Jessica Hernandez said she was having a dream about being interviewed when Paste called her at her home in Metro, Detroit. It was high-noon on a weekday when we woke her; the singer/songwriter was resting to remedy a cold she’d picked up at the tail end of her formidably busy spring and early summer.
Along with The Deltas (Taylor Pierson/John Raleeh on horns, Stephen Stetson on drums, Michael Krygler on guitar and Steve Lehane on bass), Hernandez has been running seemingly non-stop. The ensemble, complete with Hernandez on keys/guitar and lead vocals, recently toured the west coast throughout late winter, stopping at SXSW and, later, down to a huge festival gig in Mexico City. In fact, she’s toured regularly even while wrapping up all the post-production work for her first full length album entitled Secret Evil, out Aug. 19 via Instant Records.
She’s got a few days to rest this week, but she’s one who hates being bored.
Hernandez has always been busy. She’s been singing since she was three, (her staggeringly beautiful singing voice deceives, as she’s had no formal training). She balanced her studies with singing in the choir and performing in every school musical. When she wasn’t in school, she helped her parents in the family bakery located in southwest Detroit.
More on that work-ethic: Hernandez is self-taught on everything. She started getting serious about music after high school. She taught herself guitar, keys and, more recently, drums, while penning notebooks worth of experimental folk songs through her late teens and early 20s.
“With every recording I’ve learned more about what I want to do,” says Hernandez, “but, then, also, what I should have done. By putting out so many weird E.P.’s by myself early on, it helped me learn what I should be doing for ( Secret Evil).”
Her style so far has been, in a word, a smorgasbord. Some songs harken to an old world cabaret only to be kicked up by a meaner, modern indie-rock, while other songs strike a candlelit lounge-pop aesthetic electrified by weird synth effects and danceable rhythms. Hernandez has been consistently expanding her sound, leading into an adventurous amalgam of blues, vocal jazz and neo-soul that ever-sharpens the chip on its shoulder with a ratcheting of rock.
Her voice is both smoky and scintillating; a tremendous and delicate instrument that flickers and flares at the center of it all.
But, her speaking voice, however horse from this fading cold, is higher, softer and affably toned, laughing easy and eager to converse. It begs the perfunctory question about the album title’s suggestion of “Evil. “
But first, about that inherently theatrical sound of hers, with hints of jazz and blues and that soulful singing voice; it evokes a music made to be framed by crimson curtains and flashes of footlights. “Yeah,” she says, “I was such a theatre-dork in high school. I just loved that type of expression, that performance. I think that’s why I’m drawn to Tom Waits and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. I love their music, but I just love showmanship. Theatrical performers, really; I love Kate Bush. I love artists who incorporate that theatrical persona into what they do. So, I like songs that might not be the catchiest songs but take you on some weird journey, not to sound cheesy.”
Don’t worry, we asked her for her favorite musical and she chose Pippin, for which she was cast in school, as the scheming Queen Fastrada. “I always was cast as the villain in everything,” she says, chuckling.
So, we come back to that Secret Evil, part. “Coming from that perspective, yeah, of being perceived as super-nice while the songs on Secret Evil were written a long time ago back when I was really just not doing the best things, just, being in my early 20s, figuring myself out and doing stuff I that I definitely wouldn’t do now. I don’t know. I look more evil than I am…”
She sounded self-conscious over picking a “cheesy” phrase like taking us, the listeners, on some kind of “journey.” But, that’s truly at the heart of her lyrics, woven together with a ponderous wanderlust, contemplating her home, her ambitions and the expectations, not just those she holds for herself but what others might cast upon her.
Listen close to the lyrics of Secret Evil and it is of a voice that’s fighting against a frame, defying expectations and trying on many costumes. In fact, one of those “weird EPs” she’d mentioned having self-released back in 2010, was tellingly titled Weird Looking Woman In Too Many Clothes, with extraneous wardrobe as a metaphor for searching for one’s identity while also quipping on her studies in fashion design back at Columbia College in Chicago.
“That’s why I like touring so much,” she said, responding about her lyric’s sense of yearning to explore “I’m happier doing that than feeling trapped or stuck; I’ve always been that way. My friends and family tell me: I don’t know how you tour so much. It must be sad, to be gone all the time and be in a van with six stinky boys, sleeping in hotels and on floors. But, to be honest, I’m happiest when I’m touring. Even if we play a small show to five people in some town in Indiana.”
For as stupendous as her singing voice is, she was actually ready to just consider music as merely a dream, something she would just do on the side between working at her parents’ bakery. But, when she got a call on her cell phone from the iconic jazz label Blue Note Records after they had heard her sing, that was the reassuring sign she was on to something, boosting her to take music from being a dream into more of a reality.
The band worked some new material last year before heading into the studio with Grammy award winning producer Milo Froideval. Some material from her past “weird E.P.” got a proper reworking for Secret Evil.
And so the dream comes true. Hernandez is now working on music full time with The Deltas hitting the road for a tour supporting Secret Evil. throughout the summer and into early Autumn. Wish them well.