Interview: Delta Rae Use Southern Literature, ’70s Rock to Inspire Fresh Sound
Not every country band name-drops Southern literature and talks about being influenced by '70s rock, but then again, Delta Rae aren't every other country band. Born in North Carolina and formed on the road, the six-piece country-folk outfit brings a fresh sound with their new EP, A Long and Happy Life.
Comprised of siblings Brittany, Eric and Ian Hölljes on vocals, piano and guitar, respectively, and rounded out by vocalist Liz Hopkins, bassist Grant Emerson and drummer Mike McKee, Delta Rae have spent more than seven years honoing their haunting harmonies and intricate instrumentation and making a name for themselves through relentless touring and exploratory and well-formed music. Ahead of A Long and Happy Life's release on Friday (March 24), Eric Hölljes spoke with The Boot about books, music and where the band got their name.
"Our mom is a great storyteller; she would read to us all the time growing up, and she's also a writer," Hölljes tells The Boot. "So she's been working on this book, going on 20 years, about a young girl who grows up in the South and reawakens the Greek gods to save her dad, and this little girl's name is Delta Rae. We always loved the name, and when we were trying to come up with band names, we had so many terrible ideas that we eventually had to ask our mom for permission to use her good idea!"
The fact that Delta Rae went to their mom for a name is fitting: It's just one of the many ways that the band has been influenced by family and the deep roots of their upbringing. The Hölljeses grew up reading books in the Southern Gothic narrative and listening to their parents' impressive record collection (everyone from Fleetwood Mac to Dolly Parton). The siblings have known Hopkins for more than 20 years, since they got their start in California community theater; Emerson and McKee have been part of the band's DNA since shortly after they all arrived in Durham, N.C. In more ways than one, Delta Rae are a family band.
"My brother and I started writing music when we were about 10 and 12, largely inspired by the music that we grew up listening to," Hölljes shares, citing the Eagles, Peter, Paul and Mary, James Taylor and Johnny Cash as a few of his greatest influences. "Those are some of the favorites that really stand out to me, and I still listen to that music today for inspiration."
With that eclectic mix of inspiration, it's no wonder that it took Delta Rae a few years to find their sound. While A Long and Happy Life is the band's first studio project with a major country label (Big Machine Label Group's Valory Music Co. imprint), Delta Rae actually released two prior studio albums through Warner Bros.
"I feel like our first two albums were exploratory. We started as a young band, so I think a bit of our task has been self-discovery, and those two albums you can really hear it. We were covering a lot of genres and exploring our own sound and our own influences," Hölljes says. "On this EP, I think that we were able to hone in on something a little more specific and a little more intentional because we wrote over 75 songs for this album, and we were able to pick the songs that really were resonating for us at the time and put together more of a specific vision."
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If whittling 75 songs down to a four-track EP sounds impossible, it practically was. Hölljes laughs as he recalls all the "conversations and debates" Delta Rae had around A Long and Happy Life's final track listing, and adds that because the band has been road-testing many of the songs, he really hopes that others out of that 75 will make it onto a future release.
From A Long and Happy Life, Delta Rae's lead single is the EP's title track, "A Long and Happy Life." Brittany Hölljes and Hopkins share lead vocals, bringing stunning harmonies to lyrics that belie Delta Rae's eclectic literary influences. References to Southern authors Pat Conroy, William Styron and Reynolds Price abound, but Delta Rae aren't only for the scholarly; rather their ability to infuse heady academic themes with a sound that begs to be blasted through the speakers at the start of summer is what makes the band unique. Their vibe is as perfect for backyard barbecues as it is for the darker drama of shows such as True Blood, which featured the band's 2012 single "Bottom of the River" in the trailer for its sixth season.
"True Blood was one of the shows that, when we started the band, we would all huddle in front of my TV and download the episodes and watch it together as we were making those early records," says Eric Hölljes of the HBO vampire drama, adding that the organic connection between their music and the Gothic themes of the show have brought the band a new audience. "I think because we were fans of the show beforehand, there's a natural connection musically and artistically to the people that like that show. So when they heard that song, they gravitated to it, and we see them at our shows. It's really exciting, I love when those opportunities come up; it's a huge thrill as a songwriter and a musician to have your music used elsewhere out in the world."
Thanks to such opportunities, Delta Rae have become more intentional about how they present their music. Every music video is rife with strong visuals, to match the imagery of their songwriting, and the band's upcoming live shows will feature a strong element of visual storytelling.
"I think that just happens naturally," Hölljes says. "It's not like we're intentionally making a music video to [draw TV fans in], but that's the kind of art that we love -- stuff that is storytelling and visual, but also musical and that connects on multiple levels ... there's more to dig into."
Beginning in May, Delta Rae will hit the road for a 50-date headlining tour across the United States. The trek will run through late August.
"We started our band on the road," Hölljes notes, "and it was a huge part of our launching."
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