Jessica Hernandez on the verge
Working on her major label debut, anticipating the national scene ... can you blame her if she's a little nervous?
Published: July 18, 2012
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."
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