Jennifer Westwood and the Handsome Devils sound like they made a serendipitous wrong turn on their way to the juke joint and wound up in a countrypolitan cathedral instead. It's beautiful and ever so haunting. Westwood's voice is sexy and strong as it applies the seduction over the band's groove and thoughtful reserve. The road is the band's home, but so is the Motor City — when it's not playing "spin the odometer" some 200-odd nights a year.
Westwood got her start in church before graduating to session work with artists like soulster Carl Carlton, all the while being drawn to roots-rock and the blues.
And the Handsome Devils lay it down as pretty as their golden haired captain. It's honky-tonk with a little less honky. It's atmospheric yet immediate and approachable. It packs a wallop.
City tracked down Westwood on a 23-day tour somewhere between nowhere and East Jesus. We talked about church, Detroit, and how wrong feels so right. An edited transcript follows.
City: How much church is still in your music?
Jennifer Westwood: There is plenty of church in the music I perform still. It's more recognizable in the energy we bring to shows as a band; the singing style as well as the freshness we try to bring to songs in the performance. We feed off of the energy of the moment and enjoy experiencing that with whoever may be listening.
Has this led to any conflict in or around you?
I still have an appreciation for the emotional energy of a rowdy Sunday morning, but I also like to poke fun at the seriousness sometimes interjected into all that. There was a show my parents were at where I was essentially preaching to the crowd and getting them all worked up while at the same time being a little flirty. I looked at my mom in the front row and saw her smiling ear to ear which to me was a giant seal of approval. I realize there are people that will be highly offended by a performance like that and have braced myself for the backlash. So far we've only gotten smiles and hugs from people that grew up in the Holy Roller tradition.
What's your earliest memory of music?
One of my earliest memories of music outside of the church setting was seeing an Al Green performance on TV. It got my attention straight away. That is swimming at the top of my head because of the previous question and I am thinking how I would like to visit his church someday. I also will never forget my folks taking me to see the musical "Annie" when I was 6. I remember Miss Hannigan belting and the whole thing blew my mind.
Every style of music has an element of wrong to it. What is your wrong?
There is alcohol involved with what we do. We enjoy having a church-style performance in a bar. Some people may find that to be wrong.
How do you maintain such a rural, rootsy sound while living in Detroit?
I think "rootsy" is the key word. Detroit is the heart of the rustbelt. People from rural communities have come here for decades in search of jobs in manufacturing and of course brought their culture and music along with them. The most famous of which is U.S. 23, the country music highway. You blend that with Detroit's trademark fluctuation of fortune and misfortune and you get a melting pot of realness. It's got to bubble up in your art.
What is the common thread throughout your music?
The common thread in the music is the authenticity and rawness. We aren't exactly country, especially by today's understanding of what that is. There is also no way to get away from the gospel element; it's key. And after years of working with musicians that did not get it or want anything to do with it, this is priceless for me.
What do you love about Detroit?
We have grit. There is an attitude of "Try me, and see if I can't." The cards clearly aren't stacked in our favor but whining is frowned upon. You have to work hard for anything you want to do in Detroit creatively but there is nothing really holding you back if you set your mind to it. It is a magnet for those with a pioneering spirit and takes many by surprise. It draws a special breed. Besides that, I grew up here and have fond memories everywhere.
What do you love about the road?
I love being on the road because you are able to focus mostly on one thing; performing. That and the opportunity to make every show better than the last, night after night.