Samantha Fish: Bulletproof Blues
Having long proved her skeptics wrong, Samantha Fish kills ‘em with kindness, and some tasty guitar licks, on her fiery Rounder debut.
When the producers of the venerable New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival were plotting who would precede The Rolling Stones at their headlining gig last year, a few names came to mind. There was Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, whose namesake has clocked in time with Keith Richards himself; the long-running act Cowboy Mouth; and veteran New Orleans guitarist and producer Anders Osborne. And then there was Samantha Fish, who was ultimately booked to perform two slots before the Stones on the massive Acura Stage. Even though the “World’s Greatest Rock-and-Roll Band” ended up canceling their performance, Fish still walked away knowing she was ready to open for the Stones.
Fish’s star has, indisputably, been on the ascent for several years, albeit mostly in the somewhat cloistered world of the blues. The 30-year-old Kansas City native has built a reputation for her considerable technique, command of a wide range of tones and styles, and for her blistering solos.
But lately, Fish has resolutely been expanding her reach. Never has that been truer than it is on Kill or Be Kind, her newest release and first for Rounder Records. Produced by multiple Grammy winner Scott Billington, the album was recorded at Memphis’ Royal Studios, where R&B titan Al Green cut all of his hits for Hi Records, and where everyone from Rod Stewart to Richards to Buddy Guy has set up shop at one time or another. “They’ve got all of Al Green’s stuff in there—his microphone, everything,” says Fish, raving about the facility. “We used Ann Peebles’ drum machine from ‘I Can’t Stand the Rain.’ I really feel like Memphis is very present on the album; Memphis soul seeps through the walls there.”
For the sessions, Fish relied largely on the intuitive accompaniment of bassist Austin Clements and drummer Doug Belote, a few different keyboardists (Rick Steff playing piano, Hammond B-3 and synths; Andriu Yanovski adding Moog; and veteran Memphis musician Charles Hodges contributing B-3) plus those requisite blasts of soul power courtesy of a couple of horn players and a backing vocalist.
Kill or Be Kind, Fish is quick to elaborate, reveals a more concentrated emphasis on composition. “It’s a modernized approach; the songwriting is more mature,” she says. “The instrumentation is more delicate and evolved, and there are more moving parts to it. I focused on hooks. I wanted to write stuff that was catchy and, in a way, pop-oriented. Pop is such a wide category—at one point in time, The Rolling Stones were in the pop category, too. It’s a wide-ranging thing. I’ve been really fortunate that our blues crowd has hung with us over the years because we took them on a little bit of a trip.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t wail—a Samantha Fish recording can’t help but strut her love for blues music. But, she says, “I got the opportunity to do different things on the guitar. I was the only guitar player on the record, which was the first time in my career that’s happened. It was intimidating, but empowering at the same time. I said, ‘Can I fit the bill here? Can I do it?’ I knew I could, and Scott really allowed me the opportunity to stretch out. I wanted to play with different tones and textures. He just likes to serve the song,” she adds. “We come from the same mindset in that way. If the song doesn’t call for big crazy guitars, I’m not going to force them. We picked what worked well to make the album.”
Fish wrote or co-wrote all of Kill or Be Kind’s 11 songs, and each original is a self-contained tale that touches on universal emotions. These are songs that could only have come from experience, living life’s lessons. From the album-opening, self-penned “Bullet Proof,” it’s apparent that Fish has an extremely personalized relationship to the words she sings. There’s an openness, and an intimacy, to the lyrics. The raw sound of Fish’s beloved, trademark cigar-box guitar—a now taped-up “lo-fi piece of technology” that she bought from a street vendor years ago and quickly gathered its own following—makes a spotlighted appearance on the track.
But Fish’s instrumental prowess is not the whole story; her impassioned singing demands equal attention. When she sings lines like, “Broken things, I kick and scream, I’d fall apart to move you/ Shot down in vogue, I got the joke, you need me bulletproof,” it’s in a voice that grips hard and holds on tight—the heartbreak is palpable. “It’s a coming of age thing,” Fish says of the song. “People have expectations of you—how you’re supposed to be, what you’re supposed to do—and that song is kinda my big, rebellious moment. The world expects you to be bulletproof and untouched and unfazed by things. We’re all human.”
Four of the album’s songs were co-written by Fish and Jim McCormick. “He’s my main boy,” she says. “They call him the ‘lyric doctor’ in Nashville.” One of those four is the title track, the album’s second number. “That song is about the duality of love and hate in a relationship, and how a good quality in a person can be interpreted as a bad one when you flip that switch and fall out of love,” Fish says. “It’s always been an interesting dynamic to me, in terms of how my relationships have progressed or when they’ve stopped. I thought that title Kill or Be Kind was applicable in the world we live in now. It was poignant for today. It also worked well as an album title.
