Hangout and About, Part 4: Delta Rae's Storybook Rise is No Myth

Delta Rae might sound like the down-home name of a backwoods country singer but it's really just Greek to Brittany Holljes.

"I think there are a lot of 'Delta' bands out there, too, so we kind of get that ... people get confused," said Holljes, the whip-smart singer of the North Carolina-based sextet (like Deborah Harry used to say about Blondie, Delta Rae is a group). "And I completely understand.

"We liked it for that fact," she added over the phone on a rainy day at their Chatham County home studio, where they were recording demos for their second album that's probably still a year away. "(The group name) tells you where we're from. We are a southern band and we wear that on our sleeves. But at the same time, it's got a grandness. It's bigger than the South. It's got almost a Greek ... it's got a mythological element to me in my mind, maybe because I associate it with the story that my mom is telling."

Holljes, 23, is younger than her two brothers Ian (28) and Eric (26), both of whom share lead vocal duties with Brittany and wrote all the songs on the genre-defying band's debut album, Carry the Fire, released last June by Warner's Sire Records. Together, along with Brittany's best friend Elizabeth Hopkins, Delta Rae creates soaring four-part harmonies that are refined and roots-oriented, yet try to go back in the heyday of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours.

All three Holljes siblings can thank their mother Laurie for instilling the spirit -- and providing the name -- of the group, with a character she dreamed up 10 years ago for "a very magical story" she plans to have published by the end of the year.

Delta Rae "is a 12-year-old girl from the South who calls the Greek gods back to Earth to help her and her family," said Brittany, revealing the plot line but not the book title. "It's Delta Rae and blah-blah-blah," she said, laughing. "I'm not gonna give it away. ... All of us kids have read it. ... And it was really good, so we're really proud."

Members of Delta Rae, from left: Ian Holljes (vocals, guitar), Grant Emerson (bass),
Brittany Holljes (vocals), Mike McKee (drums, percussion), Elizabeth Hopkins (vocals) and Eric Holljes (vocals, piano). Photo by Smallz and Raskind.

The Holljeses are voracious readers anyway, and D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths grabbed their attention early. Especially entranced was Brittany, who graduated at age 19 from Cal-Berkeley, where she earned a degree in ancient Mediterranean religion with an emphasis in Greek mythology.

A Tennessee native, Brittany also lived in Georgia before her father Christian, who worked for Apple Computer, moved to California in 1996 to become an entrepreneur and toy inventor. He created the Fisher-Price Smart Cycle, "one of the most brilliant things he's come up with to date," his daughter said.

Brittany describes herself as the baby and the rebel of the family, for "so many reasons." At age 15, she dropped out of high school and enrolled at College of Marin for two years before choosing between studying ethnomusicology at UCLA or religion at UC-Berkeley.

"I think I recognized that I wasn't going to flourish in high school. I wanted a more flexible learning environment and teachers who cared more and to be away from sort of the social drama in high school that comes with everybody's high school experience," she said, adding that "in an insane twist," her parents where hugely supportive. "In community college, I got to be a completely anonymous presence. ... It was definitely the right choice for me. Eric going off to college (two years earlier to continue a Holljes legacy at Duke University) just made me feel like my only real ally at our high school was gone and I didn't want to be there anymore."

Which brings us back to the band.

"It's really probably going to be the thing I'm happiest about in my life that I chose to do," Brittany said of the reunion with her brothers after she and Eric graduated from college the same year to form the band in Durham. "But being such a rebel in my teenage years, I had no idea that I would choose ultimately to completely get reabsorbed into my family and make sort of my family and my career and my whole life into one thing. I'm really happy that I did."

While Brittany's voice provides the dynamite power to such explosive tracks as "Holding Onto Good," "Bottom of the River" and "Fire," she credits her brothers for setting the bar high with their songwriting skills and basic instincts.

"We tend to argue occasionally but for the most part we really have a good time," Brittany said about life on a 12-passenger Ford van with all of the band -- including Grant Emerson (bass) and Mike McKee (drums) -- and a tour manager. Following a brief break after MerleFest, Delta Rae is back on the road and will perform at the Hangout Fest in Gulf Shores, Alabama, on Saturday (May 18).

Brittany, who is slowly starting to write songs and may sneak one in on the next album, insists the group has never had a major disagreement. Majority rules in most matters but, when it comes to making more significant decisions, "we kinda don't come down on either side until everybody (including manager and family friend Adam Schlossman) has all the information and can come to the same conclusion."

