The Popdose Interview: Eric Holljes of Delta Rae
Delta Rae is a sextet from North Carolina, consisting of three siblings and three additional friends. They’re the only band I’ve seen use chains and a garbage can, aside from MyNameIsJohnMichael. To say the least, they have a unique sound they can call their own. A little bit of rock, a little bit of soul and a little bit of gospel, with a touch of southern comfort.
Eric Holljes is co-founder/co-songwriter/co-everything of the band with his brother Ian. While walking the streets of Chicago, Eric took the time to talk about being social media savvy, impressing Seymour Stein and already being ready to write the next record.
How nervous were you heading into the office of Seymour Stein?
We just kept really low expectations, knowing Seymour’s history. I think we were healthily intimidated. And as we check into the Warner Brothers offices at Rockefeller Center, Seymour comes in at the same time. Then, we end up getting on the same elevator as Seymour. So that was a bit of an awkward elevator ride up.
We were all nervous, but we didn’t have big expectations. We get into his office, chat for a little bit and then he asks us to perform for him. So we start to sing the last song on the new record, “Hey Hey, Hey.” It’s a song that starts with four-part harmony. Almost immediately, he abruptly stops us. We all think we’re going to get kicked out of his office. He starts calling people telling them to come to his office saying, “This is beautiful, you have to come check it out.”
We started to feel excited and more comfortable. So more people start coming in and he keeps asking for more songs. So we sang “Bottom of the River” and he says that it was beautiful and it reminded him of such-and-such band that I had never heard of. But he just has such an encyclopedia of music knowledge. It was amazing. We sang in his office for nearly an hour and just talked about music. I didn’t know it was possible to have a meeting like that. It was really inspiring for us. And four months later we signed with Sire.
You’re a social media savvy band. Is there a point where the rockstar mystique is lost by sharing what you had for breakfast on Twitter?
I think so. We’re still in control of what gets broadcast. We were even very hesitant to create a Twitter account a couple years ago. Broadcasting the happenings of the day seemed a bit much to us. That mystique is part of what we loved about music growing up; I think it’s very powerful to stay behind the curtain. It makes what you do on stage more impactful, because that’s the moment you connect with the audience. But at the same time, you can build connections via social media that bridge the gap towards your music. In the end, if they find our music, it’s what we really care about. We did all just make Instagram accounts, so I guess we’re all in. (Laughing) I don’t think we share too much, but if we do, please let me know.
The band released the video for “Bottom of the River” nearly nine months prior to the release of your debut album, Carry the Fire. Was your patience tested waiting for the release?
I think we had moments of anxiety and impatience waiting for the record to come out. But I think the flow has been pretty natural. We made the video in October, but the album wasn’t even done until January. It felt like the right amount of time between video and record release. But I can’t describe the excitement to finally have that album out there.
The album has a big, full sound to it. Did Alex Wong help bring that sound to life?
I don’t know if it’s completely intentional, but our music is very upfront. It’s makes an impression. If you see us live, there is subtlety in the show. I think we wanted to make an impact with this record. We have four lead singers. A characteristic of our voices is that we all sing full throated and passionately.
We didn’t want to hold anything back with this record. Working with Alex Wong was fantastic. He has a great ear for rhythm and melody. He’s a classically trained percussionist. He brings a lot of creativity. He was very fun to work with. He introduced string, horns, harmonium, water phone and a lot of other weird instruments that Alex knows how to play. I felt like each song received special attention. He helped bring new life and creativity to each of the songs. It was a lot of fun for us.
How does the songwriting play out with so many strong voices?
It’s a ‘let the best song win’ mentality. We are siblings, so at times we might want to strangle each other, but it didn’t happen in the studio…that much. We try to balance it out. It just feels natural. Right now, I’m in the mindset of writing songs for Liz (Elizabeth Hopkins). She sings lead on two of the songs on the album. I would love to have her sing another really big…I’m not sure what type of song, it doesn’t matter. I just want to write her another song.
So when a song starts to come to me, I try to lead it down the path of her in the lead to knock it out of the park. For example, “Bottom of the River” is a song I woke up with the chorus in my head. I knew pretty instinctively that it was a gospel song. I came up with the background parts. It all sort of fell into place. When Brittany heard it she said “I want to sing that” — and when she sang it , it made total sense. So sometimes they just naturally find their singer. It’s a fun part of the process. It’s exciting to see who the best fit for the song will be.
Are you constantly writing songs while on the road, or do you need to be in a certain mindset prior to sitting down and writing songs?
It’s both. I wish I had a quiet room and piano right now. I carry my phone on me at all times and will record ideas as they come to me. I think a lot of ‘creatives’ will agree that they come at all times, when you aren’t thinking about writing songs. In the shower or on the road. My brother and I are the writers in the group. It comes naturally to us and we’ve been able to hone in on it. I wish I had more time. It takes time to plug in and then edit the songs that are worth continued pursuit. It’s a balancing act, but when we get off the road I’ll be in a full-time writing mode trying to make some more songs.
Even though the album has only been out for two weeks, are you ready to start writing the next record?
Yeah, we’re really excited about it, even if we are getting ahead of ourselves. We’ve already laid out the basic outline for the next record. We just always have ideas that we keep throwing off each other to stay inspired.
Was it difficult to stop writing for the debut record and just stop and say, “Yes, we’re done”?
It wasn’t so much the writing process — it was the mixing and the editing and the massaging it into the place where we really wanted it. We’ve been a band for nearly three years and most of those songs were already written prior to going to into studio, except for two — “Unlike Any Other” and “Dancing in the Graveyard” were finished just prior to that. Once we agreed on the 12 songs, we were locked. We thought about maybe saving a couple songs for the next album. We didn’t lose too much sleep on the song selection for this album.
You’re on tour in the Midwest playing in front of audiences who have never seen you before. How has the initial reaction been so far?
It’s been great. It’s the first time we get to play in these markets. The response has really been fantastic. Couldn’t have asked for more. We played Minneapolis to a great response. We give out a ton of energy during our live show and they gave it right back to us. We’re playing Chicago and it’s almost sold out. (Note: The show did sell out.) The Midwest has really given us a warm welcome.
Its festival season, so you’re playing a lot of afternoon shows at 3 in the afternoon. It’s a different dynamic than playing in a bar at 10 PM.
We’ve become accustomed to the club scene — we’ve been doing that for two and half years. Graduating to a festival show is different. At a club we’ll walk off the stage and perform a song in the crowd completely acoustic and unplugged. We can’t do that at a festival show; only 10 people would hear us. So we have to rearrange and reorganize the show and still be able to maintain the energy on a different stage, without a soundcheck. That said, we’re enjoying the transition. The energy at a festival show is always great.
I’ve been telling everyone who is willing to listen to check out Delta Rae. What bands are you telling people about?
I just let my friends know about the new Kimbra record. We saw her at SXSW. I fell in love with her video for “Cameo Lover” — I think it’s cute and fun, and I love her work for Gotye. I’ve been a fan of Gotye for a few years now, and when they collaborated it felt really special. She has a really cool, unique voice that I love. Somebody else that I love — he’s not a new artist, but he’s always putting out music that I love, and he’s actually the main reason I started making music — is George Winston. He’s a folk pianist. So when someone is looking for emotive, mellow piano music I throw his name out there. We love fun. We love the Mumford & Sons song with Birdy on the Brave soundtrack. I can’t wait for their new record.