EXCLUSIVE FULL INTERVIEW
Durham, NC sextet Delta Rae are a musical force whose soaring harmonies, pounding instrumentation and lasting storytelling continue to be on the rise. The blues/folk-rock outfit consists of four vocalists – the primary songwriters, brothers Eric and Ian Holljes, their sister Brittany Holljes and Elizabeth Hopkins who sang in an a cappella group with the guys in Northern California, as well as bass player Grant Emerson and percussionist Mike McKee. The group broke through in 2012 with debut album “Carry The Fire” and the gospel-heavy Brittany-led “Bottom of the River,” later recorded with children from the PS 22 Chorus in Staten Island. The band’s impact quickly reached A-Listers; Don Henley is a friend of the band and Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham played guitar on the memorable “If I Loved You” with soaring, timeless vocals from Liz Hopkins. Fast-forward to 2015, Delta Rae’s been working for the better part of two years on their new record “After It All,” being released April 7. The collection of songs is an adventure in many ways; as the cover art illustrates, the minotaur is either battling with the beautiful woman or they are falling in love, or both. With epic instrumentation, glorious harmonies and cinematic musical moments, there is both darkness and light, a steady balance for the heart and mind. Delta Rae’s magic will reverberate through the walls of Webster Hall April 14.
New York City Monthly got into the souls of two of Delta Rae’s singers, Eric Holljes and Elizabeth Hopkins (abbreviated to Liz to avoid confusion). Collectively, Delta Rae have many inspirations, pulling from 60s and 70s rock and folk to Motown to pop music. Both Eric and Liz got candid about pop music, their band’s dynamic, the depth of the songs and how they reflect a lot of their messaging on youth in America.
NYC Monthly: Folk music has enjoyed a resurgence the past few years in the U.S. and around the world, often crossing over to pop, reggae, even electronic – from Ed Sheeran to Imagine Dragons to Katie Herzig to Aloe Blacc and Avicii. Realizing that Delta Rae is not a folk act, but that this genre is one element of your music, where do you think Delta Rae fits in?
Eric Holljes: I think we fit in somewhere in the gray area middle of it all. I know that I’m hugely influenced by folk music, James Taylor and Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan.
Liz Hopkins: I definitely think we are influenced by folk music, we definitely have a folk background. As a vocalist, I have a lot of respect for folk vocalists – I love Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris and Sheryl Crow. I think there is a space for folk artists who have pop sensibilities to exist together, like The Lumineers, American Authors, Mumford & Sons.
EH: I grew up listening to all of them, but deeper than just that genre is what they were doing with melody and lyrics. They were master craftsman at creating a melody that took its time, unfolded and was thoughtful and memorable. There’s been a real dearth of that in the market, and the resurgence has tried to regain some of that legitimacy and quality that’s been missing. I think we fit right in there but we are a bit confusing because we also do love pop music, from Michael Jackson to Fleetwood Mac – you just break it down to melody and lyrics and they just naturally cross borders.
LH: Somewhere between Mumford & Sons and Coldplay would be our dream. Some people think we are country, some think we are just straight pop – I don’t really care what they think we are as long as they say our music resonates with them.
NYCM: You have filmed some clever music videos in the past, “Dance In The Graveyards” was creative. Your new video for “Scared” was filmed at the elegant Park Lane Hotel just off Central Park in New York City. This may remind some of “American Hustle,” what was it like to essentially shoot a mini-movie as outlaws?
LH: I loved it. I love New York. I went to college in New York and lived there for a while after, I’m always really excited when we have to go to New York for work. The Park Lane has such an old vintage glamour. The suite on the 46th floor has a view of Central Park that was absolutely nuts. When I was living in New York I didn’t have very much money, I lived in Harlem in a brownstone – but it was beautiful in its own way. It was sort of like seeing how the other half lives. It had a swimming pool and wrap-around deck but we didn’t use it cause it was 20 degrees outside. The colors were so vibrant, and Eric has so much swagger. We were referencing “American Hustle” and I also felt like we were in “Scarface,” which was really fun.
NYCM: The songs on this new album “After It All” as a whole have a pulse that reverberates throughout. What kind of pulse do you feel like New York has when you visit?
LH: I think the pulse that goes through New York is hunger to prove oneself and it’s very refreshing to feel that, to see young people with big ideas and big dreams who have something to say. They want to figure out a way to say it to the world. People tend to be bold in New York. It’s an interesting thing, it’s definitely not a relaxed place, there’s a little bit of desperation that happens in New York especially the 20s and 30s bracket, a little bit of wanting to be the best in whatever category, as a painter, singer, dancer, singer, stylist. People want to be the best and it inspires you to want to up your game, I love that about New York, and also how multicultural it is.
EH: It’s the one city where I’d want to move to if I left Raleigh, I love playing in New York with the band. When we started the band five years ago, we made an agreement that every three months we would perform in New York to push ourselves and get outside of the North Carolina scene. When we were just the four singers we drove up in a car to play Rockwood Music Hall Stage 1 and eventually we graduated to Rockwood Stage 2 and Mercury Lounge. We have a loyal New York fanbase and have now played Bowery Ballroom twice and Music Hall of Williamsburg, which stand out as incredibly memorable.
