Monday, July 29, 2019

Going Dutch - Samantha Fish shares conversation with Blues Enthused

Dateline:  23 May 2019, Amsterdam.  Samantha Fish European Tour.

It’s late May in Amsterdam, and to quote The Kinks, I’m lazing on a sunny afternoon, having a quiet beer and waiting to meet Samantha Fish.
After catching three of her shows in Britain, I’ve indulged myself with a quick jaunt to the Netherlands to catch tonight’s show at the Q-Factory – and I’ve managed to score an interview with the lady of the moment into the bargain.
She’s running late, something to do with a filmed interview, but that’s okay.  Patience is a virtue, and all that.  And sure enough it’s not long before her tour manager Mark Sampson appears at the café doorway and gives me a wave.  And off we go, zig-zagging down some corridors before he opens the door to a cavernous, spartan room, in which Fish can be found sitting on a leather sofa in one corner, wearing a simple black t-shirt, black trousers and black headscarf, and looking fresh as a daisy.  I dunno how she does it, given her schedule.
We say our hellos and I sink onto the armchair at right angles to her, while she checks with Sampson that I’m the guy she thinks I am, who did those reviews of the British gigs? “Thanks for the great press man, I dig it!” she says winningly, as I get the digital recorder rolling.  And then off we go.

Down The Road Apiece
As they’re getting towards the tail end of a 22-date run through Britain and Western Europe, the obvious first question is:  how has it been going?

