Melina and her doodle by Marissa Carpenter

Melina and her doodle (photo: Marissa Carpenter)

We got lost in Golden Gate Park looking for the Fairy Door.

It’s fairly easy to do, since that park is larger than anyone could really imagine. It’s like stepping into Narnia or something larger than itself. That’s kind of what Jay Som‘s music is like as well. An easy way to get lost in something bigger than yourself.

For Melina, that’s how it is as well. In the past year, her solo project has blossomed into something larger than herself. Everyone that knows her and has known her was expecting this for a while, but I don’t think anyone knew it would get this big this fast.

Melina is a passionate musician who’s been doing this for almost 13 years. She went from going to band camp to going on DIY tours and, soon, going on a North American tour with Mitski and Japanese Breakfast. She went from releasing all of her songs on her own and for only herself to re-releasing two older songs — “I Think You’re Alright” and “Rush” — on a new 7″ through Fat Possum. She went from never imagining an Asian queer woman like herself could get a deal like this or even go on tour with two other beyond talented Asian women.

While getting lost in Golden Gate Park, giving up on finding the mystical fairy door and instead going to try and find the ghost of Stow Lake, we had our own little adventure — much smaller than the one she’s about to embark on — and that’s not just the tour that she’s about to start, but the opportunities she’ll have that we’ve all yet to know. Like how she’s apparently getting signed to a very important and great label that no one will tell me the name of yet.

We kept getting lost, but soon enough, we found Stow Lake. We didn’t find any ghosts, though: only some fries and a billion ducks. We screamed with laughter at the ducks. It was easy for us to be comfortable with each other, making the following conversation even easier.

by Marissa Carpenter

(photo: Marissa Carpenter)

1. It makes sense that Jay Som is getting big. Melina has had a passion for music since very early on.

Melina Duterte: I was 10 years old and in fifth grade or something, so that’s when I first started playing the trumpet in the school band. And my teacher was, like, this really cool dude. He knew how to talk to children and how to teach music, too. Music was his passion and also the fact that he was a trumpet player made it easier for him to be one-on-one with me. I did that for eight years! I played trumpet for eight years. Played concert band, jazz band, and I was going to go to school to play trumpet and learn jazz but I didn’t.

Shout out to Mr. Morello for creating such a beautiful musician!

That’s, like, mostly when I knew I wanted to continue doing music, because there is more to it. Like I started learning guitar after learning trumpet. I took, like, lessons for literally two months and then THE GUY JUST LIKE MOVED. Gabe! He just moved! He was actually pretty cool. He was awkward, though. He would print out Green Day and Blink 182 tabs. Then he would always have this pencil on a music stand and then it would always fall off and then he’d turn around and his butt crack would show and he just did that all the time. So I just saw a lot of butt crack. That doesn’t matter anyway, but then I just learned myself. Did everything myself.

2. She writes everything on her own.

Melina: I think I seriously starting writing my own songs when I was 13. I wrote, like, joke songs. The very first song I wrote was about eating too much Taco Bell. Well that’s true now. So it still applies.

You should re-release it.

I should. A new version, ya know. It was so bad.

But when I was 13 was also when I started recording music. I guess I wanted to start doing something that no one else was doing. Not a lot of people were into recording music or making their own. I thought that was really cool. I was really fascinated with all the artists I was influenced by. I listened to a lot of Death Cab For Cutie, ya know, emo stuff as well. And I was like “I wanna do that” and I started practicing even more. In high school is when I got even more serious. I was like 16 or maybe 17 when I came up with Jay Som. Then I started releasing music on Bandcamp under that name.

3. Her music didn’t get out because she pushed it on people, but because they found it and shared it. 

Melina: I was pretty scared about releasing my own music and showing people. But I had a Myspace page, and I didn’t really show anyone. It was mostly my close friends I would send my music to. And it was for myself and my other friends too. There’s, like, no pressure because your friends always like your stuff.

When did you start sharing music outside of your friend group?

When I released this track called, I think it was “Forget About it Kid,” and someone uploaded it on YouTube, without asking me, but that’s OK. That got me some coverage from people in different countries. It was cool! A lot of people from Indonesia. They were messaging me like, ‘You need to make more music, this is cool.’ It was like ‘Hugs from this place…This place…This place.’ That, like, weirded me out, because I was used to only my friends listening to my music. After that I started regularly releasing tracks, like once a month. It started getting better and better, and I guess I started gathering more attraction. More people started putting things on YouTube. I made a Facebook for it. But I wasn’t taking it seriously. I always just thought I was just doing this for fun. Like, yeah, there’s some people who listen to my music, and I’m making it for them, but I never thought it would be like this.

4. She’s only been playing her solo project live in the last year. 

Melina: Last year, in Oakland, for a secret show festival, and I just remember it being really bad because we didn’t practice as much. I’ve performed in a bunch of bands beforehand. I know how it is to perform, I know about shows, but when it’s your own music and you are the front-person, there’s, like, a different type of pressure and kind of uncomfortable situation that you can get in when it’s your music.

[It’s] just nerve-wracking and I wasn’t very comfortable playing live and singing. But then we stopped for a couple months, and then we got back together in January with a new lineup. And it’s been nice ever since. It’s good to see how the music translates live.

