How Samantha Fish Got the Memphis Blues Again

On 'Kill or Be Kind,' Fish masterfully streamlines everything that has made her a compelling artist to date.
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Onstage at the Brook, Southampton, England, May 19, 2019

Onstage at the Brook, Southampton, England, May 19, 2019

Guitarist Samantha Fish has been a roadhouse blues-rock virtuoso, a hill country Americana chanteuse and a Detroit-soul torch singer, all in the span of a mere eight years. On Kill or Be Kind (Rounder), her new album and sixth overall, Fish masterfully streamlines everything that has made her a compelling artist to date. Her gift for melody and phrasing take center stage on a strong collection of 11 original songs adorned with subtle horns and keys and full of her impassioned guitar playing.

Rumbling slide riffs à la Mississippi Fred McDowell and R.L. Burnside undergird “Bulletproof” and “Watch It Die,” while the horns that gave swing to her 2017 release, Chills and Fever, raise the temperature of “Trying Not to Fall in Love With You” and show up throughout the album. “There’s something so dramatic about horns, keys and everything together,” Fish says. “To know that I was going to have that extra layer of drama was cool. It influenced my writing style.”

For Kill or Be Kind, Fish returned to Memphis’s Royal Studios, where she cut basic tracks for 2015’s Wild Heart, toting a collection of songs worthy of the studio’s Hi Records legacy. Tracking in the historic room brought out the best in her, she says, as she collaborated with longtime co-writer Jim McCormick, hit doctor Katie Pearlman (who has also worked with Kelly Clarkson) and blues artist Eric McFadden.

“Your songs are going to soak up the vibe of the place you’re in,” Fish says. “Your mood is going to be affected as you’re recording these songs. It’s really a snapshot of where you are at the moment. Singing in the same studio where Al Green sang, it’s definitely going to contribute to your attitude and your approach. I know it did for me. The album just took the shape, soul and vibe of Memphis.”

Last time we spoke, you mentioned the importance of keeping the blues as an inspiration, regardless of how you move forward creatively. Do you feel you’ve accomplished that on Kill or Be Kind?

Yes. I’m such a fan of the blues tradition. Some of my greatest influences for guitar playing and singing are from the blues. I feel like it finds its way into everything that I do. You listen to the record, it’s got a lot of different genre-crossing inspiration, but my voice and guitar playing are always rooted in this kind of bluesy thing.

Did you feel free to take liberties and explore other genres and sounds?

Absolutely. I’m influenced by rock and roll, soul, country and Americana, and even pop music plays a role in this album. Walking in, I had vibes I wanted to go for. I knew I wanted to mess around with synths more and create different, modern sounds that are edgy, that you might not hear on a bunch of modern blues records. I was just interested in stretching my sound. I got to write with a lot of different collaborators on this album, so I’m glad that the finished product is cohesive. It’s from the heart, so it should be.

How did working with co-writers affect the album’s development?

What’s cool about co-writing is that everybody’s approach is pretty different. It’s interesting to find a writer’s strong suit and then approach songwriting that way. It gives the album more depth, and it gives me more of an education and a bigger pool of knowledge to pull from next time.

Were you concerned that branching out would move you away from your guitar-slinger roots?

No. There’s more guitar on this record than on my last two. This is the first time I’ve been the sole guitar player on an album. I experimented with different layers and textures on this record, as well as different guitar tones, creating an ambience and drama that supports the song, rather than the song supporting a guitar solo. But there are ripping guitar solos. This album has more layers than anything I’ve ever done. That was exciting and a challenge: There was nobody else to lean on. That was cool for me as an artist, as a woman, as an instrumentalist, to hold that entire role myself.

How did you work out all the parts?

I start pretty basic, just my voice and an acoustic guitar. Then, when we get in the studio, we start building it out and creating these nuanced things that add drama and layers to it. As far as melodic lines with the guitar, sometimes that’s the first thing I think of when I’m writing a song. Like “Love Letters,” for instance: That song is really just built off two chords, but it’s these expressive guitar melodies and little guitar lines that create drama, until it’s a big rock and roll anthem toward the end.

You use a lot of different tones to create those textures.

Well, we had a pretty huge arsenal there in the studio. Royal Studios has a room full of amplifiers. Of course, I had my Category 5 amps, but I also had a Fender Super Reverb and some cool old Supros with smaller speakers that really pack a punch. I played a bunch of guitars. I used my SG a lot, my Delaneys [Fish’s signature model, the SF1], my Fender Jag and, of course, my cigar box guitar. Sometimes you just have to experiment.

On “Dream Girl,” you play a slow and subtle slide phrase. It’s different from how you’ve played slide before.

Being the sole guitar player was an opportunity to really get outside of myself. My inclination has always been to do a ripping guitar solo, but sometimes the song calls for something really beautiful, melodic, slow and simple. That song is just haunting. You want something that matches it.

I definitely grew as a player and as a studio musician on this record. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of discipline. I really started paying attention to that when I was working with Luther Dickinson on Belle of the West and Wild Heart. He’s such a melodic player, and I think I learned a lot from him about catering to the song. This record was solely on my shoulders. I was a little nervous. I’ve had so many great teachers over the years and great examples of what to do. It was a great opportunity to implement what I’ve learned.

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Did that turn you on to any new techniques of playing?

Yeah, totally. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been dabbling a little bit, trying to learn how to play pedal steel and lap steel. I’m not even going to lie and say that I’m any good. But in taking up those instruments and trying, you learn some new techniques that you can apply to your guitar playing. Like pedal steel - it’s just all about these nuances. I’ve been trying to apply that to my guitar playing, working with volume pedals and effects, working on timing and making these cool swells that add another layer of drama.

There’s a lot of techniques I’ve picked up over the years but haven’t utilized in the show, for whatever reason. But in the studio, it’s like, “Hell, yeah! We’re in a creative setting. This is the perfect time to try this out.” That includes stuff that’s hard to do when I’m the only guitarist onstage, like guitar harmonies. Going into the studio and layering parts let me create these really big sounds. Now my only trouble is figuring out how to play that live!

Where on the record do some of those techniques show up?

On “Love Letters,” for instance, or “Dream Girl.” I used the volume pedal a lot on those guitar parts, and they are probably some of the more nuanced performances on the album. I also played with different open tunings. It seems like I do that once a record. On Belle of the West, I’d never played in open B before, so I wrote “American Dream” in that tuning. On this record, I’d never played in open C before, so I used it when I wrote “Watch It Die” with Patrick Sweeney. Trying to make the guitar sound like things that aren’t a guitar has been fun lately. It just gives you a different vantage point, a different point of expression on the instrument.

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