“Really, there are no boundaries with this.
It’s Art and you just make the music that feels good and feels right”
In my previous interview with Samantha Fish she indicated an interest in trying out different musical styles. In 2017 she delivered on this in style with two excellent releases: ‘Chills and Fever’ and ‘Belle of the West’. Each of them very different from her characteristic Blues Rock style and even, to some extent, different from each other. At the time of writing the latter is sitting proudly on top of the Billboard Blues Chart in America so it’s a good time to find out what went into the making of these releases and how they will be presented onstage. Samantha kindly gave 3songsbonn.com time for a short interview before her recent show at the Harmonie in Bonn
Two very different releases in ‘Chills & Fever’ and ‘Belle of the Blues’. If you were working in a record shop where would you put the Samantha Fish section?
Well I think they can all fall into the Contemporary Blues category because to me it’s such a wide expanse – contemporary, not traditional Blues from a specific region. It’s an expansive genre but you know I think ‘Belle of the West’ could also fit into Americana or a few different categories. ‘Chills and Fever’ Could also work in R’n’B, Rock ‘n’ Roll…
You’re fitting into different categories, that could be a problem?
Yeah, that’s why you find these categories that are a little more accepting to other things. To me it’s all North American Rock n Roll. To me it seems like, as soon as there’s any retro sound to it they want to immediately put it into some category, like R’nNB or Blues; but to me, ‘Chills and Fever’ was American Rock n Roll Soul music, but based in the Blues. And ‘Belle of the West’ is also based in the Blues with American songwriting, you know.
Last year’s ‘Wild Heart’ was definitely a Blues Rock album, the sort we expected from you. But then came ‘Chills & Fever’ which wasn’t. How did that go down with your Blues record label RUF?
Well Thomas (Ruf) doesn’t want you to make the same record over and over again because he doesn’t want to see his artists stagnate. Also, his mantra at RUF Records is “Where the Blues Crosses Over” so he’s certainly open to artist creativity. That’s something I’ve always loved about Thomas is that he lets the artists be the artists. He’s pretty hands off in the creative process, he just loves the music. If you go to his office or his house it’s covered in LP’s with all kinds of different music and he’s really just a lover, not just of the Blues genre but a lover of Music in general. So, anything soulful and honest – Thomas is open and up.
What was the reason for your change in styles after ‘Wild Heart’? Following what you just said about Thomas, I assume it was very much your own decision?
Yes, absolutely. I grew up listening to Soul music as a singer. When I started singing I loved Soul and R’n’B, but in a Rock ‘n’ Roll trio I didn’t feel like I could do those arrangements justice until I had the instrumentation on stage to match it. So then you have ‘Chills ‘n’ Fever’ with an expanded band, bigger sound, another part of my musical past, things that inspired and fueled me. Then, when you get to ‘Belle of the West’ that’s really my songwriting, the songwriting part of me. I love Americana writers, I love Country Music writers. I really love the American landscape for that kind of songwriting, so we had a fiddle and fife. Like a North Mississippi meets National kind of record.
You mention songwriting. How much of the new disc is your own songs?
Yeah. I think eight out of eleven – or seven out of ten… (laughs). Most of them.
‘Chills and Fever’ though is a collection from other writers. How did the final selection of songs to use come about?
That was a whole different process for me because it was the first record I ever approached where I wasn’t the songwriter. Me and my Producer Bobby Harlow came together and we picked songs of the 50’s and 60’s, from obscure Motown to Delta Blues. It came from our collections and we just sent stuff back and forth. Really the concept of that record was like, obscure classics, songs that weren’t hits but should have been. They had the hook, but you know, there were so many amazing songs that just didn’t make it through the cut. We found obscure girl groups, like The Cinemas. The Ronettes were a big band, but their song that I recorded ‘He did it’ wasn’t.
It’s kind of amazing what that record has done. I met Bettye Lavette a few weeks ago and we did one of her songs on the album (‘You’ll Never Change’) and she said like “I’m shocked that you did that song”, cos she said nobody else knows that song. I met Barbara Lewis from ‘Hello Stranger’. She came from Chicago and we’ve been corresponding a little bit. It’s kind of amazing what a record like that can do. I’m actually getting to meet the people who made these songs, who created them. It’s really cool!
And they are all very positive about your versions.
Yeah. (laughs) It’s like freaking me out a little bit!
You did Ronnie Love’s ‘Chills & Fever’ which was made in 1961 and the album cover is given a retro style – including your own appearance. Was the image change a deliberate thing to accompany that release?
Well, I mean, the whole thing from head to toe is really retro: from where we recorded the album in Detroit, the band with former members of the Detroit Cobras, and Kenny(Tudrick) who’s in the band here this evening brought up horns from New Orleans. We kinda had a regional mix – me being from Kansas City and with my style of music, but we recorded in this old retro style studio with all old mikes, all old guitars and amplifiers in Detroit and this crazy ass Motel that was old school. The look, the recording the mix was… you know…
It created a different vibe from what you had previously I imagine. One where rock guitar was less important?
