Detroit has no shortage of musical talent and legacies: McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and jazz. Diana Ross and The Supremes and Motown. The Belleville Three and techno. Eminem and rap. MC5 and rock.
Add Jessica Hernandez and dark soul dance music to that list.
Hernandez’s deep, sultry voice draws obvious comparisons to Amy Winehouse, but this chanteuse is more Gwen Stefani with a Detroit edge. She’s made an art out of songs that may sound bubbly but have dark undertones — or on the flip side songs that sound dark but have a positive message. She likes to strike that balance in her music. Hard to believe it was just a few years ago that she decided to pursue music seriously and started to teach herself, learning songs on acoustic guitar by Neil Young, Elliott Smith, and Leonard Cohen.
That fearlessness has gotten her to where she is now. In order to snag a headlining spot at the 2009 Dally in the Alley festival in Midtown, Hernandez, 27, lied about having a full band and quickly put together one to land the gig.
There have been bumps along the way. There’s the show in St. Louis where no one showed up and they made up songs about alien poop.
“The most ridiculous show ever,” says Hernandez, who was born in Detroit, grew up in Mexicantown, and went to high school in West Bloomfield.
Then there was the issue a few years ago with their record label, Blue Note. Hernandez had made a record for the label, which got bought out by Warner Brothers. Before the ink dried on the deal, Don Was, the head of the label at the time, called Hernandez and gave her two choices, she recalls.
“I just kind of had to make a gut decision if I wanted to hang around and see what happened and if I just wanted to take my record and run and figure it out,” she says.
And that’s what she did. She started shopping the record around, got a new team and management, and walked away from the big label deal — the dream of any aspiring musician or band — to start over and do it her way.
Secret Evil — the Deltas’ debut album that shows off Hernandez’s diverse range, dabbling into different genres including garage rock, blues, modern indie pop, and gypsy carnival, just to name a few — dropped last year on indie label Instant Records.
These days it seems Jessica Hernandez and The Deltas — named after a car one of the members used to drive — are on the road headed toward rock stardom. The past year saw their TV debut with an electrifying performance on Late Show with David Letterman. This spring they embarked on their first European tour supporting punk rock band Social Distortion. They’re slated to play Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza. They’re also working on material for the next album, and for the first time, her band mates will help with songwriting.
Despite spending the majority of her time on the road, Detroit is and always will be Hernandez’s home base, she says. Her family lives here, and after talking to her for just a short time, it’s apparent that her love of family is one of her driving forces. They’re one of the reasons why she came back to Detroit after dropping out of college in Chicago to pursue music. Most parents would be less than pleased with their child dropping out, but not hers.
“They were super excited actually,” Hernandez says. She enjoyed performing in choirs and high school theater, but didn’t necessarily entertain the thought as a career. Once she decided to commit to singing, “they were like, ‘finally! We’ve been telling you for years you need to sing.’ ”
Another thing that’s important to her is putting the Motor City in a positive light. In the video for “Cry Cry Cry,” Hernandez’s parents’ bakery in Mexicantown sets the scene. “Sorry I Stole Your Man” takes place near her parents’ restaurant Armando’s. In “Dead Brains,” the band, armed with instruments, cruises Detroit in a 1967 suicide-door Lincoln Continental and performs the song in one take.
A discussion about Hernandez’s muses wouldn’t be complete without her fiancé, Kyle Straka of the “beach goth” band The Growlers. Many of her songs are like personal journal entries of their relationship. “Sorry I Stole Your Man,” is a sassy “sorry, not sorry” song about Hernandez and her fiancé leaving their respective significant others at the time to be with each other; “Young, Dumb and Drunk” was Hernandez’s reaction to Straka’s short response to her 10-page, pour-her-heart out email; and “Cry Cry Cry” is about how each of them have another lover in the relationship — music (“I’m sorry baby but I should have told you that my heart was heavy hanging on another man.”)
But there’s a happy ending. The two recently got engaged; the date is set for April 2016 in Detroit.