Delta Rae on Leaving Big Machine & New Album 'The Light'

Delta Rae
Shervin Lainez

Delta Rae

Delta Rae never lost their spark, even in a difficult industry. Last summer, the six-piece announced they had officially left Big Machine and launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund their new album. It was a risk, both stepping away from the label system and returning to their crowd-sourcing roots.

"I feel like we had a breakup," singer-songwriter Brittany Hölljes tells Billboard. "It makes sense. You try. You date. You think it might go somewhere. Then, when it doesn't, it's so disheartening and disappointing. When we launched the campaign, all our fans rushed in to say they loved us. That made the breakup a lot less painful."

The two-month fundraising campaign raised a whopping total: $451,000.

Initially, the blues-infused band only had plans to write and record one album. Helmed by producer Alex Wong, The Light (out March 20) is the first piece of the puzzle, a gospel-soaked declaration that swerves between honoring their North Carolina home and dealing with dark, tumultuous emotions. With their funds, they are also releasing a companion set called The Dark (early 2021), as well as an acoustic album, a live album, a holiday album and writing and staging a southern gothic musical.

"It's basically guaranteeing that we're going to be a band for a while," Brittany quips.

The group -- also featuring Brittany's brothers Ian (guitar, vocals) and Eric (guitar, piano, vocals), childhood friend Elizabeth Hopkins (vocals), Mike McKee (percussion) and Grant Emerson (bass) -- announced their label departure a day after Big Machine's sale to Scooter Braun. Taylor Swift then took to social media to express her frustrations, and in an unexpected serendipitous turn, Swift fans swarmed to support Delta Rae's campaign.

"I think what they were mainly able to contribute was broadcasting it. We caught a really wide net. What's fun is there's a lot of overlap between our fandoms," says Brittany. "What really likens our fans to Taylor Swift fans is they're hardcore and super supportive. In the end, to have all this money, we were most inspired to just keep creating."

"We decided to just start making. The best people to support us in what we wanted to make were the fans we knew wanted the music," she continues. "Leaving a label and trying to work through the legal and logistical elements of that -- and emotional -- was hard."

Bandmates Brittany and Eric recently hopped on a call to discuss implications of leaving Big Machine, their cathartic and uproarious new album, Kickstarter strategies, the political divide, Elizabeth Warren and finding the light.

Was it your decision to leave Big Machine?

Eric: Yes, we asked if we could leave. That set things in motion. But I think they were also recognizing that there just wasn't a lane for us at country radio. It was kind of a mutual conversation that was negotiated over for a few months. This is the second time it's happened to us, too. It was similar at Warner Bros. It's rare that bands get signed. We recognized how lucky we were to be put in that opportunity and work with such good teams ─ twice. To have it not work out twice was a gut check.

Even as we're trying to make the decision to navigate how we're going to move forward, so much of it was built around whether or not we could release new music and put out albums and continue to grow our fanbase. We make so much of our money on the road, and when you're playing the same 20 songs over and over again, the demand dwindles. We were having real conversations about whether we could keep going as a band and keep everybody afloat, financially.

Brittany: With art, there's no guarantee. It's entirely subjective. You wouldn't necessarily have said Cam's "Burning House" would have connected at country radio. It's super out of the box, but she's a brilliant artist. She made what she made not worrying about if it would be successful. In talking to her and knowing her as a person, she was going to write that song either way. That's the true mark of an artist.

Are you going to do it either way? That's the only way to measure success. What we've recognized is you have highs and lows, and you just have to keep going. The biggest thing you need is people who believe in you. You already have so much self-doubt and being so vulnerable in creating the art, if you let people around you who are like "blah, I don't know," then you'll never let anything get out into the world.

From being in creative limbo to negotiating your contract, did you undergo a pretty dark emotional time?

