Joan Shelley Says Her New Album Pairs Perfectly with Belgian Pale AlesOctober 29, 2019
Kentucky singer-songwriter Joan Shelley has had the travel bug for as long as she can remember. Fortunately, her honeyed voice coupled with a flair for writing songs that feel innately familiar provides the opportunity to tour extensively while indulging in another favorite pastime: sampling really good beer.
After releasing her fifth solo album Like The River Loves The Sea in August, Shelley and guitarist Nathan Salsburg relaxed for a few days in Chicago before embarking on the album’s tour. We met at a superb gastropub—chosen by Shelley—The Hopleaf. With 68 ever-changing taps, it’s nothing short of beer heaven. Shelley started with a Prima Pils before moving onto a Dovetail Vienna Lager. Salsburg began with a Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest and finished with a Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes 225 Saison. In short, they both have excellent palates and absolutely know their way around a brew.
What are your favorite breweries in your home state of Kentucky?
Joan: This one could get me in trouble because there’s a rivalry between Lexington and Louisville, but I like Lexington’s Country Boy Brewing and West Sixth Brewing. Country Boy has a really good wheat beer called Cougar Bait.
Nathan: West Sixth does make a really nice Pennyrile Pale Ale, when it’s fresh. It’s so good when you get them really fresh. There’s a place called Against the Grain Brewery in Louisville that makes a pretty good double IPA called Citra Ass Down. Mile Wide Beer Co. makes a nice stout.
Joan: There’s always new ones. We leave and tour around for awhile and when we come back, there’s a new hip place.
Nathan: Even still, we really are extremely underbreweried per capita, we’re 46th or 47th in the country. We’re a backwards southern state with a lot of dry counties.
How do dry counties work down there?
Nathan: There’s places where you can’t buy any alcohol at all. There’s no package alcohol and no drinks in restaurants either.
Joan: I absolutely love that you don’t know that. It’s illegal to sell. We’re talking bible belt counties. Now there’s ‘moist’ counties, too, where you can only sell it if there’s food served, but you couldn’t get it at a gas station. It’s crazy.
Nathan: Those are always the counties where you see cans of Bud Light lining the highway.
The intricate liquor laws in different places are so interesting. Oklahoma comes to mind, as just last year the laws were changed in order for stores to sell beer that was above a 3.2%.
Joan: We encountered low percentage beers like that when we were in Iceland. We were recording there and they were calling them "tourist beers." They were really expensive, but these beers that you can get in an average store, everyone local knew not to buy them. When we saw them, everyone goes ‘Cans of beer, let's get em,’ but they ended up being around 2% or maybe 2.5% ABV. We only got them once because all of the shops were closed, but it was a super bummer. I had never heard of that before.
Traveling from Kentucky to Reykjavik, what was the biggest difference in beer culture between the two?
Joan: The tourist thing is out of control in Reykjavik. You’re on this island where everything is shipped there. They don’t grow the wheat or anything. It was that feeling like we were in the middle of nowhere. In Kentucky, there is a little more spirit of excess, so there are more user friendly beers. I lean toward the drinkability in Kentucky, personally.
Nathan: For whatever reason, we thought to buy a six pack before we left the airport of some local 6% pale ale and we were just so glad to have it later when we realized there were no options in downtown Reykjavik. You realize just how much you take it for granted because there you either have to work for it or pay for it. In Kentucky, and most places in America, you can drive around the corner to a grocery store at 1 o’clock on a Sunday and can pretty much buy whatever beer you want. The feeling of scarcity made beer that much more special.
And you found out about the scarcity there the hard way?
Joan: Yeah we had booked these really long hours at this studio which was just a little bit out of the city center. We’d get out around seven or eight and restaurants were closing. It was a mad dash to find the place to find beer for cheap. We were racing the clock.
Nathan: One night, we actually did go to bed hungry.
Joan: We were too proud to spend our money at the grocery store which doubles its prices after a certain time of day. We didn’t want to blow our budget on just being idiots and not thinking ahead. It’s built for tourism and it’s completely a racket.
The feeling that I always get excited about with weather changes is that it’s time to drink milk stout and to really savor it and only have one.”
Do you have local options of beer on your rider?