It's going good - Fender Jaguar time
“Going good,” says Samantha. “I’m in Amsterdam, having a blast!  Yeah, I mean this tour has been really exciting.  I feel we’re connecting with people, and that’s really exciting. And tonight’s going to be huge, there’s a lot of tickets sold, so I’ve just gotta go get myself together and make it work!”
This tour has taken in some bigger venues and audiences than her previous European jaunts, and from what I’ve seen the levels of enthusiasm have been stronger too.
“Yeah, yeah man!” she agrees.  “I love it when people sing the words along with the band, you know – they know the words of the songs.  It’s crazy when there’s a language gap,” she says, referring to the most recent gigs in Paris and Brussels, “but they still know the lyrics to the songs, you know?  It’s cool!”
One of the things I’ve noticed, I say, is that Fish is constantly changing her set, whether it’s the songs she plays each night or the running order.  This is not something that a lot of artists do these days, and highly commendable in my view.  So how important is it to her?
“I’m trying to do it more and more,” she says.  “It was kind of tough at first, ‘cause we had put two records out in 2017, and I had such a big band, and really with as much time as we’re on the road there’s not a lot of time to go home and rehearse, and work it out.  But we’ve just been forcing some of the older catalogue back into the set.  Really what helped facilitate that was we’ve been doing these festivals where we’ve been multiple shows at the same festival – you know when you’re in Byron Bay for four days,” she says, referring to the Australian festival they played recently, “I want people to think they’re missing something if they don’t come to another show.  You know, when we do those festivals, if they come to one show, and then they come to another one and they hear we play the same songs in the first 15 minutes, they go ‘Okay, we saw ‘em, we don’t need to go see ‘em again’.  I want ‘em to feel like they’re missing something, so I started putting that into the live show.”
I’ve also noted that she’s changed the guitars she uses on some songs.  On this tour she’s been using her Fender Jaguar on ‘Gone For Good’, for example.  
“Well, when I first started playing that song I was using an oil can, but that was really a six-string guitar.  So that was just like a regular guitar, I just tuned it to an open chord.  But yeah, the last few years I’ve just been down-tuning to Open G, and you can really do it on anything at that point. It’s kind of like, I look at the set list, and it’s what’s gonna be the easiest thing to tune fast, so whatever guitar I play before, I usually make that the one for ‘Gone For Good’.”
Watching her live, particularly when she’s soloing, Fish often seems so totally in the zone
A relieved band after negotiating another changed-up set list
that’s she’s lost in the music.  But obviously she has to keep one eye on the practicalities, because there are changes that come up, such as segue-ways where Phil Breen covers on piano while she re-tunes or switches guitar.
“Yeah, definitely,” she nods.  “And you know, over the years I always wonder ‘Why did I do this?’  It’s easier at home, when you have your home rig.  But you know, I could only fly over here with so many guitars.  So ideally I’d have a guitar in every tuning that I need, and I’d just go pick it up, put it on, and that’d be fine.  But you know, when you’re flying to Europe and you can only bring two bags with you, it’s like, okay, gonna have to make these four work in whatever tunings.  So yeah, I do think about that.  I write out the set list before the show.  We write it on the way to the venue – I like to feel out the venue, and go ‘Oh, this is going to be a rock’n’roll show tonight. Let’s stack the show with these kind of songs.’  I have to think about it before the show, so I’m not too stressed about it in the moment.”
And presumably the same applies to the rest of the band too, I suggest, so that they’re not left saying, ‘You’re gonna do what?’
“Well yeah, they need to know, they need to know!” she agrees, before laughing.  “Unfortunately for them, I’ll write the set, I’ll send it to the tour manager, and he’ll print it out and put it on the stage before the band even know what the hell’s going on!  So they get on stage and they’re like, ‘I didn’t know we were going to play this tonight!’  And I’m like, ‘Weeell . . . ,’ and she mimes an apologetic shrug.  “But they’re so talented, they can play anything!”
On this European tour they’ve been working as a four-piece, without the horns that have been a fixture since Chills And Fever.  So thinking about her earlier reference to having limited time to rehearse, I ask if it takes much work to rearrange things for the smaller line-up.  Or is it just more work for Phil Breen on keys?
More work for Phil Breen!
“It’s more work for Phil!” she acknowledges.  “I think he likes it though.  I’m like, ‘Would you like to play three keyboards tonight?’  I think he’d dig being able to do all that, it’s fun. It’s not more work, it’s just a different approach.  You know, we’re taking on songs like ‘Hello Stranger’, for instance, and that’s such a strong horn song, that’s got a really prominent part.  So how do we either cut that out, or adapt it to work on the guitar?  You know, some things are just, the personality characteristic is a horn, you can’t make the guitar into a horn.  I gotta find something else that’s gonna serve the song.  And a lot of our material, I mean I write a lot of the material on an acoustic guitar by myself, and it’s been fleshed out over the years as a trio, so it’s not too difficult.  But other songs’ll just take a little more effort and thought.”
Some of Fish’s long-standing fans are prone talk wistfully about ‘when Sam had a power-trio’.  But to me her approach has always been too wide-ranging for what seems a rather one-dimensional label – as opposed to ‘three-piece’, as a purely numerical descriptor.   Was it ever a description she identified with much, I wonder?
“You know, any time I feel like we’re closing to getting – um, figured out,” she says, “when people think that this is exactly who you are, and this is what you’re gonna be, and it becomes an expectation - it makes me wanna change.  ‘Cause I like to surprise people, and as an artist I feel like I want to grow and evolve, and I don’t want to be in a situation later where I’m like, ‘I wish I could change my band, but people will get upset’, you know?  I feel like, with as much as we changed in the last couple of years with the line-up, and in all honesty we added horns, a keyboard, and a fiddle for some stuff, the songs are still really guitar heavy.  I’m singing like I’ve always sung on them, and sonically I feel like it adds this layer of drama that I really, really dig.
“And you know,” she continues, “for certain things we might go back to – I mean we stripped down to a four-piece for this tour, you never know.  But I don’t ever want it to get to the point where I can’t do something, because it’s been so ingrained for so long that you can’t change anything.  I’m a solo artist, I’m a writer, I like to shift and bend my genre, and move around. But the thing that’s always going to be in the band is the guitar and my voice, so if I’m serving that then the rest around it is me just trying to make the best show possible.”

