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Jay Som Opened Up Her Creative Process And Made Her Most Intimate Album Yet

Melina Duterte was sick of the boom boom tiss. The 25-year-old creative force behind Jay Som had built a dedicated following after releasing a pair of thoughtful yet accessible self-recorded albums, on which she plays every instrument and serves as producer. One of her most endearing gifts is how nimbly she weaves through styles, dipping into Steely Dan-inspired reverie ahead of swirling dream-pop; the crashing, rocky entrance of her drum kit on the beloved “The Bus Song” is an undeniable highlight. Also undeniable: Duterte’s prowess as a one-woman band, tackling guitar, bass, trumpet, accordion, keyboards, and piano, in addition to writing all the lyrics and melodies. But going it alone could only take her so far.

“I just got so tired of hearing myself play the drums,” Duterte told MTV News. “I love it, but I think for the rest of my music career, I’d rather have a drummer play on my records now.”

Getting good at the drums is intensely physical, often punishing, and quite loud. Unless you’re a rhythmic prodigy of the YouTube kind, you’re cacophonous for a long time before you can bang out anything resembling a proper groove. Duterte, though, is a great drummer — just listen to the sparkle of “Everybody Works.” But it’s hard to keep a kit in a shared living space, which Duterte had to manage. So she thought of a simple concept: Her touring drummer and childhood pal Zachary Elsasser could handle some tracks on her next record. “He will just give you so many options. It’s just limitless,” she said.

And so he did. And so did others. Anak Ko, the third album by Jay Som, released in late August via Polyvinyl, finds Duterte pulling off a tricky feat: Though she’s widened her circle of collaborators to include Elsasser and other members of her touring band, Vagabon‘s Laetitia Tamko on vocals, past creative partner Justus Proffit, and more, Anak Ko feels downright sparse and more inward than her previous work. All it took was a little perspective.

“I was like, I know I gotta be way less self-deprecating if I have other people on here because when you produce your own stuff and you engineer and track it, you have a better say in telling people what to do when they’re playing the music,” she said. “You kind of look at yourself from the outside.”

The album’s first single, shimmering fever dream “Superbike,” set the stage for such expansion. With Elsasser on drums and Oliver Pinnell on guitar, Duterte’s voice glides along the top of the track, ultimately floating away before she finishes in mid-thought: “Gonna breathe until you’re gone / Gonna breathe until you’re…” Its accompanying impressionistic video finds Duterte and some friends in the desert, a nod to Anak Ko‘s genesis in Joshua Tree, California. Duterte spent six days there writing the material. She didn’t make a mood board, but recording afterward, she used “cinematic words” — the kind this piece is likely too full of, like “jangly guitars” — to steer the overall vibe of each track.

It translates. “Tenderness” is indeed tender. “Peace Out” harbors the kind of boiling venom that pairs with its title kiss-off. “Nighttime Drive,” meanwhile, has the languid air of a midnight gas-station run or, say, daydreaming about “shoplifting at the Whole Foods” while gazing out a tour van window. Every song is personal by virtue of having been written by Duterte crystallizing a specific moment in time. Still, Anak Ko feels even more intimate for the songwriter, something she designed right down to the title.

“I was browsing through my text messages with my mom, and she always greets me in this phrase in Tagalog called ‘anak ko,’ which is ‘my child,'” she said. “Like, ‘How are you, anak ko?’ It’s just this very warming kind of phrase. I thought it was also funny to name an album ‘my child’ because I’ve talked to a lot of musicians that view the release of their album as like birthing a child in a funny way, metaphorically speaking.”

The song “Anak Ko” also shows off one of its album’s boldest departures yet for Duterte as an artist: the elevated directness of her actual singing voice, which she views as just another instrument. Jay Som has played dozens of live shows diligently and regularly since 2016, and the added scrutiny of PA systems and microphones, as well as the live reactions, made her more aware of her voice. Making Anak Ko, she was feeling herself. So she boosted her levels. “This sort of conscious decision to make my vocals more upfront, it’s more of like, I’m less scared of hiding my voice in a sense,” she said.

The added crispness lends “Peace Out” additional menace and the gently sweeping “Get Well” an almost last-call singalong quality, despite Duterte delivering her vocals in a hushed whisper. Then again, any Jay Som gig is bound to contain at the very least one essential shout-along moment (“but I like the bus!“); at stops along the Anak Ko tour, which kicks off September 11 in Phoenix, it’s not hard to picture crowds lifting their voices for the soft vowels of “Superbike”‘s wordless chorus.

Those same fans may not have the pleasure of reading Duterte’s tour tweets anymore — she’s largely ceded the official Jay Som Twitter and Instagram accounts to promotional messages, save for the occasional culinary dispatch — but she still marvels at the value of that direct connection with fans. “It’s so weird how posting a picture with a caption means that people are going to come to your shows that night, and it’s so powerful that way,” she said, though she followed it up with some reservations.

“I definitely like not using [social media] as much lately, and I’m a little more scared of it for personal reasons,” Duterte notes before noting her status as a moderate lurker. “Otherwise I love memes and other stupid shit like that.” In September 2017 for example, right before Jay Som kicked off a run of more than 30 shows throughout North America, Duterte tweeted out a simple plea for some drum lessons. “I need help with the boom boom tiss,” she wrote. She eventually got that help, of course, and Anak Ko is a testament to it.

But back then, one fan replied in earnest, “I’ve been learning drums playing to ‘Everybody Works,'” demonstrating one of the simple wonders social media can still bring. Duterte knew the struggle of mastering the boom boom tiss. She liked the tweet.

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