If there’s one person who can get you to scream that you like the 51B, it’s Oakland-based musician Melina Duterte, or, as you may know her, Jay Som.
“But I like the bus!” – the now iconic line of Jay Som’s intimate yet soaring lead single “The Bus Song”– has roused audiences at her live shows across the country, and has even spawned a few kind-hearted memes from dedicated fans.
Besides a reference to the AC Transit system, the Bay Area native’s latest record, Everybody Works (2017), contains some of the most exciting, genre-defying, and intricate songwriting this year featuring both fuzzed out, high-octane tracks to deliciously catchy R&B-inspired jams. It’s an album that doesn’t forgo her start in hazy bedroom recordings, but instead, enriches that introverted ethos with thoughtfully self-recorded and produced orchestration.
Since the release of Everybody Works earlier in March and following widespread acclaim, Jay Som has been on a touring grind while also landing appearances on KEXP and NPR’s Tiny Desk series. We got to catch up with Melina during her weeklong homecoming stop in California and chat about her new music video, the just recently announced tour with Japanese Breakfast, and her diehard love for California.
I have a lot of moments here and there, every other month, especially with all these opportunities that pop up once in awhile. Like when we were doing the Tiny Desk Concert I had this weird freak out moment like, “Wow oh my god we’re actually doing it. I looked down as I was playing the guitar and I was like, “Oh man, I’m like here.”
For the Mitski and Japanese Breakfast tour last year, you were performing solo. After Everybody Works came out, what was it like to be with a full band? Was it difficult translating that material, written, recorded, and produced on your own, into a different context?
No, not at all because my friends, who are also my bandmates, are all very talented and I trust them a lot. I’ve been playing music with them for a while now, so there’s that element of trust. And they do their own thing too because they’re all very creative and have their own sound. I never want to be like, “You have to play it like this, or just like the record.” I feel like it’d be very boring if it were just that way.
You just released a new music video for “The Bus Song.” It’s so cute, like it kind of reminds me of like an early 2000s Nickelodeon show’s opening credits.
That’s the first. I haven’t heard that yet! That’s so funny.
[Laughs] I thought the parade of recruiting new friends along the way, with the primary colors, was very wholesome. And you had old tourmate Michelle Zauner from Japanese Breakfast direct it. So where did this idea for the new video come from?
I remember my team on our label and my manager were talking about releasing a music video before I go on tour, and we had just one music video for the album. We ended up picking “The Bus Song,” because that’s the song that everyone likes [laughs], and we thought it’d be cool to have a cute video. And my label manager said, “Hey, what if your friend Michelle directs the video?” I was like, “Well yeah she directs videos. And she’s really good at it. And they look great too. And I love her.”
So we started talking about it. Originally, [the music video] was supposed to be in New York. And I was like “That’s cool, I’m willing to fly out. But it would make more sense if it was in the Bay.” Then I told Michelle, “This video has to be very wholesome and fun and goofy.” She came up with this whole storyline and parade thing, with all the bands and all my friends. She just did an awesome job and killed it. Michelle is so good at what she does; she’s insane and she works so hard.
And yesterday you just announced a tour next year with Japanese Breakfast as well!
We had always been wanting to tour again for a long time. I was like, “Yeah we really want to do it but we have all these other support tours we have to do.” But she’s been pretty adamant about touring and I’ve been wanting to tour with her again.
Last year [with Mitski and Japanese Breakfast] was just such a huge, fun time and everyone got along. We wanted to tour again because we just have too much fun and have been hanging out all the time, and thought that people would want to see that again.
Yeah I definitely plan on seeing one of those dates! And speaking of the new tour and all that exciting stuff, the designs for your new merch are super sick, especially the long sleeve, which looked like it came straight out of a horror manga or something. How did the designs for the merch come about?
Before all the merch stuff I remember thinking I really want to go all out for the new items. I ended up contacting three artists who I really admire, through Instagram, email, and recommendations. I thought it was really important to have really good designs for the headlining tour we did recently.
Yeah that long sleeve is so cool, I thought it was awesome to have this weird design. It’s very left field. And the alligator tee, Perry Shall designed it, it’s my favorite too. It’s so fucking cute.
In your Reddit AMA, you mentioned “(Bedhead)” was your favorite track on Everybody Works. For a young person who doesn’t know what they’re doing in general, “(Bedhead)” was pretty resonant because you get the feeling of not being heard, or not fitting in, or not being good enough. But then you also know you still have to go about your day as if everything’s okay. I was wondering if that was kind of the intention you were going for?
What you’re saying is actually more spot-on for the album. “(Bedhead)” is kind of similar, but it’s kinda like a meta-song in a way [laughs]. It paints a story in the song about feeling very comfortable about using your voice and getting on stage and being yourself. It’s definitely about feeling restrained, physically having a stutter and not being able to express your emotions. But ultimately, feeling that courage and resilience to keep moving forward. That’s like a testament to what’s been happening throughout the past years of my life musically, mentally, professionally, everything.
So how do you find that resilience and courage to move forward?
It’s getting stronger every day. I feel like I’m changing and growing at a faster rate than I thought I would because of the opportunities being handed to me. I feel a natural motivation to keep trudging along because I have to, and also because I want to. I don’t know, these sorts of things just don’t happen to anyone… I feel very lucky too. I’m surrounding myself with the right people and have a good team of people so it just feels that it all comes together very positively.
Yeah, that’s awesome. I honestly can’t wait to see what’s in store in the future for you!
So you’re back in the Bay for just a few days before hitting the Pacific Northwest and then the midwest. How are you spending this little break back home before tour starts again?
Lately I’ve been hanging with my dogs at my parent’s home. So that’s not bad. We’ve been doing local shows, so today we’re going to Santa Cruz and to the beach. Any way to soak up the California experience. Honestly, this is like the best state. We’ve been around the country so many times now and nothing fucking beats California, like for real [laughs].
Good to hear because I’ve lived in California my whole life and sometimes I get the FOMO of “Oh what else is out there.”
Dude, California is the best.
Jay Som performs at Great American Music Hall on October 20, with Palehound. Get your tickets here.
This interview was lightly edited for clarity.
Written by Adrienne Lee