Q and A with Samantha Fish
By Brian Tucker
Samantha Fish will be performing as part of the Pleasure Island Seafood Blues and Jazz Festival this weekend, postponed from last October due to bad weather. The blues singer/guitarist has played in a blues rock trio since after graduating high school and her new album Chills & Fever is essentially a love letter, covering songs from artists from the 50s and 60s, all echoing the good and the bad of loving someone.
She recorded in Detroit with a backing band put together by producer Bobby Harlow, picking out songs together for the record. The material reflects a collision of regions – New Orleans, Detroit, and a singer who hails from Kansas City. The album has plenty of bounce and energy, paired with slower numbers like Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger.” But Fish and the band really nail it on Irma Thomas’ “The Hurt’s All Gone.”
What led to Chills & Fever?
Fish: I’ve always wanted to have a bigger band but also finding the right time to grow. It came about in a natural way. The horn section adds something so dramatic and dynamic to what we’re doing and keys are another melodic layering. It’s a big band, it sounds huge. Its fun for me as an artist to grow, and to be creative. I didn’t want to hold myself to a trio forever. It’s always been in the back of my mind to do it. I’ve been a trio since I started music as a teenager
Was the new album a means to challenge yourself or just do something different?
Not so much a challenge, any time you make a record it’s a challenge, figuring out new music. Going in this direction, I’ve always loved soul singers from the time I started singing. I always went the rock and roll direction, blues rock, just because I was playing in a trio. I don’t want to say my vocals have taken a backseat to it, but when you get this bigger band you can stretch out things vocally, even on the guitar, because you’re not focused on two things at once. But playing this music I’ve always loved the passion, and the energy. It was a good time to do that and with the expansion of the band.
Playing these amazing timeless covers from the 1950s and 1960s, R&B, Motown. We pulled in some other songs from Skip James, Allan Toussaint, Nina Simone and did it with this upbeat soul rock and roll band. The backing band was members of the Detroit Cobras. We cut the whole album in Detroit, utilized them as the rhythm section, brought in horns from New Orleans, a keyboard player from Detroit. The whole vibe was there – a collision of regions – we had New Orleans, we had Detroit, we had me. It came out to be really fun and people seem to be responding well to it.
That’s why those guys are on the road, I got the guys form the recording session playing with me. They’re so tasteful, so professional, they know what to do, even on the delicate material. It’s not overpowering, not over the top, it amplifies what we do. It’s very dynamic, it came through on the record and definitely comes through on the live show.
In choosing songs, was this on your mind?
Producer Bobby Harlow and I, we picked the material together. I just think a lot of those songs from that time period are love songs. It turned out to a big love letter record really, other than “Crow Jane,” which is about killing some chick, the rest of it was pretty sweet. (“Crow Jane”) was the wild card of the record when I submitted it.
It’s an archive song, its one of those traditional songs, I was really drawn to the Skip James version – his version was so haunting. That’s a little closer in line with the stuff I’ve done in live shows and on my album Wild Heart. It connected the dots for me, and I wanted something on the record that my older fans (could connect with).
What song was hardest to record, to get right, in your eyes?
Fish: There was a few I just wanted a special treatment for. I remember recording “Never Gonna Cry” and label owner Thomas Ruth was there and crying, saying it’s so beautiful. He just loved the energy that was coming through the other side of the speaker. (The songs) all feel that important in the moment, that’s the cool thing. I felt that way about every song we recorded. I know when we did the Nina Simone, I was attached to that one, and wanted it to sound like a really specific way. And the Skip James song as well.
“Feelin Alright” from your Runaway album is a close cousin to this album.
That song was such a wild card; it was the weirdest song on that record. It stands out. We get requests for it, and I don’t think we ever, ever played it (live). Thinking back you could say it correlates with what we’re doing now.
You began playing music while in high school?
When I graduated, I didn’t go to college, I got a job and just started working, paying rent, surviving, honing my craft. When I wasn’t working I went out to jams and playing at my house, meeting people, and putting together a band slowly. Then it was opening up the phonebook and calling every bar and club in Kansas City and see who will pay you to put music in there.
I did that for a couple of years and filled up my calendar. I was at Knuckleheads in Kansas City a lot, the staff and Frank who owns it was really good to me. Really encouraging and introduced me to a lot of people, I met a lot of peers. I met Mike Zito who produced Runaway and he introduced me to Thomas Ruth at Ruth Records and I went off on the Blues Caravan, I got with an agency, got to working, putting out records and growing a fan base. One fan at a time.
