In Under The Influence, The A.V. Club asks a musician to pair three of their songs with a non-musical influence.
Melina Duterte may only be 22 years old, but she’s been making music for 10 of those years. It’s that pedigree that made 2015’s Turn Into—an assemblage of songs hastily formed into an album—so engaging. There’s no compromise, as Duterte is able to spill the entirety of herself into them, with every influence and musical choice made solely by her. On March 10, Polyvinyl Records will release Everybody Works, the new Jay Som album that’s being touted as her proper debut album. Recorded by herself in her bedroom, Everybody Works is Duterte’s most cohesive work but also her most expansive. Her background in jazz and classical music can be seen in the orchestration of some songs, and her willingness to push ideas to their breaking points makes it a thrilling listen. The A.V. Club spoke to Duterte about three of the songs from Everybody Works, in which she finds inspiration in everything from the sci-fi film Interstellar to what it feels like to be financially floundering.
Melina Duterte: So that song, I think I wanted to capture how fleeting and just short the feeling of infatuation is. And the song itself is very short—it’s, like, two minutes. I just wanted to write this song that tells a story. Kind of like narrative music, because I’m very influenced by the music that I learned when I was in school. I studied a lot of jazz and classical music. So I wanted to make this kind of orchestral piece that captured how you can get butterflies in your stomach and this underwater feeling that you get when you have this intense passion for someone.
The A.V. Club: Was there a specific experience you were drawing from? Or was it that working on the song, you realized that’s what it was dealing with?
MD: I think it was the second one. When I wrote it, it was right before I was going to go on tour with Mitski back in the summer, and it was actually the ending for the song I wrote called “I Think You’re Alright.” It was just this outro, but it became something more that I ended up sitting down and spending more time with when I was writing the album. I just wanted to intentionally capture the romantic moment that you can have when feeling something for someone. And also there’s a comfort in vulnerability as well. I don’t know if that makes sense.
AVC: How often does your schooling end up working its way into Jay Som?
MD: It’s inherent in my songwriting. I have this background where I started by playing the trumpet. I definitely apply a lot of that discipline from what I learned from music theory, and being in orchestral kind of bands, and experimenting with that.
MD: When I was writing and recording the album—I think it was the last song I did for the album—and it was late at night, 3 a.m. It was super late, and I was awake, couldn’t fall asleep, and I bought Interstellar on Amazon Video. I’d seen it before in the theaters—it had come out two years ago—but I bought it again. I mean, it’s a very gorgeous film. The stories, the acting, and visually, it had an impact on me. The next morning, I woke up and I wrote this song, because I was very inspired by the way it made me feel. It’s not about Interstellar, but parts of the film were very beautiful to me, and I think I wanted to make this epic space-funk song.
AVC: That definitely comes across musically. It has that moment in the middle where everything disintegrates and it gets really quiet before coming back with that big solo. Were you using this all as a way to play with song structure and expand outside the traditional verse-chorus-verse confines?
MD: Yeah, yeah, that’s exactly it actually. That middle part, that breakdown—I wanted it to be a very open, ethereal part, like you said, in terms of instrumentation. That song is the one with the most synth-heavy, reverby instruments. I think I wanted to emulate being in space. That sounds super cheesy, but that’s exactly what I was thinking.
AVC: Does that happen often, where you try to use your music to reflect something visual?
MD: Oh, yeah, for sure. Especially for this album, I definitely didn’t take as much of a traditional approach to songwriting. I wasn’t thinking, “I’m going to have an intro and two choruses and a bridge and make pop songs.” I was definitely closing my eyes a lot and putting myself into the sonic landscape of the song and the arrangement and dissecting and seeing how many layers and options I can come up with for every song.
I visualize dancing a lot, because, when I write music as well, I always imagine a music video for it, and most of the songs I imagine having dancers doing kind of chaotic dance moves. Abstract. Not exactly choreographed perfectly. But every time I would close my eyes, I would think of that. And I also feel like I write in a cinematic way. I really like having vivid imagery with the arrangements and the instrumentation, because I’m not a big lyrical person. It always comes last because it’s so hard for me.
AVC: There was a line that jumped out at me, where you’re saying, “Won’t you give me peace of mind.” Were you trying to juxtapose this idea of peace and calm against a song that goes in unknown directions?
MD: You’re definitely in the ballpark, for sure. Specifically for that song, for the lyrics, I chose words that kind of matched the musical content. I do that often with my lyrics. I think, “I really like this word. I want it to be in the song because it rhymes, not because it makes sense sometimes.” I guess in a sense that was very connected to what the song was doing.
Song: “Everybody Works” (Everybody Works, 2017)
Influence: Being broke and watching an opulent music video
AVC: What video were you watching when you put this together?
MD: I think it was one of those U.K. boy bands, like The 1975 or someone along the same lines of that. I don’t remember the specific music video, but it was very flashy, like, “We’re in a band and we’re rich.”
AVC: What about that moment stuck with you that made you want to turn it into a song?
MD: I think during that time I was thinking a lot about what I was doing in that moment. I was living paycheck to paycheck, and I was still doing music on the side. But I think in that moment, I was thinking about how I can turn my art into a career and for it to be financially viable and for me to be happy. It definitely just came from the anger and frustration from thinking about that and thinking about the future. Because there’s so many moments of self-doubt that happen when you are a musician that’s I guess DIY, and doing everything by myself was very stressful. I had to wear multiple hats as well, and I wasn’t exactly getting much support financially from my parents. I grew up learning that if I was passionate about something, I had to work for it, and work for it myself. It was hard.
AVC: Do you think there’s the perception that just because you’re putting out records and on a cool record label that you’re making enough money from it to live?
MD: That’s a very common perception that people have of DIY artists. And I tend to get that a lot, where people are like, “Wow. You just got signed to a record label. You do everything yourself. You must get a lot of money if it’s just you.” And it’s not a super dangerous perception and damaging to anyone’s image, but it’s strange to hold that title and to have people think that I have all this money because it’s like, what it’s perceived of my image is this online persona. And I guess that is the fall of indie music as well, as there is not that much money in it, you know?
AVC: In the song you address how your parents might view this way of life. Is that something you think about a lot?
MD: I think about that all the time. And it still happens. They’re generally supportive of me. They’ve been around for most of the time that I have been a musician, and they know. We’ve had a lot of talks and discussions about how music isn’t exactly lucrative, but it is something I can work towards. And they come out to my shows. They’re very supportive. They listen to my music. They buy my music as well. But there still is that aspect of… it’s not a money-maker. And they understand that.
AVC: You also say, “You don’t want to see me like this.” Who is that addressing?
MD: “You don’t want to see me like this” is definitely a message to people that are close to me. I think saying, “You don’t want to see me at my worst” is kind of sad. No money. You don’t want to be around me when I’m like this. And even the title itself, “Everybody Works,” is a note to myself. Everybody works with their own set of goals. They’re not exactly working just for their jobs. They’re working on themselves, you know?
AVC: People don’t want to be open about their financial situations, because it can be a real bummer.
MD: Unfortunately, money is number one in people’s minds. You know, you have to have a certain work ethic in this age, especially in your early 20s. I think when we’re younger, we’re not exactly taught how to be an adult, you know, financially. But also mentally, how to take care of yourself, and money is a big part of that. You’ve got bills, and you’ve got to feed yourself, and it’s very hard to navigate that if you have certain hobbies like art on the side. You’ve got society telling you you shouldn’t be doing that. It’s frowned upon. But I feel like those sorts of undertakings force you to be creative, in a sense. It opens up so many opportunities for ideas and certain things like that. Because a lot of art that is released now, it’s very related to struggle.