NYCM: Eric, you and your brother Ian are the anchors of the songwriting process in Delta Rae, though it’s clear all six band members are a part of perfecting these songs. What’s the songwriting process like for you and what is it like sharing a band with not one but two siblings?
EH: For my brother and I, songwriting was our first passion. We are striving to be the best writers that we can be. When we hear the great songs that are coming out now, it makes us competitive and excited to be making music at this time. My brother and I have written songs together since we were 10 years old. It feels like second nature. Working with my siblings has a lot of influence that is imperceptible to me. I find it incredibly gratifying to share these experiences with people I care about so deeply, both the good times and the bad. My sister [Brittany] has been in the group for five years. When we are having our highs it’s fun to be a part of something so nobody is left out. We also really struggle with each other – we are really passionate people, we grew up in a family that said ‘speak your mind.’ You can’t bullshit with your family, they just know who you are. That has led to us being incredibly honest with each other. Liz, Mike and Grant have been taken into that dynamic. We don’t have passive-aggressiveness in our band ’cause that would lead to much deeper issues. I think all of that gets conveyed when we are on stage about being honest and open. Being with your siblings gives you that allowance.
NYCM: Elizabeth, harmony seems to be at the core of what Delta Rae is all about, something that was a big part of 60s and 70s music, from Simon & Garfunkel to Fleetwood Mac to Chicago and Crosby Stills and Nash. Is there a conscious decision to have multiple layers of voices swooping in and out of melodies and choruses?
EH: Harmony is definitely at the core of our sound, and big percussion. Those are the two vertebrae of our band. Almost to the extent where we sometimes have to step back and say we don’t need harmony right here. Just let this person sing by themselves. I feel like I could sing harmony with Eric in my sleep. We grew up singing in an a cappella group, that’s how I became best friends with Ian and Eric, that’s how it became so natural singing a fifth above Eric. We have to discipline ourselves, we don’t want to beat people over the head with a baseball bat. It’s definitely natural but we have to try to choose the moments when harmony is going to come in. The Eagles have phenomenal harmonies but sometimes just Don Henley is incredible. When “Someone Like You” by Adele tops the charts, that’s a really amazing and defining moment, to hear an honest and vulnerable vocal. You have to sometimes give people the opportunity to hear one voice. If it’s all harmony you sometimes feel like you’re listening to a choir. With “You’re The One For Me” that was one where we had to give it some space. The sentiment about the moment you are in love with someone and you’re about to tell them, and it’s scary. That is so poignant, you have to not have three electric guitars. Wait, wait, what’s the song about? The message is important.
NYCM: Darkness and brightness exist in your music, especially on this new record. How did Rob Cavallo (Green Day, Fleetwood Mac) and Peter Katis’ (Interpol, The National) production brilliance help to shape this project?
EH: For me this is an adventure album, you put it on when you’re about to set off. It starts dark and mysterious but with real life to it. About midway through it finds its romantic zone, which is sort of a nice refreshing change-up.
LH: We wanted to show our Hurculean vocal skills. And so with this new album we show our power but also more of the gray area of life and vulnerability. Overall I think this album is a little more honest, it shows more of the powerhouse, sweaty, heart-racing, sledgehammer.
EH: Both had such different styles – Rob was the first line of filtering the songs and he brought out some of the darkness and some of the muscle on “Chasing Twisters” and “I Will Never Die,” really making them punch. Peter Katis helped us find balance between the darkness and the light, the romance and the adventure we were looking for. He likes finding the nuances and the subtleties, and definitely had a refining role.
NYCM: There is this sense of hope and optimism in your music, about love and about the state of humanity and the constant search for happiness, like on the angelic “The Meaning Of It All,” the warmth of “My Whole Life Long” and the harmonious, gratifying “Dead End Road.” With all of your songs but specifically “Bethlehem Steel” which is more angry, what are you speaking about?
LH: If you don’t believe in yourself, nobody else is going to believe in you. Our main reality is being a band on the road, on the highway 12 hours a day. Hope is very important, you need it to stay positive. There is a little bit of anger in “Bethlehem Steel” which takes aim at the banks and the financial situation when it fell apart, what are we going to do about this? Channeling it into hope.
EH: These albums are responding to the world we are growing up in and trying to make sense of it. That song was really about all these things I grew up believing in and then failing us. I grew up going to church, believing in industry and that hard work pays off, grew up trusting banks and institutions and government. I feel like my whole adolescence and going into adulthood I saw these things crumble. I don’t really trust government as much as I would have. There’s been a disillusionment, and these albums are coping with, in some deeper way, how do we carry the fire and handle the responsibly of carrying that weight and handing it off to the next generation better than when we received it? It’s about American greed. Posing all of these questions and asking if this is enough or can we do better? I want there to be a resolution and to be comfort and warmth. “Dead End Road” and “After It All” and the other romantic songs on the album are shining a light on why it’s worth it to strive for something better. Because there is good out there. [On the album cover] the bull is maybe bowing down to this woman, you can’t tell if it’s the end of the world or the dawn of a new one. It’s the battle of masculine and feminine. The love, the dance between the two of them. These two forces distilled in conversation together.