She’s officially been a professional electric guitarist since the release of her debut album in 2011. But after overcoming obstacles within the industry, while brushing up on her skills and musical education, singer-songwriter Samantha Fish is winning over crowds from Kansas City to Cancun.
She’s even getting a hand or two in the strangest of places, which will soon be identified here.
Fish, the self-taught player from Kansas City who made music her business a few years after beating on the drums in her early teens because she liked what “the cool grownups were doing,” has grabbed the torch to blaze a trail of her own. While doing so, though, she’s recognizing artists from the golden age of rock ’n’ soul who inspired her to develop a case of Chills & Fever.
Kansas City singer-songwriter Samantha Fish will release Chills & Fever, her fourth studio album, on March 17.
The swinging sounds from her new Bobby Harlow-produced album of 14 cover songs, to be released by Ruf Records on March 17, are as catchy and contagious as spring fever in the wintertime. Fish provides positive proof of that with the exclusive music video premiere of the title track today (March 2) at The Huffington Post.
“It’s a song about temptation,” Fish said over the phone a week before Mardi Gras from New Orleans, where she was spending a couple of days house-hunting. “So instead of being direct and using a love interest that I’m chasing around, it went more of a psychological route. … I knew it was gonna look amazing but was such a weird feeling to be laying on this bed and all these hands coming up grabbing you.”
Check out her first music video for the album, an eerie but fantastic feel-good ride, then read more about this one Fish story that’s absolutely true.
Pulling some strings
The film noirish music video, made by Outpost Worldwide and directed by Chris Durr in Kansas City, was shot mostly in black-and-white, giving off the creepy-fun ambience of a ’50s horror flick. Haunted by her dreams, Fish calls the hands-on experience “a sexy, vintage, spooky-looking video.”
It can’t be nearly as frightening as the sensation Fish experienced the first time she stepped on a stage to play, though.
Before that, her dad Bill and his friends entertained each other in a band that played for fun over the weekends at the Fish house, where Samantha started out on the drums until adding an acoustic guitar to her Christmas list when she was 15.
“When I was doing it, I never thought I’d be good at it,” Fish said. “I don’t know why I started doing it. But then you kind of get addicted when you get a little better. It’s like you start chasing down that feeling.”
She really got plugged into the electric guitar by listening to — or watching videos of — Angus Young, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Freddie King. “And then I started finding all these chick guitar players who could just wail,” Fish said. “Bonnie Raitt was one of the first females I saw who could really … she plays slide, so it was a little different. To me, I’m a kid, I didn’t know. I was into Slash. … Stevie Ray Vaughan was one of my favorites when I was a kid just because he played with so much emotion. But then I started finding old recordings of older blues players. I just had to figure out what they were doing and pick it out by ear.”
A wonderful weird
If there was a definitive moment when Fish decided “I’m gonna play music,” it came in the summer of 2006 at an outdoor party in the Westwood area of Kansas City. She was just 17.
Fish remembered a trio called Greg, Tom and Rick was playing and Greg Camp, the guy teaming with Tom Hall and Rick Yord, would later become Fish’s friend and mentor. He had this “really weird guitar” (a Chet Atkins model Gibson) that caught her eye. She approached the stage, got Camp’s attention and was given the chance to play a few songs.
“I didn’t have time to react because if I did, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” Fish said. “I was so scared. And I know that I stumbled a lot but when I got off the stage it was like I was shaking and freaking out. But I remember the next day going to work and going to school, I changed my mind about what I wanted to do with my life.”
Fish, who was managing Wheat State Pizza and delivering for Minsky’s while attending Shawnee Mission North High School, eventually started meeting or jamming with other guitarists such as Tab Benoit, Michael Burks and Mike Zito at clubs like Knuckleheads Saloon.
Zito introduced Fish to the man who became her manager, Rueben Williams of Thunderbird Management, and produced her first studio album, 2011’s Runaway for Ruf Records, the indie label in Lindewerra, Germany, known as the place where “blues crosses over.”
Blues licks became part of Fish’s repertoire, but Benoit, the Grammy-nominated songwriter and “killer guitar player” from Louisiana she’d often see perform when he was in K.C., persuaded her to “forget the pedals,” serving as “kind of a crutch,” and rely more on her hands and fingertips to develop her searing sounds.
“He was one of my favorites,” Fish said. “He’d always get me fired up. But there’s a lot of them, man. I love guitar players.”
White lightning strikes
Saying “there’s something innovative about what he does but (he) adds that kind of throwback thing in,” another one of Fish’s guitar heroes these days is Jack White. His connection to producer Bobby Harlow — as former members of the Go before White formed the White Stripes — brought her to Detroit to record Chills & Fever.
While still infused with the blues, Fish focused more on the vocal aspects of soul singers she came to appreciate through Harlow, who unearthed a few hidden gems while turning her on to sultry, torchy songs performed by Betty Harris (“Nearer to You”) and Nina Simone.
