By A.C. Kruse-Ross
2014 looks to be a year of firsts for Jessica Hernandez. In March, the singer/song-writer performed to audiences outside the U.S. for the first time, at Mexico City’s Vive Latinos festival.
This year will also mark the S.W. Detroit native’s first visit to Titletown as she headlines the Near Water Concert Series at the Meyer Theatre on May 20 with her backing band, the Deltas.
But 2014 may also be a year of lasts for Jessica Hernandez. Blessed with a sultry voice, reminiscent of Amy Winehouse, her songs incorporate catchy lyrics and infectious tunes churned out by a Deltas band capable of setting her creativity aloft to elevated sonic heights, one can’t help wonder if 2014 will be the last year audiences across the U.S. will get to see Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas perform in such intimate settings.
Scene: I understand you’ve just returned from out of the country, was that in Mexico and was that business or pleasure?
Jessica Hernandez: It was mostly business. I was doing a music festival in Mexico City called Vive Latino. So that was the main point of the trip. I played with some friends, like the Deltas, I guess for that festival. A bunch of my friends are actually from Mexico City, I just thought it would be a cool thing to do, it was kind of a last minute offer with little planning … it was either fly by myself or don’t do it and I was lucky enough to have a lot of newly-great friends in Mexico City that play in other bands that were in the festival and they said, ‘Come on down and let us be your backing band, it’ll be a fun once in a lifetime kinda thing,’ and it ended up being really cool.
Scene: I’d like to step back to the beginning a bit, I understand that you don’t have any formal musical training and taught yourself to play piano and guitar?
JH: That’s right.
Scene: Can I ask how old you were when that started?
JH: I was actually a little older. I’ve always sang and started dabbling and getting in bands when I was in high school, but I was way too shy to ever do a show, though. So, I didn’t really do anything with it and then when I was in college I was in a couple bands and we started doing weird little shows on campus … and I began to get frustrated [with band mates] because I would have all these ideas and since I didn’t play an instrument, none of them listened to any of my ideas. So I quit the bands and was like ‘I need to start writing my own music because I’ve got all these ideas and I don’t know how to write them on paper or how to record them.’ So, I was probably about 18 or 19 and I bought an acoustic guitar and I bought a funny midi keyboard to plug into my computer and I taught myself a few chords everyday. I started recording right when I would learn the chord and then I would like copy and paste stuff.
So, I’d be like, ‘Today I’m going to learn E minor, A major and a C,’ and I’d record those three chords and then paste it together and then I’d write a song and kind of Frankenstein it (laughs). I couldn’t even really play yet, but I had these ideas and I wanted so badly to hear them recorded. I’d hear the melody and then I’d find the chords that I wanted to hear and then add the vocals and make a funny drumbeat with whatever weird things I could find in the house. It was cool, because now I love recording and production and mixing and I think that is because as I was learning to write and play instruments, I was also learning how to mic things … [learning] what weird things I could do to make stuff sound better with the equipment I had.
Scene: This wasn’t a prepared question, but you mention being too shy to perform early on. I don’t pick that up at all from today’s performances from you. May I ask, how you got over that shyness? Or have you gotten over it?
JH: To be honest, I’m still really shy.
JH: I think, and I find this with people too, just within social events — sometimes I find that the people that think they are the most socially awkward are the most outgoing people because they’re trying to overcompensate for what’s happening in their minds and it makes them talk more and be more social because they’re so worried about seeming awkward.
I feel like it’s that way with performing. I’m so scared of looking nervous. Once I get on stage there’s this weird transformation where how nervous I am gives me a boost of adrenaline to just go for it. I feel like if I wasn’t that scared and didn’t get that much anxiety before a show it would be like too comfortable … that boost of adrenaline from doing something that is a little intimidating, I feel pushes me.
Scene: I think I can understand that. I’ve been speaking with performers for some time now, and I still get nervous. I was nervous before calling you.
Scene: That adrenaline, though, would you say that is the key that let’s you know that you’re enjoying what you do?
