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Q&A: Jay Som on Her Drunkenly Bandcamped Debut and ‘Mind-Blowing’ Tour With Mitski

“We love you, you little twerp,” says Michelle Zauner, frontwoman to dream-pop outfit Japanese Breakfast. It’s the last night of tour, and Zauner’s onstage sending love to set opener Jay Som — a bill made complete by ascendant singer-songwriter Mitski, who, for her recent set of shows promoting Puberty 2, teamed with both crowd-warming acts to create a powerhouse bill of Asian-American women.

The solo-performing Jay Som is the newest to the stage, a fact made more obvious at the tour’s kickoff gig at Bowery Ballroom in June, where the Bay Area-based artist — born Melina Duterte — shuffled onstage and admitted her nerves after one song and some disjointed banter. But on this Wednesday in late July, 27 tour dates across the U.S. and Canada later, Duterte glided out, decidedly un-twerp-like, to face a packed Music Hall of Williamsburg, performing her way above and beyond mere Bandcamp stardom.

In under 30 minutes, a Fender-armed Duterte played a bare-bones set of six gauzy and gorgeous tearjerkers. These were not uniform sap-rock pity songs, though: Jay Som’s power — much like the show’s headliner — rests in her ability to sculpt sadness into strikingly different and mesmerizing forms. On the unreleased weeper “Bus Song,” Duterte champions the titular transportation for allowing her to be whatever she wants, pleading, “I’ll be the one who sticks around / I just want you to lead me.” It’s one of many times Som finds comfort in the back seat.

Breakout single “I Think You’re Alright,” which recently cracked six digits in Spotify plays, similarly finds Duterte offering herself as “your old broken TV / your stuttering baby / your puppy when nobody’s home.” On record, a blazing guitar solo closes “Alright,” an eruption of Duterte’s festering half-love. Live, however, the song ends with one fluid shimmer built from her intricate shredding — some unearthly defensive mechanism to leave all listeners feeling weak in the knees.

Now, Jay Som is not only nailing her tour’s closing sets — she’s also signing to Polyvinyl Records, announcing a reissue of her Bandcamp release Turn Into, and hinting at a proper debut LP due sometime next year, marking a quick yet justified watershed for the 22-year-old. Speaking to SPIN before her set at the Williamsburg venue, Duterte reveals more about her writing style, her unlikely connection to Childish Gambino, and the drunk Thanksgiving night that inspired Turn Into’s release.

How has the tour been coming along? This is the last date, right?
Yeah! It’s been 27 dates and 37 days total, being on the road. What is that, 12,000 or 13,000 miles? It’s been pretty intense. I’ve been on three DIY tours that have gone around the Pacific Northwest, but this is my first national tour.

It’s been incredible. I’ve learned so much. It’s going to get emotional tonight. It hasn’t hit me yet — it’s so weird because it feels like we are just going to go back to the van and drive some more.

Do you think you might shed a tear tonight during one of your songs?
Not even might, I WILL! No, no. I don’t want to cry during my set. It’s embarrassing. I want to save it for later.

What’s been your favorite city on the tour?
I think everyone would agree with me that it was Houston, Texas. It’s weird because it’s kinda unlikely that Houston would be our favorite because it’s kind of a weird, boring place. There’s not a lot to do. I feel bad for saying that, but It’s just like… land… in Texas! It’s hot, too. But the kids that come out, all the young people, are so excited for the shows. They’re so invested in the people that are performing. They buy all the records and the merch.

Over the course of the tour, have you conquered your nerves? How have the shows progressed for you?
I think I conquered my nerves a long time before this tour. I’m very used to being on stage. But I still get very, very nervous, like, 20 minutes before the show. I think I’ve improved in terms of my performance. When you’re playing the same songs over and over again every night, you start getting better.

This tour’s lineup is pretty amazing. What do you think could be the effect of a tour where every act is led by Asian-American women?
I think it’s incredible that for this bill, all three are Asian-American women. I think it’s the first time in history. The impact that has on us and the audience in general is so important. I was talking to Michelle from Japanese Breakfast about this the other day. The fact that there are little girls of color at the shows. I didn’t have that when I was younger. If I saw this bill, I would have thought that was insane.

It’s so important that there’s this representation out there, right now, at this time. Also, Mitski’s fans and her listeners in general are very respectful people, and a lot of them are mostly young, too. It’s a safe place that they can go. It still blows my mind that I’m a part of this.