Joan: We play pretty chill music so we don’t end up in a lot of places where it’s like "Here’s a 12-pack of PBR." People try to do special stuff and we end up getting a lot of wonderful beer gifts. People love to show us what they got. We went up to Burlington and asked for Heady Topper and they were so excited that we asked for it. It was one of the earlier, really hoppy Northeast IPAs. We were going to the gig and anticipating it being there and that person was also excited to give it to us, so that was really satisfying.
Where’s a really memorable place you’ve had a beer?
Nathan: There’s a bar that I would say is my favorite pub in the world on this hill in the Yorkshire Dales. It’s this beautiful walk up an old industrial town; the buildings are still black with soot and there’s lots of old textile mills. You walk up this sheep trail footpath and end up in this pub outside of the Shepherds Rest and it overlooks all these little mill towns in this valley. It’s so beautiful. You can sit out in the back go in and get a pint of real cask ale. By the time you get up there, you’ve broken a little bit of a sweat and there’s a little bit of chill in the air. You’re overlooking this totally idyllic scene, which a hundred years earlier would be belching chimneys of smoke and all kinds of awfulness.
If you could pair your new album with a beer, what would that be?
Joan: It would have to be something you wanted to drink when the weather turned, because that’s the same transition my music always syncs to. It’s the environment I’m trying to evoke.
Nathan: The feeling that I always get excited about with weather changes is that it’s time to drink milk stout and to really savor it and only have one. We’d go to Ireland and drink Beamish by the half-keg. One time we went and each got a milk stout and poured it into cups and went walking in the park. The leaves were falling, and it tasted so perfect. It really felt like it was on the threshold of the seasons. It had a little bit of summeryness to it, where you can walk outside with a beer, but it was so warm and cozy feeling. It felt as if we were on the cusp of the seasons.
Joan: We had one called Taras Boulba [a Belgian extra hoppy ale] that I think is perfect.
Nathan: It’s a slightly bretted table beer. Another incredible table beer was a collaboration between Crooked Stave and Westbrook Brewing. They had plenty of summer in them, but when we were drinking them, it was really cold out so it was just the perfect balance. There’s so much of this record where it’s like we recorded it in the summertime, but it was in Iceland where it wasn’t really summery.
There were butterflies flying around and I said to the universe, ‘If I grow up and there are still songs left to be written, I want to write those songs.’”
What’s the concept behind Like The River Loves The Sea?
Joan: The title Like The River Loves The Sea comes from a Si Kahn song. His first record, New Wood, has a song on there called "Like Butter Loves Bread" where the lyrics go, “Like good meat loves salt, that’s how I love you.” I think it’s perfect. A lot of these songs on my record have to do with not romantic love, but more about the natural law kind of love where you’re just going to be attracted to this person and you guys are going to have to go through stuff that is inevitable before you die. That goes for families too. We love each other and we’re in this thing, so you have to figure out all the gnarly bits.
I read somewhere that if you weren’t able to travel, you probably would’ve moved out of Kentucky. How important is it for people to get out of their bubble and experience different cultures?
Joan: That’s the real truth. I can’t imagine a world where you don’t leave people one day. You have to do that in some way. For me, I’ve always just had that travel itch. Look at Greta Thunberg who’s traveling by train. She’s a Swedish teenager who's telling the world she is really worried about climate change and speaking out.
Nathan: She’s a super cool, young 16-year-old climate activist. She brought her message to the UN by sailboat.
Joan: I think we’re changing gears as a society.
Speaking of climate change, your song ‘Fading’ touches on that.
Joan: I think something about the sea rising is this sublime feeling and it overwhelms your senses. It makes you feel you’re just this human in a huge thing, and I think that’s what that song is playing to; the fact that nature can destroy us is also comfort. Though we fight for our destiny here and our agenda, we’re just all part of this bigger thing. And though I really hope we do it right and don’t get these things taken from us—like our privileges to live on the coast—I do see it as nature is a great lesson. We live in a disaster-driven society.
What’s your earliest musical memory?
Joan: OK, so only because we’re at the bottom of this beer. I remember this very distinctly and it’s come to my mind a lot when I have interviews and people ask, "So why’d you get into music?" I’ve always answered it one way, but then I remembered this memory recently when somebody asked me something and I didn’t tell them. I remember being five or six and sitting out on this sunny hillside under an ash tree at my mom’s house. There were butterflies flying around and I said to the universe, "If I grow up and there are still songs left to be written, I want to write those songs." But, I was worried that once I grew up, all the song possibilities would already be made. So I was like "Save some songs for me, world!"