Jessica Hernandez On Her New Motor City Sound

Jul 23, 2017
Originally published on July 29, 2017 3:14 pm

There's no doubt that music is in the DNA of the city of Detroit. People around the world know this Michigan city for the classic Motown sound; the city also nurtured a vital rock scene and is often cited as the birthplace of techno. But along with Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Iggy Pop and Eminem, an up-to-date roll call of Detroit's music scene would have to include Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas.

Hernandez is a Detroit native, the daughter of a Cuban father and a Mexican-American mother. She and The Deltas have been making gritty, soulful music in their local scene for a while now — but on their latest record, they tried something a little different. The band released two albums simultaneously: Telephone in English and Teléfono in Spanish.

As part of Weekend All Things Considered's trip to Detroit for the 50th anniversary of the 1967 riots, NPR's Michel Martin spoke with Hernandez about the city's influence on her sound and why she felt it was important to make her new music bilingual. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read on for highlights.


Interview Highlights

On the many musical influences she drew from her family and her city

I grew up in a household with a father who was Cuban but came to the States in the '60s when he was really young, so he grew up in the '70s punk and garage-rock scene that was really flourishing at the time. So he was huge into Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop and MC5 and all the things that you think of when you think of Detroit rock music. ... And then my mom's young — we're only about 19 years apart — so for her, she was introducing me to The Cure and Joy Division and '80s new wave. And then my grandmother on my father's side, who's Cuban, was introducing me to salsa and merengue ... and then my mom's parents, who are Mexican-American, grew up in Detroit through the '50s and '60s, and they had The Four Tops and Temptations [and] Supremes playing at their high-school dances.

On developing her own sound

Because I had so many influences ... I had a really hard time deciding what I wanted to be as a person and an artist. And I think once I stopped trying to figure it out and just told myself, "Write whatever you wanna write, whatever you're feeling that day. Let it happen. If it's a salsa song, cool; if it's an R&B song, cool." ... Once I let go of trying to define myself and my music, it definitely made it a little all over the place, but it also felt way more natural.

On why she decided to create a double, bilingual album

One of the big things was really my family. I think my grandmother — it was a hard thing for us, with wanting to get closer and with the language barrier. I speak Spanish and she speaks English, but my Spanish isn't great, her English isn't great ... And she's always said, "I want you to sing in Spanish so I can understand what you're singing about ... I want to be able to enjoy it in a different way than listening to your music in English."

And then I think with everything going on today, too — I think it was even more of a reason for me to want to kind of tap into my own heritage, feel more connected with who I am. ... A lot of my fans are Hispanic Americans: Puerto Rican Americans, Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans. And they come to concerts, and I've had younger girls come up to me and say, like, "You've helped me feel comfortable with being Mexican-American. And I've wanted to reject being Mexican because I wanna be American, I wanna be accepted as an American. I'm proud to be here and have my citizenship, but I also feel sad that I'm not able to embrace where I'm from, and where my parents are from." ... And so I feel like that was something that really pushed me to want to do something like that.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally, we've been trying to take a look at everything that makes Detroit Detroit. But you can't talk about what makes Detroit Detroit without talking about music, so we've been checking out the music scene. And in that search, we found Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAUGHT UP")

JESSICA HERNANDEZ AND THE DELTAS: (Singing) Take all the money. You can keep your lovely times. I was left on the corner with my heart unsatisfied. I've got colder playing to myself.

MARTIN: Hernandez is a Detroit native, but her father didn't come from Mississippi or Alabama like so many Detroit emigres. He came to the U.S. from Cuba, where he met her Detroit-born Mexican-American mother. Now, Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas are a fixture on the Detroit music scene. But on their latest record, they do something a little different. The group released two albums simultaneously, one in English and one in Spanish - "Telephone" and "Telefono." We asked Jessica to stop by WDET earlier this week, and I asked her to describe her sound.

JESSICA HERNANDEZ: Latin, punk, Motown, soul, kind of a little bit of everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOT DAMN")

JESSICA HERNANDEZ AND THE DELTAS: (Singing) Hot damn. Cold heart. I'm sweating on your parts (ph). My love, I'm told I'm damned, but I'm still bold.

MARTIN: When you were kind of trying to figure out what you were going for, you know, what would you say you were looking to say?

HERNANDEZ: I think I had a really hard time, to be honest. And it's something that I just now am starting to feel comfortable and confident with within my own music. But, you know, I think because I had so many influences, I was like, well, who am I? What defines me? Like, am I defined by my Cuban heritage, my Mexican heritage, my American heritage, my Detroit heritage? And so I had a really hard time deciding, like, what I wanted to be as a person and an artist. Once I kind of let go of trying to define myself and my music, it definitely made it a little all over the place, but it also felt way more natural.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUN TOO FAR")

JESSICA HERNANDEZ AND THE DELTAS: (Singing) But it seems you live without the need to ever seem to get. If you run too far, oh, he's only going to come for another day, oh, another way.

