In early June of 2019, Blues Blast dialed up Ms. Samantha Fish who was back at home for a couple of days, after a month-long tour of Europe. The Internet had been abuzz with Miley Cyrus’ latest unfortunate exploit; being assaulted by a zealously crazed fan, but Samantha wasn’t yet aware of it. I asked her how she viewed the sexual climate in her own working environment.
“I think anybody who feels they have a right to put their hands on somebody without their consent is due for an ass kicking. It’s never appropriate. I don’t care what you do for a living. People get this misconception sometimes with artists and performers, especially in the pop world, that they are entitled to act that way. It’s completely unacceptable. Have I ever been in a situation that I was like, uncomfortable, where someone crossed that line with me? Absolutely. I think every woman can say 100% that it happens regularly. There are people in the world that I don’t know what in the hell they are thinkin’. I’m very firm in my boundaries and personal space and when someone crosses that line, I’m very vocal about it. And I have a great team of people that prevents that from happening. For the most part, I think most fans are there for the right reason; the music. You’re just lookin’ out for the occasional bad apples in the crowd. The show must go on for everyone else cuz that’s what we are there for.”
Having cast the discussion of the sexual politics into the sea of grieve, we plunge headlong into the reason we too, are here – to discuss her early foray into music and the current state of her career. First, she ran down the itinerary of her recent European tour.
“We played a bunch of dates in the UK. We did Scotland, Paris, Brussels and about 4 shows in Germany. We did Zurich, Switzerland and also our first show in Milan, Italy. We were runnin’ pretty hard.”
Samantha, indeed, has been runnin’ pretty hard ever since she busted (into or) out of Kansas City’s fabled music venue, Knucklehead’s Saloon. Rumor has it that she started jammin’ there, soon after she picked up the guitar at age 15. She quickly dispelled the myth.
“Well, I probably wasn’t 15 when I started hangin’ out at Knuckleheads. They might not have let me in then. We’re splittin’ hairs here, but it was around a more legalish age.” (It’s interesting to note her speech pattern. Her ideas seem to spew liltingly forward, sometimes followed by a sudden pause, sometimes in the middle of a sentence before resolution. Kinda like the T-Bone Walker hesitation guitar lick.)
“I did pick up the guitar at 15 and sat in with people at jams, trying to put a band together. Knuckleheads eventually played a huge part in that. It was a place where I met a lot of people who were my peers or became my peers. Musicians from all over the world came through there. It was a great training ground and I learned a lot there.”
“Kansas City is almost like an underground musical city as many people consider it one of America’s great musical cities with its long history in Jazz and Blues. Even now, the scene is vibrant with contemporary players, there’s so much goin’ on. I always felt like Kansas City never got its full due despite the fact that Count Basie and Charlie Parker put it on the map.”
Samantha picked up the guitar after her first axe of choice, the drum kit. Early on in her guitar explorations, she was drawn to the electronic gadgetry that many guitarists use to augment their sound.
“Yeah, I started with gadgets. But it felt like I was using them more as a crutch than for actual effects. It was like if I wasn’t gettin’ the sound I wanted from my fingers then I would see the box on the floor and there you have it! So I started strippin’ back. I got some really good advice from some guitar players that I really looked up to and they weren’t using a lot of pedals. The tone was in their hands! I wanted to be able to play like that. I wanted to play clean.”
“It was messy for a while though. I found that once you pull all that stuff back, it lays bare your actual abilities. I was like, ‘Aww $(@#, I gotta lot of work to do.’ But it’s a good thing to strive for and once I felt comfortable enough in that, maybe I’d throw a delay in for an actual delay effect to create different textures and tones. Fun stuff when appropriate. It was always a challenge and I believe it’s good to strip back from time to time, getting into more of a clean sound. It’s always good to check yourself just a little bit. My rig is constantly changing. I think that’s like the curse of guitar players. You know, we’re always acquiring, then gettin’ rid of this and that.”
Seizing the moment to deepen the gear discussion, I asked her if she was playing a Telecaster in the YouTube video of Kingfish Ingram sitting in with her band at the Portland Waterfront Blues Festival in 2016.
