Ed Roland can’t help himself. The Collective Soul frontman has an undeniable penchant for instantly memorable hooks. Even a cursory listen to Devils ‘n Darlins—the debut from his new band, The Sweet Tea Project—and you’ll be humming its melodies. The quintet’s earthy, complex sound features ukulele, banjo, trumpet and plenty of sumptuous harmonies. Fittingly, the band’s origins are as organic as its music.
In the summer of 2011, Roland had a month off from Collective Soul, came home to Atlanta and reconnected with some musicians he’d known for years. “I have a studio in my home and I invited them over,” he says. “We were jamming and I was showing them songs that I wouldn’t show Collective Soul. We started taking it a little more seriously and decided to do a show.”
After a successful Earth Day concert opening for Band of Horses, the new collective took the next logical step and started working on a record. Of course, Roland really wanted to set the project apart from his other band. “Collective Soul has such a brand that if it was too similar, it’s just another Collective Soul record. [So] we were very careful about instrumentation. Christopher [Alan Yates], who plays trumpet and banjo, had never played banjo before, and I had never picked the ukulele up. It started from there.”
Roland is keen to point out that—despite the fact that his name is prominently stamped on the album cover—The Sweet Tea Project is a collaborative effort. The band’s easygoing nature is reflected in its oh-so-Southern moniker. “I thought it would be good to showcase local Georgia talent,” Roland says. “I got lucky and people hear what I do, but sometimes other musicians play in coffeehouses their whole lives. It doesn’t mean they aren’t talented. My concept was that I’ll write half the record, we’ll co-write the rest and Christopher and [bassist] Brian [Bilski] will write one each and take some lead vocals. Bands I grew up loving had more than one lead singer, from The Beatles to Queen to The Cars. We formulated it in that manner.”
Other influences such as Jackson Browne, The Traveling Wilburys, Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection and Paul Simon’s Graceland impacted The Sweet Tea Project’s Americana direction. Mainly, though, Roland wanted to join forces with lesser-known artists he respects. “Every one of the guys in the band are great songwriters, great musicians,” he says. “When Collective Soul started, I was the only songwriter. These guys have been out doing their own material for years, as long as Collective Soul. So when I bring in a song…I want their approval. When we started co-writing, we challenged each other to make the song the best it can be, because once it’s there, it’s there for life.”
Like the group, the songs came together quickly. “Once we got settled in,” Roland says, “the creative juices just came flowing out.” Egged on by the diverse tastes of his new bandmates, Roland went beyond his comfort zone into folk, country and even classic rock. “Devils ‘n Darlins,” the Johnny Cash-channeling title track, comes complete with vocal train-whistle “woo-woos,” perfectly introducing the Sweet Tea Project’s groove.
The band sounds like it’s having a blast feeding off of one another’s energy, and the album’s production—which Roland handled himself—is full and powerful. This is no loose-knit back-porch acoustic picking session. “Going Back to Birmingham,” written on ukulele, seamlessly meshes acoustic and electric instruments. Shades of reggae and Afropop (“Oh Lord”), horn-injected soul (“Already Over”), honky-tonk country (“Enough Nickels”) and even a few electric rockers (the anthemic “Just As I Am” and the riff-anchored “Love Won’t Bring Us Down”) round out the solid, varied collection. Also included is the band’s version of Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm,” which was featured on the 2012 compilation Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan.
After finishing the album, the group worked up a set and began month-long residences at Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta and The Melting Point in Athens. “My concept of how you get better as a band is you go out and play, whether it’s 50 or 200 or 3,000 people,” Roland says. “We had the record done and we wanted to see how it felt live.”
The spontaneous Devils ‘n Darlins has been a golden opportunity for the Collective Soul frontman to do something different, expanding his reach while dialing down his more expansive, multi-layered rock attack.
The Sweet Tea Project is touring to support the disc and even has a second disc in the can, but Collective Soul fans needn’t fret. Roland will be back with his longtime band to celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2014. Still, don’t call Sweet Tea a “side project.” As Roland reminds me, “It is my band right now. My heart and soul is in this, and I love every second of it.”