How a Term of Endearment From Her Mother Inspired Jay Som's New Album

Jay Som
Lindsey Byrnes

Jay Som

After making a splash with Everybody Works in 2017, singer-songwriter-producer Melina Duterte is back as Jay Som with Anak Ko. The title means "my child" in Tagalog, and as a child of Filipino immigrants, it's a phrase her mother often uses when talking to her. That "puts a comfy blanket on the record," Duterte tells Billboard one afternoon after stopping by our offices for a vibrant Stereogum Session.

Even if she is in a more positive headspace on Anak Ko, Jay Som's music still conveys a diverse, resonant range of emotions, whether touching on DIY electronica, bedroom pop or lo-fi rock. The shambolic quality of her music is, in many ways, a mask – the song structures and her command of melody on Anak Ko betray an innate knack for composition.   

From moving to Los Angeles to resisting the pull of a hi-tech studio to how she got a hula-hooping alien in her music video, here's what Jay Som has to say about her second album.

I want to start with the album title, Anak Ko – that's a term in the Philippines, right?

My parents are Filipino immigrants, they moved over in their twenties. I grew up in America but was raised by them and was very much in touch with my Filipino heritage. I don’t speak Tagalog but I understand it completely. Which is very frustrating as a Filipino person.

Did you specifically want to bring your heritage to the forefront on this one?

I didn't want to name it after lyrics or titles of a song, so I just looked at a bunch of texts my mom and I were sending. She loves to greet me, "Hi anak ko," "what's going on anak ko?" It's a very endearing term or phrase Filipino parents tell their children. Any parent tells their child 'hey sweetie, hey honey boo,' so it puts a comfy blanket on the record.

Does this feel like a comfy blanket of a record to you?

It does feel comfy to me. It sounds like music I love making now. It's recent to my musical taste and what I want to show people.

You recorded this at home after moving to L.A. After the success of Everybody Works, which you also recorded at home, you probably could've upgraded to a big studio. Was it important not to do that?

I think I just wanted to keep doing it myself out of convenience and money. Studios are so expensive. I just want to continue getting better at music production. I love teaching myself things. It's really rewarding. I can be by myself and watch YouTube videos and read articles –

Wait, you actually learn from the YouTube tutorials?

Yeah, tutorials. It's so corny but it works! You need to visually see how someone else does it.

How do you feel about living in L.A.?

I love L.A. It's changed my perspective on music in a positive way. I get to be around like-minded people who have a similar work ethic to mine. It motivates me so much and I like being challenged. It's nice to talk to people who have the same dreams you have and have a community of that. The Bay Area is a really tightknit community where everyone is working and doing music as a side hobby. It felt good to be an established musician in the Bay going to L.A., rather than going to L.A. to become an established musician.

Of course, there's the stereotype that L.A. can be phony, it's all about who you know, etc. But you're saying you've found it more authentic than that?

Not exactly, not authentic. It holds up, the saying that L.A. is fake as hell. It kind of is; with the positive stuff comes the L.A. stuff: "What can you do for me?" "Who are you?" It's entertainment industry stuff. That's the bad part of it, the annoying, fake, depressing side of it. But I honestly find it amusing and funny, it doesn't bother me too much. There are good parts and good people there.

The "Nighttime Drive" video is wild, with the hula-hooping alien and the X-Files vibes.

It was directed by Han Hale, they did such a cool job. We went to Sibley Park in Oakland. They had this really cute idea of us getting abducted by aliens and it turned into this X-Files thing. You're putting a spin on a group of people in a video, so they wanted to put a spin of a band on tour being detectives. I heard they found the alien on Craigslist last minute. They found a burner chick, an actual Burning Man dancer who was like "yeah I'll do it" and she just killed it.

And you put on some flashy makeup for the "Tenderness" video. Was that your idea to get glam?

For "Tenderness," the director had a pretty big crew with makeup and stylist. That was all Laura [Gordon]'s idea from Weird Life Films, they're a really cool Chicago-based film company. I just wanted a video that matched the song -- the intro has that lo-fi Prince drum machine [sound], it sounds like I'm talking on a voicemail. I wanted to convey that. They gave it an old school VHS feel and they were the perfect people to do it with.

On Anak Ko, what's similar to Everybody Works and what's super different?

The only thing that's really similar is I still produced and mixed it. But this new one has other people on it.

Did you give them agency with your music?

I love giving people agency with my music. It was cool to direct people, and luckily, they're so talented and nice. You can give them the tools and demos and be on their ass, but I think you gotta let go when you collaborate with people and be open-minded. That's what I love about working with others -- they give a fresh style and perspective to what you would've done.

Was your headspace different on this one?

Yeah, I think I was in a more positive headspace for this one, but at the same time I felt even crazier because of this natural pressure when you make another album. It's only my second time doing this and I'm still trying to figure out what an album means to me and how can I do it and be happy with having new ideas on a time crunch.

I really pushed myself forward once the due date came close. I love working under pressure, I think it makes me work better. I love the chaotic energy of when you're about to turn something in and you're late.

A lot of artists just throw songs on Spotify when they're done. Do you feel like you still need to do albums?

Sometimes I feel that. This is the first time I felt that I really wanted people to listen to this as a whole vs. focusing on singles. But I get the climate of music now. Everything is playlists and Spotfiy and everything is at your reach, you can buy by clicking a button. But what's great about music still is that you can retain physical copies and feel them, and I think that's important.

Do you buy physical albums?

I still buy vinyl once and awhile, and I got back into CDs, which is the worst one. It sounds bad and takes a while to change the tracks, but I like it – it reminds me of the way I listened to music in elementary school when I started being really into music. The act of opening the jewel case… it's different.

What's your plan after this?

I'm pretty open-minded. Most of this year I'm going to do a lot of touring. But I want to focus on music production and helping other people. That's what I'm most interested in, recording other people and helping them find their vision for EPs and mixing them for fun -- and for money, too [Laughs].

How do you meet people you produce with? Friends of friends, or random people you connect with online?

It's more people I know and people they know. I do want to develop a sense of trust with people I work with. Rarely I'll meet up with people I don't know, but I do get asked to produce or mix people I don’t know once and awhile. But I'd rather keep it local-based and friend-based right now.