Comfort, Change, and Tenderness: Jay Som on Her Dazzling New Album Anak Ko

Dusty Henry
photo by Lindsey Byrnes

The title of Jay Som’s new record, Anak Ko, translates to “my child” in Tagalog. It’s a phrase Melina Duterte, the mastermind songwriter/producer behind the project, says she’s heard her mother call her all her life. A term of endearment, of love and comfort. Duterte describes the title as a “blanket around the record.” For an album birthed from change, tying it together with something warm and familiar feels like an understandable choice.

In the last two years, Duterte has uprooted herself from her hometown of Oakland, Calif. and set off for Los Angeles. Coupled with eight months of touring, writing, and pursuing a multitude of projects, Duterte is anything but idle. Her life and environment have changed, and naturally, the music will flow in that direction as well.

Jay Som’s last record, Everybody Works, moved in a breathless, dreamlike haze. Duterte’s voice and instrumentation would meld together, held together by a beautiful sonic gauze made up of tasteful reverb, adventurous home studio production, and impeccable songwriting.

In contrast, Anak Ko practically bursts from the speakers. Less amorphous than its predecessor, the album is Duterte’s most immediate work. From the opening jagged bass and guitar notes on “If You Want It,” the album exudes a newfound physicality to the Jay Som sound. Everybody Works certainly had moments with stellar grooves like the pop wonder of “Baybee” and the gnarly riffs of “1 Billion Dogs,” but Anak Ko takes the musical premise of those songs a step further with added clarity and punchier execution.

Duterte credits this to bringing in collaborators – something she’s hardly ever done on a Jay Som record – particularly her drummer and longtime friend Zachary Elasser. Throughout the project’s existence, Jay Som has largely been a solo project. However, Duterte is not a stranger to collaboration. Her 2018 Nothing Changes EP with Justus Proffit is an obvious example. More and more she’s finding herself working on other people’s records, having produced Chastity Belt’s upcoming record, engineered Sasami’s debut LP, and had a guest appearance on Stephen Steinbrink’s Utopia Teased. After touring with a band behind Everybody Works, there was an energy to those live performance she wanted to harness on Anak Ko.

Impressively, Anak Ko continues Duterte’s streak of home-recorded albums. While certainly home recording is not a new idea and is frequently used by artists in the “indie rock” sphere, Duterte continues to prove herself a master of her form. For her, it’s all about comfort. She’s been in studios and worked in studios with other artists, but recording at home is what feels natural. Listening to Anak Ko, you’d be hard-pressed to disagree with her choice. It’s easy to listen to the record and just marvel at her studio wizardry.

Her music has never sounded brighter, more immediate, or this pristine. The power-pop polish of “Superbike” and the blissed-out banger “Devotion” rival any Top 40 spectacle, while the guttural rocker “Peace Out” and the acoustic surge of “Crown” showcase just how much bite her songwriting packs. All that’s before we say anything about the experimental brilliance of the title track or the stirring country twang of closer “Get Well.”

In talking with Duterte, she exudes a palpable sense of pride in her latest work. On a constant quest to improve her skills as a songwriter and producer, we’re once again treated to an adventurous and gorgeous suite of Jay Som material. Her sound continues to change and grow, but she’s consistent in crafting records that sound spectacular and backed with tender, honest songwriting.

Anak Ko is out today on Polyvinyl Records.


KEXP: There's been a lot of change in your life, most notably you were [previously] based in Oakland and now you're in L.A. What prompted the move further south?

Melina Duterte: I mean, I've been living in The Bay area my whole life. I feel like it was always in the cards to just move somewhere else. At the time when I was touring and I got signed and 'Everybody Works' came out, I was already thinking about moving to L.A. I have so much family here and some friends too. And it just made sense too because there's something so special about being in LA as a musician.

There's so much entertainment here and there's so many shows and it's easy to be really inspired by other people. There's so many musicians and a lot of people, like friends and touring musicians that are always in town. So it's really cool to catch up with people that way and make so many connections. I do love The Bay, though. I'm definitely gonna die there. 

You've mentioned before this strong musical community in The Bay that you were a part of. When you moved to L.A., did that change your creative process at all? Just being around different people and a different environment?

