It's been a whirlwind year for Delta Rae, the four-piece band fronted by brothers Eric and Ian Hölljes. Since its debut at Duke in October 2009, the band has attracted a multigenerational following, released a self-titled EP that has sold more than 2,000 copies, and opened for the pop-rock trio Hanson. Eric, who cowrote the hit “Cooler Than Me” with classmate Mike Posner '10, just signed a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music and has sung a demo for rapper 50 Cent.
From an early age, Eric, Ian, and their sister Brittany—who’s also in Delta Rae—grew up listening to a wide range of music, including classical, folk, pop, and soul. They were particularly drawn to singer-songwriters who focused on storytelling: James Taylor, Billy Joel, and Joni Mitchell, among others. Even though neither brother took lessons, they were clearly natural musicians: Eric taught himself Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major as a boy, and both were members of their California high school’s a cappella singing group. In Ian’s senior year, they performed as a band for the first time, playing a set of seventeen original songs—including one that they had cowritten when Eric was twelve and Ian was fourteen.
Eventually, both brothers matriculated at Duke, extending a family legacy begun by their maternal grandparents, Robin Lyons Puckett ’60 and Richard Spencer Kramer ’58, M.D. ’62, and continued by their parents, Christian Hölljes ’81 and Laurie Kramer Hölljes ’83. They formed a band called Running Lights and launched a grassroots marketing campaign to reach as many Duke students as possible. “We called it Dorm Storm,” says Ian. “It was essentially an East Campus tour where we played a different dorm every weekend.”
Last year, once all three Hölljes siblings had graduated from college (Brittany is a University of California at Berkeley alumna), they decided to make a go of being a professional band. In February 2010, they bought passenger tickets for Camayo, a live-music cruise through the Caribbean, featuring dozens of established and up-and-coming musicians and singer-songwriters. “We weren’t officially part of the lineup, but we would just show up around the boat and perform,” says Eric. The band created a buzz and went on to win the cruise’s open-mike contest.
The cruise also brought them together with influential musicians. “One afternoon I was playing the piano and singing at one of the ship’s bars,” says Eric. “I got up to leave and a guy who had been listening came up and started talking to me about how much he enjoyed the music.” The fan turned out to be singer-songwriter Edwin McCain, who gave a shout-out to Delta Rae during his Camayo headlining set. Delta Rae opened for McCain when he played at Chapel Hill’s Cat’s Cradle nightclub in April.
Last summer, Delta Rae won an online contest to open for Hanson at that band’s appearance in Asheville, North Carolina, in August. But they were already scheduled to play a show the night before in New York for an audience that included music industry scouts. “We drove ten hours to New York and barely made it there before we went on stage,” says Ian. “We finished our set at 10 that night, were back in the van by 11, drove as far as Virginia, slept a couple of hours, and then continued on to Asheville.”
Before the show, both bands participated in a live interview (see related content), and Delta Rae performed some of its signature, soaring, soulful melodies—which prompted one of the Hansons to remark that his band should be opening for Delta Rae rather than the other way around.
The Hölljes brothers have no illusions about the unpredictable nature of the music business. But they are determined to make the most of the many opportunities coming their way. Says Ian, “We’re just trying to chase our dreams while we can.”