Monday, October 30, 2017

Hello Stranger - Blues Enthused catches up with Samantha Fish

It’s been a while.  Samantha Fish is heading our way for a run of 8 British dates with a six-piece band in November. We haven’t seen much of her here over the last few years.  But she’s certainly been keeping herself busy.
First there was the release of her third album Wild Heart, produced by Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, which she toured relentlessly for a couple of years.
Then this Spring, all of a sudden, there came Chills & Fever, an album of delicious Sixties covers that brings to mind a line from Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity (turned into a great movie starring John Cusack): “Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands – literally thousands – of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss.”
And along the way Samantha has also found the time to record another album with Dickinson, Belle Of The West, which will be with us in a couple of weeks.  Given that some of the most successful tracks on Wild Heart were acoustically based songs like ‘Place To Fall’ and ‘I’m In Love With You’, the fact that the new album follows a similar path is promising.
Plenty to cover then, when I managed to collar a Q&A with Ms Fish, starting with the current album, Chills & Fever.

From the outside at least, when Chills & Fever came out it seemed like quite a left turn from where you were at with your previous album Wild Heart.  You’ve spoken about your long-standing affection for the kind of scrappy rock’n’roll that’s on it, but what actually prompted the idea to dedicate an album to it?  And how did the different
Samantha Fish - she wakes up looking like this, apparently
                                                                                                           Pic by Alyssa Gafkjen
components of how to do it come together – recording in Detroit with the Detroit Cobras, with Bobby Harlow producing, and the New Orleans horn players?

“I've wanted to expand the band for years. After Wild Heart, it seemed like a good time to do that. My favourite singers were always soul singers, but I never felt like I could do that style justice with a rock n' roll trio. Expanding the band for Chills & Fever was a natural progression. It gave me the opportunity to stretch out and sing in a style people hadn't really heard me do before. Detroit set the stage for this. Bobby hooked me up with former members of the Detroit Cobras, and my manager brought the horns from New Orleans. With my background and influences, I felt like we caught a really unique style and sound.”

Part of the charm of the album is that it brings together a bundle of singles that all feel like misfits, in a way – they’re all on the cusp of R’n’B, of soul, of Sixties pop, of rock’n’roll, but they don’t fit neatly into any of those categories.  And I don’t imagine many of the originals featured lead guitar licks either.  Was it a challenge to create a coherent sound of your own out of them, or did Bobby Harlow have a pretty good template in his head?

“Once we got the band in place, everything moulded around that. It wasn't a difficult puzzle to put together once we got into the studio. It was really fun recording those songs and allowing the bands personality to shine through.”

I’m guessing that the original songs were recorded pretty damn quickly back in the day.  Did you manage to do the same?

“We always record pretty quickly. I feel like the magic and energy is in the first few takes. That’s where the tension lies and everyone is almost uncomfortable. Once the band gets too comfortable, the recording can become stale.”

I read somewhere that Bobby Harlow insisted that you stay in a less than classy motel near the studio that was a traditional haunt for rock’n’rollers, in order to get into the spirit of the thing.  How did that go?

“I did it! The 45 Factory Studio is actually nestled into this crazy little motel. Bobby wanted me to immerse myself in this environment. We talked a lot about classic soul singers and how they really had to sing like their lives depended on it. Greatness coming from desperation. They might have only had one shot at singing a song. It was another way of putting me out of my comfort zone. It’s the same with getting a good track from the band, sometimes when you are uncomfortable, you bring an edge to the song. Which is what separates a good performance from a great one.”

It may sound obvious, but lyrically the songs are all told from a young, female perspective, and they have a real early Sixties feel - of torch songs, and teenage crushes, and sexual awakening.  All of which gives them a particular charm because they seem quite innocent and knowing at the same time.  Was that something you were conscious of as you put the songs together?  

