An Interview with...
In 2022, The Hometown Foundation is excited to bring various musical talents to stages around Washington County. We are looking forward to our Thursday night summer music series at Regner Park (West Bend), and Sandy Knoll Park, a Washington County Park (Town of Trenton) as well as our annual HomeGrown Music Festival on July 10. You will see many talented folks who call Wisconsin home. Joshua M. Miller interviewed two-thirds of one of those groups, The WhiskeyBelles, who will be featured on June 23 at Regner Park.
About the Band
How would you each describe your role in the band?
Kimberly Unger: I play fiddle and sing as well. We do three-part harmonies, so all of us sing. I’m kind of like the L2. I got the low voice in most of the songs. And then there’s Chrissy.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: I play guitar and sing, and sometimes piano.
Kimberly Unger: And then Sara, who is not with us, Sara Moilanen, she’s our bass player and she also sings.
Can you talk a little bit about how the band formed? What got you into playing with each other?
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: I think we started, what, 13 years ago? Is that right, Kimmy?
Kimberly Unger: Yes, 2009.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: 2009. Yeah, 13 years ago. Actually, I think my birthday was our first gig at Linneman’s. Our original bass player, her name is Angel Rodee, her and I played in a classic rock cover band. She was the lead singer, front woman, and I was a keyboard player. Her and I became friends, and we would go and see her boyfriend play in an Irish band called Reilly, and that’s where we met Kimmy. So, the three of us hung out and became really close and talked about starting to band for forever. Thought it was going to be a punk band, but that didn’t really work out. So, then we started this Americana, bluegrass trio doing a lot of classic country and some originals.
We played for about two years. During that time, we won the WAMI’s People’s Choice Award. We played Summerfest a few times, and then she decided she wanted to move to Washington state. So, then we decided that we wanted to keep going. I was singing in another band called West of East with this amazing singer named Sara Moilanen and her husband. She decided she would learn bass to join us. She was a great guitar player. So then when Angel left, Sara joined, and then we recorded an album and then three more albums, and here we are 10 years later.
How would you describe the band's sound? What do you think makes you stand out from the rest?
Kimberly Unger: I think our harmonies are something that not many other artists can or have mastered. We’ve been singing together for more than a decade and it’s just kind of second nature to us. We’re not the best instrumentalists, but vocally, it’s pretty amazing when you can give yourself chills when you sing harmonies together.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: We like to joke that when the three of us sing together, it forms MegaBelle.
Kimberly Unger: The other thing too is that, because we’re fiddle, bass, and guitar, we’re not a cookie-cutter band that is just going to cover something as you would hear it on the radio. We have to arrange things specifically for our instrumentation and I think that is something that we’ve kind of really adapted and made our own sound in that respect.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: Yeah. We have to make it our own. I know people always request us to play “Devil Went Down to Georgia” and it doesn’t really work with our instrumentation.
Kimberly Unger: Most requested song.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: I know. We’ll figure it out one of these days, but no promises for this summer…I think we got our sound from Trio, which is Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt. Started listening to their album and then learned a few songs off that, and then kind of went with that sound. I know there’s a lot of great female trios out there right now, but I think we’re more lighthearted and don’t take ourselves as seriously. Even though we are serious musicians, but you know, we like to joke a lot too.
I think what makes us unique is each one of us has our own Influences that we draw from and they’re completely opposite of each other. Sara is all about John Prine. I’m all about Michael Jackson and Motown, but then even Tori Amos and Patty Griffin. And then Kimmy, Duran Duran.
Kimberly Unger: Dave Matthews, Duran Duran. It’s all very strange. Indigo Girls, of course.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: Right. So not a lot of country in there, you know? Even though we love Dolly Parton and Loretta and Miranda, but that’s not really where we came from.
The WhiskeyBelles perform the National Anthem at Lambeau Field.
How has Wisconsin and this area of the state most influenced you as a musician?
Kimberly Unger: Stumped Belles.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: Kind of like our taste of music, we all have different backgrounds, how we grew up. Sara’s from Manitowoc, she grew up in a small town and then moved to the UP, and I think that’s where she really honed her skills as a songwriter and musician making friends up there. I was always involved in music. Started playing piano at three and eventually took on saxophone and guitar, and then went to college for music, for classical piano. But all while doing that, I was playing open mics every week and doing the whole singer-songwriter thing and playing around Wisconsin that way. But I was more of a city girl. I wanted to be in the scene and play all the coffee houses and clubs. It was the era of Lilith Fair.