Yeah, I thought it would change it in kind of a negative way. It's like a tale as old as time – someone that gets marginally successful moves to L.A. because they "make it," but that wasn't the case. I feel like moving here has been such a huge positive impact on my writing and opened the door for collaborating with different musicians; which is something I haven't done before. It's been such a chill experience living here. I think that I'll have a lot more to learn about writing and doing sessions with people and just other stuff like that, but I feel it's definitely pushed me and motivated me to become a better musician.

It's been about two years now since 'Everybody Works' came out. You did the EP with Justus Proffit, you've worked on other projects with other artists. You've worked on the Sasami and Chastity Belt records. You were on the Stephen Steinbrink record. Do you feel like working on these different projects in this in-between album period has informed how you make your own music? 

I feel like the more you put yourself out there and work with different people... like in my case, I was a lot more interested in producing people and I recorded and mixed a lot of EPs throughout the years since 'Everybody Works' and I've learned so much from each session and projects I've had with those friends. Because everyone brings something new to the table and I think that's also why I wanted to implement different people into the record too. It's just like different perspectives for music that's so valuable, in a sense.

You worked with a few different people on this new record and most of your records have been just you for the most part. Was that a big change in dynamics in the studio? I mean, you recorded it primarily at home it sounds like. How did that kind of change the minutia of recording having these other factors involved?

That was the first time that I've had other players play on my records for Jay Som because I've recorded people before and I've had experience with telling people what to do or just hitting record and recording for people and sort of learning that way. But I think it was a really different experience recording with myself because I feel like you kind of get sucked into being a perfectionist when you're by yourself and you're not able to look at yourself outside of your work. And it can prolong the process. I think that's kind of what happened to me at the beginning of the demo process. I was like, 'Man, I cannot hear myself play drums anymore.' [laughs]

I didn't have enough time and practice and whatnot because of scheduling for touring and I just know too many people that are so good at music and bring so much to the table and it just made sense to ask my friends to play on the record – especially my touring bandmates that I've known for such a long time. Especially Zach, who played drums, I've known him since he was 14 and I've always felt like a really special connection musically with him. I feel like he really brought a lot of the record alive.


It's even interesting just seeing your live shows on 'Everybody Works' versus the record, it's the same songs but the feeling is different when you have different people performing it. Was there a certain energy that you had in the live show that you were looking to bring to the new record?

From other people's perceptions, they've told me that there's a lot more energy and a group dynamic that's not in the studio – which is really cool. I kind of like that separation from live and studio. 'Cause the cool thing about making a record or just recording yourself is that you can do whatever you want and then when you play it live, you can also do whatever you want. You just have a choice there, but there's like no doubt that there's a different sort of like energy and dynamic with a live band. It was really important to have Zach on it, especially 'cause he's like the foundation of a lot of the songs.

The writing for the record sounds like it started with yourself. You went to Joshua Tree for about a week. What kind of prompted that and what did you get out of that experience?

I had a moment when I moved to L.A. where I was like, "I'm so distracted right now, there's so much to do. There are shows every week and there's so many friends here that I want to talk to. You just walk outside and you have so much to do. So it was really distracting and in my head, I was like, "Can I do the corny thing that everyone does in L.A. where they go to Joshua Tree? Where they escape to the desert?" And I did. And, honestly, it was really fun. I just got this Air BnB for about six days and at that point, I already had all of the drums recorded. So I did most of the writing for the lyrics and I did a lot of like the bass and guitar tracks and some other things. 

So did you just kind of bring a small setup with you? Like a laptop sort of thing?

Yeah, I pretty much brought everything except for my drum kit.

When you were out there, did you have a – for lack of a better word – "ritual" to each day? Or [ a way] you kept yourself focused on the writing process and inspired? What was your mindset throughout those six days?

My mindset... I was very peaceful and I didn't want to force anything or be too ambitious. It's like undeniable the sort of like change and shifts there's been with this third album. I just feel like there are more people listening and there's no doubt that that's the case. Sometimes it does affect the way I think about my music and how creative I am, but this time I remember thinking, "I have a choice. I can be super experimental." Like, when artists choose to be super experimental for no reason – just because it's like a different album and they want to do something different. Or just like stick to my guns and do what I love the most, which is just trying to be a better musician and make a song that's better than the last one.