Family unity also has a lot to do with living in harmony, too.

"Three siblings in a band, we were all raised by the same people, we have the same value sets and my brothers are really smart," said Brittany, who maintains there's no such thing as a sibling rivalry among the Holljeses. "They're not just musicians, they're brilliant guys. And they wouldn't have pulled all of us into this if they didn't have a plan."

That firm direction has resulted in "only like a million" highlights in the 11 months since the release, she said. Among the standouts were singing and filming four of their songs (including the album's raucous "Bottom of the River") with a group of kids from PS 22 in Staten Island, New York; meeting first lady (and a very "mom-like") Michelle Obama while Delta Rae campaigned heavily for the re-election of the president (left to right: Elizabeth Hopkins, Michelle Obama, Brittany Holljes, Eric Holljes.); and making an indirect but invaluable connection with one of Fleetwood Mac's power players.

Brittany said she's been obsessed with the supergroup since her "cool aunt" Leigh gave her Rumours for her 11th or 12 birthday.

"I remember putting it on and ... it just felt like summertime. My birthday's in August (14), so at the point which I started playing it, it just became the soundtrack of my life, along with, at that time, Queen and Jeff Buckley," she said.

Rumours became Delta Rae's working model because, Brittany said, it "was a collection of bluegrass sounds and rock sounds and beautiful ballads and ... it crossed borders and it didn't care."

So when Delta Rae, who still perform "The Chain" in concert, decided to re-record "If I Loved You," they were pleasantly surprised to find out that high-powered Los Angeles producer Rob Cavallo brought in Lindsey Buckingham separately to lay down a 12-string Veillette Gryphon acoustic guitar for the track.

"It was literally exactly what the track needed," Brittany said of the song that is Hopkins' Carry the Fire vocal showcase. "Leave it to Lindsey Buckingham, who's just so brilliant, to know exactly ... to hear a song and hear the gaps and say, 'I can fill in on those gaps.' ... We were blown away and honored. If you want to talk about highlights of the year, that was one of them."

Now if only Brittany Holljes and her Delta Rae brothers could meet the Guitar God they idolize almost as much as Zeus. Until then, this experience could be considered a near myth.

Hear Delta Rae's "If I Loved You" featuring Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham:

Delta Rae are scheduled to perform from 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Saturday (May 18) on the Hangout Stage at the 2013 Hangout Festival.


Is this your first time at the Hangout Fest?
"It's actually not our first time. We played the (Thursday night) opening party for the VIPs (last year). So we're really thrilled that they asked us back 'cause I think it means that the people who saw us liked us."

What did you think of Gulf Shores?
"I think we thought it was kind of amazing. We don't get down to that southern a point very often. But to know that such incredible beaches are available to us and I'm so glad that festival happens there. I think everybody recognizes that the Gulf suffered a lot in the last five years, tourism and all that. They have a reason to celebrate that the environment is bouncing back, rebuilding the community there. It's a pretty great experience all around."

If you could hang out with another artist performing at the Hangout Festival, who would it be?
"Oh man, last year the Red Hot Chili Peppers played. I think that would be the most ideal. (Holljes is told that Tom Petty and Kings of Leon are among this year's headliners.) Oh, God, well both of them. We're crazy, huge Kings of Leon fans. If our drummer has been influenced by anybody, it's by Tom Petty's (original) drummer, Stan Lynch. He's in love with that style. We love that documentary Tom Petty has out (Runnin' Down a Dream). It would be incredible to hang out with either (group) at Hangout Fest.

Will you get to spend more than one day at the Hangout?
"Oh, yeah. We've rented a house; we're gonna be true to the name of the festival. We'll be hanging out full time, I think.

What can Hangout listeners expect from Delta Rae's set?
"I think there's gonna be a lot of raucous partying, so we're gonna try and bring our energy all the way up to meet that demand. Four-part harmony, power, we want people to have an awesome time and be able to be moved by the music and really feel it. And we'll be feeling it every second that we're onstage."

What's either your favorite song about Alabama or favorite musician from Alabama?
"Well, I have to give props to the Alabama Shakes. They are from Alabama, though, right? ... (They formed in Athens, Alabama.) Their lead singer is also named Brittany (Howard). I think she is just nuts. I do not know how her vocal cords do it, but I'm very impressed. ... They're busting out, making moves and I'm excited for them."