BWW Interview: Samantha Fish Forges Her Own Path With 'Belle of the West'
A name that's the crossed wires of the blues world for nearly all the past decade is one that is finally getting some well-deserved attention outside of the genre. Samantha Fish has a string of albums and lot of miles behind her in a career, at 29, appears to have only gotten started.
Two releases on Ruf Records in 2017, Chills and Fever and the most recent Belle of the West are opposites. The former, a rocking collection of originals and covers is indicative of the stage show Fish and her (currently) seven-piece band offer. The music is rooted in blues; Fish's vocals are at times in your face, other times sexy and sultry. That record made the New York Times "Best Albums of 2017" list and was quickly followed by Belle of the West.
Recorded in Mississippi, the songs cross boundaries. Blues, country and Americana on a mostly original outing are a step in Fish's growth, as a songwriter as well as musician. "I think it's going really, really great," Fish told me while traveling between Chicago and St. Louis on her current tour, "especially since we got such a good reception from Chills and Fever. It's a bit different from anything I've done, a little more like an acoustic-stylized record. It's Americana, still rooted in the blues, but we have all this really great instrumentation on the album, and it really does help color it."
The shift in gears may have struck some fans, but as Fish says, "I think every album is a departure from the previous album since we started. This one's just got kind of its own vibe and style, and I've never really made one in that vein before."
Fish was familiar with Jim Dickinson's Zebra Ranch studio, having recorded there during the sessions for her Wild Heart album (2015). "Luther (and his brother, Cody) recorded all the North Mississippi Allstars records there," she explains. "I went and did a Junior Kimbrough track, 'I'm in Love with You,' and a Charley Patton song, 'Jim Lee Blues, Pt. 1', with Sharde Thomas, Lightnin' Malcolm, and Luther playing mandolin. And I just remember the vibe was so amazing, it's a very live recording I guess. It's acoustic, you're all in the same room, sharing microphones so there's really no overdubbing. Everything bleeds into itself, so you're really getting this raw organic live track, and I thought it'd be really cool to do a whole record of that, songs I'd written in that kind of style."
Fish regathered those players for Belle of the West. "I think it's so essential," she says," especially like Luther's style of production. He really likes capturing the moment; it's not about making it too glossy and manufactured, he wants to get the emotion on tape.
The songs for Belle... are of a more personal vein. "The bulk of the album, I think I wrote within six months before we went into record," Fish recalls. "I know 'Gone for Good' was a track I've been sitting on for a little while, but everything else kind of came together as I started planning this album. I kind of had in mind they were going to be more stripped back tracks, too."
The kickoff track, "American Dream" is a sardonic look on first listen. "It's kind of a social observation," says Fish with a chuckle. "I wrote it after, like, can't even tell you, it was like the umpteenth mass shooting that happened. I think I was mad; there's nothing being done about this epidemic we've got going on. It's kind of tongue in cheek, in a way, I mean the verses are really kind of dark, and then a sort of uplifting chorus, there's a little bit of embedded sarcasm in it, you know, kind of a critique on what the American Dream is now."
"Need You More" drifts into country music, way more than pretty much anything on "country" radio today. "I love that song," Fish admits, "I feel it's like it's one of the more popular ones on the record, too. It's just a song about traveling, leaving the person you love behind, and the darker side I guess (of) being a touring musician, you're constantly leaving."
Fish's home is Kansas City, which has had its own long musical tale. "My parents had quite a healthy collection of classic rock around the house," Fish says. "I grew up listening to my dad play guitar with his friends, and they were all heavily into country and bluegrass, and Americana music, kind of like eclectic stuff too, I grew up listening to that. And when I got into the guitar, I sort of fell into the rock n' roll heroes, trying to figure out Jimmy Page licks, Angus Young, and stuff.
"Then when I got into blues, that was the thing that connected all those styles to me. Kansas City has a really deep history of jazz and blues; it's a collection of all the music that I loved growing up. I think when I found Junior Kimbrough, it sort of like solidified it for me a little, just because that's kind of like raw and raucous music."
Fish's first bands were, in her own words, "kind of like slapdash, thrown together stuff. I think when I hit twenty, I finally put together my trio, and that was just like the economic thing (chuckles), just to put a trio out on the road."
With the topic in mainstream consciousness, comes the attitudes that die hard, regarding women in the music industry, especially one that not only fronts the band, but is also its lead guitarist. Fish speaks of it frankly: "Regardless of your race, your gender, everything, you're going to have a hard time, just because it's a very competitive field, and you have to come in with that kind of mindset. There've been times," she admits, "where I felt like my gender may have played into something not happening, or there was a little more criticism. It's easy because of that, but I can't focus on it too much because it kind of distracts from what I'm trying to do. It happens, you just have to move on and those people that might be holding you back, just make a little mental note. I think it happens to everybody."
The stereotypes changed some time ago, and the blues world is seeing established veteran female artists keeping hold of their spots, while others step up. From Fish's hometown alone, artists such as Danielle Nicole and Heather Newman have carved their own places. Detroit's Janiva Magness and Serbian native Ana Popovic are just two more of many. "I'm seeing especially more female instrumentalists," Fish notes, "you're seeing less just female fronted bands. Sure, there's nothing wrong with it, but I've seen a lot of great kickass females playing drums and bass, guitar keys...it's not something that was typical twenty years ago. I think the more we just keep picking up instruments, and keep writing, and making our presence known, and not backing down, I think more and more people will be inspired to pick up instruments and continue on with that."
That youth movement, from the player to audience is vital, to blues and any form of music, and Fish is aware of it. "I think especially what we do," she says, "'cause it's sort of a like a cross-genre situation. I think people are like, 'Oh, this can be classified blues,' where I think maybe blues has gotten a weird rap for young kids, cause they kind of have this idea of what it is. I'm seeing a wider demographic at our shows."
Fish also makes a point that the perceived retro acts that have gone mainstream to an accent hearken back to the gritty, southern blues that is one of her inspirations.
"I kind of see these guys like Jack White and the Black Keys in the last ten years," she notes. "I think the Black Keys started out on Fat Possum, which is like one of my favorite labels that housed R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough and all these great North Mississippi acts, and you could hear that in their music on their earlier stuff, and they continue to come back and reference. I think so long as the reference is there, and the fire and passion, the evolution of blues is there, they're gonna continue to feed one another.
"I think as long as they kind of keep supporting one another, cause there's definitely a need for I guess heritage acts, because that's the heart and soul of blues music."
(Samantha Fish is currently touring to support Belle of the West)