Something that all the Californian tropes and caricatures don’t warn you about when visiting Joshua Tree is exactly how claustrophobic the open desert can be.
According to its cult of devotees, the Coachella-adjacent park has “restorative qualities,” which hinges on whether you find limited cell reception in a near-martian landscape interspersed with vintage boutiques transformative or dystopian. For Melina Duterte, who brought her touring band to a cabin near the park earlier this year to finish her latest album as Jay Som, her feelings on Joshua Tree’s mystique land somewhere in between.
“A lot of people go out there and find themselves and get inspired or whatever, but I found it kinda funny to go out there because of U2,” Duterte says with a low chuckle. “It was really, truly in the middle of nowhere and the neighbors were super far away, so we just kept going outside to take breaks and listen to the silence.”
After watching Jay Som soar from nine bedroom studio-recorded songs uploaded to Bandcamp in a moment of drunken confidence to opening for Paramore three years later, the 25-year-old admits the semi-silent retreat might’ve been a bit overdue. Still, Duterte is forthcoming about the unsteady path to finding solitude in a life now dictated by touring and press cycles.
“It’s only my second real album, but I’m having a much better time,” she says. “I took pretty necessary baby steps to feel more comfortable going back to making music.”
After the arrival of her first official record in 2017, Duterte decamped from her lifelong home in the Bay Area to move to Highland Park in Los Angeles. As Everybody Works began netting praise for its polyglottal spread of indie rock anthems (fan favorite “The Bus Song”), snarling grunge pop (“1 Billion Dogs”), and borderline yacht rock (“Baybee,” “One More Time, Please”), its creator similarly found herself in the position of people pleaser.
Duterte demoed for the next year with limited success, finding the nebulous pressure to live up to Everybody and to “just be better at music” too difficult to shake. At the same time, the commonality of meeting friends at bars started compounding in uncomfortable ways with the drink ticket culture of touring. With her partner’s help, Duterte committed to sobriety after a period of binge-drinking.
“The outside stuff just factors into the music more than the action [of writing music],” she attests. “Just doing good outside of making music, like looking at yourself emotionally, in friendships and relationships too… I’m really proud of this music and I feel it’s a reflection of how I want the world to see me.”
Upon moving to Highland Park, Duterte met up with L.A. scene lifer and quasi local legend Justus Proffit, who wanted to casually workshop a song with her. The song ballooned into a collaborative EP, commissioned and released by her label Polyvinyl last fall.
“We did everything, like, super fast. He has this really punk attitude and is really into capturing the rawness of a first take,” says Duterte. “I’m like, ‘Dude, let’s do it again,’ [but] he’s just a one-stop-shop rock and roll kind of guy. I think I was pretty influenced by that.”
The Jay Som songs that came thereafter adopted a more minimalist mindset, cycling out heavier layering for starker production and more improvisation. Where the skyward dream pop of first single “Superbike” and soft rock shuffle of the fittingly titled “Tenderness” might appear like outliers at first, the resulting record, Anak Ko (“my child” in Tagalog), is more of a unified vision than anything Jay Som’s done before.
While Anak Ko marks the first time Duterte has invited her touring band to be a part of the Jay Som recording process, she’s quick to clarify she’s never been reticent of collaborating. Simply put, her “extremely talented music friends” were closer by and playing everything on the record was taking its toll.
“I was just pulling my hair out drumming and not getting the results I want because I literally can’t practice the drums anymore,” she states. “I’m just super shitty at them.”
Duterte is similarly lighthearted about making Anak Ko with her bandmates, a surprising contrast to the record’s emotional urgency. Take the title track, an ominous highlight where Duterte woozily builds to a distorted breakdown and garbled plea for “somewhere I can build.” The brunt of the writing came together when she and bandmate Oliver Pinnell “spent an afternoon messing with this pedal” in their shared apartment, looking to build a “really chaotic song.”
“I think working with people on other people’s music has helped me a lot to just step back and get different ideas about what I can do with my songs,” Duterte adds. “Like, how I can manipulate sounds and go about things differently?”
After positive experiences co-producing the new Chastity Belt record and an EP from Bay Area shoegaze act Pendant, she says focusing on producing might be an ideal next move. Judging by the way she discusses it, though, ending up behind the boards feels more like a calling.
“I feel like producing work is just you helping. Like, you’re there to just be a supporter, not necessarily just about music and musical ideas,” she concludes. “I’ll probably take even more of a break after this album cycle’s done and just focus on non-music stuff. If it’s music stuff, I’m going to focus on helping people with their music, not mine.”
While the rest of Anak Ko toys with throwing phones out windows, gathering the nerve to shoplift from Whole Foods, and finding solace in temporarily unraveling, the certainty implied in the record’s title is hard to ignore. Taken both as a statement of familial pride and a nod to her heritage as a first-generation Filipino-American, Anak Ko is first and foremost the nickname Duterte’s mother gives her when they text.
“[My mom] actually texted me today and she was like, ‘You did a great job by naming your record that,’” Duterte recounts warmly. “I think I want to give that to people of a younger generation because, growing up, I did not have Asian women, queer women, just women in general or people that are marginalized on the front lines of music. It’s so crazy to see someone that looks like you on stage and to see someone using your native language, naming a record after that, and seeing that physically.”
As the discussion on marginalization in indie rock continues to ripple and challenge social structures, she recognizes there’s a certain weight to being someone’s example of representation as an Asian American frontwoman. With the mention of a recent article in NYLON on the frightening lack of boundaries between fans and female musicians on social media, Duterte begins unspooling the idea of leaving all platforms behind, similar to her friend and former tourmate Mitski’s recent self-deactivation.
“I feel like I’m already doing that in a sense,” she admits. “I’ve been more reluctant to use social media over the last few years now. I think I’m just really self-conscious of each post. The more followers I get, I’m just like, ‘Ah man, more people are gonna see the stupid shit that I say.’”
Obviously, the impending world tour and press requests will prevent that socials blackout for a bit longer, but Anak Ko radiates with Duterte’s self-determination, both in herself and in Jay Som.
Tim Gagnon is a Los Angeles-based culture writer as seen on Noisey, Consequence of Sound, and WBUR among others. He also might be a member of The Armed, but you didn't hear that from him.