What some might consider a career gamble, Samantha Fish prefers to think of as “ambitious”: releasing two albums in one year. In March came Chills & Fever, for which she traveled to Detroit to track fourteen vintage R&B songs from the 1960s and 1970s. This month she released Belle of the West, recorded at Zebra Ranch Studios in Mississippi with producer Luther Dickinson. The album features eight originals and three cover songs, with Fish setting aside her electric guitar in favor of her Taylor acoustic. The two discs couldn’t be more diametrically opposed, and both present different sides of an artist most often associated with blues music.
“I was writing a lot, and after Wild Heart came out in 2015, I was in the studio recording Chills & Fever, I had a lot to say, and it felt like the right time to release another album,” she says. “This was kind of a big year for me. We put out a rock and roll/soul record, and on the flipside, we made a softer, more personal album. The semi-acoustic, Americana sound is a stark contrast [to Chills & Fever], and it felt like the right thing to do.”
Samantha Fish began making a name for herself on the blues scene as a teenager in Kansas City, Missouri. At age 20, she released her first album, Live Bait. Ruf Records took notice, booked her on their 2011 Blues Caravan/Girls With Guitars tour with Cassie Taylor and Dani Wilde, and released her studio debut, Runaway, which was named Best Artist Debut at the 2012 Blues Music Awards in Memphis, Tenn. Two more albums followed: Black Wind Howlin’ (2013) and Wild Heart (2015), the latter reaching the top of Billboard’s blues chart and firmly establishing her as an internationally respected singer, songwriter, and guitarist.
Fish was only days away from a month-long U.K. tour, and weeks away from the release of her new album, when she spoke with Guitar Girl.
These are two entirely different albums, and both are departures from what you’re known for. Did that feel risky in terms of what your audience expects?
I don’t feel that risk. I just feel the creative energy and fire that push me forward. I’ve got such killer fans. They support what we do, and so far they’ve been with us through this and all of my other original endeavors.
Belle Of The West is your fifth studio album. What do you see when you look at your timeline?
The music has gotten more complicated. As an artist, you’re always growing, fine-tuning your craft, and getting a little tighter. There’s a lot of raw stuff on those albums, but as far as content and material and experience, I feel like the albums get deeper the further you go and the stories become more personal. I’m not scared to share my personal experiences and my heart on a record, whereas when I started out, I wasn’t sure who I was. I had a lot of questions — “Oh, is this OK? Is that OK?” I wasn’t really sure who to be. On the last two albums, especially, it was such a natural thing and an emotional push, I guess. It just feels more natural. I trust my gut a little bit more.
What gear did you use on Belle of the West?
This album was the simplest as far as what I brought into the studio. I played my Taylor Koa and that was sort of the backbeat of everything. I didn’t play any of my electric guitars because I wanted a different tone than I had gotten in the past. Luther had these great 339’s and 335’s, so we were trying to keep it in the somewhat acoustic family, even though we were plugging in these big, hollow guitars to bring a different color. There’s a darkness to those guitars, and I really liked bringing that in and putting it on the record. Luther played guitar and mandolin, we had a Fender Rhodes, upright bass, drums, and with the female musicians and backup vocals, it was the first time I was ever in the studio when there were more women involved than men. It was a cool approach. I thought, I need an all-female band for this album!
“Blues is the foundation, but there’s rock and roll, soul, country, Americana,
and I feel like everything is going to flow really well together.”
Are you considering it?
I want to, but I’ve got my Chills & Fever band, and the live show will be a mix of the two albums. We have to figure out how we do this live to make it make sense. My voice is the same, we’re telling my stories, so it’s about finding the right instrumentation. We’re debuting some songs, people seem to like them, and they fit right in. Blues is the foundation, but there’s rock and roll, soul, country, Americana, and I feel like everything is going to flow really well together. You were talking about risk earlier and how risky is it to put out two records in a year. I do agree with you on that. The way albums are sold, the market has changed so much, and so everything is based off of the live show. I want to do something that inspires other people, and the live show is going to carry it through no matter what. And we have something driving the content, which is the albums.
How big a part has the acoustic guitar played in your repertoire over the years, as well as in your practice? Was making this album a relearning experience or a comfort zone?
