Roughly four years ago, Kansas City-bred Samantha Fish arrived on the international blues scene with all the pieces firmly in place. She had a voice as sweet as apple blossom honey and guitar chops that would soon lead to her first endorsement deal. As a songsmith, she was already capable of crafting tales of an astonishing maturity. She displayed poise on stage and the untamed energy that often drives her to kick off her pumps and prowl around barefoot like some chorus girl from the Elvis Presley hillbilly send-up Kissin’ Cousins. To use the American parlance, Fish had it all going on. Here was a newcomer so impressive you knew she would not be going away any time soon.
“I think the public watches for growth record to record. But I grow as a person and an artist through every collaboration, every tour, every show,” Fish tells The Blues as she reflects on the making of her newest album Wild Heart. “Record to record I feel like I’m light years away from the one before.”
Emerging from a local blues scene centred around the Knuckleheads Saloon – a Kansas City honky-tonk that became her place of refuge during a turbulent youth – Fish visited jam sessions and open mic nights and studied at the feet of the touring bands that would stop off at the popular Midwestern venue.
After self-releasing the live disc Live Bait with her first proper band, she hooked up with Germany’s Ruf Records and became part of the inaugural Girls With Guitars tour alongside Brighton blues lady Dani Wilde and American bassist/singer Cassie Taylor. The eponymous album that trio recorded in Berlin in late 2010 featured a handful of standout cuts by Fish, foreshadowing her stunning solo debut on Runaway shortly thereafter. That record’s finely balanced mix of swampy blues, rock and country made waves on both sides of the Atlantic, and to no one’s surprise, it netted Fish a Blue Music Award for Best New Artist Debut. Her sophomore effort Black Wind Howlin’ followed in 2013./o:p
Above: the rising star of electric blues.
A common thread through all three albums was the comforting presence lurking behind the mixing desk: Mike Zito, a friend and mentor and one of the bluesmen who would often play at Knuckleheads and let Fish sit in. But when it came time to plan her newest studio album last year, Fish trusted her gut and changed things up, calling instead on North Mississippi Allstars founding member Luther Dickinson, master of all things stringed, to man the producer’s chair.
“I’d heard his last record Rock ’N Roll Blues and also the North Mississippi Allstars’ World Boogie Is Coming,” recalls Fish. “I really admired their approach, because they had some really cool modern things that made it kind of edgy. I thought it would be cool to have some of that on my record. That’s how I got the idea to have Luther produce. I talked to my manager and he made it all happen.”
Dickinson, whose eye-popping résumé also includes an extended stint with The Black Crowes and guest spots on recordings by Seasick Steve, John Hiatt, JJ Grey and dozens more, also plays bass and a variety of other stringed instruments on Wild Heart. The tracks Lost Myself, Place To Fall and Blame It On The Moon feature the dulcet tones of his lap steel complementing Fish’s muscular electric guitar. “I can’t play lap steel, so he’s like, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll play it.’ He gets on there and it’s just magic!”
As producer, Dickinson took a more low-key approach than his predecessor Mike Zito, who would often rely on tough love to coax the best out of Fish. “He held my hand in the studio,” she says of her relationship with Zito. “Like a friend who really got me.” Dickinson wasn’t quite as demonstrative and instead left Fish much to her own devices. “At one point, Luther looked at me and said, ‘Do it like you do it.’ And I had a moment of panic. Fuck. Oh no!”
Another key contributor to Wild Heart is Nashville-based songwriter Jim McCormick, a New Orleans native who has composed hits for country music superstars like Randy Travis, Trisha Yearwood and Trace Adkins. Here again, Fish’s manager Reuben Williams brought the pair together. “We just really clicked and co-wrote five songs for this record. It was really nice to have that opportunity, because as a songwriter, I’ve always been working on my own. So to get somebody else to come in and add their two cents on my material was a really good experience for me. Jim liked my songs, but would talk about making a song into something everybody can relate to. Just to fine-tune it, hone it and give it a direction.”/o:p
Not coincidentally, there’s a palpable country music current running throughout Wild Heart – different from the isolated splotches that have turned up on previous releases. As a native of America’s heartland, Fish admits she encountered country long before she ever stumbled into her love affair with the blues. “I’d say it’s always been present. When I was a kid, I had a babysitter who played country music all day long. I fell in love with pedal steel as a kid. In general, I find myself drawn to songwriters and performers who walk that Americana, rock, country line – people like John Hiatt, Sheryl Crow or Jason Isbell. Like most people, I grew up with a pretty diverse musical palette, so there are certain things I’m trying to incorporate into my sound.”
Early during the songwriting sessions with McCormick, the Nashville pro came up with a phrase to characterise what he heard in Fish’s songs: dark romanticism. That description stuck with her throughout the making of Wild Heart and even became the leitmotif for the cover art. “Maybe it’s the books I read. Or too many violent video games,” she laughs. Fish doesn’t know where the inspiration for her gloomy imagery comes from – but it does come. And while every listener is free to interpret her lyrics as they see fit, those closest to her are often left mystified.
