Conventional wisdom says that the days of the big major label contracts are over, that the only way to "make it" (whatever that means) nowadays is to "do it yourself" — to spend hours talking to potential fans on Facebook, to be your own manager, booking agent, secretary, janitor and bus driver. The labels just aren't swooping down and snatching artists from obscurity like they used to do. Or are they?
The truth, or at least the truth for Jessica Hernandez, is a little less black-and-white. Hernandez paid all of the aforementioned dues. She even went so far as to create her own venue in a space above her family's bakery. She built a stage, designed the interior, all of that. Nobody could argue that she hadn't worked at her craft by the time Blue Note Records, a jazz-themed subsidiary of Capitol (and, in turn, EMI), formed in 1939 and now home to Norah Jones among others, came calling.
Still, Hernandez isn't one to make life easy for herself and, after agreeing to fly to New York to meet with and perform for the president of the label, she promptly canceled on him. Unthinkable? Hernandez picks up the story.
"I was literally in my apartment making dinner for myself and hanging out," she says. "My cell phone rings, and it's the label's president, Ian Ralfini. We ended up getting along great. We talked about music and life. He was excited and wanted to fly me to New York to meet me. I agreed. I had met my current manager at Rust Belt Studios in Royal Oak and he was interested in working with me. I said that he could be my manager and told him about the meeting with Blue Note. He was thinking like a manager would, asking me what was I gonna do? Negotiate a record deal by myself? I was like, 'I dunno.' They told me to cancel the flight, have the label come here, we'll do it at the loft in a couple of months, they'll see me in my own environment. But to cancel a meeting with a label like that? I was crapping my pants."
A little back-story: Jessica Hernandez, 24, grew up in West Bloomfield, the first-generation American daughter of a Mexican mother and Cuban father. She lived above her family's restaurant from an early age, and worked in the family bakery from third grade. She says that she was a total band geek at school.
"I was in choirs growing up since grade school, professional choirs when I was young, and I did a lot of theater in high school," Hernandez says. "I started singing and dance and stuff in college. I was definitely a band geek in high school. Choir kid, theater kid, I'd start singing in rock bands in college when I was living in Chicago."
Being surrounded by Mexican and Cuban family members, the music of both of those cultures naturally had a big impact on a young Hernandez. "A lot of my influences come from my upbringing and the music that I was surrounded by," she says. "I'm first-generation American, my father came from Havana. There was a lot of Latin music around the house growing up. Michigan's weird, because every Cuban knows every other Cuban. If a new Cuban moved into the area, my grandma's the lady that finds them, brings them to the house and throws parties for them, just because they're Cuban. It's pretty ridiculous. She's always inviting everybody to everything. So I was definitely surrounded by that culture."
In 2008, Hernandez started taking music seriously, still not daring to dream that a major label would be calling her up in a few short years. She settled on the band name of the "Deltas," not because of any association with Delta blues, but because of an old car.
"I actually picked it at the last minute," she says. "We played our first show at Dally in the Alley, and at that time I didn't have a band name. I intended to do that one show, then take some time to get comfortable, write more songs. After that show though, we kept getting offers and I kept wanting to play. I decided that we had to come up with a band name, and we decided on Jessica Hernandez and the 'somethings.' We spent a whole weekend texting each other, and it ended up just being a joke between us, like somebody would say 'Jessica Hernandez & the Dildos.' Finally, my drummer at the time had an '87 Delta car, this green car that was sitting in his front yard. He suggested Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas. Everybody liked it because it had an old-school vibe to it. I liked how it sounds, so it stuck."
The band — completed by the core lineup of Ben Sturley (bass), Taylor Pierson (keys), Steve Stetson (drums) and Gordon Smith (guitar) — is now Hernandez's full-time concern, as she looks to put all of her energy into ensuring that the first album comes out exactly as she wants it to.
"I was working pretty much until the day I got signed, but then I decided to focus on the music," Hernandez says. "It's like an energy shift. Right before I signed the deal, everything was leading up to that point. There was a weird middle point where I was anxious to get going and I was still working. Doing stuff at home, working for my dad. Right after I signed the deal, I stopped doing everything and started making sure the songs were where I wanted them. I started doing my research with producers, traveling and meeting different people, really figuring out what I wanted the record to sound like."
