Samantha Fish: More Than Just a Girl With a Guitar
Early in her career, Missouri-born guitarist and singer Samantha Fish was featured on an album titled Girls With Guitars. It’s difficult to imagine the Samantha Fish of today allowing herself to be billed that way. And though she’s won many awards in the blues idiom, Fish is determined not to be painted into a stylistic corner; her work of the last few years underscores that fact. Samantha Fish is currently touring in support of Kill or Be Kind, her most varied collection of songs to date.
Your early material fit pretty neatly into the blues category, but about four or five years ago, you seem to have made a conscious effort to break out of that pigeonhole. Did you find the blues label uncomfortable or restricting?
“No, but as somebody who’s been influenced by a pretty wide array of music, I felt compelled as an artist to spread out, to stretch out a little bit. And that’s just a side effect. I never had any negative emotions about being linked to something like the blues genre, because it is the oldest, it’s the truest, it’s the rawest, most passionate genre there is. I don’t feel any kind of restrictions with it, but there are certain people – certain purists in the genre – who believe it should be one certain way. As an artist I don’t want to be held to that kind of strict standard of what exactly it should be. I think any kind of music form should be able to evolve over time.”
Your last four albums exemplify that perspective. I’d like you to reflect a bit on each of your four most recent albums, as far as what they represented in your progression as an artist. And we’ll start with 2015’s Wild Heart.
“I worked with a new producer; I really connected with Luther Dickinson. He’s one of my favorite guitar players on the contemporary scene. He produced Wild Heart and Belle of the West. And he really gave me a lot of freedom in the studio; he guided the sessions in a way that I could really get what I was trying to get out there across, but it’s really musical. And I felt like Wild Heart was a special album. It was sort of a breakthrough for me in a lot of ways. It’s funny.
“Emotionally, I got a little more confidence when I finally got into the studio. I felt like, ‘Okay, I belong here.’ So much self-doubt was in play in my first two records; I just felt better about my life and situation when I was making Wild Heart.”
Chills & Fever came out in 2017…
“We actually recorded Belle of the West first. We had such a great time. It’s kind of a long, convoluted story. I really fell in love with the Zebra Ranch studio, and I wanted to record an entire session in the style. We did two songs at that studio for Wild Heart, and I wanted to do an entire album like that: semi-acoustic, all recorded really live. And you feel that when you listen to Belle of the West; it’s really an organic record. That’s like my Nashville-meets-North-Mississippi album with lots of collaborations on it.
“We recorded Chills & Fever after that, but it came out first just because I really felt like we had something high octane. I wanted to break out the band and build it up to the six piece and really step up our live show. Chills & Fever was an album of covers from the ’50s and ’60s that were kind of obscure. We went to Detroit, and we recorded with former members of the Detroit Cobras, which was like a punk, rock ‘n’ roll, blues band. They do a lot of R&B covers… And we started spiking up the show with horns, and then released Belle of the West.
I feel like Belle of the West had a better impact because of Chills & Fever; we released them in the same year. They were so different from one another, I feel like it was kind of a treat for the fans. Like, ‘Here’s two completely different albums.’ Because if they weren’t so strangely different from one another, I don’t think it would’ve worked out as well as it did to release them so close.”
That leads us to Kill or Be Kind, the new album.
“That’s my first record with Rounder Records. The other ones were on Ruf. And I spent more time with this one. I feel like it’s my most mature work. I wanted the guitar to be at the forefront, but not in a way that the songs are vehicles for guitar solos. I really wanted to focus on hooks and melodies, just songs that people can really connect to. I think songwriting takes a focus on this album, and I really liked working with Scott Billington. He gave me an opportunity to sing and perform and capture some of the live essence on the album. It’s got that energy, which sometimes that’s hard to capture in a studio. But it’s definitely my most expansive album to date, I’d say.”
Even though you’ve now moved very successfully beyond the confines of what the “blues police” would call the blues, your music still shows up well on the blues charts. One could argue that you’ve managed to hold onto your core audience while expanding into other areas. Was that a goal?
“I think that we just have a good congregation of people who have been with us for a long time. They maybe love the live show, and the albums are a part of that journey. We live in an age where the live show is your bread and butter. An album is really a means to an end to tell a story. It’s a legacy that’s going to live on long after you’re gone, but we all rely on the live show more. I think our fans are tried and true; they’re coming to shows, they’re buying tickets, they’re part of this journey that’s a little more than just buying an album and making a decision based on that.
