Four years ago, Cuban-born musician Hector Tellez Jr. was living in Havana: playing local clubs several nights a week, delivering passionate performances of well-oiled melodic blues rock. His style, merging the grit of Muddy Waters wailing on electric guitars with the tender-hearted yet mysterious air of Jeff Buckley, was not always welcomed by the locals, however.
“In Cuba, it’s a Spanish language country, so I struggled a bit singing rock songs in English,” Tellez Jr. tells SPIN on a recent FaceTime video call from a friend’s backyard, looking every bit the brooding rocker, save for some frequent smiles. He’s wearing a cut-off muscle tee that shows off a few tattoos and a pair of round-rimmed sunglasses that look straight out of the John Lennon playbook. “There were a lot of naysayers, people who were like, ‘What do you think you’re doing? You’re Cuban; you should be singing in Spanish.’”
One of the believers was Betty Malo. The Nashville-based designer, stylist, reality TV star, and wife of The Mavericks frontman Raul Malo was visiting the country, something she often does to discover new musical talent, when she happened upon a set by Tellez Jr. at Havana’s famed Fabrica Del Arte club. “I didn’t know who he was, but I was mesmerized,” she says. “His voice draws you in as if you’ve never heard rock n roll before, and his guitar playing is a magic carpet ride Hector takes you on … I knew in three seconds he was a star.”
Soon enough, Malo signed on to be Tellez Jr.’s manager and convinced him to move to Nashville to further his career, knowing he’d fit well into the rock revival scene that has been dominating Stateside, riding on a wave of chart-toppers — like The Black Keys, Greta Van Fleet, and Jack White — who tap into a classic era. The move, though, was risky, as it would take Tellez Jr. miles away from the foundation he’d already built as an artist.
His earliest musical memories came from his father, Hector Tellez Sr., a popular Cuban bolero singer who found fame in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Tellez Jr. describes him as a “crooner, a Sinatra type,” but surprisingly admits that he never actually wanted to be like his dad.
“I was born into music, but I never wanted to be a musician. I was not into that,” he says. That was, until he was around 11 and his dad’s live performances started to resonate. “There would be lots of parties in my house. A lot of musicians would come, and they’d play songs all night. It was really amazing.”
By the time he was a teenager, Tellez Jr. was ready to pick up a guitar. “[My dad’s] a self-taught musician, so he was like, ‘I don’t know how to teach you … just look at me and try to mimic what I’m doing,’” Jr. says. He soon became obsessed with it, tapping his dad for vocal instruction when he started writing his own material.
Tellez Jr. says he’s learned 90% of what he knows from his father, as well as the hand-me-down blues tapes from his brother that were a gateway to the riffs of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Jimi Hendrix. “When I started to listen to blues,” he says, “it’s where I started to comprehend the guitar more and how you can use it as a different voice.”
Now based in Nashville, Tellez Jr. has quickly integrated into a network of musical heavyweights that he continues to glean lessons from. Through Malo, Tellez Jr. met Thirty Tigers owner David Macias, who sent the budding artist’s demos to Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees, Mad Season). It was instant musical alchemy, with Martin signing on to produce Tellez Jr.’s upcoming material. To help fill in the gaps in instrumentation needed for the project, Martin called on some other notable colleagues.
“[Barrett] said, ‘I’m going to send your tracks to a couple of friends,’ and then he mentioned [Nirvana’s] Krist Novoselic. He said, ‘Do you mind if I send your songs to him? He might like to work on this,’ and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Tellez Jr. says with a laugh. “I have loved bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden; I’ve been a huge fan of their work since I can remember … We didn’t have the Internet or anything back then in Cuba, so we just traded cassettes and mix tapes with a lot of that music.”
Tellez Jr.’s other collaborator, another connection through Martin, is R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. In fact, Novoselic and Buck felt so strongly about what they heard in Tellez Jr.’s material, they agreed to guest on his rollicking, thigh-slapper of a single “Silver Blue Jellyfish,” released on Sept. 30.
“It was a really nice experience working with them. They were so humble and came into the studio and said, ‘Hector, this is your album. What do you want me to play?’ … It was like they were not celebrities and I was the star,” recalls Tellez Jr. “They encouraged me to embrace my truth and do whatever I want to do rather than following the crowd.”
It’s a personal ethos Tellez Jr. says he has followed in many aspects of his life. He describes himself as a spiritual person who often quotes Buddha on his social media pages and has evangelized the teachings of Don Miguel Ruiz’s groundbreaking philosophical guidebook, The Four Agreements, noting that spirituality, meditating, and doing yoga and tai chi have helped him reach a mental plane that aids in writing songs like “Silver Blue Jellyfish.”
That new single is the first taste of Tellez Jr.’s as-yet-unnamed debut album that will be released in 2023 through The Mavericks’ Mono Mundo Recordings. Yet already, the track is building anticipation for more from Tellez Jr., branding him as an emerging voice in a genre that can often grapple with finding more diverse voices.
Tellez Jr. recently made his first national TV appearance on PBS’ 35th annual Hispanic Heritage Awards as part of Hispanic Heritage Month. Martin and Buck backed Tellez Jr. during the performance, which showcased notable artists (like Los Lobos, Julieta Venegas, Carlos Vives, and Daddy Yankee) who have in their own way changed the landscape of Latin artists in America — something that Tellez Jr. hopes to do as well.
“I feel good about being Cuban and being here in the States representing my country and culture,” he says, noting that two songs on his upcoming debut LP will be fully in Spanish while others will be bilingual with a Spanish chorus. He’s also considering making his second album fully in his native tongue.
“I want to make a tribute album to my Spanish influences that I have too — my dad and a lot of traditional Cuban singer-songwriters that are amazing but not many people know except Spanish-speaking countries,” he says. “I want to connect with everyone that speaks my language.”