Cara Robbins

Jay Som’s Rising Star

The San Francisco singer-songwriter’s work has won a devoted fan base that’s only getting bigger

Melina Duterte was no stranger to Bandcamp when she uploaded a collection of unfinished songs called Turn Into last fall. Her earliest recordings on the independent music distribution site date back to 2012, but Turn Into was the first to gain substantial attention. “[It] was being passed around locally, then my friends of friends and their friends of friends from all over the Bay Area were listening to my music,” says the Oakland-based singer-songwriter, who records as Jay Som. Within a few months, the online buzz around Turn Into had turned into a deal for a physical rerelease on Polyvinyl Records, where her labelmates include established indie-rock acts like Of Montreal and Deerhoof.

Earlier this summer, Duterte performed on her first national tour, opening for Japanese Breakfast and Mitski. After her set at Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, a friend and I approached the merch table to buy pins, and Duterte recognized my friend as one of Turn Into’s early supporters on Bandcamp. One reason that many DIY musicians favor the platform is because it offers a certain intimacy, making it easier for artists to know their community of followers. In that brief moment, the artist and fan dynamic was leveled: Both knew each other without ever having been introduced.

Before Jay Som took off this year, Duterte was a staple of the Bay Area music scene, playing bass in the indie-rock band Summer Peaks. She grew up in Brentwood, a small city an hour from San Francisco, where there wasn’t much happening in terms of music. “[It’s a] very safe, boring place full of corn and old people,” she says, though she still holds a fondness for her hometown. Growing up she dabbled in sports, but her primary interest was always music. “I kept to myself in school,” she says. “I just wanted to get it over with.” That disposition placed her on an early musical path; this year, her childhood nylon guitar made its way onto a recording for her upcoming Polyvinyl debut album.

After the Mitski tour, Duterte did a short run opening for Swedish indie veterans Peter Bjorn and John for a few West Coast dates. “They have a really big crew — a tour manager, assistants, people who did lights and stuff like that,” she says. Her favorite part of the experience wasn’t performing, but rather being on a big-time tour. “I loved seeing the crowd looking at them and smiling and people singing along,” she says.

Before all that, Duterte took the stage at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right earlier this summer for a smaller Jay Som show, accompanied by a full band that included a couple members of Summer Peaks. They performed songs from Turn Into, but gave each track a rocking kick that was missing in the original Bandcamp demos. Outros dragged out, and the guitarists found more opportunities to get lost in the groove. The set closed with a newer song, “I Think You’re Alright,” a somber, slow-building track whose songwriting showed a measured growth from Duterte’s work of a year ago. As she stands poised to follow her career into new unknowns, that night in Brooklyn felt like a full step forward.