Brittany: It all came down to expectations and artistry. There's always a competition between making art and making something commercially viable. For artists, it comes down to following your heart, getting to lock yourself in a room without any influence or worry about what people think of you. When people are trying to run a business, it doesn't necessarily align with that goal of the artist.

We had a lot of expectations when we moved to Nashville. We'd hoped the country music scene was moving in our direction with artists like Chris Stapleton, Maren Morris, and Brandi Carlile. In a way, it has. In a huge way, our move to Nashville has been extremely beneficial in grounding us in a community. But by the same token, country music and country radio hasn't really opened its gates wide. It's still barely playing any women and certainly very few ensembles. We recognized we weren't willing to squeeze ourselves into a box. It does make you feel really dark. The more estranged you are, the more you look around and see nobody is doing what you're doing. Is that because no one wants us in the world? Should we just give up? The more you start to fall victim to self-doubt.

Eric: You feel like you're failing. We signed with Big Machine because we were excited about the community that was developing in Nashville and the changes we thought were happening. We thought radio was the platform for that. We worked two singles at country radio and neither broke into the top 50. We felt like failures. Meanwhile, we were touring nonstop and communing with our fans. That was so much of what kept us alive. When we decided to take the big leap of faith and launch the Kickstarter campaign, I was very nervous. You never really know the demand until you put yourself out there and see if people will support you. That day, I just didn't know. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

What were your concerns in coming back after being gone so long?

Brittany: It doesn't necessarily feel like our fans see us as the Kickstarter band anymore. Our concern was does it look like we're going backwards after already breathing rarified air. We set our goal amount at about the same we had before. We know that's how much it costs to really make a great album these days. We didn't want to ask for too much. We really wanted to see if anyone wanted us to keep going. The overwhelming message was yes.

The platform is also really public facing. Were we to have failed and not been able to raise the money, I think that would have also been a really clear public message - that maybe we shouldn't be a band anymore. We were blown away by how many people came out of the woodwork and how passionate they were.

Some of your Kickstarter perks, including private house concerts, require quite a bit of legwork. What were your strategies this time around?

Eric: We put a lot of work into it based on friends who've done Kickstarters and our own experience. One of the first things we did was limit the number of items we'd ship, as opposed to digital delivery. That was really helpful. This week, we're fulfilling orders. As we speak, we're at my place in Nashville, and upstairs, we're boxing up over 1,500 packages to be mailed out. Luckily, they're all under a pound, and the shipping cost is going to be low.

The house concerts were always a shot in the dark. We didn't know how many people would want a house concert for $10,000. We had over 17 people sign up for it. The demand was higher than we anticipated. We have all of those house concerts booked now for this year. We're actually playing four of them later this month. We're going to pile into a van and go to their houses and set up in their living rooms. It is revisiting how we started as a band 10 years ago. We'd couch surf and perform in living rooms or on back porches. It's a very fun rekindling to say hello and thank you to the fans who've stuck with us or have found us along the way.

The Light is intensely joyous. Coming out of such a dark time, what is your emotional journey across 12 tracks?

Brittany: We wanted to capture all of the joy, freedom, and elation of being alive and celebrate the end of this long journey. We're still surviving and thriving. There was a lot of that feeling that had been percolating, and it came in waves over the course of our career. It was really concentrated in the time we spent connecting with our fans and raising the funds. Recently, I find that even in the darkest moments, what pulls you out of them is to make something that reminds you of what's good about life. This album is that reminder.

It will be shortly followed by an album that encapsulates all the chaos and darkness that can swallow you up. What I keep trying to emphasize is that they're not opposite, dueling forces. They're the yin and yang. They're one complete whole. You can't have one without the other.

With foot-stomper "Stronger Than a Lion," one of the set's most anthemic pillars, this lyric seems to capture your entire journey: "You'll never get to heaven / If you're always backing down."

