From exclusive interviews, live performances, special collections and more, we’re celebrating music all month long. We talked to the bands and artists playing our upcoming UO Live in Austin shows about their musical beginnings and the places they’re headed next. Click here to read from our favorite musicians.
We chat with Oakland musician Jay Som, whose forthcoming album Everybody Works was written, performed and recorded over the course of three weeks in her new apartment.
Photos by Matt Grote
You played and recorded all of the instruments on your latest album. Can you walk us through the process of writing a song? It sounds overwhelming. How does everything start to form in your head?
It definitely comes from the discipline of practicing when I was a young kid. I got my first guitar when I was eight. I started writing music and recording music when I was 12. I also started to learn the trumpet and I played that for 9 years, which was elementary school through high school. So that was a huge chunk of my life. It’s just always been something that I’ve done.
It’s hard for me to answer that question because It’s second nature. I sit down when I have an idea randomly. I'll be outside or hanging out and I'll think about this idea and record it on a voice memo on my phone. And then I'll go home, kind of dissect the ideas and hear what I want to hear in my head, like in terms of instrumentation. And just go from there. It's very experimental too. I don't like making music black and white where I have to do a guitar part first. I can go off from doing vocal melodies, it’s just whatever I hear in my head in the moment.
Do you think it’s a longer process because you’re adding different elements?
Yeah, for me personally, it is definitely a longer process, because I also record the music. I feel like recording and mixing is as important as the song writing process and the idea process. In terms of the sonic landscapes of your song, it’s kind of like the icing on the cake. Lyrics to me though, are not that important. They always come last. And they're the hardest for me.
Lyrics seem to serve a different purpose for every musician.
Yeah, I definitely use lyrics as another instrument. I don’t think you have to do lyrics traditionally. In terms of volume, where they’re up front and center, where you’re forced to understand the words. I just like blending vocals in as if they’re another instrument.
Is it weird if a journalist or somebody picks out a lyric in one of your songs and highlights it as being important and then you’re just like, “Oh, well I just thought it sounded cool that one time.” Does that ever happen?
That actually happens a lot. They’ll say the same thing, where it's like, "Oh, this has so much deep meaning. It's the lyric that everyone talks about." And I'm like, "I just chose those words because it rhymed." And sometimes I choose words just because it matches a certain structure in the song rhythmically. I kind of like not being super intentional about lyrics because some people will find their own connection or meaning with it. And that's cool. I respect that. I think that's really cool. I never want to be like, "No, that's not what it means," to anyone that listens to my music.
Has there been a time where there's been working certain song that you really liked, but it’s just not coming together?
Yeah on the new album, one of the songs went through so many changes. It had a million guitars. It had drums on it. It was full and loud and there was a lot going on with pianos, and just too many instruments. And in the final product, it’s just my vocals and guitar. It’s really cool to see the evolution of your own songs like that.
Was there a different process going into this album as opposed to your work you posted on Bandcamp?
Yeah there definitely was. With Everybody Works, I definitely took a more traditional approach for an album because it’s the first time I’ve ever written an album intentionally, like, thinking about the track list and order and album artwork and how it corresponds to just the music. There was a lot of thought put into it.
Can you talk a bit about your background as someone who self-records. How does that evolution happen, when you’re like, “Oh, I’m 12, but I’m just gonna record all this stuff in my room. What are the tools I need?"
When I started doing it, beforehand, I was already listening to a ton of music. I had my dad’s records and CDs and cassette tapes from the ‘80s and ‘90s because he used to be a DJ. That was also during the age of LimeWire. I got all of those downloads for every single album ever. So I was listening to like an album a day. I was just ingesting so much music and I was so curious to figure out how some of my favorite artists made this music and how ti came out of my speakers ‘cause it sounded so good. Just thinking about the background and how the base of their music is produced.
So my dad bought me this microphone, it was really bad, and a program called Sony Acid Music Studio and I just started from there on my laptop. I did it because no one else was doing it. It just helped me a lot with being by myself. I was kind of a loner, in a sense, and I was just so involved with music that I wanted to make it my number one thing.
You were ahead of the whole bedroom recording thing.
I guess, yeah, yeah. That was also during the time of MySpace. I actually remember searching for bedroom artists all the time. They would just record the same as me and upload to their MySpace music pages that were dedicated to acoustic covers and stuff like that.
Did you ever do any of that?
My first song that I uploaded onto MySpace was a cover of Outkast’s “Miss Jackson.” Remember that song? I don’t have it anymore, I’ve been looking for it forever. It’s somewhere, but there’s also a cover of The Shins, “New Slang.” It’s all very embarrassing. It sounds awful.
But it’s part of your history, and MySpace is supposed to be embarrassing. Did you have a reaction from people? Were people adding you because of your music or were you just kind of doing it for you?
It was a mixture of both. And it was mostly between me and my friends. Iv’e always been friends with musicians, so we’d just send each other music, we’d play music together and record together. It was very rare at the time to have random people on the internet reach out. I think when I switched over to Bandcamp, that’s when it all changed.
Tell me about how you translate Jay Som’s music into a live setting.
My very, very good friends, Dylan and Oliver, I love them a lot, they help me play live. The last tour that I did was solo, and that was fine. It was really fun. But if I had the choice, I'd always play with a band, because I really like emulating my records. I really like giving listeners a full experience of the record, but in a different kind of sense. So, usually they'll listen to the songs that I tell them to listen to. Just get a feel of it. And then we go to our rehearsal spot and I teach them the parts, and they're really, really fast at learning. It's interesting and unique too, because they put their own spin to my songs, which is exactly what I want. I don't want to sound exactly like the record. I'd say the live aspect of this project is a completely different experience.
See Jay Som this month at UO Space 24 Twenty for UO Live in Austin. Click here for more schedules and information.