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Will Durham's Delta Rae again polish Americana for the masses?

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When Durham sextet Delta Rae signed a deal with the revived Warner Brothers imprint Sire Records last February, the transaction was not necessarily newsworthy. Sire nabbed the relative unknowns from the small Southern city based only on the strength of one self-produced record and, at best, a modicum of buzz. Few blogs noticed, and there was no Billboard cover story.

But the signing—the actual signing—was the stuff of legend, or at least a Judy Garland movie: A young musical group auditions for a music-biz titan named Seymour Stein, wows him with just a few bars of a cappella and leaves with a recording contract. How often, outside of a Judy Garland movie, does that happen?

The scenario also recalls a more recent era—the circa-'70s music biz, when, as one writer put it, "the star-making machinery behind the popular song" was in full swing. But major-label signings don't mean what they once did. You no longer need a major behind you to sell a zillion records, and very few people sell many records, anyway. The labels no longer seem to share in the cool of the acts they represent; in fact, when a band-made website can help launch a career, such corporate-run imprints are often seen as the enemy.

But there's no denying that, by virtue of the Warner signing, Delta Rae seems well positioned to leverage the current popularity of smooth, shining Americana—think the past successes of Nickel Creek and Iron & Wine, Feist and Mumford & Sons—and kick into their own stratosphere. Between appearances on late-night TV (even if it's Leno) and the popularity of the video for their chain-gang tune, "Bottom of the River" (more than 250,000 views on YouTube alone), the big leap is there to be made. Warner Brothers ostensibly sees an unlimited potential in Delta Rae, calling the band "the fierce, bright hope of America's great cultural, geographical, musical journey." And on their full-length debut, Carry the Fire, it's indeed easy to see what Stein heard when they sang in his office that day: a young Fleetwood Mac without the drugs and strife, with roots in the fertile music of the South and a clear understanding of what makes a chorus catch.

Indeed, if there's a drawback to Delta Rae's commercially viable amalgam, it's that its hybrid of a handful of established genres runs the risk of trying to be all things to all people. Perhaps they'll get lost in the blip of several movements rather than emerge as a leader of any one of them. Then again, maybe not.

While the band's superhero-worthy origin story might seem like a throwback, the threshold of success at which Delta Rae seems poised represents an extremely up-to-the-minute model of preparing for today's music industry. They hit the road hard, built up a reputation as a hot live act, reworked and refined their songs night after night and crowd-funded their first record. According to Ian Hölljes, one of the Durham-based sextet's principal songwriters and vocalists, they didn't trade that autonomous development for corporate tutelage when the record contract's ink dried.

"We haven't had to share any creative control, to be honest. The album that people hear was totally untouched by Warner. We raised the money to make it on Kickstarter; we came to them; and they made absolutely no edits. And that's the album that people are buying today," he explains. "We've been blown away, because every decision that gets made, they ask for our approval. It's more collaborative in the sense that we end up running things by more people, and there's more intentionality behind everything that happens, but it's really guided by the band."

This is typically not how one imagines life for a fresh young band doing business with the business that once caused Prince to turn his name into a glyph. "It's counter to everything I'd heard about major-label relationships," Hölljes admits. "But if you look at the albums that are really propelling Warner, you'll find The Black Keys and The Low Anthem, artists that really built themselves from the ground up. They just have a great legacy of building careers slowly, and that's what we're hoping to do."

Seymour Stein might seem an unlikely Svengali for an undeniably wholesome, very attractive Durham act with both a positive message and a sound so uplifting that, at times, it borders on religious rock. The 70-year-old Brooklynite made his name with Sire Records by introducing the world to Talking Heads, Patti Smith, the Ramones and other iconic performers. But Hölljes says Stein understood the band from the start. He flew to a practice at their shared space in Durham, where they were rehearsing a song called "Holding On to Good."

"After about an hour of repetition and going over stuff, he stopped us and said, 'I don't mean to interrupt, but I just have to tell you: I love this song,'" Hölljes explains. "And for him to be able to hear through the rehearsing and that tedium of getting the harmonies just right and getting the instrumental perfect, to be able to love the song, that meant so much to me."

A career as a working musician seems to have been in the cards for Hölljes and his brother, Eric, who refined the songs that became the basis of Delta Rae while attending Duke University. They eventually joined forces with their big-voiced sister Brittany in the first edition of the band. The second and successful iteration of Delta Rae began in earnest with the addition of their friend Elizabeth Hopkins, whose gutsy soul rasp offers a vital counterpoint to Brittany's power soprano. That move reflects canny instincts and a focus on the end product that is never a given within a young band's dynamic. Brittany Hölljes has more than enough pipes and presence to front a band, but Hopkins' vocals proved essential, adding both frisson and flesh to the sound. This demonstration of practicality as well as ambition is characteristic of the band throughout its brief history. But the industry smarts came later, says Ian Hölljes; at first, it was just a matter of brothers following a musical muse.

"This whole thing started because, from a very young age, Eric and I always felt driven to write songs," he remembers. "In interviews with so many musicians and songwriters, you always get the sense that the songs just write themselves, and I really do identify with that. The melodies and lyrics tend to sort of happen upon you, and then it's like you're chasing a thread to finish the song and to tease the stories out."

That fraternal approach inspires cooperation and competition, Hölljes says, as each brother has long tried to write songs better than the last one penned by the other sibling. "When it comes to music, there's two conflicting feelings: You want to create something that's transcendent and timeless, but at the same time you want to be the best," he reckons. That mark of ambition reappears throughout Carry the Fire, the showcase of a band with an interest in musical forms both rustic and buffed, where call-and-response gospel vocals, string-band balladry and found percussion meet the close-harmony style of Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor and others from the family record collection. A less obvious component, but one that certainly adds to the band's ability to attract youthful ears, is the R&B inflections and vocal phrasings.

"I think the Motown hits are probably the most soulful, nourishing music ever made. Songs like 'Stand By Me' and 'Midnight Train to Georgia' and so many of Michael Jackson's hits, they taught people to survive on those albums," he says. "That's the kind of stuff I want to create. I just find them so stirring, and that's what I tend to go back to when I'm trying to write. I want the songs to feel like they came out of the sky."

To some ears, Carry the Fire might sound too polished to match that description. The record has plenty of earthy touches, but there's not a hair out of place. Hölljes disagrees. For him, the word "gritty" was a touchstone for the band while making this album, especially on a song like "Bottom of the River."

"We made this thing on a small budget. We avoided a lot of things that I thought sort of characterized big-budget albums; we didn't tune the voices. Maybe it's just the way that we sing," he says. "People identify it as sounding polished. It's been interesting hearing about the way it hits people."

Although Warner Brothers' high hopes for Delta Rae seem grand enough, Hölljes holds himself to a simple standard, so Warner's considerable investment in the band doesn't feel like too much pressure to live up to.

"I feel the same pressure I've always felt," he says. "I just want the music to be so good. I have this sense that if I can push myself hard enough, and we can push ourselves hard enough, that everybody is going to be satisfied, that Warner and Seymour and all of us will love it. I also just have trust that whatever Seymour heard in his office that day and told us that he loved, that we can keep that going. And continue to make more of that music." That music?

"Smokey Robinson, Ben E. King, Elvis Presley ... those songs just feel like they were meant to be written. I love that. That's what I want to do. I want to write songs that feel like they were meant to be written."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Sudden sparks."

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