Brittany: That line is about getting in the fight. We really debated that line. We've always been a family, harmony-rich band that pulls from a lot of gospel influence. We're always fighting this idea that we might be a Christian band, which we're definitely not, since we lean into tarot and mystic ideas. With this line, I thought, "Oh, are people going to think we're talking about literal heaven?" What we're really talking about is that transcendent feeling of fighting for something. You were alive and in the fight. The only way to feel that joy is if there's a struggle. You have to stake your claim. Otherwise, it's all passivity. The wins you get then don't even really feel like wins, because it wasn't hard to get them.

There's a great Teddy Roosevelt quote about the critic. He talks about how they sit on the sideline, and the glory should really go to the gladiator in the arena who has blood on their face. Obviously, I have issues with Teddy as a person, historically, but I think that quote holds water. It's really easy for people who aren't making the art for them to say, "Well, why don't you just write a hit song? Or why don't you shave off your grittier edges and become this slick, commercial band?" It's our way of saying, "Nope! We're going to fight for our art and what we believe in!" When we are able to survive and keep going, it's going to feel so satisfying. That's true of life, in general.

In the very next song, you wrestle with your self-worth with lines like "No one will miss me when I'm gone."

Eric: When I was in one of the lowest times in my life, I was alone living in Raleigh. It was the middle of the night. I turn to music to pull me out or at least break my cycle and thoughts that are keeping me depressed. I started clapping alone in my room and singing a melody that made me happy. Then, I started to say things. The lyrics I was writing were all things I was saying. The lyrics were all thoughts I was having, but they just felt different when I sang them. The song unraveled from that point. I remember after stumbling on that melody, I was just happy and excited about sharing it with the band.

I wrote this song five years ago. We'd played it for label partners, and it just hadn't had the support. It wasn't a radio hit. It's the song I was meant to write and perform right now. These are the little redemptive moments I look forward to most, and I feel so lucky. I'm hoping it's an antidote for people who are in that sort of moment ─ they can put this song on and hear a lyric that connects with what is happening in their lives. There is catharsis in saying the thing that scares you most - that no one will miss you when you're gone and that nothing you do matters. That is the scariest thought for me. If I say it out loud and scream it, then I'm connecting with other people. Inherently, it's not true.

What conversations did you have as a band around releasing a song like "Only in America"?

Eric: I think we were actually excited. [laughs] We wrote the bridge later. That's the most current part of it and most responsive to our current administration. Ian performed that song for us, and we made a demo over in Raleigh five years ago. It was much more of a celebration of the country but also a realization on how far we'd come and how much farther we have to go. When Donald Trump was elected, it was such a gut check.

Brittany: It was like a huge pendulum into regression.

Eric: It was such a confrontation of "Yeah, wow, we do have a lot farther to go…" We actually sang this song two weeks ago at an Elizabeth Warren rally, and it was one of the first times we'd ever performed it with the bridge and connected it with an audience. To be able to put it into song was meaningful.

Brittany: We'd never been a milquetoast band, really. We put out political songs all throughout our career. We wear our politics on our sleeve. We're not really wary about fan reaction so much as we're way more scared of not saying something and not using our platform to stand up. That's what drives us.

It was unfortunate Elizabeth Warren bowed out of the race.

Eric: It so was. It also was right after the tornado hit Nashville. We were very lucky, and I think realizing how many of our neighbors were devastated by it, it just contextualized our answer that we were incredibly lucky. Brittany and I, our houses are just north of where the tornado passed through. That was the same night we played the Warren rally. Then, the next day, all the Super Tuesday results came in, and we were dealing with the aftermath of the storm. It's been a very surreal week. Again, we're so lucky. To watch so many of our friends and people we care about going through it, it's been really taxing. On a bigger level, with the cultural movement and election, there's been no place to hide or reprieve or good news in the past week.

Brittany: I think for so many women across the country, it just feels like a huge eye-roll. [laughs] It's deeper than that, but it is like, "Oh ok. Of course." Here we are again starting with the most diverse possible field of democratic potential, and we are down to older straight white men. Perfect. When will we get over this patriarchal bullshit and get into a space, world, and a time that believes in true equality and then manifests it in our policies and society?