5. Did I say she does everything initially by herself, for herself? 

Melina: I think that’s my favorite part of what I’m doing now, playing Jay Som. Like, I like playing live and hanging out with other bands, but the recording process is the most enjoyment I get out of making music, too. I think it’s nice that you take control of the situation because it’s only you. You don’t have to have anyone else’s opinion besides yourself and it takes a lot of critical thinking, because you are also writing the music. But when you’re recording it, you also worry about, like, ‘Does this sound good?’ You start to compare it to other people’s music as well. But it’s fun.

Is it a release for you; a personal or creative release?

Oh yeah, music, writing and recording it, and doing it in general is very cathartic for me, because I have a very hard time with expressing my emotions through words. Ya know, like talking to people, I have a hard time with that. Doing that through music, with lyrics, even with poetry and playing instruments and recording that, is a release itself. It has just helped me, all of it. Listening to it as well. It’s always there for you.

How long does it usually take you to write a song?

Usually I have an idea that pops into my head. Usually the best ideas are the ones that come up randomly. Like I’ll just be sitting in my car and I’ll think of a melody line or a bass hook. Then I record it on my iPhone; keep it in my voice memos. Then I’ll go home — I have a notebook where I write everything. Just like a stream-of-consciousness writing. Just phrases or words; a theme of the song. Mostly I just start with a chord progression and from there on, I write it. Lyrics are always last. It’s hard to convey emotions, and putting it in musical form can be even harder. Because I feel like writing music and showing it to people is when you’re most vulnerable. Then I start layering more with instruments and then I get the general idea, and then I record it. Then I rock out! Rock out with my socks out.

6. The upcoming tour with Mitski is her first tour as Jay Som, and first major North American Tour. 

Melina: It is! This is going to be, the first official big tour that I am going to go on. I’ve been on three DIY tours with Summer Peaks. The first one was in the Pacific Northwest, we went to Washington and Oregon and California. Second one, same thing, and around California. The last one was mostly Northern and Southern California. It’s very tedious setting up shows for tours, by yourself, even if you have the help of three other people that are in your band. You have to do it months before, most of the time people don’t email you back, because you’re unknown or they’re really busy or they’re like, ‘Yeah, let’s set something up’ and three months later they’re like, ‘Hey, it fell through,’ or the venue’s gone or don’t want to set it up for you. A lot of bad things happen, but they’re usually fun because you’re with your friends and you meet a lot of fun people that are also doing their DIY touring.

But on this next tour, you’re not really going to be with your friends.

Yeah! I am going to be myself. I think my manager, Chad, is the only person who’s going to be there for the first show then we’re gonna hit the road. I am OK with that; I love meeting new people. I completely admire Mitski and Japanese Breakfast. They’re incredible and I am just going to see them for free! That’s great.

7. She’s not only in one great band, but two. 

Melina: Well, the first one ever was Summer Peaks. Zach, Daniel, and Dylan are in it. I’ve known Daniel and Zach since high school. We’ve all been playing music together for a long time. We were in band together, and jazz combos together. We just, like, always played music together and then one summer, which was the year I graduated, we were just like, “Let’s just start a band.” We all listened to the same music. We all played guitar, bass, or drums. We just went from there.

After that, I joined a folk group, but it was very short-lived. I played bass for it. It was kind of like Fleet Foxes. It was cool, two dudes with beards and me, playing very emotional folk music. It wasn’t my thing, but it was really fun to be in. I’ve done collaborations with people but those always fall through. Right now I am also helping out Fil from Future Shapes by playing bass, and that’s fun. Actually I haven’t been in that many bands but I think that’s nice though. Since I know people who are in two or more bands and they’re juggling that while working. Most of the time it’s like they’re playing music that’s made by one person in the band, so you don’t get the much creative control.

It also seems scarier when it is your music.

Yeah, but it’s also really nice to work with the guys that are helping me out with Jay Som, because I’ve played with them for so long and they have a lot of experience with being in other bands. It’s really easy too, because I’m just like, ‘All right, listen to these songs, get a feel of it,’ and then we get together I just teach them their parts and they put their own spin to it. Like they have their own sound and style; I trust them with that too. I try to not be too controlling of it as well, but if it’s your own project you want it to sound good.

8. This tour is a dream come true for her.

Melina: I think I’m most excited to go to Canada, because I’ve never been and I only hear good things about it. I hear people are nice there. To be honest I am just excited in general but I’m extremely nervous. I’ve just been practicing constantly.

When I found out about it, it was like 8 in the morning and Chad calls me, and he’s like “Hey,” and I’m like, “Hey, I just woke up.” [He says] “So I got some good news. You’re going to go on the Mitski tour.” I think he said “I’d like to formally offer you to play the Mitski summer tour.” And I was like “What!?” I sat up in my bed, I was like waking up, and was like, “This is too much, Chad.” It was very surprising and still hasn’t hit me yet, even though it’s, like, really close. She’s very nice though. From that one time I met her, [she’s] very elegant, articulate, intelligent, she’s so sweet, her music is amazing. It’s an honor to be a part of this.

9. Look at what she doodled! 

Jay Som doodle

10. You can see her live, with the full band, for one last time before she heads off on tour this Saturday.

Trails and Ways, Hazel English, Jay Som
Swedish American Hall
June 4, 2016
7:30pm, $18