All The Way From Memphis
Her new album Kill Or Be Kind is coming out on 20 September – you can read the Blues Enthused review here.  So what’s the lowdown on it, Samantha?
“We recorded it mostly in Memphis at Royal Studios, which is a historic place,” Fish observes.  “It’s Willie Mitchell’s studio, and Al Green, Ann Peebles and all these incredible soul artists recorded there.  I know Bruno Mars did ‘Uptown Funk’ and everything in there.  I mean it’s just a special place, there’s a lot of soul, and history and vibe there, and I always really wanted to go back – because we did some stuff there for theWild Heart album.  
Ann Peebles - walking in the footsteps of classics at Royal Studios
“So when it came time to record, my producer Scott Billington and I were assessing Nashville, and all these different places, and I was like, Memphis has always made me feel so good, so let’s go there.  And we got some Memphis horns on a couple of the songs.”
But as she notes, this outing is following two dramatically different albums, in the form Chills And Fever and then Belle Of The West.
“So I wanted to find the middle ground,” she says, “but then push it even further – utilise the horns as a texture, something that’s gonna add to the track, but it’s not a horn record if you know what I mean.  But I kind of utilised the guitar a little differently on this album.  I got to flesh out and pad things, and add different layers and textures to the record, that polished it in a way.  And that was sort of fun for me, ‘cause it made it more dramatic. But I wrote all the songs, co-wrote everything with a bunch of different writers, from Los Angeles to Nashville, and all in all I think it’s a really good songwriter’s record, storyteller’s record – powerful guitar, powerful vocals.  I think it’s what people expect from me, but it’s just an evolved version of that.”
The songs on the album feature a handful of co-writers, such as Jim McCormick (who also contributed to Wild Heart), Patrick Sweaney, Eric McFadden, Katie Pearlman and Parker Millsap.  I ask her what these collaborators bring to the party for her.
She loves co-writing, she says, because, “Say I start with an idea, like a cool melody and a story I want to tell, it’s nice to have somebody there with you who can maybe point out that something that makes complete sense to you won’t make sense to anybody else.  I really feel like the best songs in the world can tell everybody’s story, you know? So having somebody else in the writing room with you, just to really get that story across, to make sure that you’re telling something that’s cohesive . . .”
Is that lyrics, or music?
“It can be both. Everybody I worked with was really different from one another.  Like Jim McCormick – he is a lyric doctor,” she says with a smile.  “He’s worked with some heavy country music superstars, and he writes in Nashville, and he was probably the guy I wrote with the most, ‘cause we kind of reside in the same place, when we’re both not working.  So ‘Love Letters’ was a co-write with him, just fleshing out lyrics on that one.  I had this idea,
Lyric doctor Jim McCormick
and I wanted to build off of it.  I started that one on an acoustic guitar, and then that’s one of the songs that doesn’t really change chords.  It kind of hangs on the same groove, but when we took it into the studio to produce it, and make the track come alive, it kind of peeled off into all these different layers.  The song sounds really dynamic, but it’s actually pretty simple chord structure wise. But Jim and I worked out the lyrics, telling the story, making sure the right messages get conveyed.  It’s just that another writer is another perspective, and I think that’s kind of exciting – that can be musical, that can be lyrical.”
And speaking of lyrics, it seems to me that a lot of Fish’s songs – and coincidentally covers such as those on Chills And Fever are often of a similar ilk - are character-driven. Where does that come from, I ask.  Is it books, movies . . . ?
“You know, probably so,” Samantha says, reflecting on it.  “You mean like it’s told from the first person, rather than an omnipresent narrator?”
Uh-huh, I confirm.
“I don’t know, like ‘Bitch On The Run’ – I’m peeling away back into the old catalogue . . .”
The Wild Heart album isn’t really that old, I suggest.
“No, it’s not that old,” she agrees.  “But ‘Bitch On The Run’ was like a social critique, you know?  I don’t know, I guess it feels like a bird’s eye view, but when you start putting words like ‘I’ into a song it feels very personal. Now that one in particular was just like a critical assessment of the world that we’re living in – not really so much about myself, but I mean I am living in the world.  Um, I think it might just come off that way.  But yeah I guess – I never really thought of that. You know, probably a lot of my songs probably do come from a very personal place.  Even if the song isn’t about me . . .”
It’s like you’ve created a character, I say.
I tell her that’s how I see it a lot of the time.  I recall reading an interview somewhere, where she mentioned her family responding to her songs by saying “Where do you get this stuff from?  This is nothing like you!”
She laughs at this. (You’ll have gathered by now that Samantha Fish laughs readily – unfortunately there’s a shortage of synonyms to cover her repertoire.)
“No, I mean it’s a songwriter’s curse too!” she says.  “I was talking to Jim about it, and I’m like ‘Do you ever come home after writing a song, and your wife is just mortified and mad at you, and asking “Why would you write that about me?”, and you’re saying “It’s not about you, what are you talking about?”’  She mimics hurt and bafflement in this exchange, before sobering up.
“You know, a lot of my writing does come from a personal place.  If it isn’t a personal experience it’s something I’ve witnessed, or come close to experiencing, you know?  It’s a
Getting in character
story. I think stories are the driving force behind songs, I think that that’s what connects people.  And songs to me kind of – when I hear a song I kind of imagine it applying to my life.  I don’t know about you, but that’s kinda how it feels to me – somebody else telling my story, and that’s such a strong connection.  So I think I keep that in mind when I’m writing.
“It’s also like the narcissism too!” she goes on, with a hoot of laughter.  “It’s the horrible narcissism – I write everything about me! It’s my character!” she says with a giggle, before reverting to serious mode.  “No, it’s interesting.  I’m learning more and more about writing all the time, how to diversify your style, and change things up, and approach from a different way, and I think collaboration has really opened my eyes to a lot of different practices that way. Everybody’s got a different approach – it’s kind of cool to watch that.”
The producer for Kill Or Be Kind was Scott Billington, a big hitter at her new label Rounder Records, who has three Grammys and numerous nominations to his name.  Was it interesting working with him?
“Yeah, it was interesting!” Fish says enthusiastically.  “Scott really came into the room, like, trusting.  He let me build out these songs the way that I saw them.  You know, I’ve had producers in the past where I’m like ‘Oh, I want to try this thing!’, and they’re ‘Nope, it’s done.  Move on.’  And I’m like, ‘Oh – okay,’” she says, adopting a disappointed tone.  “And that’s fine, but with Scott we had a bit more time on this record, and he was ‘Yeah, I can hear that – give it a shot.’ And then he was either like ‘It didn’t work’ or ‘That’s cool – we’ll put that in!’  He was very encouraging when it came to me wanting to try something else, and he guided the process but in a gentle way.  I thought that was cool, we really tried to do a bunch of different things together.”