I think that makes a lot of sense. When you're like, "I know for a fact more people are listening."  But having that kind of ambition – and the album does feel ambitious in a lot of really cool ways. When you're keeping that in mind very like because the first in history got to mean you kind of alluded this to is just the immediacy and the physicality of the music where 'Everybody Works' felt like this dreamy, ephemeral space. 'Anak Ko' has these big thumping drums and bass lines,  really immediately just like on the first track ["If You Want It"]. That sounds like an intentional shift in this direction for something bigger sounding, or more direct.

Yeah, it was definitely more intentional to be a little bigger and a lot of that came from having really good drummers play on the record. It's so much easier to record a really good drummer and then mix them too because you can have a different perspective and you can tweak with that more. I think that's a thing that connects with the live set. Trying to emulate that. Like when you see a live gig and you hear the thumping drums and the bass and it's played pretty loud and it gets like the energy moving throughout the night... I really wanted to make that kind of a theme throughout the record. Just like super upfront music.

What's cool is that you have that feeling but – I don't know if it comes from the desert – you don't lose that introspective, inward feeling that kind of comes through in a lot of your music. The thoughtfulness in the lyrics and the way you sing the songs. Was it difficult at all trying to balance those ideas of this introspective songwriting versus "raw" or "live" sound?

Yeah, I've been more conscious of the way my instruments come off to people and also mostly how my vocals come off to people. I think I've always been like a fan of sitting the vocals back because I view them as an instrument – something that's kind of floating there. It doesn't always necessarily have to be up front. But I think for this record, I wasn't intentionally trying to like have the vocals be a little more up front and center. I was trying different things with the arrangements and songwriting and I was chopping and splitting stuff up and doing that... What is that phrase? Killing your darlings? Like the favorite parts of what you've created.[55.2s]

I'm an admirer of you as a musician but also as a producer. You've stuck with the home recording approach [on this record]. What makes you want to go back to that model? What do you get out of that approach that you feel like you can't get through like a traditional studio?

Definitely comfort. I've been in studios before but I've never been in studios for my project and I think there's just a big part of me that can't let that go. This sort of like control and comfort that's so important to me because I think one of my favorite parts about writing music is the fact that I can just record in that moment and I could start building tracks. Because like a lot of the times I'll hear it in my head. I'll hear all the parts and I just want to record it. It's kind of annoying thinking about setting up studio time and then being like, "Alright, you're going to go in there in two months!" 

It sounds so crazy to me because I think like, "I'm going to have different ideas. How can I do that? I don't know if I am going to get along with this person" or anything like that. But I've been slowly making baby steps towards like having better knowledge about audio production and outboard gear and toying different effects and stuff like that and just trying to get better at music production. Because that's, to me, one of the most important parts of playing music. Personally.

Change and finding peace seemed to be themes that come up again on the record. You mentioned that music was kind of your center during this time as your world was shifting. What role was music playing in your life as you're your world was changing and how did that play into the album?

Yeah, music was becoming my entire life during the making of 'Anak Ko.' I think I just came off that eight-month tour from the 'Everybody Works' cycle. We were just constantly on the road. We were doing so many one-offs. I was just introduced – or not even introduced – I was thrust into the world of like press and navigating that was super difficult because you're kind of in the spotlight to talk about your work in a way that is so public.

I just remember being this super young person, just really wide-eyed and excited but ultimately super scared about everything. But that slowly became a little better. I feel like a completely different person now. I feel more like... I've grown to love music in a different way. Kind of accepting that there's also the business side to music and there's "music-music" side to it where it's like the art and the creativity. And then there's also like music with different connections with people and how it affects your relationships with your bandmates and things like that. So I'm constantly thinking about it. Even when I'm on a break, I'll be like trying to listen to music for homework and sometimes it feels like a chore. But I think that it's something that I've learned to not be too consumed by. It can get kind of dangerous, in a sense.


The title 'Anak Ko' in Tagalog translates to "my child." With the themes of change and peace on this record, I'm curious why that title stuck out to you. I know you'd mentioned a text from your parents prompted that. I'm curious how you feel how thematically that connects with this collection of songs. 

