Melina Duterte Emerges as a Bold New Songwriter, Producer
by: Dusty Henry
By now, the narrative of Jay Som’s Turn Into has been retread again and again. And it’s easy to understand why. There’s the image of Melina Duterte, the sole force behind the project, making her way through a bottle of wine at her parents house over Thanksgiving weekend. Her hand hovering above the mouse, finally clicking the button and sending the album out into the world on Bandcamp. Most of us probably don’t make good decisions while we’re wine drunk. But Duterte did. And that choice may have been the best thing to happen to her career, sparking word of mouth buzz and eventually a rerelease of the album on Polyvinyl Records almost a year later.
But that’s not where Duterte’s story begins or ends. The Oakland-based songwriter has been writing and recording music since middle school, all from the confines of her room. She’s the sole musician on all of her albums, continually building off the foundation of the last record and emerging more formidable each time. That’s part of what makes her latest album, Everybody Works, so remarkable. It’s not just because of its wondrous and heart-swelling songwriting, but because of Duterte’s boldness as a producer. From the opening notes of “Lipstick Stains” that flutter into frame like a daydream to the fuming “1 Billion Dogs” and the wandering closer “For Light”. The way she pitches her vocals gradually mid-verse on the track “Baybee” shows the type of boldness that makes Duterte such an exciting artist and inventive producer. Ingrained in each song are stories of seeking identity, feeling overwhelmed in a new city, and glimpses of romance and heartbreak. We had the chance to chat with Duterte about Everybody Works and the journey that led her to it.
Perusing through the Internet, I found some recordings you did from when you were 12 years old under the name Mother Knows Best. What got you into music at such a young age?
Melina Duterte: Well, I grew up in a pretty musical household. My dad was a former DJ so he just had a ton of records lying around and his old cassette tapes with his mixes on it. So like every day and every Sunday morning, he'd put on some funk and R&B records that I grew up on. A ton of Earth, Wind, & Fire, Michael Jackson, and all of that stuff. Sometimes 80s rock. I was already raised on that, but then I started to buy a ton of CDs from Barnes & Noble and also I used Limewire a ton. I think I was just listening to so much music at the time and I was always curious with how my favorite artists were making their sounds. So I started recording at 12 years old and I was also teaching myself how to play guitar at the same time. So I was kind of doing both – learning how to be a musician and recording.
What was your setup back then? Were you using a computer mic or tape recorder or something else?
At the very beginning stages, I had a Dell laptop. You know those really shitty laptops from the early 00s? My dad took me to Guitar Center and he got this really bad mic. We bought this program called Sony Acid Music Studio. I didn't know what the hell I was doing.
Did you teach yourself how to record music or did you take any classes?
It's a mixture of both. For a couple years I was just doing it myself and then I took some audio production classes in high school. After high school, I went to community college and took some more audio production classes. But I only took those classes to get the basic ideas of how audio engineering works. I was doing it myself and learning myself. I like that better. It's more fun that way, learning yourself.
Do you think of yourself as a producer at all or is it just part of the deal with how you write?
I think I do. There are multiple hats I have to wear for this project, for Jay Som. I'm writing the songs and producing them too and I'm also doing the Internet stuff. I feel like I do hold that title. I think more especially since I'm starting to record and produce other people's music. It's definitely something I would like to do more than dabble in.
You moved into a new apartment while you were working on Everybody Works. Were you able to expand your setup?
Well, when I was living in San Francisco for like a year, I was sharing my room with people. So I had like three roommates in the span of that time. It's really hard to have a setup, so I only had like my desk and my monitors and laptop and a small amp. Nothing else. I was kind of tired of that. So when I moved to Oakland, it was like a dream come true. I have my good bed in here and everything and full drum set and amps and guitars. Everything's in here. I definitely have more room. It's really nice to just wake up and start recording music.
So was Turn Into recorded in that room in San Fran or was it also recorded in Oakland?
Turn Into, for the span of two years, was recorded at my parents' house in my old room and also in San Francisco. Most of the tracking was done in my parents house in Brentwood, which is in the East Bay area, 30 minutes away from here. I did a lot of the mixing and I released the album in San Francisco when it came out. So it was both, half and half.
Being a “bedroom” artist, do you feel like a homebody or do you like to venture out?
