Music Interviews
3:06 pm
Wed October 3, 2012

Delta Rae: Modern Folklore Music

Originally published on Thu October 4, 2012 2:14 pm

Love songs are like the meat and potatoes of most rock and pop music, but sometimes you need something different. For the band Delta Rae from Durham, N.C., inspiration for new material comes from stuff like graveyards and being stuck in the wrong job.

Delta Rae is a six-piece band that includes three siblings: Ian, Eric and Brittany Holljes. Their music is like a kind of modern folklore.

With Brittany Holljes' bluesy roar, the insistent refrain "Hold my hand / It's a long way down to the bottom of the river" recalls those ominous old folk songs about a murder or an unfaithful wife. The video for "Bottom of the River" looks like a witch trial, with a young woman being marched down a dirt road by an angry mob.

Erin Williams of The Washington Post says the haunting vibe works for Delta Rae: "The chains in the background, the chanting. It's just great," Williams says. "They can evoke ideas of gospel and blues and rock, and put it all in there and create this amazing sound that really works for them."

The Holljes siblings grew up hearing stories of mythology and the supernatural.

"My mom loves folk tales," songwriter Ian Holljes says. "She would read Greek mythology to us and the Narnia books." He says there were often songs in the stories: "And she would just make up melodies."

Their mother's made-up melodies left a huge impression. Ian and Eric Holljes say they started writing songs when they were 12 and 10, respectively. When the family lived in California, Ian, Eric and Brittany joined a teen a cappella group called 'Til Dawn. That's where they became friends with the fourth singer in Delta Rae, Liz Hopkins.

Vocal harmonies are a signature feature of Delta Rae's material. "Country House" is like a meditation on the word "lonesome," wherein the singers repeat and stretch out the word in a way that emphasizes the feeling of loss. It's inspired by the year Ian Holljes spent taking care of his former college professor — the North Carolina writer Reynolds Price — who was paraplegic. He passed away around the same time that the Holljes siblings' grandfather died.

"That word 'lonesome' was really interesting to me," Ian Holljes says, "because it tied together the whole experience, both of the grandfather dying alone, meeting the end by himself, and then family mourning his loss."

The theme of losing someone gets a completely different treatment in another song, "Dance In The Graveyard" — a reference to what Ian Holljes says he wants to do with his friends and family who've died.

"Reynolds Price, or friends from high school who've passed — they were wonderful parts of my life," he says. "For me, they're not resting in peace. They're very vivid. They still move me and influence me, and I'm still dancing with them."

Delta Rae is currently on a national tour. Other songs on Carry The Fire are inspired by the years the Holljes siblings' father was unemployed, their relationship with their hometown of Durham and, yes, finding and losing love, as few pop groups can completely avoid that.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. The love song has long been a staple of rock and pop music, but the band Delta Rae from Durham, North Carolina, is more interested in telling stories about graveyards and what it's like being stuck in the wrong job. The six-piece band includes three siblings: Ian, Eric and Brittany Holljes. And as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, they're out to create a new kind of musical folklore.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOTTOM OF THE RIVER")

DELTA RAE: (Singing) Hold my hand. Ooh, baby, it's a long way down to the bottom of the river. Hold my hand.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Hold my hand. It's a long way down to the bottom of the river. It's like one of those ominous old songs about a murder or an unfaithful wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOTTOM OF THE RIVER")

RAE: (Singing) Hold my hand. Ooh, baby, it's a long way down, a long way down. The wolves will chase you by the pale moonlight. Drunk and driven by a devil's hunger.

BLAIR: The video looks like a witch trial with a young woman being marched down a dirt road by an angry mob. Erin Williams of The Washington Post says the haunting vibe works for Delta Rae.

ERIN WILLIAMS: The chains in the background and the chanting and it's just great. They can evoke, you know, ideas of gospel and blues and rock and put it all in there and create this amazing sound that really works for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOTTOM OF THE RIVER")

RAE: (Singing) Hold on now. Hold my hand. Ooh, baby, it's a long way down, a long way down.

BLAIR: The supernatural, mythology, those are the kinds of stories that Eric and Ian Holljes say they heard a lot growing up.

