Stop me if you've heard this one before — there's a hot soul band coming out of Detroit, led by a charismatic young singer with a powerhouse voice.
While on paper Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas might sound like the same old story coming out of a city with a rich musical legacy, this is a band that combines a deep knowledge of that history with their own unique take on soul-driven rock 'n' roll.
Hernandez is, of course, a dazzling singer in the first-degree, capable of throwing down pulsating directives during rollicking numbers like "No Place Left to Hide" and "Dead Brains," but also slowing things down to a teasing halt on soulful, gut-wrenching ballads such as "Cry Cry Cry" and "Lovers First." Comparisons to Adele are apt and well-deserved.
But she and her crack six-piece backing band are far more adventurous than the garage-rooted soul of the Alabama Shakes or the studied revivalism of the Daptones, and as such defy easy categorization. For The Deltas, funky R&B numbers line themselves with crackling energy, only to be diverted into surf-rock asides or psychedelic digressions. One moment, the background vocalists give off a '60s girl-group vibe and splashes of organ and horns cut through like a modern-day Stax session group. Next thing you know, they're playing wayward Balkan folk. Above all, this is a band that feels comfortable in its own shoes.
According to Hernandez, though, the group gradually grew into itself. "The guys are all friends of mine," she says on a rare day off from touring. "When I started playing in 2009, I was just playing around town, and I opened up for their bands a lot."
As word of Hernandez's vocal prowess and songwriting began to grow, however, her profile and gigs gradually grew and she started itching for a band to play with. "I kind of started individually picking friends of mine who were really good players around the city to play a show or two here," Hernandez recalls. "There was a big festival, so I figured it would be cool to have a band playing my songs with me. It went over so well that I fell in love with the idea and couldn't go back to playing acoustic shows anymore."
As it turns out, most of the other members were down for touring hard as well, and the Deltas — a reference not to the Mississippi blues tradition but rather an old drummer's small family car — were born. The group didn't start out with a set sound, although Hernandez's writing and vocals clearly provided the groundwork for their approach.
"I don't feel pressure to do that style of music. It's just what I enjoy," Hernandez shrugs. "It's most of what I listen to, and I think that comes across in my songwriting."
"Once I started writing, I think I figured out how my voice sounds," she adds. "No matter what I sing, it's going to sound like soul. I could sing 'Happy Birthday,' it doesn't matter, that's how it will come out."
Even so, the group's 2013 EP Demons was a noir-influenced take on the genre that played with lurching rhythms and a moodier atmosphere. That grit gets replaced by a more polished and driving sound on their debut LP Secret Evil, which arrived on Instant Records late last year.
"With [Secret Evil], I still feel like there's a bit of other things mixed in," Hernandez says. "I intentionally left the door open to wiggle around a bit. At the end of the day, we know that the vocals are going to bridge the songs together. It almost gives us more freedom to do whatever we want musically, to get weird with it and get in the psychedelic realm."
Jessica Hernandez and the Deltas already had a rising profile, but the new album seems to have been a tipping point. The record earned them a feature on NPR's Weekend Edition and a performance on the Late Show with Dave Letterman, and this summer they're heading to Europe for the first time as openers for Social Distortion.
Hernandez admits to being a little nervous about opening for the seminal punk rockers, particularly for her group's first tour of the continent, but is relatively blasé about the rest of it.
"I feel like the whole time from me starting until now has been a very organic, slowly growing process," she muses. "We're still on the road so much that it's hard to notice what's going on or focus on anything else."