“Was it kind of a tan color? That was a Delaney guitar. Mike Delaney is from Austin, Texas. It’s a signature model he built for me. We basically call it a Fishocaster. It’s like a Thinline Telecaster. It’s a killer axe. He built it especially for me and it just screams. When I approached him about a custom guitar, at the time, my favorite kind of guitar was a Thinline Telecaster. Besides the versatility, I loved the F-hole that darkens up the tone so much and makes it not so bright. It makes it sound more rock than country. We picked out certain characteristics of things that I like, but then again, it’s not a copy of the Thinline. The guitar has its own personality tailored to my specifications.”
I then asked Samantha Fish, “How much equipment do you take on the road?”
“Umm, right now, I’ve got about 6 or 7 guitars that I take out on the road with me. I’ve got the Delaney Fishocaster and another Delaney 512, which is kinda like a Gibson 339. It’s a hollow body with a really cool round tone that still rocks. I’ve also got a Fender Jaguar that I love. My main guitar is probably my Gibson SG. Then I’ve got my Taylor KOA cutaway acoustic. And the crazy favorite for most people is my cigar box guitar which I did not get from Super Chikan, though I am a fan of his!”
“For amps on the road, I’m using a boutique company called Category Five Amplification. They’re old school great, kind of point to point wiring and get really true tones. I’m really into tube amps. Usually, when we play in Texas, Don Ritter, from Category Five will come to a show and say, “Oh no. Now you need this.” I’m really stubborn though and hard pressed to change. Something usually has to break for me to change. We’ve really had a good relationship over the years and I really love his amps.”
“In the studio, we set up a few different options. I definitely have Category Five there. There’s a Fender Super Two that we set up. And some cool little Supro’s. Sometimes you get really cool tones out of these little tiny amps with low wattage. Like a one speaker thing. Which did a lot for some of those old classic Rock recordings, like some of the Zeppelin stuff was done on these little Supro’s and it’s like, how can such a mega guitar sound come out of something so tiny, but it’s perfect for the studio. It just has this like, crunch and amazing tone, you know?”
She continued, “I like doing dynamic sets. And there are moments in the show that call for acoustic work. You know the last record we did was all acoustic, (Belle Of The West) so you know, I like taking people through the peaks and the valleys. We actually did 2 records in 2017; that one and Chills & Fever. On Chills & Fever, we went to Detroit and recorded with The Detroit Cobras. They like to Punk up old R&B and Rock & Roll. So it’s like Punk Rock meets R&B meets Blues and Soul.”
“In Belle Of The West, Luther Dickinson produced that and brought in Jimbo Mathus and Lightnin’ Malcolm. We went to the Zebra Ranch Studios in North Mississippi. We brought in a fiddle player named Lillie Mae and a bunch of incredibly powerful women played on it including Otha Turner’s granddaughter, Sharde Thomas. That record was like North Mississippi meets Nashville, I thought. So we had these 2 records come out back to back and I’ve got another one coming out this year, which is pretty exciting too. It’s coming out in September and it’s my first one with Rounder Records. Scott Billington produced it. It’s going to be called Kill Or Be Kind. We went to Memphis to do this one. So it’s soulful, it’s like Rock & Roll, it’s bluesy, and there are some Pop tendencies in there too. Interestingly, even though Memphis and Nashville are pretty close on the map, musically they’re pretty different.”
“I’m really proud of it and excited for it to come out. I had wanted to go back to Royal Studios in Memphis. It’s Willie Mitchell’s old studio where Al Green recorded all his hits. Luther and I had worked there on my 2014 record Wild Heart.”
Next, I ask about her songwriting technique.
“I don’t have a formula other than to try something different if I ever get stuck. I try to keep growing, you know? Songwriting is challenging because there are a million different ways to get stuck. You might get stuck on an idea you think is so great, yet you can’t get it to come to fruition, which is really frustrating. On the latest album, I do a lot of collaborating. I’d never done so much collaborating in such a short span of time. It was like a really fun growing experience. Everybody has a different approach and style of writing. Besides going to Nashville, I went to L.A. and wrote with all these really amazing songwriters. Jim McCormick is a guy I write with fairly often and probably has the most co-writes on the record.”