“But I love blues music. I’m a champion of traditional blues and where this came from, and it still plays a huge part in my music. So, whatever. I’m not really too focused on people who want to argue it and say it’s not bluesy enough. I know what inspires me.”
“Kill or Be Kind” is as far away as you can get from the idea of a song that’s merely an excuse for a guitar solo. I get the sense that you’ve got a confidence that you don’t have as much to prove as you did in the past.
“Honestly, to me I know what I like when I go out to a show. If I see a guitar player who just keeps going forever, I’m probably going to get bored in the first three songs. That’s just me personally. And I know that it’s not all about my personal taste, but when I’m making a record, I want to please myself.
“But that song is all about what I wanted to do with the guitar on this album. And I didn’t get it, I got really close. It’s all about putting the guitar in there as a texture. I layered it so many different ways that there are these subtle nuances that you might not know that’s a guitar, but it is. There’s so much guitar on this record, but you wouldn’t freaking know it in a lot of ways. The big solos are in there in a lot of ways, but not every single song calls for it.
“I want to serve the song. That’s my job. If I’m not serving the song, I can play guitar any way, but if I’m going to go in there and make an album and write songs the way I do, we’re going to make them to fit that.”
Listening to some of your early stuff, I can hear that your vocal range and vocal control have progressed. What kind of formal vocal training have you had?
“Oh, man, I’ve gone back and forth and done lessons for years. I started doing vocal lessons when I was like 18 or 19 years old.
“You can watch somebody play guitar and go, ‘Oh, damn. I want to figure that out,’ or you can hear something and then try and pick it out on the guitar. Singing, it’s all about the muscles inside your throat. I can’t just watch a singer, get better, get a new idea. There’s so much going on, you have to really learn how to control it.
“And to be honest, I think a lot of it had to do with nerves. When you go into a studio, you put these headphones on and everything sounds fucking crazy, and it’s really hard to relax. I could really fucking belt it at the shows, but if you listen to the [early] albums, it’s like I [eventually] figured out how to control it a little better. And you can kind of hear that in the studio. It’s a little less restrained. I got to take some chances and really go off like I do in the live shows.”
You started out playing drums, not guitar. How do you think that that foundation affected your approach to the guitar and to songwriting and arrangement?
“I think every musician should start with the drums. I really do. I think everybody should take drum lessons, because you’ve got to learn how to count. Counting and rhythm are the most important building blocks for music. It’s what people dance to. If you can’t count, you’re so lost.
“Playing the drums really helped me because when I started playing guitar and singing at the same time, I got to skip some steps, in a way, because I had that foundation already there of being able to play in time. And it did help.
“I wish I had more time so I could go home and spend it on my kit because it does help in so many other areas. Especially when you’re playing with a band. It helps to know what the drummer’s going through.”
Have you found that you have to work harder to gain a foothold in the music scene because you’re a woman?
“This is a dicey question because I’ve only ever been a woman. So, I don’t really know what it’d be like if I was on the other side of it. It definitely feels like there are limitations, but in a lot of ways, it’s kind of hard to back up with any kind of scientific facts. I don’t have any data to prove it, but it feels like it.
“I mean, I think it’s difficult for women, period. In any industry and any job environment. You’re dealing with pay equality. And if we’re still having a conversation about pay equality, you’re goddamn right it’s harder for women.
“For me personally, I’ve found that it’s a double-edged sword in some ways. I love being a woman. I feel like we need the female perspective in art and music. I see a lot of young girls come to the shows, and that makes me really happy; I wish I would’ve had more representation when I was younger. Maybe I would’ve started sooner. But all I can do, as far as that goes, is just keep doing what I’m doing.
“When I first started, some people were coming because it was like, ‘Oh, a girl that plays guitar.’ It’s kind of silly, right? Almost like a novelty or a gimmick, and it used to really piss me off, but then it would get people in the door and they’d be like, ‘Holy shit. This is good music,’ and they’d stay with us. People were like, ‘Wow. Girls can play guitar too. That’s interesting.’
“It’s been kind of a weird social experiment and a journey, and I’ve found a lot of fans who came out of curiosity and then stayed for the music. So, in some ways it’s worked out. I don’t know if I was a man, would I have had that same curiosity about me or would things have been a lot easier for me? Would I be a huge mega superstar right now if I was a guy? Who fucking knows?”
Photo by Kaelan Barowsky.