Ah, yes, the record. Hernandez spent a good while looking for the right producer, eventually settling on Milo Froideval from Mexico City.
"I was meeting a bunch of different producers and trying to find someone that I really connected with, who understood my vision," she says. "There's a lot of gypsy and Latin influence with my writing, and there's a lot of things I wanted to do to push it more in that direction with this first record. A lot of producers I was meeting didn't really understand my concepts and my direction. I ended up going with a producer from Mexico City, which is really cool. Even though the songs are in English, he totally understood what I was going for."
Hernandez says that the songwriting comes from deep within her, and the influences that she pulls from elsewhere have more to do with performance and delivery. "I try not to listen to music and be too influenced by anyone," she says. "I try to stay in my little bubble. I try not to listen to new music, because I just get frustrated. I listen to a lot of old stuff. I'm really inspired by Eugene Hutz [Gogol Bordello], Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Tom Waits. The energy is very theatrical. There's a darkness, but they're still fun. I incorporate that dark, theatrical side of their personalities more than anything. I write about everything."
And as Hernandez explains, "everything" is channeled through an assortment of friends; she sings vicariously through them if they're feeling something that she isn't.
"Sometimes I don't have a personal experience, but I have so many close friends who have as many stories to tell as I do," she says. "A song that will be on the new album called 'Caught Up,' I couldn't connect with. It's this angry, pissed-off chick-rock surf song. At the time, me and my boyfriend had just started dating and I was so in love. How was I going to sing this pissed-off-girl song? I didn't want to write bullshit lyrics that don't mean anything to me. I called my friend who was going through stuff with her boyfriend, so I wanted to write the song speaking through her voice. She had just gone through a divorce after leaving her husband to date another guy; they had bought a house together and he was bipolar, a crazy guy. I wanted to channel her in the song because she was so pissed-off. It was so funny because, at the end of the song, I was like, 'I fucking hate him.' So whatever is happening around me influences me. I just always try to make sure that it's real and honest, and that there's actual emotion behind it. I will never be a fan of writing songs just because it works. I can't sing it unless I mean it."
Being in a band and making it work is hard work, which makes it all the more admirable that Hernandez decided to increase her own workload by creating her own venue, right where she lives.
"I'm really into the theatrical thing," Hernandez says. "I designed the loft according to the things that I really like. There's a certain aesthetic to it that naturally matches our sound, our style, my voice, because it's all coming from the same place. The design of the space works with what we we're doing musically. Then, when people wanted to see us, they come to our venue and see us in our environment. It's a more personal thing where it was almost like they were coming into our house and enjoying a night with us."
In fact, Hernandez says that her band's best show up to now was that high-pressure Blue Note label showcase at her space.
"It wasn't necessarily the tightest show we've ever played, but it was the most memorable and exciting show for me," she says. "All the adrenalin. It was so old-school, to have a label fly in to my own venue, where I built this stage and the space, and I built this band up by myself. I did all this work, and it was a great moment of accomplishment for me. Even if nothing had happened with the label, even if they told me that they're not interested, I felt really good about getting to that point. We were interesting enough that they would make the effort to come to Detroit, to come to my space, to see me perform. The space was packed, sold out with friends, family and the whole community."
That's obviously fantastic, but the situation does prompt the question — what does a major label deal mean in these days of digital downloads, Bandcamp and Sonicbids?
"It definitely doesn't mean what it used to mean," Hernandez answers. "It's one of those things where if you wanted to live a comfortable life, you would probably not quit your day job in my position. They don't give you crazy up-front money like they used to do. It's more like, 'We'll give you a small advance to help you out with things that you need to get done while you're preparing for the record.' Obviously, there's the recording budget. It's weird though, because both the record company and my management keep telling me that deals don't happen like this anymore. I'm like, I don't know because it's not like I sign record deals all the time. I'm glad it is happening."
Detroit's own Don Was — co-leader of Was (Not Was), producer of everyone from Bonnie Raitt to the Stones — was tapped to take over as Blue Note president earlier this year. He recently referred to Hernandez as, "one of the most charming artists I've ever met."