MARTIN: When you were talking about this album, you were saying that you want to redefine what it means to be an American. And I wonder in some way, do you kind of want to redefine what the Detroit sound might be? Because I think for a lot of people around the country, really around the world, Motown defines the traditional - the classic Motown defines the Detroit sound. Clearly, that was an influence on you kind of growing up, but you want to kind of add some flavors, would you say? What - you know what I mean?

HERNANDEZ: Yeah. I mean, I think it's really hard to kind of find your own niche and have your own voice in music and in a lot of things nowadays because everything's kind of already been done. And, you know, there will never be another Motown. There will never be that era again of, like, that music and that scene and that energy. And so, yeah, for me, it's kind of like, well, how do I pay homage to, like, the things that I appreciate from that but also create my own genre and, like, my own take on, like, what it means to be a musician nowadays?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Talk to me about the decision to release an album in English in an album in Spanish. I mean, to release two sort of simultaneous albums, that's kind of a tricky and demanding maneuver, right? Tell me about that.

HERNANDEZ: Really, a lot of things kind of influenced that. I mean, one of the big things was really my family. I think my grandmother - I speak Spanish, and she speaks English. But, you know, my Spanish isn't great. Her English isn't great. So when we talk, she actually speaks to me in Spanish, and I speak to her in English. And we just understand each other. That's how we've always spoke. And she's always said, you know, I want you to sing in Spanish so I can understand what you're singing about and I can, you know, I want to be able to enjoy it in a different way than listening to your music in English.

And then, you know, I think with just, like, everything going on today too, I think it was just like even more of a reason for me to want to, like, kind of tap into my own heritage, feel more connected with who I am. And I think as I've gotten older, I don't want to lose those parts of what made growing up so special to me and to find who I am. So yeah, I feel like there's just a million things that kind of came together.

MARTIN: When you say things going on today, what do you mean by that?

HERNANDEZ: I mean, I think obviously politically. I think a lot of people - and I've seen this a lot at my shows, a lot of my fans are Hispanic-Americans, Puerto Rican-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, you know. And they come to concerts. And, you know, I've had like younger girls come up to me and say, like, you've helped me feel comfortable with being Mexican-American. And I've wanted to reject being Mexican because I want to be American. I want to be accepted as an American. Like, I'm proud to be here and have my citizenship.

But I also feel sad that I'm not able to embrace where I'm from and where my parents are from. And to me, that's like such a sad thing to feel like you're just now figuring out how to embrace that. And so I feel like that kind of was something that really pushed me to want to do something like that. Each person can define themselves and their culture in their own way.

MARTIN: So how did you do it? Did you start in English and then translate to the Spanish? Or did you start - did some songs just figure out who they wanted to be by whatever it was and then you translated it? How did that work?

HERNANDEZ: I started in English. I wrote the album in English first.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELEPHONE")

JESSICA HERNANDEZ AND THE DELTAS: (Singing) My love, you never make it easy. You never like the telephone.

HERNANDEZ: And then I actually had the help of a lot of friends in Mexico City. You know, my Spanish, I'd say I'm like 75 percent fluent. But as far as writing and coming across, you know, the same way - you know, I spend a lot of time writing in English. And it's something that's very thought out. So with Spanish, I definitely needed the help and guidance from some friends to make sure it was coming across in the same way, so.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELEFONO")

JESSICA HERNANDEZ AND THE DELTAS: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTIN: So do people just go crazy when you switch it up like that in performance? Do people just go crazy? Do they just lose their minds?

HERNANDEZ: Yeah. It's exciting to see what city - obviously, different cities respond differently, but it's been a great reaction and a great response everywhere. But yeah, it's exciting.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, Jessica, you know, there's no - there is no doubt that music is in Detroit's DNA. I mean, I wanted to ask you, as a native, as an insider, is there something that people don't know about?

HERNANDEZ: I think people are always surprised to see how kind of inclusive the music scene is here. I think that it's one of the few cities that I've been in and performed in where you can have one show in a warehouse that is packed with people. It's like an unknown show. And you have a jazz group playing with a rap group playing with a soul group playing with an EDM group. And everyone's excited. I mean, people here just really love music. And it's not about, like, what the genre is. And people are just really supportive of each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JESSICA HERNANDEZ AND THE DELTAS: (Singing) Love is a terrible thing to waste.

MARTIN: That was Jessica Hernandez from Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas talking to us about her latest albums, "Telephone" and "Telefono."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JESSICA HERNANDEZ AND THE DELTAS: (Singing) Try - I try to hold... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.