When The Sugar Honey Iced Tea got together there wasn’t much in the way of a plan. There weren’t even really any relationships to speak of. In the beginning it was just four women brought together by a mutual friend and, coincidentally, the fact that they all played instruments typically associated with bluegrass.
“There was a certain amount of faith involved,” says Emily Shaw, who plays mandolin and guitar. “I don’t think any of us came with any notions about what kind of music we wanted to make. We didn’t even really know one another very well because we had just become friends.”
“It’s these bluegrass instruments with four different musical preferences thrown in,” adds cello and banjo player Ana Mallozzi. “It just kind of created its own thing.”
That thing is a kind of Appalachian Doo Wop: A lot of folksy string arrangements and Andrews Sisters, boogie woogie harmonies. The vocals are where the band finds a lot of emotional versatility. With four distinct voices they’re able to cover a lot of ground, whether it’s playing your heart like an old backwoods fiddle or going for lighter, sillier ditties.
“It started off as something really light-hearted and silly,” admits ukulele player Laila Aukee.
To be fair, the ladies of The Sugar Honey Iced Tea are, and they will be the first people to tell you this, all pretty silly people. Look at the title of their first EP, Hits the Fan – here’s a hint, abbreviate the band’s name – or even its last song, about a young woman’s big city dreams about hula hooping. Better yet, ask them about Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” and get ready for a story punctuated with a lot of giggling. Silliness runs deep in this band, but that silliness comes with no shortage of creative courage. There’s no concern over an idea blowing up in their faces. If it doesn’t work, it was a fun experiment. But when it does work, magical things can happen. From the early mixes I’ve heard off of their upcoming full-length record, Silver Spells – due out on August 30 – it works like gangbusters.
An example would be “Can’t Stop,” a song that unabashedly borrows from the band’s shared love of ‘90s R&B. To be clear, The Sugar Honey Iced Tea sounds absolutely nothing like ‘90s R&B, so imagine my surprise when among the six or seven tracks they sent me I hear a hand-clap and beatbox driven, Destiny’s Child flavored slice of attitude and harmony.
Emily explains that with this album the band was very aware of how it might apply its signature elements, bluegrass instruments and doo-wop vocals, to genres where they aren’t typically found.
“It was like we dared ourselves to write, for example, a ‘90s pop song Sugar Honey Iced Tea-style,” she says.
On the other end of things is the heart-tugger “Blue Ridge Propane,” a folky ballad that might be the album’s standout track. The song is a showcase for their string arrangements, but above all else it unleashes the full emotional power in each of their voices, rendering listeners into blubbering piles of choked back tears and bittersweet memories.
Recorded over the span of a year, Silver Spells was a bit of a challenge since Emily has been living in New Jersey for the last two years, forcing the band to find new ways to work together when only three of them could physically be in the room together.
“It’s been tough but it’s made some cool things happen,” says Emily. “We email ideas back and forth which cre- ates this other way of thinking about them. You get an idea from someone, and then you have however many days you want to think about how you want to build off of it. We’ve all had so much room to breathe on each others’ ideas.”
“I think all of the time and the way that we did it was necessary. It was hard, but I think it was worth it,” says banjolele player and vocalist Kate Jones. “By giving it space it pushed us into a new zone.”
“It’s showing the spectrum of what the four of us can do with what we have,” adds Laila. “That’s been an important part of the band for me. We’re these four people, we can do these things, what can we do together right now?”