Delta Rae's sophomore album comes with a heavy dose of fear.
After the group's smash single "Bottom of the River" took off in 2011, Delta Rae's pop anthems have taken on a sharper edge.
"Am I always on the edge of quitting / of giving up and just forgetting," goes the first line on After It All, the band's sophomore album. Its tone questions. It lurks, sadder than anything on their debut album, Carry the Fire.
And it's all real.
"I wonder if it's too subtle," Ian Hölljes, one member of the six-person band, told me of starting the album with a line that means more to him than its delicate presentation. The path to a second album hasn't been a smooth one for Delta Rae. When I spoke to the band members in March, they were excited — but also terrified.
"We are more mature, and we are standing up and saying, 'This is who we are,'" Eric Hölljes, Ian's brother and one of the group's main songwriters, told me. "The dust has settled now."
A few minutes later, he backtracks, "Some of the songs on the album no one had heard before, so I just hope people get where we're coming from." All six members of Delta Rae wanted me to know how passionate they were about After It All, and how terrified that feeling made them about its reception.
After all, there's no guaranteeing another big hit. And Delta Rae want to keep making them.
Making pop music with heart
The band, named after a story told by the Hölljes siblings' mother, features four vocalists. Ian (also on guitar) and Eric (also on guitar and piano) write most of the songs and are joined on vocals by sister Brittany Hölljes. When we meet, the three, all in black, sit by each other, and continuously interrupt one another to make sure everything is covered.
Delta Rae formed in 2009 with only four members — the Hölljes siblings, plus Elizabeth Hopkins, who became the group's fourth voice. The band added Mike McKee on percussion and Grant Emerson on bass in 2010. By the time "Bottom of the River" exploded, they were in their current form.
"Bottom of the River's" haunting, orchestral quality echoes through the sound of chains clashing and drums pounding. The video, which has more than 3.5 million views on YouTube, tells the story of a witch hunt and features Brittany as its lead.
"That was a time when we just couldn't breathe," Brittany told me. "We were just saying yes to things, and experiences were happening, and it was great." In less than a year, the band went from a group of friends making North Carolina folk rock to nationwide fame.
"We love music on the radio, and it's a hard line to navigate between getting a big sound and keeping the soul of the music feeling real," Ian told me. He describes Delta Rae's music as Americana, combining all of the things he loves about music: folklore, lyrical depth, imagery, and a strong vocal quality.
Delta Rae's success stems from how they stack those four singers. Where a vocalist like Sam Smith might record his own voice four times in the studio, then layer them on the recording, Delta Rae don't want to be a single sound. They want to be a band.
"It's hard for me to name great American bands right now that are really relevant," Ian told me. "Most great bands haven't had a radio hit in the last four or five years. I would like to find the kernel of American folklore and mystique that informs so much of what the UK is bringing to the table right now."
The sophomore slump challenge
Like any band, Delta Rae face a familiar challenge on their second album. It needs to live up to hype, mature artistically, and try to keep fans satisfied. The sophomore slump doesn't hit every band, and Delta Rae hope to avoid it.
Some members of the band have tried to take better care of themselves —Brittany is training her voice, and Grant found a stable home. "We've all grown since the last album, musically and personally. There are some weird sounds on this album." Mike McKee to me. "I never went to music school, so being able to hone in this couple of years has been great."
After It All's cleaner production and stronger musical backing for the vocalists underline a recklessness and a restlessness that permeates every song on the album. When the chorus of "Scared," the fifth song on the album, hits, it feels far bigger than any personal experience: "When I'm scared / To be on our own / When the thrill is gone / And I'm scared." Though this is a song about love, it's also a song meant to speak to a generation.
"Our first record had some really personal, autobiographical songs," Brittany told me. "I feel like with this album we're talking about bigger things and potentially more controversial things, which actually feels a little more vulnerable now."
When the band played live at Washington, DC's 9:30 Club in April, the song's howling ending surrounded Eric's vocals, the rest of the band members turning to face him. A reverent silence moved through the crowd for a long moment.
The meat of the album comes after "Scared," when the songs slow down and the emotion ramps up, drawing more on folklore and fear than pop sounds. Ian told me the first version of the album was too pop, which scared the band. So the members spent time in Raleigh, North Carolina, trying to get back to what they believe makes them great.
"When you get into the second album cycle, the world around you hushes yourself so you can think." Brittany told me.
And Delta Rae have thought a lot about what they want to be in the past two years. Some of the members have bought houses. Some have moved across the country. All of them say they feel more like themselves now than they did three years ago.
"We still are growing up, but there's a lot more of a feeling of adventure on this album," Hopkins told me. Adventure might be just what Delta Rae needs.