A Picture Paints A Thousand Words
Speaking of experimentation, at the time of our conversation in May the UK Amazon site had recently put up a page for pre-orders of Kill Or Be Kind with an album cover featuring a picture of Samantha sporting a rather different look - Brigitte Bardot sprang to mind.  So I wondered if there any particular artistic concept behind that.
Kill Or Be Kind - the cover that wasn't to be
“Oh my gosh!” she says, laughing.  “Ha – I’m glad that got out there somehow!  We had a few different album cover ideas, and the one that they came up with is actually on the internet today, and that’s a different one from what you saw before.  But I dug that one - I was thinking, Brigitte Bardot, 1960s. . .”
This wasn’t then, the eventual cover choice?
“No that’s not it.  I kept my short hair.”
Would long hair would be too much work, I ask, like I’d know a damn thing about it.
“Well I’m kinda of the thought that when I think about my favourite female artists, they can do whatever the hell they want with their hair and it doesn’t matter.”
Which sounds fair enough to me.
“But for cohesiveness and stuff I was like, okay let’s just keep the hair short, and that way I’m not having to mess with it every day.
“But I thought that was kind of a cool picture – I’m such a fan of vintage looks, and I’m not afraid to try something new.   I’m always wanting to experiment with my style, so that was a fun day for me,” she says, laughing.  “I had a blast!  And I love that picture – I don’t know when we’re gonna use them, or what we’re gonna use them for . . .”
So I’m guessing, I say, that the shoot could have involved a variety of looks.
“Yeah.  I wanted to try out a few different looks – I’m going to do the one I’ve been doing, but I wanna try out some stuff and see what really clicks.
“At the end of the day I have a team of people that I work with,” she explains, “that want to guide the process, and that’s why they’re there.  So I do a bunch of different things, I throw a bunch of shit at the wall, and they come in and say, okay let’s make sense of this.  But I did love that shoot, I thought that was cool – I’m kinda glad it got out.  Half the people really dug it, I guess some people didn’t like it!”
For what it’s worth, I rather liked the energy of that cover design, with its graffiti-like scrawl of her name and the title, regardless of Fish’s styling.  I reckon it had an iconic air about it, a bit like The Clash revisiting Elvis with the cover of London Calling, maybe.  But it’s the road not travelled now.
Since we’re talking about image and so on though, it seems to me that somewhere before Chills And Fever, after she’d already been working her socks off for quite a few years, it was
"Hey you - I'm a girl!  Deal with it!"
like there was a step change in her attitude to what she was doing.
“Yeah . . .” she agrees, thoughtfully.
She seemed to want to take things to another level, I say, expanding on the thought, with her image being part of that.
“Yeah, well it’s always gonna be a part of it. But you know when I started playing guitar . . . I’m just gonna put this out there, I don’t even like talking about the gender thing ‘cause I could focus on it too much and talk about it too much.  But when I first started playing I didn’t want even the fact that I was a girl held against me for any reason at all, so I would dress in like Converse shoes . . .
Almost saying “I’m not a girl,” I venture.
“Yeah,” she agrees.  “I’d wear t-shirts, and Chuck Taylors, and carry my own amp in like a bear.  I worked my ass off to not have this perception.
“But then I was like, you know, I am a chick, and I love dressing up,” she says with a chuckle.  “I love that aspect.  I’m very connected to my femininity, that’s a part of who I am, and so I started dressing up.  I’m such a fan of vintage styling, like I said.  I feel like it’s iconic, it’s timeless, it ain’t going anywhere.  It looks rock’n’roll but it looks beautiful at the same time, and so I started honing my style towards that.  And it’s evolved over the years – I think if we don’t evolve and we don’t change – nobody is born knowing exactly what they’re going to do, you have to get there somehow.  There’s a long journey.
“But you know, you’re going to see me over the years change things up a lot!’ she says, with another hearty laugh.  “I hate to break it to people that didn’t like that photo the other day, but they’re going to see a lot more crazy stuff they might not like!  But that’s part of being an artist - you’re going to do things that are either gonna incite happiness, or upset people.”