Where does the name “Jay Som” come from?
One day, I was bored. I went online on a baby-name generator because I was reading about someone — Childish Gambino — who made his artist name from a random word generator. I went to a baby name generator, that said “Jay Som” translates to “Victory Moon,” and I just thought it was cool.

I’ve heard bits and pieces about the story of you uploading your album Turn Into to Bandcamp last Thanksgiving. Can I get the full story?
The inside scoop! I was at home, and I was drinking a litt — a lot. I was really relaxed. I was on my computer, and I was reading these messages from people who were saying, “Oh, when are you going to release an EP? When are you going to release an album?” And I was like, “Hm… why not?” I had a list of 20 tracks, and I chose nine that I thought were all right to put out online. I didn’t really think about the track listing, I didn’t think about the album artwork or anything. I just put it out online, and people started listening to it!

I love Bandcamp. It’s such a great platform for artists. Whoever designs it knows exactly what they’re doing. Bandcamp definitely helped out because they use tags and allow people to find musicians in specific areas. They’re better than SoundCloud because a lot of artists can upload their own DIY stuff on there. I want to continue using Bandcamp for a while.

I love the option of pay-what-you-want, too. You can pay $6.66! Or $4.20!

You’re re-releasing Turn Into at the same time as you’re working your label debut. So, the Jay Som that people are going to encounter first is a Jay Som that you haven’t been for a little while.

Yeah. Those songs were written and recorded from when I was 19 through 21. I’m 22 now. It was at a different time of my life. But I wouldn’t say the music’s too different. If someone were to listen to Turn Into and then listen to the new music I’m making now, I don’t think it would be super weird or different. It’s not like I hate it.

Was there a specific moment that inspired your breakout single “I Think You’re Alright”?
There actually was a specific moment! The night before I wrote this song, I went to a show and saw this band Happyness from England. It was the same night that a festival was happening, so no one came to their show. It was like five people, plus the bands that were playing. I just remember the show being so amazing. I was inspired by the band because they gave it their all and were playing these intimate ballads. I remember going home thinking I want to do that as well, to evoke that kind of emotion for people live.

You did all of the music yourself on the record, right? What instruments do you play?
Yeah. I play guitar, bass, drums… keyboards. Are there keyboards on the album? There are keyboards on the album. And I stopped playing trumpet three years ago, but before I went on tour, I picked it up again. I realized I’m in love with the instrument, so it’s definitely going to be on the new album.

How’s the proper debut on Polyvinyl coming along? Is it going to be as DIY as the first one?
It’s… at the beginning stages. I got demos, all the demos. I’m just waiting until I get back so I can start fleshing it all out, because I have a super-itch to record again. And yeah, I’m going to do everything myself, except mastering, so it’s going to take some time.

Tell me about your process of writing music. Do you start with lyrics, or music?
Lyrics always come last because they’re the hardest. I usually write my songs around the arrangement of the guitar. I start off with an idea, like a melody line or a chord progression and then I record it on my phone so I have it for later. I make a demo, dissect it, and then add lyrics. Instrumentation and the flow of a song are just important as the lyrics. For a lot of the songs on Turn Into, I wrote the lyrics around the certain feel or emotionthat was coming out from the arrangement of the song.

On this tour, what have you guys been doing on the off days?
Most of them are just driving. But the off days where we have all day off, we spend a lot of time sleeping, taking naps, maybe going out. We watch movies a lot. Scary movies. For some reason, Mitski just loves ghosts and being haunted.

What’s the first thing you’re going to do after the tour?
I’m going to sleep for a week. I think I’m going to take a break for a little, and decompress. It’s not like I’m just going to hole up in the dark or anything. I do want to think about the album and what’s going to happen in the future. Also hang out with my dogs because I miss them.

What are their names?
Pookie. Her actual name is Pooh, like Pooh Bear. And the other one is Yung Yung. It’s like a rap name. Yung YUNG.

Jay Som tour dates (in support of Peter Bjorn & John):
August 26 — Los Angeles, CA (FYF After Dark @ The Roxy Theatre)
August 28 — Portland, OR (MusicfestNW After Party @ Revolution Hall)
August 30 — Vancouver, BC @ Venue
August 31 — Seattle, WA @ Neumos
September 1 — San Francisco, CA @ Slim’s