Last June, the daughter of Sire Records chairman and Warner Bros. Records VP Seymour Stein was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. The veteran record man accompanied his daughter Samantha to the hospital at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and developed a rapport with the doctor she'd selected. Despite their friendly relationship, Stein was surprised when out of the blue just a month later, the doctor called him with a music tip.
"He said, 'There's a band down here that you should check out,'" recalls Stein, who's responsible for signing Madonna, Talking Heads, Depeche Mode and many other legends. "What could I say? What does this guy know about music? I just figured that, out of respect for what he's doing for my daughter, I should give it what they call in Hollywood a 'courtesy listen.' Well, I listened and, quite frankly, I was blown away."
The band was Delta Rae, a Durham six-piece comprising three siblings - Ian, Eric (who notably wrote "Cooler Than Me" with Mike Posner) and Brittany Hölljes - and their friends Elizabeth Hopkins, Mike McKee and Grant Emerson. The group formed in late 2009, touring and self-releasing a five-track EP during the next few years. As it turned out, Delta Rae manager Adam Schlossman knew the doctor, who recommended the group to Stein without ever listening to the music. "Seymour told us later that he initially took the meeting as a favor, with very low expectations," Ian Hölljes says. "It's been absolutely surreal."
Stein and Sire A&R executive Eric McLellan signed the band shortly thereafter, encouraged by the group's songwriting, which falls somewhere between the bluesy sound of Alabama Shakes and the country pop of Lady Antebellum. "There seems to be a resurgence of Americana music coming out," McLellan says. "A lot of bands we're noticing and enjoying have that sound. What's great about Delta Rae is that it comes from the Carolinas, so of course they have that classic sound. But they also have a commercial aspect."
That sound can be heard on Delta Rae's forthcoming debut, "Carry the Fire," which arrives June 19 on Sire/Warner and has been teased with the thumping single "Bottom of the River." The album, which was recorded before the band inked its label deal, was financed through a Kickstarter campaign launched in June 2011 that raised $28,000 from 293 backers. (Incentives for pledges included advance copies of the album, handwritten lyrics and - at the highest level - a cover tune of the contributor's choice.) The disc, recorded at Brooklyn's Angelhouse Studios and Asheville, N.C.'s Echo Mountain, as well Delta Rae's house in Durham, was finished by the time the band signed with Sire/Warner early this year.
"We found Alex Wong, our producer; booked the studio; and financed the whole process based almost entirely on the Kickstarter funds," Schlossman says. "Up until the day we signed, we always felt it necessary and practical to have everything in place to release the album on our own. Going through that process was extraordinarily informative but, ultimately, we are thrilled to have such a great partner in Sire/Warner."
The songs on the album, which Hölljes says are tied together by "the passion of the singers' vocals and the pursuit of great songwriting," were untouched by the label. "We were able to execute the vision we had for our album," he says. "[Sire/Warner] made zero changes. What people end up hearing is exactly what we recorded."
Sire clearly has a special relationship with Delta Rae, and the group will tour for most of the year, making its late-night TV debut on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" on June 25. In addition, Stein invited the act to perform at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles after he makes a speaking appearance there on June 20. "I've had a lot of weird things happen to me in my career and my life," Stein says. "This is, if not the weirdest, certainly one of the weirdest. The band is incredible, and it's going to be enormous."
The group, which mainly seems interested in writing and performing well-written, impassioned songs, feels a surprising lack of pressure from its connection to Stein. "The affirmation we get from Seymour is a huge wind in our sails," Hölljes says. "We're trusting that he fell in love with what he heard when we first came into his office, and that we're going to keep letting that engine run."