New Horizons
Changing the subject, I noted that last year Fish, along with her manager Reuben Williams, had set up her own record label, Wild Heart, and produced its first signing Jonathon Long. How did that come about, I ask.  
“Well, I had been talking to my manager about wanting to start producing records.  It’s something I’d always wanted to do, I just hadn’t . . . .” She pauses, pondering the reason.
Had the time, I suggest, thinking about those 200 plus gigs a year she does.
“Yeah, exactly.  The problem with me is I want to do all these things, but I don’t feel like I have time to do ‘em.  And I probably don’t.  Then Reuben comes to me and he says,” she clicks her fingers, “‘You’re producing Jonathon’s record’.  And at first I was like, ‘I don’t have time to do this!’” she says in a mock-hysterical fashion.  “’I can’t do this!’  And he’s like, ‘You’re gonna do it, just go do it.’  And I got in there and it was, okay – it’s a lot of pressure to produce somebody’s record.  I want him to feel like he’s comfortable, and I want to help him get his message out. So you have to really let go of your own pre-conceived things about what the music should be, as a musician, and just be the producer and facilitate his goal - but also make it commercially viable for a label.  It’s a fine line – and also don’t spend all the money immediately.  Make sure that all the money doesn’t get wasted!  So there’s a lot of things that go into producing records.
Wild Heart Records inaugural signing Jonathon Long
“I hooked up with Jonathon through Reuben,” she explains, “who’s also his manager.  We were going to shop it to labels, and then we had this conversation, ‘cause something else I always wanted to do, but didn’t feel like I had time for, was start a record label.  And Reuben goes, ‘Hey, we know all the people that we need to shop this to. We know what to do.  We should just start this thing.’  And I was ready!  And it’s been going really good – I want to help get other people out there who deserve that kind of representation.  It’s hard to find.  And Jonathon, he’s a hard worker, and he’s so talented – he’s freaky talented, he’s amazing – and he deserves some representation, and I’m glad that I can be a part of his journey.
A Jonathon Long live album is lined up at some point, she says, before mentioning other signings. 
“There’s a guy named Nicholas David, and that’s coming out later in the summer, and he’s amazing too. He played keys in Devon Allman’s band for a long time, and he also was on The Voice, he did good on there.  And then Charlie Wooton from New Orleans,” she says, referring to the renowned bass player who has been a member of the Royal Southern Brotherhood and collaborated with Sonny Landreth, Zigaboo Modeliste and many others.  “We’re gonna put out a record by him.  So, three!”
And in fact Blue Basso, the album by the Charlie Wooton Project named after his signature blue bass, and featuring Anders Osborne, Sonny Landreth and Eric McFadden among others, is released on 23 August.

Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend
Our time together is nearly done, so I tell Samantha it’s time to pop the $64,000 question – what’s the red diamond eye make-up all about?
“Ha ha!  I can’t talk about it yet!” she laughs, before repeating more coyly, “I can’t talk about it yet!  It’s part of – a project that’s coming up.  But I like that,” she says with another giggle, “the $64,000 question!”
Was that mysterious project simply the video for her latest single ‘Bulletproof’, released in July, or was it something more?*  Only time will tell.  And speaking of time, mine is up.  Samantha has to go eat before showtime.

Later that evening, Samantha Fish and her band deliver another crunking performance to the Q-Factory crowd.  Just another night on the rock’n’roll road, with many more ahead.  Like the lady said, it’s a long journey. I look forward to seeing her again in Europe in 2020, by which time I expect that she’ll have taken a big stride forward on the back of Kill Or Be Kind.

Kill Or Be Kind is released by Rounder Records on 27 September.  You can read the Blues Enthused review here.
*Samantha spoke more about the significance of the red diamond in a subsequent audio interview, here.


  1. Another fantastic piece of writing by Iain Cameron, with some of his excellent photos. I appreciate that he asked several questions that buzz around the fan pages, and that he recorded the answers as Samantha gave them. Excellent work again, Iain!

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