“We stretched out with stuff like ‘Either Way I Lose,’ which is the Nina Simone classic,” Fish said. “And that was fun because I got to play with different voicing and just different styles. …
“These songs are so amazing. Not all of them got it for the popularity. So it was an opportunity to go in and redo a song that maybe not many people have heard. The big hits are amazing but they’ve been done and redone. … You think you know what you’re doing as a musician like, ‘I know all the classics,’ which you don’t. There’s so much out there, so it was really enlightening for me to get to go and really dive in and learn a lot about the history of soul and Motown and finding artists I hadn’t heard before.”
Recording at the 45 Factory, which Pete Townshend praised and Fish described as “the most unassuming place” in the back of McGuire’s Motor Inn, also helped set the tone. With vintage gear, it lent authenticity to the throwback project as much as her leopard-skin pants.
Performing on the album with Fish, who played lead guitar on all the cuts, were members of the Detroit Cobras, including guitarist Joe Mazzola, along with two horn players from New Orleans. Mark Levron (trumpet) and Travis Blotsky (saxophone) added to the “soulful vibe” on songs like “Chills & Fever,” a one-hit wonder for Ronnie Love in the early ’60s.
Calling Mazzola “a scholar of music,” Fish added, “All these beautiful arpeggio rhythm parts you hear was Joey. … I’ve got my work cut out for me on the road because I’m gonna have to go in and try to pick apart whatever he’s doing.”
Fish, who currently tours with longtime bass player Chris Alexander and drummer Kenny Tudrick, was thrilled to recently play the Grand Oasis Cancun in Mexico for the first time, where she got “the best sunburn in my life” while drawing a lot of fans from Kansas City. When you’re hot, you’re hot.
She plans to bring the brass section along as her touring band doubles in size in April while the set list transforms with these something-old-is-new tunes.
“I had more of an opportunity to really sing and that’s what Bobby wanted me to do was really wail and express myself vocally,” Fish said. “And I did that more on this record than I think I have on any other album.”
God bless Americana
Fish, whose solo albums also include 2013’s Zito-produced Black Wind Howlin’ and 2015’s Wild Heart, also believes in the power of the pen and says she pays most attention to lyrics and vocals in a song.
“I always wanted to be a songwriter first,” she said. “That’s one of the things that my dad and his friends would all listen to — these great Americana/country songs — and it was more about storytelling than playing really well, I guess.”
Her appreciation for the lyrical side of music led to the acoustic guitar playing. Focused for years on swinging the ax, Fish said she has come back around to songwriters such as Jason Isbell (thanks to her manager’s recommendation), John Hiatt and “these really incredible songwriters in the Americana scene, just lyricists who can tell a poignant story that really relates to everybody. … When I’m measuring songs, I guess I compare it to guys like that and it makes it pretty tough because those are the best.”
Battle of the sexes
While expressing a different side of herself on the new record, Fish still shows off her shredding skills on numbers like “Crow Jane,” “He Did It,” “You Can’t Go” and “Somebody’s Always Trying.”
She credits the knowledgeable blues community in Kansas City and members of her family for offering encouragement while fighting to prevail over the old-fashioned rationale that people don’t think “you have chops or you’re just where you’re at because you’re a female.”
“To me, it’s just made me work harder,” Fish said. “It’s made me strive to be better and find my voice. I think finding your voice on an instrument like that is really, really important. You’ve got to separate yourself and sound unique. I try to just cut all that other bullshit out.”
Entrenched in the Midwest and coming “from a line of practical people,” it took years to find the courage to even pick up the guitar before erasing the stigma stamped by sexists who adhere to the “girl plus guitar equals gimmick” theory. But Fish also saw the positive side of her situation.
“I wouldn’t trade being a girl for the world,” said Fish, who also recorded 2011’s Girls With Guitars with Cassie Taylor and Dani Wilde. “I don’t know if I’d have what I have right now if I wasn’t a female just adding that perspective to it. People are intrigued by a female who plays guitar, lead guitar.”
While her dad, a house painter, and mom (Tami, who was operatically trained as a child and sang in the church choir) were nervous about Samantha’s initial decision to become a professional musician, they’re happy for her now. So is her older sister Amanda, a promising guitarist who recently reached the International Blues Challenge semifinals in Memphis.
“Maybe seeing that I could do it, she’s like, ‘OK, if this bitch can do it, I can do it,” Fish said with a laugh, adding that they may perform together “later down the road.” For now, though, Amanda is “hellbent on making her path.”
While downplaying her role in helping clear the way for Amanda and other young women who keep increasing the voltage, Fish compares the discovery of an unknown entity strapping on a guitar to finding the unicorn.
“You’re like, ‘What is it?’ You know, it’s sort of weird. It’s not the norm, it’s atypical. When I was a kid, that’s one of the reasons I didn’t pick it up sooner. And I want to change that. … I see young girls come out to shows all the time and I think it’s cool and it’s inspiring.
“I wish I would have had that a little earlier. Because I think it stopped me, for some reason. It was something ingrained in me like, ‘Girls don’t do this,’ or I didn’t feel like I could. I don’t know why. But I just got old enough and didn’t care at a certain point.”
Now that she’s one of the cool grownups singing the blues and more for a living, Fish is leaving her fingerprints behind as evidence of her hellacious handiwork. Just imagine what the woman with the golden touch will do next.
Publicity photos courtesy of the artist.