After playing music for years, brothers Eric and Ian Hölljes decided to start a band, but not just any band. It would have rock and soul and folk and some alt-country elements, and they wanted four-part harmonies with two women. It was to be called Delta Rae. And so they enlisted their sisters, Brittany Hölljes and Elizabeth Hopkins, the former by birth and the latter by honorary status. They wanted an innovative drummer who could switch seamlessly between a traditional kit and a garbage can/metal chain combo, and they found one in Mike McKee. Of course, they also needed a fluid bass player to flesh out the sounds of their guitars and Eric's piano and keys, so in stepped Grant Emerson. But Eric and Ian Hölljes never dreamed about making money doing what they loved.
"When we started the band we had humble expectations," Eric says with a laugh, still sounding a bit dumbstruck. Last year around this time, the band had raised $28,000 from 293 backers through Kickstarter to make their first record, Carry the Fire. By February 2012, they were signed to Sire Records, a division of Warner Bros. Records.
"We were hoping we could make a life out of it and that felt very ambitious in and of itself, and it still does — to make art and be able to survive off of that. But we really threw everything we had into it," Eric says.
Some more than others. Eric adds, "My brother bought a house and we all moved in together in North Carolina. Right from the first week we were rehearsing, and Ian and I had been writing songs together for the band, just like, imagining what it would be like. Then we had our first show within a month, and after that we'd pile into a couple of cars and drive anywhere we could get a gig, and that was three years ago. It's been an amazing trip."
Although his childhood dreams are coming true, Eric finds the whole experience to be a bit surreal. "We're going to be on VH1 tomorrow morning. We all grew up watching MTV and VH1 nonstop, so the fact that we're going to be on that channel — that part doesn't feel real. That part feels pretty strange and amazing. I don't think I imagined this. I maybe dreamed of it and hoped for it, but this is exceeding a lot of what I imagined."
And it happened fast. After capitalizing on a chance connection to Sire Records co-founder and Warner Bros. Records head honcho Seymour Stein, the six-piece went to his Manhattan office and sang a few bars. Stein ran out the door, but he wasn't being rude. He was insisting his colleagues and underlings come listen. Delta Rae had arrived.
But between the successful Kickstarter fundraiser and a special CD release party in their hometown a few weeks ago, there have been plenty of heady, heartening reminders that Delta Rae has cultivated a dedicated following — all without the major label support.
"We have the most amazing fans," Eric says. "It was such a risk. We were trying to raise $20,000, which just seemed so ambitious to us. When we started, we thought we could definitely fail. But the fans exceeded all of our expectations and hopes. We're so grateful. And they're part of this record and this process and this band."
At one recent show at the Cat's Cradle in the band's hometown of Chapel Hill, N.C., the members of Delta Rae discovered exactly what they meant to their fans. "They made over 350 paper torches, little lanterns, and we had no idea about it. But then when they called us back for the encore, the whole crowd had lit these 350 torches and were cheering us on, and it was a very powerful, almost magical, experience. It blew us away."
That feeling, it seems, is mutual. The raves online don't just praise Delta Rae's music, but their live shows as well. All six have been known to leap off the stage and work their way into the center of a huge crowd and belt out a few songs. YouTube videos capture the energy and urgency of their harmonies, pushing each other louder and larger until the entire room feels pressurized, like a balloon about to pop. Think of it as an epic campfire: accessible, catchy, and engaging. And miraculously, Carry the Fire captures that feeling.
"I love music, but I find myself sometimes getting distracted or, dare I say, bored, at shows," Eric says. "As a band we wanted to be exciting and wanted to keep it interesting for the audience. We really embraced that with our live show, and we wanted to translate that onto the record, so we bring horns and strings and trash cans and try different things vocally. It's a bit more experimental. We try to be exciting."