In Conversation: Jay Som Talks Family, Race, and Perfectionism

The LA-based songwriter discusses the quick evolution from her 2017 breakthrough to the recently released Anak Ko.

Jay Som’s Melina Duterte uses the term “fast” to describe the period of time that has elapsed since she released her 2017 breakthrough Everybody Works, a collection of bedroom recordings expressing an omnivorous approach to genre and catapulting Duterte to critical acclaim. 

“It was just like boom, boom,” she recalls. “[My management] was like, ‘You’re gonna have to start touring right now and do press, sign to a label, and write some new music.’ I almost reached that exploding point—but I didn’t. It got enough to be overwhelming, but I think I grew a lot. I feel like I really know what I want from this career.”

Duterte is calling from her new home in Los Angeles, a one-story house that’s not only inhabited by other musicians, but is regularly subjected to the comings and goings of Duterte’s collaborators. While playing music at all hours of the day and most of the night has yet to manifest any visits from local authorities (singing karaoke at 2 a.m. on a Sunday evening, however, is another story), the residence’s creative culture was the perfect place for Duterte to spend much of last year demoing material for her new record Anak Ko. Its title takes a Tagalog phrase that translates to “my child,” and the content furthers Duterte’s exploration of melodic eclecticism.

Leading up to the album release, Duterte discussed her take on perfectionism in recording, saying “no,” and growing up the child of immigrants.

On Everybody Works, you did everything on your own: writing, recording, production, playing the instruments. After the success of that album, I’m sure you were offered an opportunity to try your hand at being in a proper studio. But you opted to do things relatively solo again, in your own space.

Yeah, I love it. I love the fact that I can be a perfectionist in this super egotistical way. But it’s also fun. And I think for me, it’s mostly cathartic because I feel like that’s where my passion lies. I love learning about audio production. There’s never a limit to that. I love reading about it in articles or watching YouTube tutorials, and just practicing, because it takes hours to get to a place where you feel like you can be seamless with your workflow.

I get the sense you like to geek out about that kind of thing, taking the time to experiment with certain elements. It’s interesting, though, that you use the term “perfectionist,” when you can hear things like your washer and dryer in the mix on certain songs.

I think when I say “perfectionist,” it’s not necessarily about the track being pure or pristine, with no mistakes. It’s mostly perfectionism in the control, wanting it to be the way that you want it to be and being happy with that, having the tools and the opportunity to really experiment, to the point where you can just keep going and going and then stop yourself. That’s something I really value. When you’re in a studio, you have a time limit. An engineer will be, like, $200 an hour. The studio will be $500 an hour, and you’re constantly looking at your watch. You have to have things prepared. There’s something cool and raw about being in your bedroom, or just being with another person jamming and coming up with something on the spot, or spending a bunch of time bringing an idea back from several years ago.

In your new album’s press release, there’s a quote from you about growth and how, “In order to change you’ve got to make so many mistakes.” Was there a specific incident or experience that led you to this realization?  

When I said that at the time, it was more of a general phrase for life that you can take and put in your pocket. But hearing that back, I can now pinpoint a lot of things—like always saying “yes” and becoming burnt out. That, to me, is a mistake where you think it’s much easier to mask your emotions, instead of being like, “No, I don’t want to do this,” and processing something before you move on it. That’s always been a mistake of mine before, and I look back on that and think I could have done better and protected myself more.

“You have your set of cultural values from your parents, that I feel a lot of immigrants love to hold on to and teach their children. And a lot of children like to push that away, to sort of become the American they want to be. It’s pretty confusing sometimes.”

The title Anak Ko is taken from your mother’s term of endearment for you in Tagalog. What was it like for you, growing up with two first-generation immigrants as parents?

Having two immigrants as parents, you have two different sets of values. You have your American values that you’re learning in school, where you’re learning about history, and you’re friends with people of different cultures—especially white people—and you’re learning from them. So you kind of have this internalized racism, early on. And then you have your set of cultural values from your parents, that I feel a lot of immigrants love to hold on to and teach their children. And a lot of children like to push that away, to sort of become the American they want to be. It’s pretty confusing sometimes. You struggle with identity, with being looked down upon. I also feel like it takes a long time for a lot of people born of immigrant families to realize that their parents are working so hard for them. That’s what my parents did. They still work so hard. My dad still has two jobs. They do so much for our family. It’s hard to be in America and support the people around you and the people back at home.

With such a tremendous work ethic, what was their reaction when you told them you wanted to make a career as a musician?

I think probably after high school was when it started going south. Throughout my whole childhood, they’ve been super supportive. I played the trumpet for ten years and was very involved in school stuff like jazz and honor band. I was first chair and gave trumpet lessons to kids, too. That was very much my life. And my parents were so supportive, and they were like, “If you want to keep doing music, you gotta teach yourself and you gotta work hard. We can’t hold your hand.” They taught me that early on. I had to learn how to build my own stuff, how to fix my own things, because they couldn’t help me with that. But I think after high school, when I was deciding whether I should go to school for trumpet like a conservatory, I thought, “It’s a lot of money, and we’re not going to be able to afford it,” and I remember saying, “Mom and dad, I have to go to community college and I really want to study music production.” And they were like, “Yeah, that makes sense.” Of course my mom was like, “Can you still be a nurse though?” Two years of community college, and then that’s when [my debut] Turn Into happened, and I just immediately transitioned into this musician that tours all the time. And my parents were like, “Really? This is sustainable?” They asked me that all the time, especially my mom. She was like, “We’re proud of you and supportive. But are you OK financially?” And I was like, “It’s not as sustainable, but I can pay my rent now comfortably.”

With a title like Anak Ko, you are very confidently conveying that your family and culture are part of your artistic identity. But in this country, people in power want to put immigrants and immigrant families back in a place of otherness. Have you wrestled with this sort of discrimination and rhetoric?

It’s more important now than ever to recognize that racism is everywhere. Your friends can be racist and it’s important to have conversations with them. I literally had a conversation with one of my best friends the other day about some of the things he’s said, and it went really well. It’s important to call each other out, but in a very loving and respectful way, where you can talk about actively trying to put yourself in other people’s shoes. Empathy is so important—that’s really what’s lacking in this country. But yeah, that definitely seeps into my personal life and into my touring life too. I feel like a lot of musicians that are women of color, or even non-binary people that go on tour, are faced with so many challenges that white people who go on tour never even think of. Even just the way people treat us during sound checks. It’s something we need to have more conversations about, because I feel like people love to just push it down. FL


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