Jay Som Is Helping Indie Rock Find a Diverse Voice

Melina Duterte, who produces music under the stage name "Jay Som." Cara Robbins

Melina Duterte was a little drunk when she first uploaded her music to the internet on Thanksgiving two years ago.

The tracks created a buzz and attracted the attention of an indie rock label, which then signed her and officially released those homemade recordings.

While on tour, she produced her next album, and upon its release in March, the record received kudos from The New York Times, Pitchfork, Spin, Noisey, and The Fader. Now she's playing at some of the top music festivals and then headlining her own tour later this year.

In a relatively short amount of time, the 22-year-old Filipino-American singer-songwriter, who performs under the stage name of “Jay Som,” has settled in to her role as one of the new artists in music to watch.

“I think I'm embracing it,” Duterte told NBC News. “Knowing that it's basically my job now, I've just been consistently chuffed ... It's been pretty awesome.”

This past March, Duterte released her proper debut album, “Everybody Works,” which she made at a hectic pace, via indie label Polyvinyl Records.

“The three-week album-making process was after I just got out of tour,” she explained. “And I moved into a new place. It was the first time I ever had a deadline for music. I rushed it, and I also felt I didn't have enough time...I forced myself to do it, and honestly it was all because of coffee.”

A multi-instrumentalist, Duterte performed, recorded, and produced the music on “Everybody Works” virtually by herself in her bedroom. Working alone was what she had planned from the beginning.

“It's also always been in the way that I work, by myself,” she said. “I didn't want to do anything drastic suddenly by collaborating ... because I built a lot of this project around my solitude. I think I trust myself more than when I work with other people.”

The album's title song draws from Duterte's own personal experiences about juggling day jobs and her musical aspirations and is told from the perspective of a young adult in the present.

“I was in a pretty bad financial spot during that time,” she said. “I was living in San Francisco. I was living paycheck to paycheck and doing music on the side. I was sacrificing a lot to live in this big city and do what I love, and it was making me very frustrated."

"It was one of those wake up moments where I was like, 'What am I doing? Why am I not doing anything further with this? Is it dumb what I'm doing? Is it worth it?' I felt the need to write that song,” she added.

Making music has been a part of her life from the beginning. The daughter of Filipino immigrants, Duterte, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area’s East Bay, picked up her first guitar when she was 8 and then later played trumpet in the 5th grade.

“I started recording and writing music at the same time at age 12,” she said. “It's been pretty much everything in my life. I've gotten a lot of jobs that way. I've done stuff out of school and in school for music.”

While her path to being a professional musician hasn’t been easy, Duterte has always had the support of her parents, she said.

“I've had talks with [my mother] about it,” Duterte said, “and she totally understands everything that I'm going through. [My parents are] very supportive and they have been for a while.”

In the mainstream music industry, Duterte is somewhat of an anomaly: a female Asian-American indie rock musician who identifies as queer during what she noted was a polarizing time in the country with respects to politics, race, sexual orientation, and gender. She recently contributed a song, “Turn the Other Cheek” to the Our First 100 Days campaign in response to the Trump Administration.

“I don't consider myself or my music to be political,” she said. “But then I realize there are a many people like me out there that have the opportunity to showcase their stories into art. It just shows that we need different people to tell their stories.”

“Music shouldn't be white-male dominated, especially [in] indie music,” she added. “I think that needs to be done and over with. Every day I see new artists like women of color, queer, trans folk leading a new kind of scene in the independent music world.”

Last year, Jay Som took part in a tour with fellow indie artists Mitski and Japanese Breakfast.

“It was pretty amazing,” Duterte said of the tour. “I got to share a space and also watch two of my favorites artists — artists that I really looked up to that were doing things for the indie scene that a lot of people aren't. I just felt like that tour was needed. It was an experience for the audience as much it was for us.”

Currently Jay Som is on the road again performing some festival dates through the summer before headlining her own tour in North America this fall. And even as “Everybody Works” was recently released, Duterte already has new material in the works possibly for her next record.

“I made a lot of music before I went on tour,” she said. “I'm also working with other people to produce and co-write their music. I like touring and playing live, but I like recording and writing way better. It's something I always want to do.”

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