Kimberly Unger: For me, I’ve always been involved with music, but I was a classical girl, orchestra nerd, and kind of stumbled across Dave Matthews Band, which had obviously violin in it. And that kind of got me interested in doing improv and that’s how I met some local musicians and started playing in bands. The early 90s, mid 90s, you had the Globe, you had BBC, you had Shank Hall, and all of those places that had live music. It was just really cool to go and meet and hang out with other musicians. That’s how Chrissy and I met. I think we met at O’Connor’s, didn’t we?
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: Originally, Patti’s.
Kimberly Unger: A million years ago.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: But that was like 10 years before we really started hanging out.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: And then we met at another Irish bar.
Kimberly Unger: Yeah. So, Milwaukee, it’s always had a pretty decent live music scene and of course there’s Summerfest, which you can’t really get away from it. People come from all over to come to that festival and we’ve played every single year at Summerfest since the inception of the band. Before that, I had played with Reilly and Misses Murphy. So, it’s definitely a staple. And of course, State Fair has a lot of music and all of the summer festivals, Chill on the Hill. It’s just so cool that there’s so many different opportunities to see live music in the city and the surrounding area.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: There’s so many great musicians too. So much talent out there. It seems like all the women, especially. We all find each other because we’re kind of rare. It’s a man’s world, right?
Your most recent album Dance In the Moonshine came out about five years ago.
Kimberly Unger: Yeah. You know, it’s one of those things where you want to play all the gigs, but the busier you are, the less time you have to write, and we all work full time. This is just our side gig. And then Chrissy got married and I got married. Chrissy had babies, and COVID, and all these things. So, we’re due to write some new music, for sure.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: Yeah. We got a lot to write about. It’s just finding time to sit down and do it.
The band has a pretty full schedule of tour dates, so it seems that’s where you’re spending the majority of your energy of late.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: Yeah. And, actually, this year, it’s the 10-year anniversary of our first album, Whiskey Woman, so we’re planning some big things happening in October.
Kimberly Unger: We are actually currently recording a live album, a second live album that’ll be coming out probably in the fall. Maybe in time for Christmas. It’s going to be recorded over the summer. We have a really amazing and talented sound engineer that we work with, Kevin Hanson, and he does a really great job. So, we’ll see what comes out of the summertime. I’m excited to see.
What was your inspiration for the last album? What are things that most influenced it?
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: Being our second original album, I think we were writing more as a band for the WhiskeyBelles, because the last one was kind of a hodgepodge of stuff that I wrote prior to the Belles and stuff that Sara wrote prior to the Belles, then we brought it together to work on arrangements and kind of bring new life to songs. Where this one we were all in the band and had the Belles in mind for the songs that we wrote. As far as like fun, drinking songs, heartbreak, cheating, you know. Typical country stuff.
I imagine the band is looking forward to documenting the band’s growth whenever you’re able to record.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: For sure. We’ll be able to keep our brand in mind. Can you say that about a band? I don’t know. And we write for our voices because over the years, not only are we writing, but we’re also learning a bunch of covers and making arrangements and making songs our own. So, then we take everything that we’ve learned from doing that and then put it into original music.
Are there any songs that you're looking forward to playing later this year?
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: I think there’s a few. We’ve got an old classic crooner song that we do, “Blue Velvet,” which is fun. And then we got some new country like Miranda Lambert and…
Kimberly Unger: Elle King.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: Thanks. Elle King, called “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home).” That’s a fun song. We may finally give in to doing another Dixie Chick song because we have to. Some deep cut Dolly Parton.
Kimberly Unger: I think we’re going to be spending a lot of time together the summer. I mean, our schedule is already insane and we’re constantly adding more dates. So, I think that’ll lend some really great opportunity to create some new music together, original music. But like I said, COVID was so hard, and then Chrissy was pregnant, so there was an extra risk with that involved.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: I also developed carpal tunnel really bad from pregnancy. So, I couldn’t play guitar for a long time, and I had double hand surgery. So, I’ve got these cool war wounds on my hands. But I can play guitar. I can feel strings again. So that’s cool.
Kimberly Unger: Nothing’s going to keep us down.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: No baby, surgery, whatever.
Kimberly Unger: Whatever.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: And that’ll be something too, when we start writing, we’re all in a brand-new chapter in our lives, you know? So, we’ve got even more maturity and wisdom to incorporate into songs.
Kimberly Unger: Is that secret code for old, Chrissy?
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: Yeah.
