“What’s that song playing outside?” asks Jay Som, aka Melina Duterte.
The crowd at her debut Brisbane show was confused: is she referring to the grunge cover band bleeding through the windows, or the bass of the karaoke night thumping through the floorboards of The Foundry?
“We should play one of those songs, too,” she jokes before humming the grunge song that momentarily catches her attention.
The Californian musician is likely used to blocking out the noise of the outside world, as per Duterte’s origins. Despite the black soundproofing foam lining the walls of her bedroom/studio, muffled sounds succeed in appearing on recordings. However, the crackles of conversations, chuckling, and phone buzzing aren’t intrusions, but instead add to Jay Som’s lo-fi charm.
In the public imagination, lo-fi and home recording is the realm of outcasts, those whose ideas are spurned by the record industry for being too avant-garde or amateurish, but attracting cult followings for their simple and innocent charms.
Where bursts of tape hiss hid the amateur musicianship of her lo-fi forebears, Duterte is an adept musician. On The Foundry’s stage just a few weeks ago, she switched between roaring alt-rock guitar to stretching her fingers across the frets of her bass. While her first two albums feature her as the sole musician. Computers have also superseded tape-machines, making home-recording accessible and affordable, and Duterte’s education in audio engineering provided her with the skillset to create something bigger than hiding in the bathroom and recording the soft picking of an acoustic guitar. What has remained consistent is the isolation leading to home recording; for Duterte, it’s the isolation of financial instability.
Like most millennials, Duterte had resigned herself to a dire financial fate and isolating saving methods before her debut Jay Som release. Even with the internet providing access to a wider audience, the pitiful royalties of streaming services don’t offer confidence, making a career as a working-class independent musician a Sisyphean task. “I was at this weird point in my life where I was like, ‘Why am I doing this music thing? I love it, but it’s not financially viable for me’,” she told Pitchfork about uploading her debut to Bandcamp on a drunken whim while living with her parents, no expectations of her hobby becoming a career.
Millennial hardships helped inform Duterte’s second release as Jay Som, 2018’s Everybody Works. The album’s title track is an ode to the daily grind, featuring the lyric: “Try to make ends meet / Penny pinch till I’m dying / Everybody works”. “It was this repeated mantra that I had in my head throughout that time that helped me move along,” she told Time Out. “Accepting that you have to work to get to where you want to.”
Jay Som’s gorgeous fuzz rock may have caught the attention, but the growing success is down to Duterte’s hard work ethic and fans relating to her millennial woes. Since debuting in 2016, Jay Som has released three albums, with last year’s Anak Ko allowing Duterte to move out of the isolation of her childhood bedroom to collaborate with her peers in a professional recording studio. She has also toured constantly, recently making her live Australian debut.
At Jay Som’s Brisbane show, fans’ attention was firmly in place throughout the entire set. “This next one is about riding the bus,” mumbled Duterte before ‘The Bus Song’. The introduction was enough to elicit excited gasps and cheers, fans swaying to the song’s strolling rhythm. Her murmurs were clear, but the volume grew when the entire room shouted, “But I like the bus!”, drowning out the intruding noise from earlier. While Jay Som was born from isolation and anxiety, and her fans likely share those feelings, the gathering glowed with a communal joy, everyone feeling less alone.
The reviewer attended the show at The Foundry, Brisbane on February 22nd.
Photo Credit: Lindsey Byrnes