JH: Exactly, it’s like riding a rollercoaster … if you weren’t really fucking scared it wouldn’t be fun.
Scene: Creatively, you’re all over the place — kind of a creative force if you will. Obviously you’re into music but you’re also into writing, photography … I understand you design some of your own clothes. Would you say that those interests play a part in how you approach your music or your songwriting, or do they assist you in any way musically?
JH: Um, yeah, I think all those things go hand in hand. I think in developing — and I don’t want to say ‘developing an image,’— but when you’re writing and you’re creating all these things they end up having weird similarities. When I’m making a costume, I think because it’s all coming from the same creative point, somehow my outfit matches the sound. It’s a weird thing that is unintentional, but because it is all coming from the same point they end up having the same vibe, which I think is cool and important for a lot of artists to dabble in that. I feel like some people don’t know what would happen if they tried to make their own clothes or make their own videos and try that sort of stuff.
Scene: Would it be safe then, if I understand you right, to say that because you are dabbling in these things you are more or less just being true to yourself with the creative endeavors? It doesn’t sound like you’ve got someone telling you, ‘Hey, Jessica you’ve got to wear this on stage tonight.’ Is that the case?
JH: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s really cool to not … well, sometimes I feel the pressure from people to do that. A lot of artists feel pressure to go above and beyond what everyone else is doing. There’s the pressure of, ‘I need to have the coolest outfits on stage right now,’ and ‘I need to have the top stage production right now,’ and I’m not going to lie, I definitely feel that pressure … I’ve had people tell me that I need to wear more makeup or I need to do my hair better or whatever, but I don’t care about that. That’s not my personality. I’m kind of a messy, sloppy girl. Yeah, I like to look pretty, I’m a girl, but I’ve always been more of a tomboy. For me now, as in becoming a performer, my interpretation of what I think is cool, it’s even hard for me. I constantly have to talk myself out of going down that route of getting sucked into what other people want to see and what other people expect.
When you do it yourself, you’re constantly learning about yourself and becoming a better artist because you’re forced to compete with these other people that have an insane team picking out everything they’re doing and mapping out every move. I feel like there’s something so empowering to do it on your own and get to the point where you’re still competitive within it.
Scene: I think once you start walking down the road of letting people tell you what to do it never ends.
Scene: When you start letting people say, ‘Hey Jessica we need you to start wearing this shade of lipstick,’ it won’t end. I don’t have that problem, nobody tells me what kind of lipstick to wear.
JH: Yeah (laughing). Even in Mexico, I had some people that were working on a team and they were like, ‘Your hair is messy, we need to straighten your hair, it doesn’t look good curly. You don’t wear enough makeup.’ It messes with me too in the sense of thinking like, damn, if people were telling me this … like think about the pressure that any normal person feels every day … it’s a real thing … They look at you like a product. You’re what is making the company money and how are we going to make you the best product to sell to the other people? But for me, music is my passion, but I also don’t really give a fuck about being famous. If it happens, that’s cool and if I can make money doing it, then that’s cool but at the end of the day, I would not be heartbroken if in five years I wasn’t at the point or making enough money to keep going forever. I’d be totally content making music in my basement and having some kids and getting married. I think that’s what makes me fearless in it though. For me, it isn’t an end all situation where if things don’t work out it’s the end of the world.
Scene: Well, I think the music scene could certainly use more people doing what they feel they should be doing as opposed to executives telling them what they need to be.
Moving on to the new EP: when people describe, or try to describe, a Jessica Hernandez show you’ll hear references to The Rolling Stones, they talk about some rockabilly influences, hints of Nick Cave, they’ll make Billie Holiday references and mention some of the jazzier things you do and then your voice is compared to that of Amy Winehouse. If you had to encapsulate what the Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas sound is, how would you do that?
JH: I always tell people its dark soul, um …
Scene: That’s a good answer. It may have seemed a slightly loaded question.
Scene: Now for influences, are there too many to mention?
