Delta rising


photograph by Servin Lainez

by Samantha Thompson Hatem

Most of Raleigh might have missed it, but Delta Rae, the edgy alt-pop band, has quietly set up home here over the past year, and its six members are now on their way to becoming some of Raleigh’s most famous residents.

Since they got here, the group has been on a tear. After the release of their major-label debut album, Carry the Fire, last summer, Delta Rae has gone from having trouble getting a gig to recording with former Eagles rocker Don Henley. There have been five late-night TV appearances, including two with Jay Leno and one with Conan O’Brian. That’s on top of coverage in Rolling Stone, Time and Forbes magazines, sold-out shows on their national tour, music videos with airplay on VH1, MTV and CMT, and Lindsey Buckingham offering to play guitar on their latest track, If I Loved You.

“Delta Rae may not be the best-known band yet, but they are most certainly worth getting to know,” says Danny Rosin, one of the founders of Raleigh’s Band Together, which booked Delta Rae for its charity concert in May. “When you have music fans come up to you after the show saying things like, ‘Delta Rae was stunningly good,’ it made us realize we made the right decision to add them to the Band Together talent line up.”

There’s plenty to love when you hear them play. The four-part harmonies, their rich, textured voices, the deep, soulful lyrics.

But you can’t help but love them for their grace and beauty, too. Three of them – Ian, Eric, and Brittany Hölljes – are siblings from a close-knit family. They share vocalizing duties with longtime friend Elizabeth Hopkins. They’re joined by drummer Mike McKee and bassist Grant Emerson. All six are under 30 years old, and they admit they’re such good friends that even after months on the road, they still want to hang out together at home in Raleigh.

That closeness shows when they’re playing together on stage, where their joy and passion for making music are nearly matched by their in-sync playfulness that can only come from having three siblings in the same band.

But the sibling factor only plays a small part of their success, says Dave Rose, whose Deep South Entertainment has booked Delta Rae for several local events over the years.

“What it boils down to is that you have a group of ridiculously talented musicians, some amazing songwriting, and performances at a world-class level,” he said. “You’ve got a group of people who love what they do. It’s in their soul. So it’s natural for those feelings and passions to translate over to the listener.”

When you get them all together, they’re warm, unpretentious, and humble. Sharing their stories from the road – from meeting Henley to shaking off pre-Leno jitters –they’re like giddy teenagers, still somewhat surprised by all that’s happened. They seem grateful for their success, but it’s clear they’re willing to keep working hard and sacrificing to get to the top.

Durham roots

When the band formed in Durham in the fall of 2009, its members agreed to aim high. “It’s always been a ‘go big or go home’ scenario,” said Ian Hölljes, who also plays guitar and writes song lyrics. “This wasn’t going to be a hobby. It was something we would all take seriously.”

Until recently, they rarely turned down an opportunity to play (in the past year alone, they’ve spent more than 250 days on the road) and as a result, they’ve been able to get in front of audiences at some of the country’s top shows and festivals: Grand Ole Opry, South by Southwest, MerleFest, Bonnaroo, Firefly Music Festival and, later this month, Austin City Limits Music Festival.

While Durham was their official first home, Delta Rae’s roots really go back to the San Francisco Bay area nearly 15 years ago, when Eric and Ian as children would write music together. The two were born in Durham, but the family moved to California (via Nashville, where Brittany was born, and then Georgia). Then in middle school, Ian, Eric and Brittany joined ’Til Dawn, a teen a cappella singing group in San Rafael, Calif., that sings popular music as well as original songs written by group members. It was here that they learned arrangements and how to sing as a group. It’s also where they met Hopkins and became friends.

Then the four went separate ways for a while. Ian Hölljes went to University of California, Berkeley, then later to Duke University, continuing the family legacy. Duke is where the Hölljeses’ grandparents went, and where their parents met. Eric Hölljes followed his older brother to Duke. Hopkins went to Fordham University in New York. And Brittany Hölljes graduated two years early from U.C. Berkeley at age 19. (Yes, they are clearly talented and smart.)

The day after Eric Hölljes graduated in 2009 from Duke, Delta Rae formed as a four-piece group. The band had its first show that fall at Duke, and from there they aggressively hit the touring scene along the East Coast, mostly playing small clubs. One time they piled into their Kia Soul and drove to New York City just for a 45-minute show. “That’s what we had to do,” Hopkins says.

A year later, they added McKee and then Emerson, both veterans of Raleigh bands. All of them quit their day jobs to focus on the band and touring, which these days is on a bus with a driver, not the van and trailer of early days.

“We’re really just now getting into the groove of being a six-piece band,” says Eric Hölljes, who also plays guitar and piano and writes songs.


Touchstone Raleigh

This year, the band made the decision to move to Raleigh, a city that has seen the group through some key moments. It was at a show at the Pour House in Raleigh a few years ago that a Warner Brothers scout heard them play (They later signed with Warner subsidiary Sire Records). And it was in Raleigh’s City Plaza during First Night on New Year’s Eve last year when Ian Hölljes got down on one knee on stage to propose to his long-time girlfriend, Rebecca. (You can watch the dramatic proposal unfold on YouTube – have a tissue handy.)

“Raleigh was one of the first places to embrace Delta Rae,” Ian Hölljes says.

Plus, they say, Raleigh’s music scene has a communal feel, where musicians support other musicians. “I get such a warmth from Raleigh, which I really appreciate,” Eric Hölljes says. “There’s a welcoming quality to the city, and I haven’t felt that anywhere else.”

Even Mayor Nancy McFarlane is a fan. She booked the band for a re-election event in March. She said the band is a prime example of the region’s thriving music and arts scene. “They have exploded on the national music scene, but they have chosen to call Raleigh home,” she says. “As Raleigh continues to develop its position as the Southern capital of arts and culture, we continue to nurture local bands as well as attract top talent.”

Fans will be happy to know that with a less aggressive touring schedule, Delta Rae members are focused on writing and recording their next album, which again has the brothers paired up to write songs, this time inspired by life and scenery on the road. “Writing songs is just a fun, second-nature thing for us,” Eric Hölljes says.