“There’s a bunch of ways to start. Sometimes I start with a melody and try to write a story behind it. Or you end up with a guitar hook. Then sometimes you end up with pages of lyrics with no melody to go with them and you have to wait forever for the right thing to come through that tells the story. Sometimes it comes together all at once, which is like a freak accident! That’s my favorite. It just falls together and certainly, those are the most natural feeling songs.”
Noting her affinity for the Blues of Northern Mississippi, I brought up members of the Burnside family; R.L. and Cedric. She volunteers her take on Cedric.
“Yes, that guy is the truth. He lives it. That’s his family. There’s something just so true about that. You can tell he grew up being that music. That’s who Cedric is and it’s amazing. I’ve been a fan of his since I met him when I was still in my teens. I was blown away by him. We covered his Grandpa’s song, Poor Black Mattie on the Belle Of The West album.”
I then asked her about one writer’s assertion that Buddy Guy had been skeptical when Samantha was coaxed onstage to jam with him in 2013.
“I do remember that. I was crazy tired that day. We’d driven through the night from Canada on the possibility that it might happen. I don’t think he was skeptical. Honestly, I was too nervous to know what the hell was going on. I did read something about that later. Like, that doesn’t ring true. But maybe it is, I don’t know. That show was on a Sunday night. Buddy Guy’s son, Greg, had come out and seen us the Thursday night before and sat in with us. We’d been playin’ Buddy Guy’s Legends for a few years. I’d opened for him too and saw him at other shows, but I’d never gotten the opportunity to play with him. And I didn’t think it was gonna happen. We showed up at his show on Sunday night.”
“We had driven 13 hours straight from Thunder Bay, Ontario. When we got to the show, of course, I’m not the kind of person who wants to ask. I was just gonna feel it out. If it wasn’t meant to be, it wasn’t meant to be. If it was, then great. It was starting to feel like it wasn’t meant to be. I was like, Okay, that’s fine. I was enjoyin’ the show. But then Jonny Lang was onstage and he made a big speech about how Buddy has always encouraged and inspired him and how great he is with young people, giving them opportunities to play. Then I see this look on Buddy Guy’s face that’s like, What’s this girls name? I’ll put her on! I was like, Thank you, Jonny Lang, you did something that changed the mood of the show.”
“That’s when Buddy called me up. I was so nervous. I don’t remember the look on his face at that point. It was really cool and I’ve been answering a lot of questions about it ever since. My recollection of it is terrible, cuz I was so damn nervous. I do remember him saying, “When shit like that happens, I can play all night.” It was a lot of fun. On top of being a legend and inspired figure, he’s really a nice person.”
Surprisingly, as good a lead player she is, Samantha considers playing rhythm guitar a real challenge.
“I’ve actually sat down with a lot of old tracks trying to figure out the rhythm parts which are sometimes hard for me. Rhythm guitar has always been frustrating to me as a singer and player. I moved to New Orleans which is a city full of rhythm guitar. There’s a certain style of singing and playing that go together that really defines it. You’ve got to really feel it. Playing lead is one thing but there’s a rhythmic pocket thing that’s pretty challenging.”
My final question to this issue’s featured artist is who has she been listening to lately in her personal free time?
“Well, this mornin’, I was kinda dialin’ back to some Delta stuff that I hadn’t listened to in a while. Some Charlie Patton and Skip James. I also listened to Elton John, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder this morning. I’ve got to get back into some guitar players though, cuz I get kind of away from it.”
So there you have it, Blues people. By the time you read this, Samantha Fish will be unchilled and back on the road. She’s workin’ the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival on 7/5/19. Other selected dates in July include gigs in Wisconsin, Ontario, New York, Massachusets, Quebec, New Hampshire, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania. For specifics, visit www.samanthafish.com.