It’s not that it’s not important. It’s very much a vocal album, but the guitar is still prevalent. I mean, as far as the record goes I wanted to play to the songs, so if the song doesn’t call for a guitar solo I’m not just going to put it on there for the sake of the solo. I feel that’s a disservice to the songs if you always do that. But, I felt like we also had some pretty powerful guitar moments on the record too.
One that comes to mind is a favourite of mine, Skip James’ ‘Crow Jane’. How did you come to choose that particular track – a song about a man shooting his girl, and you stuck to that version as a girl singing…
I don’t really care about the genders. I mean, really it’s a covers album and girls can love girls too!
Given the change of direction, how was the reaction to ‘Chills and Fever’ in America?
I felt it was very positive. At first I think people felt it was a stark change from what been doing but once they heard the record and the quality of the performances and came to see the exciting show – and they get to see me with this new band which is really powerful. The response has been really great. I’m singing in a different way, and I’m playing a little bit different and it’s exciting. I don’t wanna say that I took a back seat before with just the trio, but with just me, bass and drums I was doing so much work with the guitar that although the vocals were there, you’re doing a lot of work so maybe you’re not completely focussed on it. This way I can really stretch out. Entertain and sing, it’s kinda fun.
Jumping back to the latest disc, ‘Belle of the West’. Luther Dickinson who produced it also produced the earlier (2015) Blues Rock based ‘Wild Heart’. Why go to someone who produced a Rock album for a toned down acoustic Blues one?
Well, if you listen to ‘Wild Heart’ there are three or four tracks on there that are primarily acoustic. Two of them we recorded at the Zebra Ranch which is where we returned to and the idea for ‘Belle of the West’ was actually born out of a session for ‘Wild Heart’ where we recorded Junior Kimbrough’s ‘I’m in Love With You’ and ‘Jim Lee Blues’ by Charlie Patton. We said then, ‘Let’s go back and do a whole record of my songs at that studio and get this sound’. Really what caught my heart and attention with it was that we were all in the same room and performing at the same time you know. There was no overdubbing because everybody’s mike picks up everybody else’s so it’s a very live feeling and really captures that North Mississippi vibe and what that music is all about.
You try to get it all in one take, even if there’s a mistake in there?
Yeah, you learn to love the mistakes… or just not think about them!
So, you record ‘Belle of the West’ with harmonies, fifes and drums. ‘Chills and Fever’ with a pumping horn section. Now comes the reality of touring Europe with that sound. How are you doing it?
Oh man, It’s all going to come together! I mean we’ve got to to continue the steam we have with ‘Chills & Fever’ because that’s a great show but I’m definitely having to re-evaluate putting the present show together because I want to honor how we recorded ‘Belle of the West’. I feel like it’s a powerful record, it’s also very sensitive and it’s a personal album. The performances that we caught on that record, do them justice and get the right instrumentation so we present them that way. We have a horn section tonight, six people onstage.
The last time we spoke you were talking about trying different styles and I remember you mentioning Country Music. Do you think that might be the next Samantha Fish album?
Well, I feel that ‘Belle of the West’ has a lot of Country in it. Like the title track itself is very Country, ‘old school’ Country. Really, there are no boundaries with this. It’s Art and you just make the music that feels good and feels right. It’s not so much like… I don’t really feel like I have to put out this type of record or that type.
The new discs have proved popular.
The response has been good. People just like it because they like the music. The audience changes a little bit where somebody might not dig the new style as much but then you get a few more people who do, so it kind of opens you up to different people sharing your music and your whole catalogue. That’s how I got into Blues, hearing someone who didn’t really play Blues and then you go to see them and realize they’re influenced by it, by past records.
Who would that have been?
Oh, just different people. Really my first was like radio stars and listening to Classic Rock n Roll and then (clicks her fingers) wow! You know.
A direct contemporary influence on your music and career is certainly fellow Blues musician Mike Zito. You played a double header here at the Harmonie not so long ago now. How did the two of you actually meet?
I met Mike back in 2008 when I was a kid, a teenager going into Knuckleheads – a local music venue in town – and he would let me sit in with him and we became friends. He allowed me up onstage with him, he introduced me to Thomas Ruf, and my manager and we started collaborating back then. He produced my first two records, he produced the ‘Girls with Guitars’ album and we’ve just stayed friends for years.
Any plans for further collaborations with Mike in the pipeline?
We don’t have anything on the docket for now, but the futures wide open.
Finally, is there anything you wish to say to the visitors to your shows on the current tour?
Just have fun! You know, this is a party show. It’s a big… you know, my goal was to entertain and touch people’s hearts with this music so you know, just become open to the experience and have fun.
That’s what music is about…
That’s what music is about!