and that means doing the work that comes along with that. Duterte continued, “[Adult Mom] tweeted about that and how a bunch of women are always compared to Saint Vincent. Because she’s like, really out there and all these people are like, ‘She sounds like… Saint Vincent—but with a different writing style and a different voice and she has a different aesthetic too.”
Duterte says that her, Mitski and Michelle (of Japanese Breakfast) have also experienced some more overt sexism while on the road. “Even for this tour, it’s like tech [people] treat us like shit—like we don’t know what we’re talking about or know how to use our instruments or equipment. That’s another shitty thing about it, you have to work five times as hard to be a woman in music.”
Duterte also plays in Summer Peaks, a band based in Brentwood, California, who just released an album. “I used to just play around with bands and just help them out—like my friends, but now [Jay Som is] my primary focus and I don’t want to have any side projects anymore. It’s too much.”
Duterte hopes to tour again in the fall and is looking forward to her debut album coming out on vinyl in 2017. For now she plans to stay in the Bay Area, but since playing there recently, Duterte dreams of moving to New York.“It’s so sick there. I remember the first night [we were there] I met a bunch of artists who I admire that live there. And especially in Philly too, it’s crazy.” For our sakes, we hope Duterte stays in Bay Area a little while longer so she can visit us back here in Vancouver soon.
Photos by Imogen Broberg-Hull.