North Carolina’s Sextet Haunts Americana
By: Julianne Cassidy
Tucked away in the woods of Durham, North Carolina, an Americana sextet of husky harmonic grit sought refuge in the shadows. Refining their sound, siblings: Ian [vocals/guitar], Eric [vocals/keyboards/guitar], and Brittany Holljes [vocals/percussion], shared a melodic sanctuary with Elizabeth Hopkins [vocals/percussion], Mike McKee [drums], and Grant Emerson [bass]. And on September 1, 2009, Delta Rae was born.
Named in honor of a character in a novel by the Holljes’ mom, “[Delta Rae] is a young girl growing up in the South, who evokes a Greek god back to earth,” explains Ian. And like the character, these band mates are undeniably Southern, and just as compelling… musically speaking, of course.
Delta Rae originated when Ian gasped for salvation from a suffocating office job, while his brother, Eric, and sister, Brittany, were simultaneously graduating college [Brittany having been on an advanced track.] Ian and Eric began writing music at age 10/12, and by 2009, the timing felt serendipitous. “We’d been bringing Liz Hopkins [a childhood friend] down to do little projects with us, to lend female vocals,” says Ian. One day, with stars aligned, an idea sparked of assembling a band, “I called the ladies up [Brittany and Liz], and they were down… so, we just decided to do it.”
Without a moment wasted, Delta Rae played their first gig together the following month at Ian and Eric’s Alma Mater, Duke University. “We spent that first six weeks rehearsing the hell out of our songs,” says Ian. “That first show was pretty magical. It was then where we felt like we actually had something.”
But as a quartet, something was missing. Mike McKee, and Grant Emerson, both joined less than a year later, and Delta Rae was indefinitely home. “Both [McKee and Emerson] bring incredible musicianship, creativity, and resourcefulness as instrumentalists,” says Ian. “They blend sounds that I never would have thought of.” Like when McKee replaced his drum-kit with a trashcan and chain for “Bottom of The River”, and/or when Emerson spontaneously purchased an electric upright bass, inexperienced, but with a song in mind. “They’re just always looking for new sounds to blend towards what the song is asking for,” says Ian. “And now those sounds are a really important part of our melodies.”
Praised as “Mumford and Sons meets Fleetwood Mac”, Ian stands proud, yet humbled. “I do think it gives listeners an idea of both the energy of our shows, the variety of style, and singers that we inhabit.” Four strong vocalists, oozing with spine-chilling harmonies and paralyzing percussion, Delta Rae embodies Gospel to Rock, drenched with Folk. For the Holljes siblings, Ian attributes their parents influence: “James Taylor, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, and musicals: Les Miserables, to Jesus Christ Superstar… there was always something on our record player,” says Ian. “It was instilled in us [by our parents] very early on, a distinct love of music, and an openness and creativity that ultimately left a mark.”
Likewise, the Holljes family moved around during their childhood, including: San Franciso, CA, Nashville, TN, and Marietta, GA, additionally impacting their aesthetic development. “When I was first learning to sing, we were living in Georgia, and my music teachers were Southern African American soul singers,” says Ian. “I found that [Gospel] music so nourishing, so soulful. That was inspiring.”
Delta Rae dually craves inspiration from their enchanted Southern [Gothic] roots. “From the way that we sing, to the folk-storytelling that we’re doing, history feels very alive in the South,” says Ian. And with history, comes past, and with past comes death. “I feel a bit of irreverence to the conventions of some things, like ‘Dance In The Graveyards,’” says Ian. “Instead of resting in peace, I want to believe that after death there’s still vividness and beauty. It could be as beautiful as life is.”
Lyrically, Delta Rae aches to entwine a light and dark seduction. Ian explains, “that’s how each of our lives feel at a time, they go through really dark periods, but then emerging from those is triumphant and beautiful moments.” Not limiting themselves to one mood, their potent songwriting and sultry singing yearns to reverberate their lives.
Although written solely by Ian and/or Eric with an intended muse, Delta Rae’s lyrics are exposed to their listener’s interpretation. “I’m always interested in telling the stories, if people want to hear them,” says Ian. “But, I don’t want to overburden the listener.” Ian penned his cry for affirmation in, “Is There Anyone Out There” about his unbearable desk job, and “Country House,” an echo of lonesome in remembrance of a college professor he cared for, but urges fans to create their own impressions. “No limits. I hope people can find something in the lyrics, and I hope people can find something in the melodies,” says Ian. “That’s really all I want.”
Carry The Fire, produced by Alex Wong, debuted on June 19, 2012, under Sire Records [Warner Music Group.] Delta Rae signed with Seymour Stein, Vice President of Warner Brother Records and Co-Founder of Sire Records, renown for such fame: the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Madonna. Pre-label, their LP was financed through Kickstarter, as their fans reached a goal of donating $20,000. “We set out for a very ambitious goal, and were blown away by the enthusiasm and generosity of our fans,” says Ian. A feat that they would have never been able to do alone, “there’s something really beautiful about your fans enabling you to make the art that they’re supporting.”
This album drips passion. “It’s a desire to bring people into a community of saying something bold, but heartfelt,” says Ian. “It’s actually partially inspired by a book called, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.” Set in a post-apocalyptic landscape, the story depicts a father-son journey, where the father establishes the belief [in his son] that the good guys [in the novel] “carry the fire.” “So when the son takes that on, it’s just a very simple way of identifying the good guys,” says Ian. “I just thought that was a very beautiful way of saying it. So, in part, our title comes from that.”
An 11-track Live version of Carry The Fire is featured for Free on deltarae.com, in devout gratitude. “It’s a big step to buy a band’s album, and people don’t have a ton of extra money hanging around,” says Ian. In this day and age, when illegally downloading is norm, Delta Rae desired to gift in advance. Ian furthermore explains, “our live album was to introduce ourselves, and to offer something upfront. So [in result] when they’re interested in supporting us, hopefully it comes back full circle.”
Having opened for tour-veterans: Edwin McCain and Hanson, Delta Rae is currently headlining in support of Carry The Fire. [They are playing World Café Live in Philadelphia, on October 18th, after being featured at WXPN’s XPoNential Fest 2012 this past summer.] “Bottom of The River,” Brittany “claimed” a ways back, is dubbed a beloved crowd favorite. “It’s a rally for our shows, one of the first songs that we started performing as a band, so it feels very natural for us,” says Ian. “It’s got that call and response, four-part harmony, Gospel sound, absolutely epitomizing the heart of what we’re doing.”
Their hearts are transfixed on their music. They’re hypnotized by their fans. “We want people to be moved,” says Ian. “We’ve been extremely touched and gratified by our fans so far.” And not even trapped months-on-end stuck in a 12-passenger van can crash their ecstasy. “Juggling relationships, friendships, always being in each other’s business… I think we’re handling it great,” says Ian. “It’s all for them.”
With exuberant spirits, and indebted hearts, VH1’s October – You Oughta Know: Artists on the Rise are not only leaving a satisfying trail of music, but promise to make a morally long-standing impression, as well. Acknowledging that, “this is the time to make your voice heard,” Delta Rae isn’t apprehensive to start a revolution. Particularly with gay marriage, it’s something that the Holljes’ mom advocated for. “[And] when we were living in Georgia, I watched the animosity toward her and our family,” says Ian. “The death threats, and cold shoulders in our neighborhood… I think that these are still feelings that need to be vanquished.” Subsequently, “Chain of Love” (A Song for Marriage Equality) was released in opposition of Amendment One, in North Carolina.
Delta Rae has a distinct voice. They will be heard.