When Delta Rae burst into a soaring four-part harmony on “Hey Hey Hey,” legendary A&R man Seymour Stein heard the sweet sound of a record deal. Stein, who signed the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Pretenders, and The Smiths, describes Delta Rae’s music as “Original Americana.” And on their debut album, Carry The Fire (Warner’s Sire Records), the vocals of siblings Ian, Eric and Brittany Hölljes and their childhood friend Elizabeth Hopkins join Mike McKee (drums) and Grant Emerson (bass) for a soul-stirring twist on traditions. Delta Rae’s Ian Hölljes explains below why the best is yet to come:
You’re asked this all the time, but for people with siblings, it doesn’t get old. What’s it like performing with your brother, Eric, and sister, Brittany?
I love it. We have intense personalities, so we butt heads a lot, but at the end of the day, the rewards of working with your siblings are so great. Eric and I have been working together since we’ve been 10 or 12 years old and for whatever reason, songwriting has always felt like a really natural, dynamic process to us. We read each other very well and we also get on each other’s nerves to no end. So we’ve got a long history. But Brittany and I hadn’t worked with each other in any type of musical capacity until we started this band. We grew up singing together, but always for casual family events or holidays. Working with her in this band has been really incredible for me. It’s weird because it’s not normal to be this close to your siblings in terms of our physical proximity to one another and how much time we spend together, but I can’t imagine it any other way.
What’s one of your earliest memories playing music?
I have very early memories of singing the score to Les Misérables in the back of the car with my brother and sister—I remember asking my mom so many questions about what was going on in the story. It was so important to me to understand why Fantine was cutting her hair and why Javert was so intent on capturing Jean Valjean. The specifics of it and the motivation and the intricacies of it were fascinating to me. It sparked my interest in storytelling and music and the potency of that combination.
Do you remember what you were singing?
Well, in one of my baby books, my mom says that at the point where Javert jumps off of the bridge and commits suicide, I yelled out from the backseat, “Catch him God.” It’s funny because I’ve grown up to not be a religious person, but that instinct, whatever that was, still resonates with me.
You and Eric write the music together. How does it work?
We really work in isolation for a long time before bringing the songs to each other. Sometimes he’ll tell me he doesn’t like something and I’ll either agree with him or say, “That’s what I love most about the song, I’m keeping it.” He does the same with me. It’s funny because sometimes the arguments you lose are the things that you end up loving most about the song.
What kinds of things grab your attention when you write?
I’ve heard other songwriters talk about this and it really resonates. The initial threads of a song seem to come out of nowhere and you find yourself with the lyrics and melody already there. That happened with “Dance In The Graveyards,” “If I Love You.” I literally can’t think of a song on the album where it didn’t happen. You just find yourself singing them in a stream and then you have to sort of follow the thread of the story that it’s trying to tell. There’s an extent to which I don’t really ever feel very in control of it.
Did any particular songs, books or movies inspire you as you wrote the album?
Yeah. I love Coldplay. I’ve been listening to them for years. I’ve always loved the builds that they create in their songs. I remember the first time I heard “Fix You.” I just thought that ending was so brilliant and so emotional. They certainly made a big impact on me. I was listening to a lot of Ray LaMontagne right before we started the band. His imagery and the feeling that he gave me in his songs and the pastoral quality of them, the heartland quality of them, was very much on my mind. I love the simplicity with which he says things. I was listening to a lot of Mumford & Sons. Again, I really love the pastoral quality. I love how they are pulling off older traditions and updating them in a very appropriate way to fit into a modern musical landscape. That is really impressive to me. That’s what I really wanted to do with this album; take an American identity and some of the folk stories and personal stories and the American spirit, as cheesy as that may sound, and pull out all the older traditions and update them into the music that I love right now. That includes influences from hip-hop and rock and blues to gospel and older country.
The song “Is There Anyone Out There” has the line “carry the fire,” your album title. Will you talk about that?
I was working at a day job before the band had really gotten going and I felt like my days were evaporating in front of my eyes. I wasn’t able to do music as hard as I wanted to and I wasn’t doing a particularly great job at my job because my heart wasn’t fully in it. That’s really where the words started to come: “Days that pass too quickly, nights that don’t offer enough sleep.” Then literally it was sort of like taking stock of life: “My body doesn’t fit me. My dreams are like great ships lost at sea.” I felt like I was sitting in a chair all day getting fat, not able to pursue the things that I’ve always thought about. And then with: “This heart grows tired,” I was sort of exhausted with the whole situation. The vision took off from there.
I thought, “I’m not the only person in this position. There are tons of people who are dealing with this.” It’s not unique to our generation, but it’s something that we’re very acutely feeling because there aren’t the job opportunities that there once were and by the time you get to the chorus, it’s just saying, I am the product of this generation’s story. I am the son of this country and the way that this thing played out. There’s unrest behind that. We’re moving so quickly at this point in our lives as a people and a country that we don’t have any time to get perspective. We don’t have time to look back at history and recognize the mistakes that we’ve made and fix them. And we end up not even having time to look at where we are right now.
Your music’s ultimately positive and hopeful and you recently recorded “Chain On Love,” a song supporting marriage equality. Do you feel at times that you have a responsibility to make a difference with your music?
…My outlook on the world is that we’re moving in the right direction. Discrimination is getting weeded out. Things are getting better. There are so many fights to take up in whatever generation you’re born into and I do feel a responsibility to be a voice on the right side of those issues. But I think the reason our music is hopeful is because I feel like a hopeful person. It’s not that things are always great for me, but I’m optimistic about them getting better.
A song like “Morning Comes” is very hopeful and the chorus is completely dedicated to that idea because I’ve gone through periods where I’m really depressed. I’ve had suicidal thoughts or just been in a really dark place. And the best times in my life have come directly on the heels of those moments. If I hadn’t waited to see them, I would have missed them. I’ve lost friends to suicide and I’ve lost people to making rash decisions that take them down certain paths. I wish that they could see that it’s going to get better on the other side of it. I really believe that. I think that of all the lines of any of our songs, the one that most represents this band to me is, “Jealous is the night when the morning comes, but it always comes.”
Delta Rae will play at World Café Live in Philadelphia on Oct. 18. For more information, go to deltarae.com.