Delta Rae’s Ian Hölljes speaks to Atwood Magazine about the genesis of the band’s euphoric euphony, the freedom of fan support, and their third album, ‘The Light’.
Stream: “Take Me There” – Delta Rae
Nothing feels better than to look around and realize that the group you’re surrounding yourself with is all things wonderful, diverse, thoughtful, smart, and caring. It’s about as happy an outcome as you can have.
There is a magical sort of resonance reserved for bands that build their harmonies through a sibling link. From classic examples like The Von Trapp Family Singers, The Everly Brothers, and The Jackson 5 to bands who are newer on the scene like First Aid Kit, Joseph, and The Brothers Brothers, the melodic dips and swells achieved in tandem, tied through a familial connection, produce a uniquely powerful, spine tingling effect.
This is, of course, the case regarding a band of mostly siblings called Delta Rae. A gospel tinged, folksie and theatrical Americana crew originally hailing from Durham, North Carolina, Delta Rae is made up of the Hölljes siblings: Ian (vocals and guitar), Eric (vocals, guitar, piano and keys), and Brittany (vocals), along with the added dynamic of childhood friend Elizabeth (Liz) Hopkins (vocals), Mike McKee (percussion) and Grant Emerson (bass guitar). Basically, Delta Rae is made of the best stuff – and they deliver in every way.
In the beginning, there was just Ian and Eric. As young ones, the Hölljes brothers began writing music together in their early tweens. Eventually joined by their sister Brittany, who brought with her a love for all things mystical and arcane and their childhood friend, Liz, Delta Rae recorded their first song, “Bottom of the River” in 2012. A chain stamping, beat driven track accompanied by an occult classic video, “Bottom of the River” introduced the world to Delta Rae’s witchy ways:
After walking the record label gauntlet for a few years, Delta Rae found their way to indie freedom through a Kickstarter campaign and a slew of their loyal, adoring and generous fans.
This freedom has given Delta Rae the ability to create their upcoming album, The Light (set to release March 2020) and its flip side counterpart, The Dark (set to release March 2021.) It only makes sense that the Hölljes’ crew found it easier to thrive powered by independence and freedom to explore; after all, their mother is a Montessori school teacher who guides children to be just that — independent self-starters. Good job, Mama Hölljes!
Speaking of Mama Hölljes, she happens to be the mastermind behind the name Delta Rae. A mother, teacher, and artist in her own right, Mama Hölljes is in the process of writing a book centered around her main character, Delta Rae.
It is precisely here, in a discussion about balancing parenthood, education and artistry that Atwood Magazine caught up with Delta Rae’s Ian Hölljes.
Hölljes enlightened us on the art of building the world we need through community, creating art with loved ones, and the immense productive freedom of independence. In turn, Hölljes learned the meaning of the word ‘kishkas‘.
Dive into Delta Rae and get ready for the band’s new album The Light, independently out March 20, 2020!
This album is so much more unbridled, confident, and emotionally true than almost anything we’ve done in the past.
“From One Woman to Another” – Delta Rae
A CONVERSATION WITH DELTA RAE
Atwood Magazine: How does being a dad affect your artistry and your creativity?
Ian Hölljes: I think about being a dad in relation to being an artist a lot. Both in terms of how I think about the responsibilities of being a good dad and being an artist and the messages we wanna put out in the world and the world we want to build for our kids. It’s made me more inclined towards taking on social causes in our songs. It’s interesting because it makes you feel more vulnerable to have a child in the world. It makes you realize how many interlocking relationships you need to make everything work. You have relationships with people as your kids make friends, your neighbors becoming important parts of your lives. It just complicates your world view and the idea of community is very important. I hope that makes it into our song writing at some subconscious level.
It has! While listening to your upcoming release, The Light, I was struck with how uplifting it is musically even when, lyrically, you delve into matters of heartbreak and disappointment along with perseverance, love and happiness. But no matter what you’re talking about the musicality of the album brings everything up into a positive perspective. For example, the song “Only in America,” as the title implies, it’s a song about our country. Right now, positivity is not the word most people would use while discussing US current events. We use words like border wall, impeachment and collusion. So to hear a song with lyrics like, “Hallelujah for the ways we’ve grown, we still got a long way to go,” which sounds so optimistic... what was your thought process while writing this song?