About Life Outside Music
What’s your most surprising hobby outside of music?
Kimberly Unger: I love to bird-watch. I’m kind of obsessed with birds. I’m a total bird nerd. I have many books on birds. I have some really killer binoculars. I did a trip to Costa Rica to go bird watching. I’m kind of obsessed with birds and I have a cockatoo, and he likes to dance. Could I be more of a dork? Seriously?
At my work, I work for Kraft music and we’re in the Franklin Industrial Park. There’s a city ordinance where you have to have a certain amount of woods or wooded area or whatever, so there’s trees everywhere and I saw a bird that I’d never ever seen before right outside my window at work. It was crazy. It was an American Redstart. They’re cool. Check them out.
My husband and I travel a lot and he’s a photographer, so you see a lot of these people that have tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment, with lenses that probably cost more than my car. They will sit for hours and hours just to get that shot and I don’t have that kind of patience, frankly. Or the time.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: Well, before the twins, because I just had twins. They turned one yesterday, so that’s pretty much all my time, other than music right now. But before that, I was into energy healing. I’m into Reiki, I’m attuned in Reiki one and two, also sound healing. I took a trip to Peru and traveled with a shaman and did that whole craziness. But yeah. I haven’t been practicing in the last two years or so but hope to get back into it.
Sounds like quite an amazing trip.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: Oh, to Peru? Yeah. it was cool. I went with a bunch of women, and I didn’t really know any of them. I just got paired up with someone to be a roommate and her and I were like sisters from other misters, but 20 years apart, but we were like the same person. It was really cool. All the women were nurses and Reiki masters and acupuncturists and all these really interesting healers. We traveled with a 90-year-old Incan priest and two shaman and did a lot. And I’m not really a big outdoorsy person at all.
Kimberly Unger: Chrissy’s idea of camping is a two-star hotel, so I don’t know how she did Peru. I really don’t.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: I know, right? I had to go to REI for the first time. I’m like, I probably need appropriate shoes. But it was the most amazing trip, and it was life changing for sure. From there, that’s where I really discovered Reiki and sound healing and reading chakras and all that. But I don’t really tell a lot of people about it because they kind of look at me and they’re like, “okay, crazy hippie.”
Kimberly Unger: I think Sara and her husband do a lot of camping. When you think about musicians, I don’t think you think outdoorsy type, but maybe. I don’t know…At least chicks in dresses all the time.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: Right? I don’t know. My first gigs were playing around the bonfire at campgrounds and stuff. I prefer not to stay overnight there.
Connecting with The HomeTown Foundation
Why is the Hometown Foundation's mission to help local artists important to you?
Kimberly Unger: I think anytime that we can lend our talents and it will benefit people that need aid or help in whatever way, I think that is something that’s really near and dear to us, no matter what it is. Anytime we get to play music for any sort of cause, I think it’s doubly rewarding.
Chrissy Dzioba Clobes: We appreciate them [supporting local artists]. Because it’s amazing when we go to concerts at Turner Hall, and we’ll go and see a band that’s similar to ours or friends of ours and it’s just packed or sold out. I was like, where are these people when these great local bands are playing? I mean, there’s so much talent in the town and these people will only come out for national acts. Wish we could bring them more local talent. And I know there’s a lot of radio stations that are doing their part and music in the parks and that. So, we appreciate it.
I have a funny story about West Bend. So, most people would go camping with their families for summer vacations and stuff. I would go with my parents to the Fantasy Suites in West Bend. We’d sleep in a rocket ship that was a waterbed, or a sandwich with a teacup that was a hot tub. And I always was the only child there. I remember coming back, going to summer school or something and the teacher asking what we did for vacation, and I’d tell them. I always got weird looks and I never knew why. Now I do.
Apparently, it was torn down, which I’m very sad about because I was hoping to go there as an actual adult someday.
Listen to The WhiskeyBelles
Josh also interviewed these artists for the HomeTown Foundation’s 2022 concert series season.
About Joshua M. Miller
Joshua M. Miller is a frequent contributor to the Chicago Sun-Times, Guitar World, and the Shepherd Express, among others, He has interviewed the likes of Brian Wilson, Steve Martin, U2 guitarist The Edge, Kiefer Sutherland, and William Shatner. He resides in Kewaskum, is an avid music fan, and is a supporter of the Hometown Foundation. You can follow his writing on twitter and facebook.
Check Joshua’s features in Rolling Stone, Guitar World, SPIN, the Chicago Sun-Times and more at his website.