It's funny because I've been thinking about that a lot. I used to be a person that always wanted to go outside, well I was always going outside and going to shows and doing all this stuff. Ever since I moved to Oakland and ever since I got signed to a record label and I've been doing this music stuff, I've definitely been a homebody. I stay at home a lot because I finally have the freedom to work on music as much as I can. I don't mind. I feel like a lot of this entire project is based on the comfort of solitude and it's always been that way.
There's this cliche of bedroom recordings of someone in a room with a tape recorder, and it’s this very intense and intimate experience. Is that something you try to subvert? Your music doesn't sound like what most people think of as bedroom pop or DIY. It’s so lush and dynamic.
I've definitely heard that from someone before. I think throughout the years of my songwriting and honing in on my skills as a songwriter or producer, I've had time to make things more intentional because I'm learning. I'm still learning. I learn something new every time I record a new song. I do intentionally want my songs to sound good, but I also don't care if they're not pristine quality. It's more about what is right for the song and the music. What kind of vibe is it going for, for the song. I also notice that a lot of bedroom artists get lumped into the whole dream-pop category and I'm kind of tired of that.
Since you do record yourself, do you think you value that authority to direct it as you see fit?
I don't necessarily miss collaborating with people. I'd say, definitely in a full band setting where everyone divides their parts equally, there's more effort into it and there's more complications with figuring who's doing this and what kind of attitude they have. It's less complicated working by myself and I think it's more rewarding in a sense because you are… by yourself, it's the most vulnerable you can be. It's all about trust and gut instinct. I don't hate working with people, but I've had a lot of experiences where I realize that most people are hard to work with in terms of collaborating. But I do like working with people on their music, as a side member. I love doing that. I love playing other people's music.
When you went to start the new record, were there any lessons you took away from the recording and release process of Turn Into?
That's definitely something that was on the forefront of my thinking for the album. I definitely just wanted a traditional approach to the album. I really was thinking about the tracklisting and order and how it's cohesive as an album. And also how the artwork would connect with the music. So it was a lot of thinking in that way. Connecting similar themes together as well. It's not like a concept album, but it was more intentional than Turn Into. I also wanted to take a different approach to my production, mixing, and also different songwriting too. But at it's heart, I feel like it's still a pop record, kind of like Turn Into.
When you started Everybody Works you had some demos but you scrapped a lot of them and decided to record new songs during that three week recording session. What made you want to start from scratch?
The demo process started around March of last year. I took about that month to do some demos and they were pretty fast. I was kind of just making music because I wanted to, but also I had the idea the year was going to progress a little faster than I thought it would. I did that and then I went on a couple tours. When I went back from tour, I definitely felt like a different musician completely. I wasn't particularly attached to the demos I had. Half of the songs I remember thinking, 'Oh man, I hate these songs. What was I thinking?' So during those three weeks, I was just writing on the spot. I feel like that's a very genuine thing of me to do. I tend to write and record at the same time. So like, record a guitar part and writing while thinking about the recording and tracking it. It became a little more stressful than I thought it would, but the end result was pretty positive. The older songs, they didn't feel right.
Do you think the final version of the record is more reflective of where you're at now because of that?
Kind of? I say that now because I've been writing music and directly after Everybody Works, I was already writing and recording music. I already have a couple songs recorded. It's not completely different, it's not too crazy, but it doesn't sound like Everybody Works. I just feel like my kind of vision and sound for music is always shifting. It's just something that I've always accepted.
Last year you went on a couple tours with Mitski, Japanese Breakfast, and Peter, Bjorn, & John. Do you feel like touring and being around other artists for such long stretches of time impacted your writing at all?
Oh yeah, it definitely did. I think if I didn't go on those tours, Everybody Works would be a completely different album. It'd sound different, there'd be different songs. When I was on tour, especially on the Mitski tour, that was a pretty long one – it was like a month and a half. I had a ton of time to just write music in my head. I was getting a ton of ideas because I was constantly inspired by the locations where I was, the people I was meeting, the musicians I was seeing every night. I was just ingesting so much musical information at that time. And also during the Peter, Bjorn, & John tour; that tour was also pretty special to me too. They are a band that I grew up listening to. When I was 13, they were like my favorite band. That was insane to be on a tour with them. It kind of brought me back to the reasons...it brought me back to why I love music so much. I think that reminiscing of loving music from so long ago definitely inspired a lot of Everybody Works.