Hölljes: “Only in America” has had an interesting journey. I wrote most of that song, except the bridge, during the Obama administration. Barack Obama is one of my personal heroes. He was such an inspiring figure to watch rise in the calamitous aftermath of the Bush administration. To watch him confront the cynicism… What is the right word to capture what Mitch McConnell has done to our country? The corrosion and corruption of Mitch McConnell as a force for suppressing progress over Obama‘s tenure was incredibly frustrating. That’s when I started writing “Only in America” because I thought, “How is it possible that people are pushing against the good that Obama is trying to introduce in our country?” Obama had so much personal integrity and grace and was a very powerful speaker of the moment we were living through and yet so much of our country was trying to find a way to continue advocating policies that hurt the poor and middle-class and were openly racist and misogynistic.
I developed a level of frustration that spilled out into this song. And then the crazy thing was that I didn’t have a bridge for the song by the time we got into the studio (by then Trump was president). My brother started playing and I just started spit firing lyrics and it was the bridge for the song that was a bridge over those two eras. And Mitch McConnell is still out there doing his best to ruin what is great about this country. And now we have Donald Trump putting an even finer point on all of that corruption and all of that ugliness. So while I remain hopeful and optimistic, It goes without saying that we need real positive leadership in our country.
I think the biggest message of the Trump presidency, especially after watching Obama’s administration, is the power of leadership. Obama introduced so many positive trends economically and along healthcare lines that we are still benefiting from today. His tenure as president was so positive and offered us a sense of optimism, While Trump’s administration encourages the worst part of our body politic. So that’s where this song came from, I was so angry watching Obama fight these ugly forces in our country and unfortunately it’s become even more distilled during the presidency of Donald Trump.
I grew up in DC surrounded by politics and political life and surrounded by apathy from people in our generation, as opposed to the '60s when people were fighting for causes and feeling cool doing so. So now I think one of the positive takeaways from Trump’s presidency is that people our age are becoming very politically active. I have hope that we are awakening the powerful sleeping giant of youth.
Hölljes: I think you’re so right. Unfortunately it sometimes takes this kind of ugly darkness to wake people up and bring forth the light in stronger and more positive voices.
So this brings me to my next question. In your press release it mentions that this new album The Light is a sister album to The Dark, which you plan to release in March of 2021. So while The Light is so upbeat in its musicality, what can we expect from The Dark?
Hölljes: The Dark takes its cues from our more mystic witchy side. It will be more along the lines of “Bottom of the River“ and “Dancing in the Graveyard.” The Dark has a lot of magical undertones and at the same time, it’s really earthy and shares a lot of mirror imagery with The Light. Where as The Light has a lot of imagery like oceans and a sun tinged gospel sound, The Dark in contrast, has a more rootsie vibe to it.
The Light sheds so much positivity on the subjects that you deal with on the album. You guys did such a great job with this concept and succeeded in your goal to shed light. I’m looking forward to hearing The Dark as well.
Hölljes: I really appreciate you saying that! You know we’re a very unusual band. We have four lead singers and encompass a lot of different genres. So one of the things that we felt excited about with this two sister album idea, was that we could give our listeners the full experience of the light side of Delta Rae and then give our listeners a full immersive experience with our darker side. In past albums we’ve merged them, which has its own appeal. But it’s nice to allow yourself to sink into a full experience and with all the other facets that we have going on and so many influences … this was a good way to allow people to have a little bit more of a lane with each of the albums.
I love this idea. When I think about it, all albums and all bands have a light and a dark side to them. This is a clear defined way, to show everyone the dynamic experience Delta Rae embodies with it sound. So in terms of this unique sound, how does it work with four lead singers? How do you work together to create a song? Is it always very regimented where the songwriter assigns specific parts for each person? Or do you jam out and see what happens?