Can you share things that shaped your decision to play music?
My parents always had music on at the house. It wasn’t the focus of what was happening but it was always around. I guess I never really picked up on the fact that it was always around, I would listen to anything from classic rock and country to bluegrass and Americana. Folk music. I just turned on the radio. That was the time period.
My dad played guitar, my uncles all played the guitar. All of his friends played guitar, what we listened to changed by who was coming to the house. If it was my uncle’s, it was metal. If it was his friends, it would be west coast swing and country songs. My mom sang in church. I guess it was always around. I picked up the guitar because I wanted to play with them.
It was pretty organic how it happened, no one forced me to do it. I picked it up when I wanted to. I always think, why didn’t I pick it up earlier? I had plans, can’t even remember them, what my last genius plan was going to be for my life. I guess it was pretty insignificant. When I decided I was going to go the music route it was after the first time I played in front of people. I was such a shy kid, really scared to talk to people.
Can you recall performing the first time?
I remember getting on stage the first time and was terrified, it was a horrible feeling. It happened by accident. I was looking at some guy’s guitar at a show and he said get up there and to play a few, sort of pushed me out on stage – here, just play. There were 200 people at this party and I was put on the spot, so I did. I remember the most horrifying feeling. But I wanted to do it again, I don’t know why. It scarred me really bad. But it changed my mind. I thought, I want to do this as my job.
I grew up in the Midwest and my parents have always been really encouraging, but at the same time they were scared for me. I told them I wasn’t going to go to college; I was going to play music. There was definitely a little, ‘that’s not a good idea.’ They wanted me to have a back up plan. I went out on my own and showed them. It took a few years of showing them – this is working, I can make it work. Its grassroots, you’re putting it together one day at a time, one fan at a time. It’s doable; you’re building a business, if you look at it like that.
Are you still nervous before playing?
I still get nervous sometimes. It depends on the day. Sometimes its more nerve-racking going up when you’re by yourself, I don’t know why, maybe because of the attention. It just depends. It keep you on your toes, keeps your mind active. To me, the nerves contribute to the creativity.
How long before being comfortable with how you were playing and singing?
I didn’t start singing until I started playing guitar. Those happened at the same time. I played drums for two years before started playing guitars. I had this rhythm background, and I don’t know if the singing and playing at the same time kept my meter with the guitar. They contributed to each other; it was a tool that helped me play the guitar with singing. I think everyone should learn how to play the drums, every musician should take drum lessons, get that rhythm ingrained. It’s important, that’s what keeps people dancing, keeps the music driving – the rhythm. If you lose that, it’s not working.
What did you learn from making your debut album?
I guess I wasn’t very confident on my first couple of records. I wasn’t sure what to do. I was glad there was someone to guide me and help me. I was in over my head, in a way. It’s overwhelming. I just learned to trust myself a little more. It’s taken some time, it’s been eight years and I’ve only made five albums in that time. I’ve had a lot more experience live than in the studio. You just gotta go in their and trust yourself, and trust your instincts. I started doing that more on the Wild Heart record, the one I made with Luther Dickinson. I started trusting myself more and saw that it yielded better results. Putting that together, those two things helped a lot.
Do you prefer record live?
I really do, you get the energy of the band. We did Chills & Fever live, everybody played at the same time. Most of its done live. To me, that’s what really captures the energy. It does help to go into the studio and give (fans) that energy.
How did members of Detroit Cobras come to play on the album?
That was through Bobby Harlow. I met him last year. He was the lead singer of the band Go, with Jack White before The White Stripes. He’s produced a lot of records. He’s really well known in Detroit and in the record business. He knew the Detroit Cobras and hooked that up.
I’m imagining a double bill, you and Detroit Cobras band member playing with you and a set from the Detroit Cobras.
Oh yeah, it would be over the top.
Was it easy to record with them? Did you find that you had shorthand musically when working together?
It was definitely fun and easy. We had the right players involved. There’s a magic that happens. It’s kind of scary of coming into the studio with people you don’t know. But you go in and everyone is professional and they’re musical, and everyone contributes to this big sound. It just works together. I definitely felt like there was magic in the studio when we put these songs down.
Was it freeing not having to write songs, looking to yourself for material? Or harder?
I don’t know if its freedom because when I write material there’s a freedom in that it can be whatever, it’s not been written yet. But when you’re covering songs there’s a respect you have to pay to the original and also walk the line and make it your own. It’s a different kind of approach. You have to think about it a little differently. I don’t want to say it’s harder or easier, it’s just different.