“That’s the human condition. Love, desire, heartache . . . .  Lyrically that didn't happen on purpose. We picked the best songs for the session. I think it all fit in well though.”

Did you have to sift through a heap of songs to arrive at the stuff you recorded?  Were there any “ones that got away” that you’d have loved to do but didn’t for some reason, or recorded but didn’t put on the album?

“We talked about songs for months leading up to the session. There were songs that we decided not to do, but they didn't fit with the rest. There was a theme throughout, and when we finally started recording, we knew exactly what we were going to do.”

Touring, touring, touring - the road never ends
You’ve been touring and touring and touring the last couple of years – to the extent that you recently got a “Road Warrior” award in the Independent Blues Music Awards.  How many gigs did you do last year?

“Haha, I HAVE NO IDEA. A LOT!”

Does being on the road that much present particular challenges for you?  You’re a young woman, working in a genre heavily populated by middle-aged guys, and I don’t imagine Walter Trout has to spend much time worrying about his hair or his stage wardrobe!  But for good or ill you probably have some different expectations placed on you.

“Absolutely. I think it presents challenges for anyone. I feel like everyone misses home, but it's the love and passion for music that pushes me forward. As far as hair and makeup, I wake up like that, so its not that much harder.”

It must also be really hard work for your voice, which for you is your instrument just as much as the guitar.  Is that something you have to be careful about?

“Absolutely. Singers need to stretch and warm up, just like an athlete. It’s the key to stamina and longevity. Also, trying to stay as healthy as possible.”

Is it a different dynamic now that it’s a six-piece on the road?  When you just had a trio I imagine you all got to know each other’s habits very well.

“It's just more people to manage. It honestly hasn't been as difficult of a transition as I thought it was. The drives are longer because we have to stop more. Everyone has a great work ethic though. That helps a lot.”

Mike Zito wrote that song ‘The Road Never Ends’, with the line “By the time I get home, you know I’m already gone”.  Is it difficult to wind down when you get off the road for a break?  What do you do for relaxation?

“It's difficult to shift gears. I feel like a workaholic sometimes. When I'm not touring, we're putting albums together, or doing photo shoots or videos. Everything is centred around music. On nights off, I usually end up watching another band play. I love spending time with family and friends though, so I try to sneak that in as much as possible.”

Working with Belle Of The West producer Luther Dickinson
You’ve also got an album coming out in November showcasing an acoustic side.  Is that based on the sessions you did with Luther Dickinson after you released Wild Heart?

“It's called Belle of the West, and it’s due out on November 3rd. We got the idea during the Wild Heart session. We went back to Zebra Ranch Studio in northern Mississippi. Luther produced, we brought in Jimbo Mathus, Lightnin' Malcolm, Sharde Thomas, Lillie Mae, Amy Lavere, and Tikyra Jackson. It's mostly original and semi acoustic. Its kind of like my Nashville meets North Mississippi record.”

Where did the material for Belle Of The West come from?  Covers of old blues tunes, or original material?  Is there anything on there that you’re particularly pleased with?

“Most are my songs. I covered an RL Burnside song as a duet with Malcolm, covered and did a duet with Lillie Mae, and Jimbo Mathus penned the title track. I'm really happy with all of it. It’s an incredibly personal album.”

You started having a go at lap steel back then as well, didn’t you?  How did you get on with that?

“I'm still terrible, but working on it.”

It’s probably a bit early to ask where you might be headed next on the recording front.  But are you writing new material, for when the day comes around?

“Definitely. Always looking ahead.”

While Sam Fish is looking ahead, I won’t be the only one looking forward to seeing her live, and to hearing Belle Of The West (reviewed here), in the next few weeks.  With a soaring voice that she injects with bundles of personality, zinging guitar to match, and a body of cracking material reaching back to her debut album Runaway, she’s not just a road warrior, she’s the kind of young artist keeping the blues genre fresh and exciting.

Full details of Samantha's UK tour dates can be found here.

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