I started out on the acoustic guitar. I was strumming chords and singing when I was about 15, picking out different songs that were popular, singer/songwriter-type stuff and classic rock, trying to figure that out. I was a drummer before that, which gave me an internal timing and the foundation of rhythm so that singing and playing guitar fell together pretty naturally. I put it down when I started playing live shows. I picked up an electric when I was 18 or 19 years old. I wanted to play like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Slash. When I went back to the acoustic years later, I started slipping it into the show here and there, and it seemed like a popular thing. People like the stripped-down, personal approach because they can really hear your voice shine through. I’d always been so focused on putting on a rock and roll trio blues show that I think the vocals took a back seat just because you couldn’t hear them as well. These last two albums showcase the vocals, and the acoustic guitar allows for that.
Acoustic is such a different attack from electric. How do you control your technique onstage as you go from one to the other?
It’s trial by fire. I still have trouble figuring that out sometimes because it sounds so pretty in the monitor! I have a pretty aggressive approach when it comes to electric guitar, and I don’t always realize it because I’m plugged into an amp and it gets distorted when it comes through the speakers. You don’t realize how much you’re attacking the strings with your picking hand. With the acoustic you have to lay back, and that’s so not my intuition when I’m playing with a band. My instinct is to go really hard on the acoustic. I have to restrain myself, so it’s going to be one of those things that I have to do over and over again before I get the feel for it.
You reunited with Luther Dickinson to make this record. Let’s talk about how that working relationship began and how it has grown.
Luther came into my life when we did Wild Heart together. I was such a fan of his. The start of our relationship was a conversation with my manager. We were trying to figure out who I was going to record the next album with, and we started going over producers in our genre. I really liked the sound quality of Luther’s work. His approach has always been to do traditional things, and to me, it’s just cool. We did Wild Heart, and after that it made sense to go back and do another album. He’s got so many irons in the fire. He’s constantly creating music, touring, making records. He’s got his own thing, he’s got the North Mississippi Allstars, he’s got a band with Robert Randolph, he’s always busy. He’s got a deep well of creativity and it’s really inspiring.
“The voice is the way to connect, and then give your guitar that same kind of voice and phrasing.”
What should the guitar solo do? Is it an adjunct to the lyrics or a statement of its own?
I think the two have to go together, because I sing and play at the same time. We recorded everything at the same time, because when you do acoustic tracks you have two microphones in the room, and you can’t overdub that unless you overdub the entire thing. You can’t do one or the other, so you get all the energy and fire and mistakes and rawness in the one track. As far as the solo, I try to keep it melodic with the vocals. That is not something I knew to do early on in my career. I’ve had some great guitar player producers, like Luther, and they’d say, “Be melodic with your solo. You don’t have to be flashy. If you follow the melody, people can sing along to it.” That’s the best way to approach a solo. You can do all the tricks, but it’s not going to connect with people’s hearts. The voice is the way to connect, and then give your guitar that same kind of voice and phrasing. So I try to keep that melody intertwined with the guitar parts.
Your interest in pedals and effects has grown over time. What opened the door, and how do you keep from getting carried away?
It’s very love/hate. When I started playing guitar I found myself using pedals as a crutch. I couldn’t get the tone I wanted out of my fingers, so I’d use a wah or a fuzz to get what I thought I needed out of it. Then I’d go to a jam and have to sit in with a Fender Twin and play clean, and it was just awful, like, “I can’t do this.” One of my favorite guitar players in the world is Tab Benoit. He’s incredible, and it’s all guitar, amp, and tuner. He doesn’t have any pedals. All that power and tone is at his fingertips. For years I tried to get that ability to express myself through my fingers. I started listening to a lot of Queens of the Stone Age and Jack White. They do weird stuff with their guitars and they’ve got cool pedals, so I started using effects as effects, not as crutches. I got a Micro POG, a fuzz, and a delay, and that can do the cool, trippy, psychedelic stuff. But you’ve got to keep checking yourself.
“I had to learn a lot about supporting the music and what an important part you play when you’re playing rhythm.”
