Going All In
Going All In
A Q&A with Samantha Fish
By Geoff Gehman
Samantha Fish is having a ball feeling like the belle. The Kansas City native’s latest album, “Belle of the West” (Ruf Records), is a slow-burning, subtly honest collection of originals (“American Dream”) and covers (R.L. Burnside’s “Poor Black Mattie”) steeped in the raw, relaxed country blues of North Mississippi, the home turf of producer Luther Dickinson, lead guitarist/vocalist of the North Mississippi Allstars. It follows Fish’s other 2017 release, “Chills & Fever” (Ruf), a simmering, boiling assortment of raved-up, brassed-up versions of old soul/R&B hits for Jackie DeShannon (“He Did It”), Nina Simone (“Either Way I Lose”) and the Bristols (“Little Baby”). Both CDs are brave new ventures for a bold blues-rock specialist, a former drummer and alumna of Girls with Guitars, a recent darling of Billboard and Rolling Stone who describes the renovation of her New Orleans home as a Samantha-fication.
On Dec. 14 the Mauch Chunk Opera House will shimmy, shake and quake from the power of Fish’s hemi-powered trio. Fish will blend slinking, snaking vocals with a guitar that howls, whiplashes and takes no prisoners. She will match distinctive sounds with distinctive looks, a country-meets-punk outfit topped by frosted, flipped hair that somehow summons the days of dancing to 45s at a rock ’n’ roll ball.
Below, in an email interview, Fish discusses her debts to Luther Dickinson, her musician father, Stevie Ray Vaughan, hollow-body guitars, cool melodies, rough edges and the undeniable importance of being undeniable.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, that wormed its way into your ears, heart and soul? Mine was the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing,” which made a bigger impact coming out of an AM radio in a ’65 Mustang convertible.
A: I had to text my mom because I don’t remember. This is what she said: “Lordy sis, ‘Sesame Street’ singalongs and ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ You also liked TLC when you got older.” She would know.
Q: You’re the second drummer turned guitarist headed to Mauch Chunk that I’m interviewing in a row, after Adam Ezra. How has drumming shaped your musicianship—rhythmic attack, dynamics, sense of ensemble, latitudes and attitudes?
A: Having my formative musical years spent as a drummer helped in every way you just described. Getting acquainted with different instruments helps with songwriting so much. The drums solidified a sense of rhythm and I’m thankful that I started there. It helped speed up things in other areas.
Q: Your dad helped introduce you to live music, at home and at Knuckleheads Saloon in Kansas City. What was your favorite musical ritual with him? Does he follow your career closely? Do you expect him to be in the audience on New Year’s Eve at Knuckleheads?
A: Really, the ritual was going out and joining the community that we had in Kansas City, going to watch new bands. He’s pretty involved in the local music scene in KC and he does follow my career. He’s very proud of both of his daughters. He’s always in the audience at the hometown shows.
Q: One of your pivotal musical experiences was watching over and over and over again a DVD of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s gig on “Austin City Limits” while holed up for two weeks in a Florida hotel. How did Vaughan’s guitar playing and singing stick to you?
A: I think I was just enamored by the power put forth by a trio. He did everything and was such a star with a stripped-down rig. There was an intensity with his playing; he really meant every note. I have always been drawn to the raw edges in music, and he was one of the people I really admired for going all in.
Q: What did you do on “Belle of the West” that you hadn’t done on a recording? What new studio routes—equipment, positioning, arranging–did producer Luther Dickinson lead you to?
A: We’ve always recorded “live.” But when you are recording with acoustic instruments and room mics, it truly is live. No overdubs; all the vocals and playing have to be one solid take. The entire band will bleed into each other’s microphones, so it’s really a very organic thing. Luther also introduced me to hollow-body guitars–335s and 339s. Delaney Guitars built me one in a similar fashion after the session.
Q: You’ve said that on “Belle of the West” you tried to “tap into” Mississippi’s “style and swagger.” Want to take a crack at breaking down that swagger and style and how it’s rubbed off on you?
A: The feel is relaxed. With Luther, we were not making a glossy record. He’s making one that sounds live. He found a way to cut to the heart of a song and really draw it out. The setting we recorded in is beautiful; Jim Dickinson’s Zebra Ranch studio [owned by Luther’s producer father] is full of history. Mix together nature and history and it’s going to seep into your music.
Q: What look were you going for on the cover of “Belle of the West” with that furry stole and those doeful eyes?
A: Being the Belle of the West: classic, timeless style with attitude.
Q: For “Chills & Fever” how did you and producer Bobby Harlow come up with the idea of cutting seriously soulful songs that deserved to be hits but weren’t? What favorite musician did he introduce to you and you to him?