“Sometimes I’ll start with a small idea and the song will just write itself,” she explains. “It’s not necessarily about me any more, or my life. Then my sister will get on the phone and call me asking, ‘Are you fucked up? What’s wrong with you? Your song is pretty scary. Are you alright?’ But it’s just a song that just kind of flowed out of me. It doesn’t have to mean me.”/o:p
Pictured: reeling in another crowd.
Armed with a guitar case full of song drafts, Fish’s first stop on the whirlwind, tri-state recording journey that resulted in Wild Heart was at the Blade Studios in Shreveport, Louisiana. There, she hunkered down with a small crew that included Dickinson, acclaimed session drummer Brady Blade and award-winning sound engineer Chris Bell to crank out the bulk of the album. “We recorded everything fast and loose, because we really didn’t have much time. So everything is pretty raw, and I kinda like it that way,” she grins. Bold, boogie-infused cuts like Wild Heart and Bitch On The Run are what happens when brute strength meets high-tech inside an ultra-modern, state-of-the-art recording facility. “It’s an incredible set-up. Incredible microphones… the sound is just so good. They found a way to make the studio modern, but still retain the quality of the older technology.”
Next, the road show moved north and east to Hernando, Mississippi and the famed Zebra Ranch Studio launched by the late Jim Dickinson two decades ago – “a whole other trip,” according to Fish. There, a different cast of musicians was brought in: guitarist Lightnin’ Malcolm (an under- appreciated hill country bluesman and part-time member of the North Mississippi Allstars) and drummer Sharde Thomas (granddaughter of Otha Turner and current leader of the Rising Star Fife And Drum Band) sat in on an acoustic session that produced a compelling version of Charley Patton’s Jim Lee Blues Pt. 1 and the lovely reinvention of Junior Kimbrough’s I’m In Love With You that brings the album to an earthy close.
“We all sat around in a circle with a couple of microphones on the guitars and recorded the songs live,” says Fish, recalling the uniquely intimate vibe of the Zebra Ranch session. “There’s not a lot of editing. Everything you hear is what was happening in the moment. I like that! It’s a snapshot. It’s a capture. It’s real music.”
Fish and Dickinson then took the short ride north to Memphis to add some finishing touches at two of the River City’s foremost addresses: Ardent Studios in the city’s Midtown District and Royal Studios, the birthplace of Hi Records and musical playground of legendary producer Willie Mitchell. The backing vocals provided there by Shontelle Norman-Beatty and Risse Norman and engineered by Boo Mitchell may have been an afterthought, but in fact those voices elevate the songs by adding a sublime touch of soul to the grits ’n’ gravy.
Fish calls Wild Heart an on-the-road record. The jaunt through Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee that gave birth to its 12 songs was merely the final leg of the journey. “I’ve been on the road for about four years now, so a lot of the record has that vibe,” she reflects. Sometimes she travels with her own band. But she’s also supported Mike Zito & The Wheel and Royal Southern Brotherhood and twice been part of the Girls With Guitars tour. Different roles, different rhythm sections – and each one of them has shaped her as a player and performer.
“Every time I get to do one of these collaborative tours, it’s just mind-blowing. Just playing with other people is worth its weight in gold. And I bring back these new influences into my own band. I really do feel like it helps a lot. After Girls With Guitars, I got home and friends were telling me that my playing had gotten better. And different. You don’t even realise it’s happening, but whenever you throw yourself into another situation, you have to be on your toes.”
If ever she found a comfort zone, Fish decided it wasn’t where she wanted to be when making her newest studio album. The input of highly regarded creative minds like Luther Dickinson and Jim McCormick would compel her to raise her game. She met the challenge fearlessly.
“I trusted the individuals around me and was open to the new experience. In the past, I would come in with a bunch of preconceived notions of exactly what direction the session would take. Coming into this record, I was really open to the process. I told them the vibe I was after. Then we let it happen.” /o:p
Wild Heart is out July 7 via Ruf Records./o:p
Knuckling Down In KC
How a biker haven became a hotbed of Midwest blues…
Knuckleheads Saloon — Kansas City, Missouri’s prime address for blues — is a three-stage, block-long music venue in the East Bottoms section of the city. Originally a railroad boarding house, the 120-year-old structure later served as a motorcycle showroom owned by entrepreneur and avid biker Frank Hicks.
Looking to induce potential customers to this fairly desolate corner of the city, Hicks presented live bands atop a flatbed trailer parked outside the shop, with free beer into the bargain. When the motorcycle business went south in 2004, Knuckleheads became a full-time event location. With live music five nights a week, it’s now a top stopping-off point for blues artists in the Midwest.
It’s also where Samantha Fish got her start. At first, she’d simply tag along with her dad, who sometimes worked behind Knuckleheads’ bar. “But what really made me fall in love with music was getting to see it performed live in front of me,” she reflects. As a guitar novice, she was wary about playing to an audience or sitting in with touring acts. She credits Hicks and house sound man Pete Saiger for encouraging her. “They really fought for me to get up on stage with those national acts. Now that I’m on the other side, I’m like, oh my God, those poor musicians!”/o:p