Delta Rae

The landscape of America is sprawling and vast, reflecting a storied past and a looming sense of possibility for the future. That topography and what it can represent is the basis for Delta Rae’s second album, After It All, a collection of songs that looks to the folklore and romance of the American frontier as a means of understanding our angst about what is yet to come. It began as a concept album, a story of young lovers who fall on hard times during the recent recession, but throughout the writing and recording process it became clear that Delta Rae’s music had to tell stories as the band was personally experiencing them.

“Our goals for the record were to make something cinematic, romantic and American,” Eric says. “And to make music that we love, which is an ever-changing goal, but something we strive toward.” Brittany adds, “We kept coming back to ourselves as we were writing. These songs were integral to our own stories in our own lives. It had to be an honest reflection of what we were feeling instead of being projected onto characters we created.”

The identity of the band and its six members has been key to both this album and Delta Rae’s 2012 surging debut Carry The Fire. The group was formed in 2009 by three siblings, Ian, Eric and Brittany, whose childhood brought them around the U.S. to places like San Francisco, Nashville and Marietta, GA. After moving to Durham, NC for college, the trio partnered with Elizabeth, Mike and Grant to create energetic, impassioned music that could be a vehicle for layering their male-female vocals. The idea of dueling forces has lingered: their music continually reveals a tension between male and female, dark and light, and life and death. Carry The Fire was a snapshot of this aesthetic, recorded in only a few months with producer Alex Wong and funded entirely via Kickstarter before the band signed with Sire Records. It offered Delta Rae a platform for touring and the group spent the next year and a half on the road, and performing at festivals like Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits and Hangout Festival. Along the way, the backdrop of America revealed itself to them.

“Chasing Twisters,” an anthemic song that appeared on 2013’s Chasing Twisters EP, was pulled from travels in the Southwest. “It was inspired by being on the road and traveling through New Mexico,” Eric says. “We felt like there should be music that captured this vast expanse of land. It’s a gun-slinger-type story of romance and love.” Brittany adds, “We draw on the idea of early American folklore. It feels natural and exciting to shine a spotlight on these stories that aren’t given credit as magical, but they are. Our country has its own deep, earthy side and we wanted to shine a light on that.”

The album as a whole balances these two feelings, the magic of our past and the uncertainty of our future. It opens with the line “Am I always on the edge of quitting?” which asks the listener to participate in the world around them. “That’s a really honest lyric for our band,” Ian explains. “That lyric is really true for us. I feel like that is a theme running through the American psyche right now. We have to constantly choose to re-engage. There’s a lot of discontent throughout the album that is reflected in our country.”

The idea of facing and defying death runs throughout the songs, notably on “Outlaws,” “Scared” and “I Will Never Die.” It culminates with the melancholy closer “After It All,” a dulcet, soaring ballad that explores life after death. These themes thread throughout the album as a whole, connecting the songs as the music itself diverges into various styles and genres. The musicians, who implemented a “real instruments only” policy on their debut, loosened their grip on this effort, drawing on inspirations that ranges from the hip-hop of Kanye West and Jay-Z to the Americana rock of Tom Petty and The Eagles. Unlike the first album, these songs were created over the span of a year and a half, beginning in Los Angeles with Rob Cavallo in late 2013, continuing in Raleigh in the spring of 2014 and concluding with Peter Katis in Bridgeport, CT last fall. After It All is comprised of 13 tracks culled from the 25-plus the musicians came up with over these sessions.

“On this album we were more experimental,” Ian says. “We brought in horn parts and sweeping strings. It feels to me a bit more dynamic as a result. People will recognize what has been at the core of Delta Rae the whole time – the harmonies, the songwriting and the real instruments, which we augmented on this album. That was really exciting for us.”

“Carry The Fire feels like the little seed for what we grew with this album,” Brittany adds. “It puts that record into context and gives us a new way to love it. We stretched ourselves immensely for this record. You can feel everyone’s heart in every moment. You can sense that all the pieces of the puzzle are important for the picture the album paints.”

The picture is one of America, past and present, and one of a young generation still searching for their place in the world. The songs sound like the American frontier as the lyrics tell its stories. It is a journey because the musicians embarked on one in order to create it. “This album was a search,” Eric says. “We worked in three cities and we’ve traveled to many more. It’s been an exploration in a lot of ways. We arrived at this album and this statement. I’m so proud of the songs and the different shades of us that are showcased.”