JH: There are, but I think the dark soul comes from a place of me liking a lot of darker music. You mentioned Nick Cave and I really love Nick Cave and I really love Tom Waits and Kate Bush and a lot more gothic-style music and gothic-style folk music and then I also listen to a lot of soul, a lot of funk and a lot of Motown and a lot of country actually … not current country, I don’t listen to Garth Brooks but I do listen to Woody Guthrie. I think having listened to a lot of old soul singers and then being influenced by the more current, dark artists, I think it’s a mix of the two.
Scene: The new EP, ‘Demons’ has five tracks, I’m wondering how difficult it was for you to narrow your selection of songs down to five tracks? Was that difficult for you?
JH: Honestly, putting the EP together was easier for me than putting together the full-length. I think there’s something less intimidating and maybe a little less expectation with an EP. With an EP, people know it’s just like a sample or a preview of what’s to come where as the full-length is like, ‘This is it,’ and there are more expectations.
With the fives songs too, I knew going in that I wanted it to be a little bit darker and it was really easy for me to pick which songs I had recorded that fit that vibe.
I’m having a much harder time with the full-length.
Scene: And do we have a date for the follow-up?
JH: Yeah, we’re looking at a date sometime around August 20th or somewhere around there.
Scene: And do we have a working title or will this be a full-length extension of ‘Demons’?
JH: Yeah, it’s actually called ‘Secret Evil.’
Scene: I love this exclusive content.
I’d like to talk about your backing band, the Deltas. I understand they’re made up of accomplished jazz musicians.
JH: Yeah, they’re amazing.
Scene: They are. How did you hook up with them and does having this sort of experience backing you, does that free you up in your songwriting?
JH: For sure. It makes it so much easier for me. First of all, they’re all friends of mine from home and the Detroit area. They all played for other bands and then we’d play a show together. One of the guys works at the recording studio that I’m always in recording ideas and the music scene is so small, were all just friends from home and it has worked out that I’ve found a group of guys that wanted to tour fulltime and it’s super nice for me, being a girl and managing a band and being on the road, it’s really cool for me to be with a group of guys that I’m really good friends with and not touring with a bunch of people that don’t know each other and don’t have a relationship, especially when you’re sharing beds every night and living in close quarters on the road.
Before the Deltas, I was doing a solo thing. It was just acoustic-y sort of stuff and that was just because that was what I was limited to because it was just me … without having the band to work with me, I was definitely limited, but once I started working with the band and writing parts for them it kind of changed the direction a bit because their kind of jazz take that they had on my songs pushed the songs to a whole other level. So now when I write, I write with that in mind … it adds this whole other element to the writing process, they have a big impact on how I write and it’s really cool.
Scene: Final question and then I’ll let you go. It’s very interesting getting to speak with you as you’re from Detroit and I’m actually from Flint, Mich., originally.
JH: Oh, really?
Scene: Yeah, and I used to go down to Detroit quite often and check out the bands. I don’t even know if half the venues I used to frequent are still around, but it’s kind of cool, as I consider Michigan my home. Now I’m quite fond of Detroit, but the city gets a bad rap and obviously now with the bankruptcy the city is very much in the public eye. I just wonder do you feel any extra weight put on your shoulders as someone representing The D as you do? Or, does this maybe give you a little bit of the small-dog syndrome coming from Detroit?
JH: I think that it causes a lot of eyes to be on you if you’re coming from Detroit because there is some kind of expectation, be it good or bad, and a lot of people do have their focus on Detroit right now. So, in that sense, yeah, but then I also feel like if anything, it’s done nothing but positive things for the band. People care about Detroit right now and most people want to see it do well and see it prosper, so I think it’s exciting for people to see good things coming from Detroit. So, I think in that sense it’s been really good for the band and it feels really good for us representing the city in some sort of positive way. n
For more information visit jessicahernandez.com
The new EP “Demons” is available on iTunes
More information and tickets: meyertheatre.org or ticketstaronline.com