Jay Som Does It Herself on 'Everybody Works'
2017's breakout indie-rock star on the music that inspires her
For the last month, Melina Duterte has spent part of nearly every day talking about Carly Rae Jepsen. She set herself up for this. In the press material for Everybody Works, the Oakland indie-rocker’s fantastic second full-length under the moniker Jay Som and the first she intended as an actual album (2016’s Turn Into was more of a compilation of scattered recordings), she referenced Jepsen’s cultishly adored record E•MO•TION as a key influence, knowing full well it’d become one of the dominant talking points for the record. “I talk about her in literally every single interview I do,” Duterte says, “but that album is just so good. It came out in 2015 and I am still listening to it.”
In a landscape where even indie music publications cover major pop releases with more relish than rock ones, there’s nothing all that eccentric about riding hard for a pop album, especially one as well-received as Jepsen’s. But Duterte’s fan-boy enthusiasm for E•MO•TION speaks volumes about how deeply she relates to music. She’s a joy to talk to about just about anything—I caught her by phone fresh off a plane in Austin, ahead of her SXSW gauntlet, and she couldn’t have been more polite about having another variation of the same conversation she’s probably had dozens of times—but she particularly comes to life whenever talk turns to other artists.
During our conversation, she ecstatically endorses a song she’s been enjoying lately, “The Magician” by Andy Shauf, and fondly recalls the emo she spent her youth listening to: Death Cab For Cutie (mostly the early stuff), American Football, Modest Mouse and Elliott Smith, who she dubs “the original emo.” When I posit that if she’s into Death Cab and Elliott Smith she’s probably into Julien Baker, too, she lights up. “I am in love with her!” she beams. “I really love her music.” And just like that it’s like we’re talking about Carly Rae Jepsen all over again.
Performed and recorded entirely by herself, Turn Into made it easy to typecast Duterte: a brainy songwriter cranking out peppy indie rock. But Everybody Works, despite being recorded under more or less the same solitary conditions, reveals her to be something considerably more ambitious: an auteur. This time she not only pulls off the usual driving guitar tunes, but also makes a convincing detour into nostalgic, Blood Orange-esque R&B. That kind of stylistic shift would be jarring on just about any other record, but it barely feels like a stretch on Everybody Works, since those pop tunes share the same warm, cozy-blanket production as her rock ones.
“I grew up listening to R&B records, and I just feel like that’s in me,” Duterte explains. “So I’ve always wanted to play around with that. It was intentional to have two songs on the album that were a little funkier than any I’ve ever done. I just love pop music.”
Those tunes, the slinky “One More Time, Please” and luscious “Baybee,” are two standouts on an album with no shortage of competition. And that they’re on par with anything on E•MO•TION is even more impressive when you consider their origins. Where Jepsen had the benefit of a team of top-shelf producers and songwriters, Duterte did it on her own, in a bedroom studio during the middle of a move. (“I was still building my IKEA bed when I was doing the album,” she recalls. “There were things lying everywhere. It was a mess.”)
For her tour behind the record Duterte is playing with a band, which begs the question, why not record with one, too?
“I think it’s just for the simple reason that I’ve been doing it this way for a long time, and that’s the way it’s always been since I was 12,” she says. “I think that’s just where my happy place is, and where my comfort is. I started writing and recording at the same time, so I kind of grew that way. I have collaborated with people before, but it always ends up being pretty frustrating. The decision-making process is frustrating on its own, but you also have to deal with other people’s shit and I don’t like that.”
That one-woman approach means resigning herself to certain limitations. Drums are always a pain to record, she says, and she knows outside musicians could help make for a smoother final product. “I’m never 100% satisfied with the way I play or the way I sing or the way I mix music, and that is exactly what makes me motivated to keep doing it,” she says. “Because if I were perfectly happy with the way it came out, there wouldn’t be any fun in it.”
Jay Som plays the Cactus Club on Thursday, March 23 at 9 p.m. with openers The Courtneys and Dogs In Ecstasy.