Duterte, Sridharan Perform Innovative Indie Pop Tunes


Hugh Newcomb, Photo Editor

California pop singer-songwriter Melina Duterte performs as Jay Som at the Cat in the Cream Saturday night.

The Cat in the Cream hosted California-based pop singer-songwriter Melina Duterte, performing as Jay Som, Saturday night. Duterte is known for kaleidoscopic dream pop and personally crafting all the sounds on her records. She has been featured on Pitchfork, NPR, and Rookie. Out Magazine described Jay Som as “the New Queer Voice of Indie Rock,” and Vice featured Duterte in a 2017 article titled “The Defiant Sound of Asian-American Women in Indie Rock.” Her Oberlin performance, which was co-sponsored by the Filipinx American Student Association and the Asian American Alliance, shone a spotlight on Duterte’s cool, ethereal musical style. In anticipation of Jay Som’s wide appeal for the Oberlin community, most of the tables in the space had been cleared away in advance of the performance to make room for a standing audience. Given that hundreds of students confirmed their attendance at the show or expressed their interest on Facebook, the Cat in the Cream was right to predict that this would be a popular event.

The lights around the packed room faded out as College first-year Keerthi Sridharan opened the show. Stepping up with her guitar in hand, she took her place at the lone microphone in the center of the stage, immediately capturing the attention of the crowd. If this had any effect on her at all, she learned to disregard it, as she gradually strengthened her voice with each song until her whole body was an expression of the music. She swayed with her guitar, smiling and changing her expression at just the right times in a way that could make one almost believe that it was as spontaneous as it looked. By the time she played her last song, the whole crowd had begun to snap along to the beat.

Sridharan’s style, described by Cat in the Cream employees in advance of the event as “sweet queer indie,” could easily be compared to artists like Ingrid Michaelson or Corinne Bailey Rae. Flowing and calm, the songs themselves gave off an acoustic feel, even though her instrument clearly was not. The organic nature of this music was perhaps its greatest strength, and the performance itself felt reminiscent of informal musical gatherings, like small basement jam sessions. Between each song, a few especially enthusiastic voices could be heard shouting out encouragement above the cheering crowd.

After a brief interlude, Duterte took the stage, strumming a single chord on her guitar to catch the audience’s attention before greeting us with a flat “hey.” From the beginning, she brought a very distinct vocal style to her performance, intentionally overemphasizing the end of each line and generally finishing the songs with an abrupt halt at the final note. When paired with her guitar instrumentation, this created an excellent effect that added emphasis and drama to the tone of her music.

Duterte’s finest song of the night was “Ticket,” where the strength of both her vocals and guitar seemed to peak. This was a song full of powerful emotion, and her skill in performance was particularly evident in how she could convey what she was feeling as easily as if she were having a conversation with everyone in the room, and the last notes of the song lingered in the air like the heat of a doused flame.

Appropriately for a show taking place the weekend before Valentine’s Day, many of Duterte’s songs thematically focused on love and romance. While some of her songs drew on broad ideas like passion or infatuation, it was the way she drew on small, specific, tender moments that really made her lyrics come to life. In her song “SLOW,” she sings “Show me which way to go / Lead me and we’ll take it slow / Sneaking in your parents’ bed / Laughing ‘til our faces turn red,” weaving images through her music for the audience to enjoy. As the Cat in the Cream described in their event posting, “this show is for LOVERS,” and Duterte more than delivered on this promise. If Saturday night’s show was any indication, then Oberlin students should look forward to more great songwriting and clever instrumentation from Jay Som as she continues her artistic career.

One of the highlights of the evening was how well Duterte and Sridharan’s music complimented each other. The two artists shared enough traits to hold common ground, and it would have been difficult to draw any sort of line that could separate the genres of one performer from the other. However, their stylistic contrasts contributed to a whole that was even greater than the sum of its two excellent parts.