Does your background as a drummer make you a more discerning bandleader? Discerning being a polite term for demanding …
Definitely. But when you know where you want the beat, it’s hard to accept anything else. I think I’m pretty fair. I’m not a metronome bandleader. We feel the songs differently every night. We don’t play to a click track, and sometimes we push or sometimes we drag. It depends on the feel of the night. You’ve got to let the songs be the songs and take a different shape. I think everybody who learns to play an instrument should probably take a couple of years of drum lessons because it’s so important. The rhythm is what makes people dance, and I learned from playing clubs that people want to dance. We want people to feel the music and move to it, and if we can’t get the rhythm right, we’re screwed. So yes, I think playing drums can help everybody. And rhythm guitar is so important. The Ruf Records Blues Caravan was my first time in a situation where there were three headliners on the bill and we were all each other’s backup band, so I had my time to shine, play my stuff, and play lead guitar, then I backed the other girls. I had to learn a lot about supporting the music and what an important part you play when you’re playing rhythm. It’s a lot of fun. There’s something cool about just supporting the songs, and that’s the rule I’ve taken since on every album. Sometimes it’s hard and I have to get the producer to check that, because I’ll get off my rocker and start trying to showboat, and no, support the song, because the song is the most important thing. That’s what’s going to stand out. I’ve learned to do that, and the rhythm guitar is so important in knowing how to finesse something and be subtle.
Social media and the Internet played a part in getting your name out early in your career. Artists are expected to maintain accounts and share their lives. At the same time, you can’t post a picture without someone making a crude comment. How do you draw the line between public and private? Also, with all that’s coming out about the entertainment industry, do you have words of advice or caution for young women who aspire to a music career?
First of all, I don’t believe anything I read on Facebook or the Internet. That, to me, is not the real world. You have to realize that people are crazy on Facebook, and in the last couple of years people are so mad all the time. When it comes to being a woman and social media … I don’t even use social media anymore. With this profession I chose to live more of a public life, so if I don’t want my business out there, the first step is for me not to put it out there. My close friends and family know where I am and where I’m going because I tell them. I don’t post it online. It’s better to keep your business to yourself. You don’t need to live your life on the Internet. We use it for work, and we use it to share that part of it, but I keep my personal stuff off of Facebook. People say horrible things on the Internet. You can’t post a picture without having to delete five or ten comments because people take it too far. As for young women, you’ve got to be yourself. I know it’s a cliché, but I had to learn a lot because you’re always trying to figure out who you are. Stay on that path, musically and creatively. Don’t get sucked into the Internet and what people say about you, and don’t let your ego get ahead of you, because it’s not real. It’s not a measure of anything tangible. It’s tough because there’s no rulebook. Everything changes so fast that there’s no real way to navigate it. You just have to be honest with yourself and be careful. Don’t put your phone number and address on Facebook and don’t tell people where you’re going. You have to be aware that you’re going to deal with assholes. It’s not fair, it’s not the right way, it’s not the way things should be, but it’s the way things are right now. But stand up for yourself. I love that so many women are talking about it openly, because it’s a scary thing. It’s really odd that in our society and our culture we’re kind of conditioned and groomed to think that you deserve that if you put yourself out there in a certain way. Women are in a Catch-22 all the time. I’m in show business, and I dress the way I want to dress. Nobody tells me how to do it. I do what I want to do and I listen to my gut. I’m constantly checking myself, but there are times when it’s really annoying because you feel like you can’t win. So much focus is put on women and their aesthetic. Guys don’t have to go through that. I love that women are being honest about their experiences, because it’s like, all right, a lot of women have had to deal with this, and hopefully it will bring awareness to it and maybe deter somebody from being such an asshole. I tell young girls all the time: you’ve got to be aware of it and be careful, because you’re going to have to deal with it. It’s not right, and it’s not fair, but that’s life right now. So I’m glad to see women speaking out, sticking together, and hoping that something will happen. You’ve got to call out people who abuse their power, for sure.
And finally, when can U.S. fans expect to see you again?
In December for an East Coast tour. We toured so much this year; I don’t think we had much time off. I’m expecting more of that next year and hoping the band can keep up! They’re troopers. They’ve been rocking it out with me on this tour for months. We’re going to put something thoughtful together for our fans and give them a good show because that’s what we all need right now — good times and live music.