Hölljes: Honestly each song has its own life. Traditionally my brother and I started writing music together when we were 10 and 12 years old. That’s the real foundational energy of the band. But recently my sister Britney has started writing songs and Liz has been writing songs. Grant and Michael are forever extending their skill sets. We do now bring a lot more collaborative energy. And the interesting thing is when we started the band, of course we were all living in the same house so we were so immersed in each other stories and lives that we would write some of the songs and they had so many specific allusions to what a certain person was going through and they would be the one to sing that song. And that still happens but, in some cases we will write something and one of the singers will stand up and claim it. That’s been a really fun dynamic to watch play out. It’s had a lot of unexpected rewards to it. I’m hearing different voices in different emotional engagement, it’s cool sometimes when you write a song like “Back to the Garden” from The Light that we really wrote with Liz in mind because she just got engaged in her garden. But I had written and sung it in my range. Liz’s range is quite different m, so when we got to the moment when it jumps from the verse of the chorus, we had to do a key change and we’ve never done that before. It led such a cool dynamic to the record and we were able to reference A Motown track that had done a similar thing. It really lent such a special moment to that song.
I noticed that a lot of the songs on The Light are about transitions or transformation. Some pretty personal topics. Because there are four singers and a family dynamic on top of that, have you ever written a song that you don’t particularly want to discuss with everyone? Or are you guys always in the thick of things? Do you always know what everyone is singing and writing about?
Hölljes: The truth is we are always in the thick of things. Partially because of the genesis of the band, with three siblings, living together and Liz who has been like a sibling to us for the last 20 years. We are just so close. We talk about everything and there are very few limits for better or worse. Art is about vulnerability. It is hard to expose yourself so fully to a group of people without that level of trust and openness. It’s impossible to be as open as you need to be to make good art. You’re making yourself available to an audience as well. And I think thats part of the strength of our band, we are able to be open and vulnerable. There’s a lot of putting yourself out there and to be able to make a living making music and making art and we’ve been able to lean on each other through hard times.
When I listen to The Light, I can hear a very expressive, theatrical, storytelling quality. I even hear exactly where the dialogue would bubble up after the song ends. Is this album a series of vignettes expression of Delta Rae’s collective journey to now? And furthermore would you ever consider writing a musical about your band’s genesis?
Hölljes: It’s so incredible that you’re asking this! I just had a conversation with a dear friend who just listened to the album for the first time and she had exactly the same feedback. Because the musical theater aspect is so baked into what I love about storytelling,I don’t even hear it anymore. However, we very regularly get described as theatrical. If I’m honest I don’t think The Light has a conscious thread running through it. The first song on the album, “Burning in Carolina” was written seven years ago. And it’s about us starting the band in the woods of North Carolina and burning with a desire to get out there and start creating music and playing it for people. And then there are songs like “Back to the Garden” that were written a few months ago so I don’t know what the through line would be except like you said the themes of transition and transformation. Even I’m struck going back to the album over the last few months at what a thorough story it tells about the creation of our band, because of the span of time the song writing encompasses. It’s really emotional for me to hear a song from eight years ago that was written when we were in such a different place. However, it’s amazing how similar it is and how much of the emotion remains just as a visceral
Also, in response to what you were asking about writing a musical – as a part of our Kickstarter, we committed to staging a musical!
Really?! Did you?!?
Hölljes: We did!
That totally makes sense!
Hölljes: So all of the theatrical qualities that are in our songwriting naturally, we’re hoping to really focus and turn it into a full scale musical with completely original music that tells a very cohesive story. So that’s in the works!
It’s going to work!
Hölljes: A huge part of what animates our desire to tell stories is our love of musical theatre. It’s funny though, I don’t hear it anymore as much as everyone else.
I get that you don’t hear the musical theatre as a separate entity in your own work anymore because it’s so close... it’s sewn into your kishkas...
Do you know what kishkas are?!?
Hölljes: Hahahha, it’s Yiddish right?
Hölljes: Well, I don’t know exactly what it means but I love the context clue and my wife is Jewish so I hear a lot of wonderful Yiddish sayings in my house!
Your kishkas are your guts... so when something is in your kishkas it means it’s a part of you, woven into your being. And sometimes it’s hard to recognize these types of things yourself but we hear it! It’s so palpable and it’s so great.
Hölljes: Aw, thanks. It IS in my kishkas!
A huge part of what animates our desire to tell stories is our love of musical theatre.
