Jay Som is just the opener, but the gossamer guitar chords that begin “I Think You’re Alright” elicit nevertheless delighted murmurs of recognition from the audience.
It’s a Friday night earlier this month at Oakland’s Starline Social Club and the San Francisco songwriter Melina Duterte is midway through a tour supporting noted East Coast indie-rock acts Mitski and Japanese Breakfast, inspiring the capacity crowd to greet her agile vocal melodies with the sort of rapturous applause usually reserved for headliners.
That suits the steep incline of Jay Som’s short career so far. Eight months ago, emboldened by three glasses of wine, Duterte uploaded a then-untitled set of nine “finished and unfinished songs” to Bandcamp. Listeners, sharing and celebrating the material, greeted those home-recordings as an album. Labels took note. Untitled — which Duterte recorded and performed by herself at home — became Turn Into, a limited tape release on Topshelf Records. And last week it was announced that Turn Into is also to be Jay Som’s debut full-length for prominent San Francisco label Polyvinyl Records.
Jay Som songs can feel wistful or optimistic, depending on whether Duterte lingers in her smoky, low register or veers upward. Intricate guitar melodies — which abound on Turn Into, at times conjoining into fingerpicked harmonies that evoke Elliott Smith — convey a similarly broad emotional range: skulking on the downcast “Ghost” but flaring, siren-like, for the fraught romance of “Next to Me.” Throughout, Turn Into maintains subtly distressed fidelity, a gauzy overcoat that feels deliberate and cultivated, in the style of Tindersticks, rather than neglectful.
Duterte, 22, explained in an interview in June that she wrote and recorded the songs on Turn Into in her late teens. At her parents’ house, the noise curfew was 11 pm. To make room for drums in her bedroom, she removed the bed. Duterte told me that the lyrics reflect a time of newfound confidence and knowledge, yet it’s largely trepidation and fear, punctuated by flashes of anger, that characterize the material. “Being scared is a huge theme of the album,” she said. “But towards the end — actually, I don’t know. I was going to say there’s a sense of acceptance, but I don’t think there is.”
Duterte grew up in the East Bay suburb of Brentwood, the daughter of Filipino immigrants who made a nightly ritual of living-room karaoke. (Her standby? Hopeful Annie staple “Tomorrow,” at the behest of her mother.) In high school, she played trumpet in jazz band and, at home, studied great improvisers such as Miles Davis and Lou Mitchell, whose melodic ingenuity seems to inform the inventive leads on Turn Into. At the same time, she learned to write and record songs as Jay Som, a moniker coined by an online baby-name generator that means “victory moon.” Importantly, she also learned to share them, at first through MySpace, then Bandcamp and Soundcloud.
Duterte planned on going the conservatory route after high school, continuing her formal study of jazz trumpet, but songwriting overtook her focus. “One day I was sitting in my room, recording and writing a song, and I thought, ‘This is what I want to do — for a long time,’” she said. “The song was called, ‘See You Later.’” So, she went to community college for two years to study music production and recording, simultaneously making inroads in San Francisco with an indie-rock group composed of longtime Brentwood friends, Summer Peaks. “There was one month when I came here to the city every single weekend,” she said. “That basically made the decision to move pretty easy and obvious.”
Duterte moved to San Francisco last September. Two months later, she uploaded what would become Turn Into, which reached Noise Pop talent buyer and Salty Artist Management agent Chad Heimann. The connection laid the groundwork for Jay Som’s tour with Mitski (who’s also represented by Salty) and Japanese Breakfast, a lineup significant to Duterte not least for the fact that they’re all women of Asian descent. “The fact that young Asian-American girls have this representation on stage and that the music is so good — that’s amazing,” she said. “I didn’t have that when I was a teenager.”
The Polyvinyl rerelease of Turn Into brings to mind the story of Car Seat Headrest, who last year signed to Matador Records on the strength of a slew of home-recordings originally self-released on Bandcamp. Prominent indie labels — whose traditional gatekeeping role sometimes seems undermined by organically viral, unsigned artists — appear increasingly eager to lend their stamp to previously self-released material.
“The reason we’re rereleasing [Turn Into] is because the manager and the record label convinced me that we need to give it love,” Duterte said. “It’s a little awkward, because those songs were made so long ago. It was a different time in my life. I didn’t intend the songs to be consumed so widely.”
Just how widely are they being heard? At press time, Duterte's currently soundchecking for her show in Portland, Maine, on the opposite end of the country.