As to her inclusion in the roster of a label often thought of as a bastion of jazz, it's also the label of Norah Jones, and Was' signings since taking over have included Van Morrison and Aaron Neville, as well as jazz icon Wayne Shorter.
"Overall, it would be a mistake to keep remaking 1960s jazz. All that stuff is available and it's the greatest catalog I think any record company has ever amassed, you know, but there's no point in remaking it over and over again," Was told Metro Times recently.
"We found the original mission statement that Alfred Lion wrote when he started the company [in 1939] and he was concerned with producing authentic music and presenting it in a non-sensationalized way. ... So we're really just looking for authentic, heartfelt music that's got integrity and we hope will be around 50 years from now."
Hernandez knows she doesn't literally fit with the traditional jazz vibe of the Blue Note.
"I was actually surprised that they were interested in having me sign to the label, only because of their roster," she says. "We're so different to anything else that they had put out. They have like Norah Jones, of the more current, bigger artists on the label. She has some contemporary aspects, but she's still soft and quiet. That's definitely not what I have happening, and that actually made me nervous.
"I felt a huge pressure to be something that I'm not. Is there going to be this huge rush of fans of the label that are going to be against me because I'm not jazzy enough? There are die-hard fans of that label because of how long it's been around. I was reading comments fans were writing about Norah Jones because of her new album, which is very pop. All these Blue Note fans were writing, 'What is this rubbish, this is not jazz.' It's still a great record, but they're not excited because it's not what they were expecting."
Hernandez has made it clear that she doesn't want to change her style and sound to suit anybody.
"The label liked some of my poppier, easier listening songs," she says. "I warned them that don't want to shift too much. I don't want to put out a straight pop record. At least, if I'm not going to do jazz, I want to do something a little experimental. Challenging for the ears. I'd rather they say, 'What the hell is that?' than just say, 'This is just not jazz.' I'd rather they be intrigued and confused than just angry that it's some straightforward rock record or whatever. It's cool having Milo Froideval in the mix. He's a classical composer, so he's talking about string arrangements, horn arrangements, all these amazing elements that we're going to incorporate. They might not be strictly jazz, but they should have elements that those fans can attach to and connect with."
Going from a local Detroit artist to a national act (while, of course, holding onto her Detroit edge) comes with its own set of new pressures.
How do you go from deciding between playing at the Lager House or Small's to taking the whole of the United States (and perhaps beyond) into account?
"It's very intimidating," she says. "I was freaking out, actually. I spent all of last week in California, trying to clear my head a little. A little calm before the storm. I'm putting the pressure on myself. My management is calm and trying to prepare me in every aspect. They've been trying to toughen me up. My label has been so amazing. I've been taken aback by how accommodating they've been. They came out here a couple of weeks ago to hang out and get to know me. To make me feel comfortable and understand what they're trying to push.
"The biggest pressure is really figuring out exactly who I want to be. How do I want people perceive me? I was stressing about it a ton at first. Finally, a lot of my friends told me that I don't need to figure anything out because the reason these people like me is that I'm myself. Being myself has gotten me a record deal and where I am now. Detroit's a great place to be for that because we've got a good support team here. Everyone is rooting for me and helping me out however they can."
If anyone can handle that sort of pressure, it's this grounded, likable young woman. She seems extremely smart, and she has surrounded herself with good people. She'll do just fine. "I'm trying not to overwhelm myself right now," she says. "I want to stay grounded and super-positive. Every day, I remind myself that this is music. I'm not performing brain surgery. This is something I love and I'm so blessed to be able to do it. I get in the moments where I do get overwhelmed and I have to give myself a pep talk. I love this, it's fun. So right now, I'm focusing on the record, doing pre-production with Milo, and then rehearsing for the show on the 20th.
That show is at the Magic Bag rather than at Hernandez's own space — a mark of progress; she'll need the extra capacity for events such as these going forward. The Ferndale venue has a cool ambience that should suit her. Hernandez says that she will be playing some of the songs from the forthcoming album at the Bag and, following the show, "We'll record for a month-and-a-half in Texas. After that, I'm sure it will be a completely different thing. But for now I want to make sure that the record is amazing."
She takes a deep breath and says, "Once I have a good record, I can move forward and do all the things that I want to accomplish."
Brett Callwood writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]