A: He turned me onto Betty Harris. She seriously has one of the most soulful voices and delivers in a powerful, emotional way. I’m a huge fan now. She also worked closely with Allen Toussaint, who is one of my favorite songwriters. I brought in the Skip James song [“Crow Jane”] and I was referencing Junior Kimbrough a lot in the studio; I think [Harlow] really dug that. We didn’t cover any of [Kimbrough’s] material, but we listened to him a lot. That loose, melodic approach was the backbone of all the guitar solos.
Q: Every record has an anchor song, a track that sets the theme or a brave new direction. What was that tune on “Chills & Fever”?
A: There were so many with “Chills & Fever.” I’d have to say it was actually the title track. No one had ever heard anything like that from me. That song had such a mellow, cool attitude. I perform it in a different way. It’s not a torch song; it required a lot of restraint. But I think that’s what makes it cool and an earworm. I see a lot of folks singing along to that song.
Q: What song, or album, do you always go to when you need a serious shot of inspiration?
A: That’s really a hard question and it varies. My musical interests fluctuate a lot. One of my all-time favorite records is the Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers.” I come back to that a lot.
Q: How do you stay centered and sane on the road, which is often insane and anything but centered?
A: Rest! Lots of sleep. I’ve been terrible about it lately, but the gym helps. You also have to go enjoy where you are. I like to go out and see the local sights. We don’t always get the luxury of time off, but when you do, you have to utilize it.
Q: What was your toughest time in the music trade, when you seriously doubted your calling?
A: It happened a lot early on. From fans, to friends and family, to industry people, not everyone will believe in what you are doing. When you don’t know how to get from point A to point B, it’s disheartening. I never wanted to quit, though. I really didn’t give myself any other options. That made me work harder. If you don’t let it break you, you can use it to fuel the fire.
Q: What was your most rewarding time in the music trade, when you truly felt on top of the heap?
A: The last year has been vindicating. Two albums in one year. We’ve gotten recognition in Rolling Stone Country and the NY Times. Both albums have crossed over into multiple charts on Billboard. My band has been playing amazing shows, I’m seeing more and more fans fall in love with the music. I have an amazing team. It’s so rewarding to work with people who really believe in me.
Q: Can you give one example of how being accepted and respected as a female blues guitarist has become easier since you started your career? And what needs to be done to improve the climate?
A: I went out and wouldn’t take no for an answer. You just keep working till someone notices and you have to be undeniable. It’s hard for everyone starting out, but the ratio of men to women in the industry is definitely skewed. I’ve noticed that some radio stations and festivals tend to be stacked with male artists, with limited female representation. Not sure if it’s to promote competition, or if being a female is still such a niche in our culture that it turns people off. If it bothers you, call it out. Businesses don’t change unless the customers are unhappy.
Q: Any recent significant, long-time-coming discovery that has made playing guitar more satisfying and maybe even easier?
A: Slowing down. Luther basically gave me the guitar player’s chill pill during our recording sessions. He said to focus on a melody that you can sing to, and to build around that. Forget flashy tricks; focus on being musical and dynamic. Small stuff like that should be a no-brainer, but isn’t always.
Q: What tops your Bucket List? Musicians have told me everything from traveling the world to world peace.
A: Going to all the faraway places I haven’t been. It would be amazing to tour Japan and Australia. Exploring other realms of the entertainment industry (art, acting, fashion).
Q: What tops your Fuck It List? Answers range from an end to oppressive, soul-crushing religions to, believe it or not, death to all snakes.
A: Family and friends’ political posts on social media. Fuck all that.
Samantha Fish: The Scoop
She discovered the pleasures of cigar-box guitar by listening to midway musicians at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Ark.. “I was down there at 17 and was seeing people play these crazy little guitars. The tone was rough and so cool. I was totally drawn to it. “
She launched her recording career with “Girls with Guitars,” a 2011 Ruf Records project with Cassie Taylor and Dani Wilde.
“Runaway,” her 2012 Ruf release, helped her win Best New Artist Debut at the Blues Music Awards in Memphis.
She recorded “Chills & Fever” in the 45 Factory, a studio at the back of a motor inn in Waterford Township, Mich.
She moved to New Orleans largely because her band members live there. Her ‘60s house “was a mess when I got it. It’s a renovation art project. It doesn’t necessarily scream New Orleans from the outside, but it will scream Samantha when it’s finished.”
Her favorite barbeque place in her hometown of Kansas City is Arthur Bryant’s, a palace in the kingdom of BBQ.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He digs Samantha Fish’s spellbinding version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “I Put a Spell on You.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.