On Everybody Works, it feels like there's this push and pull of romantic language and self consciousness. Were you thinking of a similar type of emotions you wanted to display through your music?
Oh yeah, for sure. Especially for this album I'd say, different forms of self identity kind of like settling into new skin as a young adult. I feel like those were common themes on Turn Into, but especially for this one I definitely focused a lot of different states of emotions. I don't really know what else to say for that.
It's not a political record but you said that troubles facing women, queer community, POC fueled this record. How are you able to channel frustrations and worries and turn it into something that isn't overly political, but also so beautiful and dreamy at times?
It's definitely something that I don't think about all the time, like making my music politically fueled or very black and white like, ‘This is what it's about.’ But I think sometimes when I'm inspired or frustrated or angry by something, I instantly want to write and just write whatever comes to mind. It doesn't necessarily have to be about that. But something that a listener can connect to in ways. If they can connect to this lyric, or this guitar line, or this sound or tone of a certain instrument. Wanting to make someone feel something is important to me.
So you’re saying you think with intentionality in your instrumentation as well?
For sure. Also lately, I try not to read reviews and comments about music, but I always end up doing that because it's there and I'm curious. A lot of the constant remarks about my music are that my vocals aren't loud enough. Most of the time that's very intentional for certain parts of my music because I feel like the voice can act as an instrument. I don't really believe in just, 'this is how you record. This is what it is. Vocals, straight center. Guitars, bass, drums.' Stuff like that. I feel like there are so many intricacies with arranging music and also finding out how certain instruments work. Same with your voice.
Reading those reviews, did it make you want to make your voice more prominent? How do you take something like that?
It didn't really bother me, in a way, and it didn't pressure me into changing my style of mixing. It did make me think about it. It made me think about how people listen to music and it made me aware of the music that I was making. At the time, I was making music already after Turn Into. Turn Into was pretty old songs. The new music that I was recording had vocals pretty loud, too. So, I was still kind of changing the way that I was making my music. It's not like something I thought about, especially when releasing this album. Should I make this accessible for people or stick to my own thing?
You have such a range in dynamics from track to track on the record. “Lipstick Stains” and “1 Billion Dogs” couldn’t be more different. Yet it all sounds so cohesive. How do you balance all those different ideas and sounds?
I think my end goal for any piece of music, like an album or an EP, is I want the listener to be familiar with every song and realize that it still sounds like Jay Som. Not just because, 'oh it's my voice'. But because of maybe the way I play something or the chord structure that I use. I'm not making these super different songs just because I feel like it. I mean, well yeah I do feel like it. That was a lie, that didn't come out right. I'm not doing it to be fake and like, 'Oh I wanna be different!' It's just feels right. I don't want every song to sound the same. I think because I just listened to so many different types of music, I kind of want to emulate that.
Do you think playing so many different styles has stretched you as a musician? Especially since you’re playing every instrument?
It definitely has. When I was doing Turn Into, I picked up the drums. The song "Ghost", that was the first time I ever recorded drums. That was actually the week after I started playing drums for the first time. I had so much fun because I think leading up to now, my drumming is a little different. I don't get any lessons, but I'm moved by the way my friends drum. Being in other bands, I've been around so many drummers and picked up so many different kind of unique traits in their drumming… And also I'm pretty influenced by jazz drummers too. I like jazz, so I'm pretty influenced by that. It's definitely helped me with songwriting too, because I feel like not having that discipline from not formally learning an instrument can kind of benefit the way you write songs.
It can help me be a little more creative because I feel like it's all stemming from your own playing abilities. I think I say that because I did trumpet for about nine years and I was doing that in school. I was doing jazz and wind ensemble stuff and doing honor bands. I was very invested. It's kind of like this disciplined instrument that takes a lot of time to learn, so I've applied what I've learned musically from trumpet to all of the instruments that I play now. I don't consider myself a guitar player because I feel like play my guitar like a trumpet, because that's the way I think when I play.
What reaction do you hope people have to your music and the new record?
I honestly hope that they can sit down, listen to it, and hopefully like it. I feel like that's all I have to say. If you don't like it, don't listen to me [laughs]. But in all seriousness, I hope that someone, anyone, can find a sort of connection to this album. Maybe pick a favorite song if they don't like the whole album. I'm pretty proud of the album. I hope it shows the music that I'll be making in the future, because I definitely want to do more of that.