For painters, the joy and challenge of creation begins with a blank canvas. For Liz Longley, it started in an empty room.

“I was living in Boston and my roommate had just moved out, so I paced the hardwood floors of her room with my guitar,” Longley recalls. “I walked back and forth until the songs were done. It was as though they were stuck in the apartment walls.”

Longley has a gift for culling musical treasures as though straight from thin air. And now, the Berklee College of Music graduate and award-winning songwriter is set to share them with listeners on her self-titled album—her first after signing with Sugar Hill Records in December 2014.

The collection of 11 songs was recorded in Nashville with an all-pro band—and in a pulse-quickening fashion so rare in today’s world of overproduced, airbrushed records. “I love being in the studio and feeding off the energy of other musicians. It’s not something I get to do often on the road because I’ve mostly toured solo.”

While Longley’s songs and vocals invite complimentary comparisons to Shawn Colvin, Paula Cole and Nanci Griffith—all artists she’s supported live—her latest effort spotlights a style and confidence that’s all her own. You can hear it in the subtle-yet-soaring vocals on “Memphis,” the dagger directness of “Skin and Bones,” the bittersweet farewell that drives “This Is Not the End” (featured in the 2012 season finale of Lifetime's Army Wives). They’re all cuts that dare you to hold back the goosebumps.

In fact, Longley’s singing never fails to thrill and enthrall. Her voice and tone, touched with the slightest of country inflections, pours out like clean, crystalline water. Still, she can roar like a waterfall or flow effortlessly along the bed her backing band lays down, as on “Peace of Mind.” The track showcases Longley yearning after silence and stillness to beat back demons of self-doubt.

The new songs grew amidst a period of transition and travel in her life; moving between Boston and New York before finally settling in Nashville, and spending much of her life on the road in a succession of minivans. To that end, the songs have been road tested at Longley’s live shows, their power to connect with fans beyond question.

These numbers pack the punch of pages torn from Longley’s journal. And fans have rewarded her transparency with tangible loyalty. For while many acts have no clue how an album will be received, Longley started her project knowing just how much her fans wanted her to succeed.

It’s like this: Her Kickstarter campaign, which set $35,000 as an album-funding goal, exceeded that amount by nearly 60 percent, raising $55,000. “We reachedthe mark so quickly and I’m just really, really lucky to be connected to my fans,” she says. “ I feel like they’ve adopted me—like I have this big supportive family.”

And to that end, Longley confides with you as though you’re sitting on the sofa with her in a talk that’s intimate and vulnerable. “Bad Habit” strides the valley road of heartbreak, its pounding toms and plaintive electric guitar providing an ideal frame for Longley’s vocal, the very portrait of love’s rock bottom: “I couldn’t stand the smell of smoke ’til he lit that cigarette/ Never felt the temptation ’til I smelled it on his breath.”

“I wrote it after dating a guy who had a lot of bad habits, and somehow he became my bad habit,” Longley recalls. “He was just one of those people—a smoker and a drinker who also had a habit of cheating. When I broke up with him and wrote the song, it was hugely therapeutic for me. It cleansed him from my system. And when I started playing it live, I realized that so many others had toxic people in their lives.”

Why write and sing songs so transparent and confessional? For Longley, it boils down to the simple truth of authenticity. “I just try to be myself,” she says. “If I feel like a song is not genuine to me, I absolutely do not present it because people see right through it. It’s all about the honesty, and I try not to overthink it—then it would lose some of the magic.”

Longley first felt the magic while growing up outside of Philadelphia. A song she wrote in ninth grade—her first ever—earned a standing ovation when she performed it for the student body: “I was unprepared for that sort of reaction and it was life-changing moment,” she says. “That’s when I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life.”

The track record she’s assembled since shows just how much Longley grew into her dream. She’s taken home top prizes at some of the most prestigious songwriting competitions in the country, including the BMI John Lennon Songwriting Scholarship Competition, the International Acoustic Music Awards and the Rocky Mountain Folk Fest Songwriting Competition.

But it all traces straight back to Longley’s first song. She says she’ll continue to open her soul in the service of her art because that’s what matters most to her. “Every time I get into these songs they resonate with me, lock with me, because they’re based on something I went through,” she says of the new collection. “I hope they connect with people and that they’ll help with whatever they’ve gone through. That’s what music does for me, and I hope I can do that for someone else.”

After all, what better way to fill an empty room than with fully realized music?

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