Eric: What was so inspiring for me is Warren just had the best plans with thoughtful answers. It wasn't awarded, and that's so frustrating over and over again.

Brittany: It's not because she's not qualified and didn't play it right. She did. She's just an underdog, inherently, because of her gender.

We put "Stronger than a Lion" out on Friday. I wrote about how coming up on International Women's Day and having just had the most qualified female candidate we've had in so long. She should have more press coverage and more of an opportunity to make a splash and be part of the conversation. It's reminiscent of so much of what we're struggling against and have been for so long. I hope this song is an anthem and lends strength to people, especially to women and nonbinary folks and people feeling marginalized in this fight.

Being in the music industry, especially in this town, we're having this conversation all the time. I saw a Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote about this. We're not asking for more than our male counterparts. We're asking for our brethren to take their foot off our necks. That's what it feels like.

Later, "From One Woman to Another" emerges as one of the album's most compelling moments, musically and lyrically.

Brittany: I've co-written a number of songs that have been the brainchildren of my brothers. I brought this song to the group, and we fleshed it out together. It highlights my influences among Janis Joplin, Dolly Parton, and Patty Griffin, along with gospel music and Motown grooves. Since arriving in Nashville, I feel like I've dated a number of musicians, and inherently, in those relationships, I have felt aware from the get-go that this person is not a long-term prospect. That's fine with me.

As a musician, I consider myself a bit of a rambler or a cactus tree, as Joni Mitchell would say. I started to feel my heart hurt. I was able to process and move on and brush my shoulders off when these dudes inevitably walked out of the picture. I couldn't stop thinking about the women out there who are genuinely going to fall for this guy's game. I've always been frustrated by the narrative that women are each other's competition or enemies and that we're all competing for the male gaze. I love women and supporting women. I want to see my sisters thrive.

The song acknowledges that I was watching these men go back into the dating scene, and my invisible call-out to the next woman was a "hey, I'm with you, don't let your heart get broken." Musically, I wanted it to have a distinct moment on the record, which is why you won't hear any male vocals on it. It's me and Liz, who's been my best friend since I was seven, singing in harmony and backed up by the legendary group, The McCrary Sisters. They sing this incredible background vocal arrangement. It was one of my best memories of having these super-talented people walk into the door of the home studio and literally follow our arm motions for singing along to the track, crescendoing and bring it back. I cherish it.

The album moves from "Burning in Carolina" to "The Wrong Ocean," in which you acknowledge North Carolina and its role in your life but you're eyeing the allure of California.

Eric: When I put on the album, it feels like Joseph Campbell's 'The Hero's Journey.' "Burning in Carolina" is a call to adventure and setting off the chase of something. All of these songs happen in between, because life happens. At the end, you have this song that is in summary of the arc of leaving home only to return. What you wanted was always there. You needed the journey to have the epiphany.

North Carolina is always a symbol in my mind. It's the place I was born and where the band came together. It holds a lot of family and musical history. To honor it with these songs feels natural. It is the place that feels most like home to me even now.

California is the farthest west you can go. The West has always represented the frontier, and it's the chasing of "What else is out there? Where is the sun setting? Am I being called to a bigger purpose? Should I leave?" That wanderlust is so real for me and so many ambitious artists and people, in general. The final song gives some comfort in saying, "Wherever you are, we've got you and understand you. Give yourself pause to realize you're in a moment right now."

Brittany: Home is really a metaphor, too. We came from California to North Carolina to start this band. Our families spent some time there, and there's where we found Liz. It's a circle. "Burning in Carolina" talks about the will it takes to start. It's a beautiful metaphor when you get to "The Wrong Oceans." We speak directly to the industry and how you want to go to LA and play the Troubadour, believing an A&R man that says this is going to be huge. The spark that got you started is one and the same, from the beginning of the album to the end.


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