IAN HOLLJES: My mom loves folk tales. She would be reading Greek mythology to us...

ERIC HOLLJES: The "Narnia" books.

HOLLJES: ...and the "Narnia" books, and they all had songs incorporated into the stories. And she would just make up the melodies and...

BLAIR: Do you remember any of them?

HOLLJES: Yeah. I mean, there was one - and this is a book that was written by Jimmy Buffet, so like it has...

(LAUGHTER)

HOLLJES: It had sheet music, and it had melody. But my mom...

HOLLJES: Jollyman.

HOLLJES: ...didn't just - yeah. She avoided that. So this was Jollyman. She would sing...

(Singing) Ooh, whoa, Jollyman, sing. Ooh, Whoa, let your music ring.

And I don't know what the melody that Jimmy Buffett had written was, but...

HOLLJES: Yeah. It was there in sheet music, but none of us know how to read it (unintelligible).

HOLLJES: But she did know enough...

BLAIR: But that didn't stop the Holljes siblings from pursuing careers in music. When the family lived in California, Ian, Eric and Brittany joined a teen a cappella group called 'Til Dawn. That's where they met the fourth singer in Delta Rae, Liz Hopkins.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

RAE: (Singing) I've been looking real hard, and I'm trying to find a job, but it just keeps getting tougher every day. But I know in my heart that I got to do my part so I can please, please baby, yeah.

BLAIR: Years later, vocal harmonies are a big part of Delta Rae's material, which is mostly written by brothers Ian and Eric Holljes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNTRY HOUSE")

RAE: (Singing) In a country house with the windows lit by burning wicks and the walls held up by wood...

BLAIR: This song called "Country House" is inspired by the year Ian Holljes spent taking care of a disabled man, his former college professor, the North Carolina writer Reynolds Price. He passed away around the same time as the Holljes siblings' grandfather died. The song is like a meditation on the word lonesome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNTRY HOUSE")

RAE: (Singing) Because we're lonesome.

HOLLJES: That word lonesome was really interesting to me because it sort of tied together the whole experience both of the grandfather dying alone and, you know, having to meet his end by himself and potentially whatever comes next, and then the family mourning his loss.

BLAIR: After he'd written the words and music, Ian Holljes brought it to the other members of Delta Rae, and the rest of the song was a collaboration, says Brittany Holljes, since they are four singers who've worked out vocal parts together for years.

BRITTANY HOLLJES: "Country House" is one of our more unique songs because I'm actually singing the lower harmony and Liz is singing the higher harmony. That's not the most comfortable part of my range, but it means that I sort of tap into a huskier sound, and Liz has a beautiful, delicate soprano that doesn't get used very often. So I think that the arrangement really lends itself to feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNTRY HOUSE")

RAE: (Singing) Did you ever love somebody? Did you ever lose someone? Did you ever love somebody?

BLAIR: Losing someone gets a completely different treatment on another song on Delta Rae's new album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCE IN THE GRAVEYARD")

RAE: (Singing) When I die, I don't want to rest in peace. I want to dance in joy. I want to dance in the graveyards, the graveyards. And while I'm alive, I don't want to be alone...

BLAIR: It's called "Dance in the Graveyard," which is what Ian Holljes says he wants to do with the people he's lost.

HOLLJES: Whether it'd be Reynolds Price or friends from high school who've passed, they were wonderful parts of my life, and for me, at least in my memory, they're not resting in peace. They're very vivid. They still move me and influence me and, you know, I'm still dancing with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCE IN THE GRAVEYARD")

RAE: (Singing) I want to dance in joy. I want to dance with them some more. Let's dance in the graveyards. Oh, oh.

BLAIR: Delta Rae is on a national tour. Other songs on their new album are inspired by the years the Holljes siblings' father was unemployed, their relationship with their hometown of Durham, North Carolina, and, yes, finding and losing love. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCE IN THE GRAVEYARD")

RAE: (Singing) And when you reach for me, dance in the darkness, and we will move on. Our daughters and sons, they will carry on as though we were young. We will stand aside and breathe in the new life. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.