“Telling the story is the most important point,” she continues. “Sometimes it starts with an idea and, once you start telling that story, it may cease to become about your life specifically, but it’s still a great story and it needs to be told. The songwriting is either a snapshot of where I am in my life or something going on with people around me. I collaborated with a lot of different songwriters on this album so I had different perspectives. When I went to write ‘She Don’t Live Around Here’ with Parker Millsap, that wasn’t a love song; it was about moving on and not being a doormat for somebody. I think as you get older—I’m getting a little older—you kinda start shedding some of those peripheral relationships that maybe didn’t work out so well. It’s an empowering record. There’s a thread of hope in pretty much every song.”
Samantha Fish has won so many awards that it’s easy to think she’s been around much longer than she actually has. The first major trophy to adorn her shelf was the Blues Music Awards’ 2012 Best New Artist Debut. More recently, the readers of Guitar World magazine named Fish the seventh-best blues guitarist in the world today, coming in behind Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton, John Mayer and Derek Trucks, but ahead of Gary Clark Jr., Billy Gibbons and Warren Haynes. Fish is the top-ranking female on the list; the next woman, Finland’s Erja Lyytinen, settles in at No. 14.
The irony of Fish’s high placement on the blues list is that it arrives at this particular time, when she is so determined to incorporate other elements into her music. But looking into her background, it’s not all that surprising that she would choose to explore. Like so many others, Fish got her first exposure to music from the radio—listening to rock, soul and blues classics and trying to combine those influences in a way that added up to something new. From the start, she was a curiosity-seeker: When she heard a tune she liked, she investigated it. Where did that come from? Who were the people that made that music? “I made it all the way back to Skip James and Robert Johnson,” Fish says, citing two blues heroes. “That’s where everybody seems to be the most inspired; that’s where everything began.”
Before long, her own skills were formidable enough that she felt confident to take her music public, joining in on blues jams around Kansas City and “getting [her] chops up.” She adds, “I found a way of expressing myself. It’s so much more about emotion than technicality. That’s what people connect with. Blues keeps grabbing you by the heartstrings.”
Fish laughs when she describes her own first attempts at songwriting as “terrible.” One night she cornered the great singer-songwriter John Hiatt and flat out asked him: “Do you ever write bad songs?” He assured her that he did, often. “You just gotta keep going at it,” he told her.
Fish took his advice to heart and, in 2009, she recorded and produced an indie album, Live Bait, which, she notes was heavily influenced by Tom Waits. Things started happening for her a couple of years later when Thomas Ruf of Ruf Records chose Fish to be part of a project called Girls With Guitars. That album’s producer, Mike Zito, saw the potential in her and agreed to oversee the recording of 2011’s Runaway.
“She had a rocking sound to her voice,” says Zito. “Her songs were always just a bit different and not just a copy of someone else. I thought I could help her feel confident in the studio. Her music always sounded good. I just made sure she got what she wanted out of the sessions, and made sure she had fun and was comfortable in the environment. I wanted to help capture her raw energy. When she had ideas, she stood her ground. When she wasn’t sure, she trusted me. I told her when she signed the contract with Ruf Records in 2010 that she would be a star,” he adds, “and she didn’t believe me. I told her she had everything going for her and if she worked hard and kept pushing, the sky was the limit. She did all of that and then some. She is a star.”
Zito also produced 2013’s Black Wind Howlin’ before relinquishing the producer’s role to another high-profile guide, North Mississippi Allstars’ Luther Dickinson, who sat behind the board for 2015’s breakthrough Wild Heart. For 2017’s Chills & Fever, she worked with Bobby Harlow, then returned to Dickinson for another release that year, Belle of the West.
Her popularity has increased along with her skills—her last few records have also topped several blues sales charts—yet Fish has refused to get complacent. When asked if she felt that she was no longer making the “terrible” music of her early days, she replies, with all seriousness, “I still feel that way. I wouldn’t say it was ever really bad, it was just a lack of confidence. I was such a shy kid and a shy person coming up. A lot of people love those records,” she says about her formative output, “but I made those records for them; I didn’t make them for me.
“I’m always trying to grow and change and express myself in different ways,” Fish adds. “I don’t really focus too much on the genre thing when I make a record. It’s not that I want to disappoint those [blues] fans, but when I’m writing a song, I think, ‘What’s the best way to perform this song?’ I started turning the corner around Wild Heart, just because I started feeling a little more confident in myself. I definitely feel like Kill or Be Kind is my most confident album. You can hear it in the way that I’m singing; I’m more relaxed. It’s how it sounds live. I’ve had so many people, for years, telling me: ‘You don’t sound like you do in the studio; your live shows sound totally different.’ I think it just came down to maybe I was nervous or just wasn’t aware of how to sing in the studio. I try to be pretty self-aware. But I’m proud of everything I’ve done. I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot.”
This article originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more subscribe below.