News Column

For blues performer Samantha Fish, there's no time to stand still

September 5, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 05--When you're a musician barely older than drinking age and your first recording wins a major award, the consequences can be as daunting as the rewards are exciting.

Samantha Fish won the Best New Artist Debut at the 2012 Blues Music Awards in Memphis, Tenn., for "Runaway," her debut on Ruf Records. By the time the awards were announced, Fish was 23 and busy. As part of the trio Girls With Guitars, she'd toured Europe three times and released an album with the group.

But she already knew what she needed to do next: Keep growing and improving.

"My job is always to keep working and getting better," she said. "I want people to come back and notice each time how I've evolved and improved, as a singer and a guitarist and songwriter."

Now 24, Fish will deliver evidence of that Friday night, when she headlines a show at the VooDoo Lounge at Harrah's North Kansas City casino. The show will also be an album-release party for "Black Wind Howlin'," the 12-song follow-up to "Runaway." The difference between the two albums is significant, she said, for a few reasons.

"The first record touched so many spots, musically," she said. "We wanted to strike a chord with as many people as possible. People really seemed to like it.

"But I was really stressed out recording it. I got sick, lost my voice. And it was rushed. In December (2010), the label asked when we wanted to release a record. We said the following March. They said, 'Well, it's going to have to be January.' So it was like, 'I'd better start writing some songs.'

"This record feels more like mine. I wrote every song except two, and I had more of a say this time. Mike (Zito, producer) and I have grown together as a team. Our chemistry is better."

She also has made friends with some well-known songwriters and musicians who have encouraged and inspired her to keep getting better.

In August 2012, she opened for John Hiatt at the Uptown Theater. But almost didn't.

"That was nerve-wracking," she said. "I was on my way to the show when the booking agent called and said our set had been canceled because John Hiatt didn't know we were a trio. I was upset, fuming. We were getting ready to go back home when our booking agent called back. I guess the assistant road manager was just doing his job when he canceled us, but John put us back on the show.

"He was genuinely nice. After we'd finished our set, he told us to go back out and do an encore. I love his music. He's the kind of artist I want to be."

In July, she performed with blues legend Buddy Guy at the Voodoo Lounge.

"I know his son Greg from playing at Buddy Guy's Legends," she said. "We've become friends. Greg came down to Kansas City and jammed with us at B.B.'s (Lawnside Bar-B-Q) on Fourth of July. He knew his dad was coming to town and he said he really wanted to get me on stage to play with him. But it was kind of a maybe thing."

She and her band traveled a long way to see if it would happen. Guy was at the VooDoo on July 7. Fish and her band had a shows in Davenport, Iowa, on July 5 and Thunder Bay, Ontario, on July 6.

"So, it was like: Do we stay in Thunder Bay and sleep or drive all night to get to Kansas City and hope I get to play with Buddy Guy," she said.

They drove all night. And after a moment of indecision -- "he didn't seem too keen on it" -- Guy invited her on stage to jam for a spell.

"He asked me what I wanted to play, which surprised the hell out of me," she said. "I said, 'Uh, whatever you want to play.'"

Earlier this year, Fish played with Devon Allman, son of Gregg, on his cover of Tom Petty's "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around." She sings Stevie Nicks' part and appears in the song's official video.

"I met Devon through Mike," she said. "And we'd opened a few times for his band the Royal Southern Brotherhood. He liked my voice and asked me to sing on his album."

Fish shows off that voice and her ever-improving guitar skills on "Howlin'," which she recorded toward the end of 2012 at Dockside Studios in Maurice, La., about 10 miles southwest of Lafayette.

"Everything was much more relaxed this time," she said. "We had a week to do it. Everyone was so prepared. We laid down all the tracks in three days. It was all so organic. It has a very live feel. It's raw, but a polished raw."

Her support cast included Zito on guitar and ace blues harpist Jumpin' Johnny Sansone. Two members of the Royal Southern Brotherhood comprised her rhythm section: Yonrico Scott on drums and percussion and Charlie Wooton on bass. And one of Fish's favorite songwriters, Paul Thorn, sings with Fish on the track "Go to Hell."

"Paul is like John Hiatt," she said. "He's not genreless, but he has his own style and identity. It's unique. That's the kind of artist I want to be."

She delivers an example of her willingness to blur the genre lines on "Howlin'." Most of its tracks are electric blues numbers in full gallop, including the title track and the opener, "Miles to Go."

"I wrote that one really fast, right before we went into the studio," Fish said. "I was messing around on my cigar-box guitar and came up with it. Mike said, 'We've got to be professional. You can't come up with a song two days before we record.' Then he heard it and loved it. So it's on the record."

But the weather changes over the course of 12 songs. Each delivers its own twist and flavor, but all are filled with melody and swing. "Kick Around" is poppy and soulful and bears some resemblance to a few Bonnie Raitt tunes. "Over You" is a mournful, slow-moving soul-blues ballad about love lost. "Let's Have Some Fun" is a smoldering, stripped-down tune featuring Fish singing only over some grimy guitar chords.

And then there's the closer, "Last September," a straight-up country shuffle, rendered in guitars, bass, fiddle and brushed drums.

"We're getting an interesting reaction to that in the reviews," she said. "People really love it or they don't get it. But for me, I was rooted in that music before the blues. My dad's friends would come over and play acoustic guitars and a lot of the music they played was bluegrass and country. I grew up loving that music.

"I wrote it on acoustic guitar. I had no fiddle in mind but it took its own shape in the studio and became more country than even I envisioned. Everyone in the studio loved it. Charlie said it was his favorite to play. It's a real curveball.

"But I like artists who do that, like John Hiatt and Paul Thorn. They have a sound that's kind of blues/Americana/roots. That's where I see myself going. I love the blues, but I want to be a well-rounded, diverse musician and artist that does all the sounds and styles I like."

In other words: one who knows staying put is not an option.

FRIDAY

Samantha Fish will perform at the VooDoo Lounge at Harrah's Casino North Kansas City. Show time is 8 p.m. Levee Town opens. Tickets are $23 to $35. The show is an album-release celebration for "Black Wind Howlin'," Fish's second full-length recording.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/phinnagain. Read more from him at our music blog, Back to Rockville, at KansasCity.com.

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