I've always felt like titles didn't really matter to me. I just came up with them, just 'cause. Or I took them from a lyric and I've been like, "Yeah, whatever. It's the title." But this is the first time where I felt like a sort of comfort and warmth and meaning behind it. It feels good. It's kind of like this blanket around the whole album. That phrase has been said to me by my mom for my entire life. Just the way she greets me all the time. Just asking me how I am, she's like, "Hi Anak Ko, how are you?" or "Hi, Anak Ko! I miss you!" Just stuff like that.

In a sense too, it translates to "my child" and I always thought that was a funny kind of metaphor for birthing a child. I know some musicians that think of releasing music that way too. Kind of like you spend too much time nurturing this thing and then you release it out into the world and you don't know how people are going to respond to it. So things like that. Like it grows. Or doesn't. I don't know.

That's a really interesting metaphor for an album. You've birth this thing and then it is going to exist and it's going to change and how people perceive it and whatnot. Has your relationship changed with the record at all since finishing it and as you're starting to talk about it as it's kind of growing?

It definitely fluctuates throughout the years. Right now, I have a pretty good relationship with it. I'm not hating it. I feel like there are some moments I have with my albums where I'm like, "Oh my God. What the hell was I thinking! Why did I do that? Why did I write that?" And then sometimes I'm like, "This is pretty good!" And I'll be proud of it. Right now, since it hasn't been released, I'm super antsy and excited for people to listen to it. Because I am very proud of it and they think that it showcases my personality is like a snapshot of what's been going on in my life right now post-'Everybody Works.' I'm just excited, mostly.

You've mentioned before that also in this period that you fell in love too and I'm sure that had an impact to some degree on the album, maybe?

Yeah, I mean that's like some undeniable stuff [laughs]. You can't not write about it or be inspired by love, as corny as it sounds. It makes the world go round. Definitely flipped my world upside down. It's great.

The title track, "Anak Ko," I think it's one of your most ambitious sounding songs to date. I love the production and the musical elements you add, especially in that last half. Large swaths of sounds and brash drum. But also hearing you talk about that title and what it means to you, I'm just curious what that song symbolizes for you and how it fits into the record? It feels tranquil but also chaotic at the same time. 

I like that you say chaotic because it's definitely a chaotic song. Welcome to my sick, twisted mind! Just kidding. The title 'Anak Ko' has really nothing to do with the song. I feel like I just wanted to name it that song because it'd be funny. It's like the opposite of what the song is. I wanted to emulate Portishead. I got into some Bjork stuff and then some Radiohead stuff [laughs]. Just the classic weird music stuff that's not weird at all but just wanted to toy around with that.

Oliver, my guitarist, came in to do a lot of the guitar work on it because originally the demo was just the drum machine, bass, vocals, and the acoustic guitar and I didn't know what else to do for the song. I was going scrap it because I was like, "Oh, this shit sucks." Oliver came in and I was like, "Get your pedals out." And we just like worked on his Eventide Pitchfactor Pedal. We just like messed with that a bunch for like an afternoon and distilled the songs into like this huge chaotic sound. And I ended up liking it. 

I love the way you use honesty in your music. You've stopped drinking and it seems like the closing song, "Get Well,"  kind of addresses that too. But the way you do it is in this very straightforward kind of way. It's just really beautiful, open-ended approach. Why did you decide to end the song with this track?

I don't have much time to think about it, but I think my immediate response to that is I think it just sounds like a closer. I couldn't put it anywhere else. It was just very meaningful to me. It's kind of like an open-ended letter to a friend of mine... And it just sounded like a closing song to me. It just made sense to put it there. Especially with that pedal steel. There's something really mysterious and ghostly to the pedal steel that felt like such a cool way to end an album. It's a calming song and I really like ending albums that way.

Going through this process, the time leading up to the record, making the record; do you feel like there's anything that sticks out that you feel like you got out of this record and what you're maybe hoping other people get out of it as well? 

I think I'd sort of accepted that albums don't define me. They don't define my sound and they won't define how I make music in the future. It's less confusing and mysterious now to release albums and see what happens. I kind of have an idea and I feel more at peace making music. I think that I feel less crazy now [laughs]. It's just been a really, really positive experience. I hope that people find their own connection. I never want anyone to listen to my music in a certain way. I wouldn't want them to take my meaning literally for any song. They can just have it. That's their thing.

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