So now that you are truly independent artists, funded by your fans from your Kickstarter campaign and no longer part of the record label world, how has that changed the work you create? Would you be writing this musical if you were signed to a record label?
Hölljes: I think this album is so much more unbridled, confident, and emotionally true than almost anything we’ve done in the past. It doesn’t take away from anything we’ve done in the past because that had a different method of cultivation. It’s just that we picked our favorite songs, produced them the way that they needed to be produced, and didn’t second-guess any of it. This was directly from our heart, and from our… kishkas ;).
Hölljes: We really felt a sense of liberation to be true to ourselves and true to our fans who have been so unwavering in their support over the past many years. So I think that’s the primary effect of being independent. There are going to be so many secondary effects as well, in the sense that we are releasing The Light in March of this year, we’re releasing The Dark in March 2021, we have an acoustic album coming out in the intervening months, a planned holiday album and a musical. That level of output is impossible to do when you need to triangulate everything through a bureaucracy. It’s giving us a level of freedom for artistic output that we haven’t had since the very early stages of the band.
That’s the dream.
Hölljes: It’s really exciting! It’s really hard to follow your gut a lot of the times when you have a lot of rules and restrictions that you have to follow.
How amazing that you have this opportunity and that your fans have banded together to help you achieve these goals. Has it changed your relationship with your fans at all?
Hölljes: We are so lucky. It’s hard to overstate what a sense of affirmation we feel. What a gift it’s been from our fans. I think we have a really strong sense of the connection we have with our fans that we’ve built over time. We keep referring to this as a “trust fall” moment. Our fans caught us in such a profound way. The relationship we have with our fans hasn’t changed but it’s really solidified that it’s as mutual as we always dreamt it would be. It’s one of the great joys of our lives to get to know the group of people who are our fans. They are just tremendous human beings. And to create art and meet the kind of people that it’s attracting…. Nothing feels better than to look around and realize that the group you’re surrounding yourself with is all things wonderful, diverse, thoughtful, smart, and caring. It’s about as happy an outcome as you can have.
We have a really strong sense of the connection we have with our fans that we’ve built over time. We keep referring to this as a “trust fall” moment. Our fans caught us in such a profound way.
Beautiful. As a writer when I learn that a friend has read something that I’ve written and even has a response to it ... it’s the ultimate form of affirmation that you’re doing something that’s affecting people in a positive way.
Hölljes: And, as you meet a number of people, you start to accumulate a sense of who your audience is over time. That collectively is such a beautiful reflection of what you’re putting out into the world.
Totally. Once you take a creation out of your own mind and your own heart, it changes as other people receive it in their own way. That’s why feedback is so cool. It’s another way of connecting with people that is so meaningful.
Take me through what it means that The Light was influenced by Tarot?
Hölljes: Well, Brittany is the Tarot expert in the band and I will always defer to her in all matters of the mystic. But what I can tell you is that she started to recognize the connection between themes in our songs and the major arcana of the Tarot deck. She wanted to find a way to memorialize that connection. So we’ve started to develop our own major arcana. Each song has a dedicated Tarot card. The idea is to reinforce what our fans and our band has created over time. It’s a growing mythology around the Delta Rae story book. And some of these will be icons of the storytelling We’ll be putting them out there in the world and I think the connections in the stories will reveal themselves as our fans get a hold and start doing some of the interpretive work. And Britney will be using her witchy powers to start building connections as well.
Cool. Think of all the merch possibilities!
Hölljes: Well… it’s…Yessss…
Ok fine... don’t say anything! Next question! So, Delta Rae is the name of the main character in a book your Mom has been writing, Is she still working on this book?
Hölljes: She is! She’s on draft two. We’re all hotly awaiting its next round of circulation. We all got a chance to look at the first draft and it was really powerful. For Delta Rae fans it will be particularly resonant because it connects the mythical to southern imagery and growing up in the south.
That sounds amazing. I can’t wait to learn all about Delta Rae’s adventures! Both in the book and with The Light, The Dark, and your upcoming musical!
Hölljes: Aw, thanks so much. I’m looking forward to sharing our work!
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📸 © Shervin Lainez
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