Jessica Hernandez is a singer-songwriter — but not THAT kind of singer songwriter.
She has Latin roots, but we’re not talking Selena or Shakira here.
She’s got soul (Hernandez does come from Motown, after all), but is not cookie-cutter contemporary R&B diva.
She can be as heartfelt and melodic as any pop singer out there, but she doesn’t sound like a one of them.
So if you’re trying to peg Hernandez — good freakin’ luck. Our advice instead is to just sit back and enjoy the kind of rare, genuinely individualistic artist that eschews any conventions and stylistic parameters and instead covers a lot of ground — and all of it well.
“I AM all over the place — everything from my fashion taste to my food taste to my choice of friends and groups of people that I associate myself with,” says Hernandez, who in less than three years has vaulted from late-blooming music-maker to a bona fide leading light in her home town of Detroit — and beyond, thanks to buzz-generating performances at South By Southwest and the Bonnaroo Music Festival. “I’ve never really been very distinct, so I think there’s a lot of different influences coming from a lot of different places at all times. I’m just trying to make sense of everything that’s going on in my head and then make something cohesive that people can relate to and connect with.”
Take a listen to any of the music Hernandez is making with her band, the Deltas — the songs from her debut EP, “Weird Looking Women in Too Many Clothes,” or the material she’s been recording on for her first full-length album — and you’ll hear that mission is being accomplished. In spades. A Hernandez song weaves through gypsy style violin and New Orleans-flavored horns, funky rhythm patterns and strikingly detailed dynamics. Her tunes boast a rich, three-dimensional, cinematic cascade, running from gentle and serene to dramatic, swirling crescendos that convey beauty in their near chaos.
The linchpin for all that is Hernandez’s voice, an evocative and flexible instrument saluted by Chicago.com as “pristine and clear” and by the Michigan Daily as “throaty and confident.” Real Detroit Weekly dubbed her a “powerhouse chanteuse,” and it’s that ability to convey a broad range of emotions with equal depth and impact.
“I’m trying to create songs that can make people feel really sad and really happy at the same time,” she explains. “I really like a lot of darkness and a lot of Gothic style and things that are very eerie but have a real soulful, beautiful element to them. That’s something I think is really intriguing, and that’s what I’m trying to explore.”
She’s only been doing music full-time for a few years, but Hernandez has been steeped in it her entire life. Growing up above her parents’ bakery in Detroit’s historic Mexicantown district, Hernandez was surrounded by sounds ranging from the indigenous music her grandparents brought with them from Cuba to her father’s love of classic rock and her mother’s taste from punk and New Wave from the Clash to the B-52′s, the Cure and A Flock of Seagulls. “I just had all these things coming from all different places and really loved and appreciated all of them,” says Hernandez, who embraced heavy metal and hardcore as a high school student and also gravitated towards Kate Bush, Tom Waits and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds as well as the gypsy hybrid approaches of Gogol Bordello and Man Man.
Hernandez never learned to play an instrument but kept her voice busy in musicals such as “Pippin” and “Brave New World” and in a professional youth choir she joined during middle school. She also attended Michigan’s Blue Lake fine arts camp and honed her theatrical chops in forensics tournaments. “I’ve always been passionate about music,” she says, “but somehow along the road I convinced myself it was an unrealistic career choice, and I talked myself out of pursuing that as a living.”
Instead she attended Columbia College in Chicago to study fashion design but ultimately fell in with the musical crowd. One classmate studying producing and engineering recruited her to sing on one of his projects and pointedly asked, “Why aren’t you going to school for music?” She was part of a talent contest-winning trio, and during her sophomore year Hernandez moved in with a folk musician who began teaching her to play instruments. Eventually she undeclared her major and began studying “a little bit of everything — music theory class, theater class, business class, testing waters a little bit to see if anything grabbed me before I stopped going to school.” Ultimately Hernandez decided the best education would be found out of the classroom, so she dropped out after her sophomore year.
Her subsequent travels took Hernandez to Kansas City to work with one of her Columbia associates, back home to Detroit, to Chicago again and then a return to Detroit, where she found the burgeoning independent music scene to have more nurturing potential than anywhere else she’d lived. She’d worked up a solo act by then, but a September 2009 booking at Detroit’s popular Dally In The Alley festival inspired her to put together a band, and the show was so successful that the Deltas was born.
“It was almost like a happy accident., Since then we’ve kind of just kept going full speed ahead,” says Hernandez, who’s also rooted herself in the Detroit music community by establishing a new venue, the Bakery Loft, as well as the Whole Detroit Soup meal program that raises money to help artists finance their projects.
Hernandez feels that “Weird Looking Women in Too Many Clothes” and its five songs — produced by Eric Hoegemeyer and Ben West in the Detroit area’s Rustbelt Studios — offers merely a sampling of her musical range. “It reflects a lot of who I was and who I am and all of the different sides of my personality — the weird, poppy, bubblegummy kind of stuff and then the really sad stuff and the weird gypsy stuff,” she says. “I think it was really important for me to release something like that and get all that energy out there and say, ‘This is everything that’s been inside me.’ Now that I’ve done that, I feel like I can keep moving ahead.”
Hernandez already has some four dozen songs written for her first album and hopes to add another dozen before beginning the process of winnowing down. And, fortunately, there’s been no shortage of inspiration.