september 2011

Samantha Fish: ‘I’m a workhorse, I’m going to work my butt off. That’s when you learn, when you’re out on the road.’

Enjoying The Ride

At 23, Kansas City’s Samantha Fish is on a fast track with her ambitious blues

By David McGee

If you’re Samantha Fish, everything is moving pretty fast right now.

But this is only the continuation of a pattern that began eight years ago, when then-15-year-old Samantha, who had been playing drums for a couple of years to that point, tired of the restrictions on the hours she could play in her parents’ basement in her native Kansas City, KS, and decided to become a guitarist instead. Two years later she was beginning to play out in KCK, jamming with blues bands--KC faves Trampled Under Foot were especially generous in inviting her into their gigs--and soon after that she was leading her own band and packing ‘em in at a club called Knuckleheads, where she became a regular and popular attraction. In 2009 she was playing up to four nights a week and had released a live CD, Live Bait (produced by Trampled Under Foot’s manager Steve McBride), which featured seven Fish originals alongside tunes by Bobby Marchan and R.L. Burnside. In 2010, with an enthusiastic reference from blues guitarist Mike Zito, who had become a big Fish fan, Ruf Records in Germany proffered a recording contract and made her part of an impressive stable of young female blues artists that also include Cassie Taylor, Dani Wilde, Joanne Shaw Taylor and Dana Fuchs. Fish made her Ruf recording debut with labelmates Taylor and Wilde as part of the Girls With Guitars aggregate that toured Europe (and is now in the U.S.) as part of Ruf’s Blues Caravan extravaganza (the domestic release of the Zito-produced Girls With Guitars was reviewed in our June 2011 issue). And now, at age 23, only eight years removed from her first self-taught maneuverings over six strings, Ms. Fish is introducing herself as a Ruf solo artist with the impressive (and also Zito-produced) Runaway album, comprised, like Live Bait, of Fish originals (eight, to be precise), a Fish co-write with Zito and an exceptional cover of Tom Petty’s “Louisiana Rain.”

Far from trying to keep pace, the young Ms. Fish is eating up the quickening pace of her career, enjoying it the way you wish all young artists could enjoy their youthful pursuits. “I’m a workhorse,” she said on a rare day off, speaking by phone from her home in the other Kansas City, across the way in Missouri. “I’m going to work my butt off. That’s when you learn, when you’re out on the road.”

Growing up in KCK, Fish was part of a family in which music was ever-present. Her dad played electric guitar, her mother sang in church, her sister is an accomplished singer and guitarist, the parents were regularly cueing up the rock music of the time--Stones, AC/DC, Petty, Bonnie Raitt. “I listened to a lot of stuff,” she says.

At 13 she began playing drums, but tired of being banished to the basement to practice and with restrictions on her volume. With plenty of guitars lying around the house, one day she picked up one “and really just couldn’t put it down. That was when I was 15.”

samantha fish
On being a woman in a man’s world: ‘You are what you are and you take what you can get, as far as that goes. Everybody has their set of obstacles they have to get over and they also have the things they get that nobody else gets because of who they are.’

As she learned the basics of her new instrument, she listened. As a 10-year-old she loved the Black Crowes, and by the time she started working on guitar she naturally gravitated to other artists whose music at least had a passing familiarity with blues: Bonnie Raitt, Petty, Stones, Sheryl Crow. But, she admits, “I was of the Slash generation--everybody wanted to play like Slash. Took me awhile to find the blues. It wasn’t until I was 18 or so that I really found and fell in love with the blues.”

During that fateful 18th year of her life, Fish was stuck in a beach house while vacationing with her aunt and uncle--“it rained the whole time.” The only entertainment she had was a Stevie Ray Vaughan DVD.

“I played it over and over--I mean, it was all I had!” she says with a laugh. “When I came back to Kansas City I was bound and determined how to play lead, and that’s what I started focusing on. Then I started going out in Kansas City and jamming. I wanted to play guitar with other musicians and I realized Kansas City was a blues scene, so I had to learn some standards. It was really the contemporary guys who made that come full circle. I saw Ronnie Baker Brooks and Tab Benoit and Mike Zito, and that was really when I knew something was happening because I almost had to leave their shows early and go home and play my guitar.”

SRV’s steely, razor-edged style is all over the guitar work on Runaway (some of which is Zito pitching in), and Fish doesn’t back down from asserting her allegiance to the Texas guitar slinger. But listening to Stevie Ray inspired something in her that he would surely have admired: a search for the sources of his music.

“I think now, for every guitarist, Stevie Ray is in there somewhere. He did so much for putting the blues back into the mainstream in the late ‘70s and the ‘80s. He was a big deal for a lot of the kids I talk to--it’s all Stevie Ray, Stevie Ray, Stevie Ray. But for me it was really important to get beyond that and go back. I started listening to Son House, Skip James and really got into the Delta blues, even R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough.”

She then figuratively migrated south from the Delta to Chicago, where she found the music of Muddy Waters and, especially, Howlin’ Wolf. “I’m really, really big into Howlin’ Wolf to this day. He’s one of my favorites.”

After finishing high school, Fish set her sights solely on playing music--there was no college in the picture. “When I found music it was a done deal,” she says. “I wasn’t going to bother getting loans and going to school. I wanted to play music.

Samantha Fish, on the Girls With Guitars tour with labelmates Dani Wilde and Cassie Taylor, performs ‘Down In the Swamp’ from her new CD, Runaway. Live at The Borderline, May 9, 2011

“Honestly I caught a little bit of backlash for that, but I’m kinda glad I did what I did because I see a lot of my peers that went to college and with the market being what is, there’s not a lot of jobs anyway. But you know, counselors, parents were a tad skeptical. Everybody’s a little skeptical; they think it’s impractical. I tell kids all the time this is really not an impractical thing to do. You can make money at it, going out and playing music. If you really put the time in and get good, you can get gigs.”

To support herself, Fish worked two jobs, both in pizza parlors--delivering for one, managing the other--until the schedule became so demanding she quit both jobs. “I just wanted to play guitar.”

She started going out to clubs and jamming with whomever would let her sit in, and at 18 she had formed her own band. As she tells it, she felt little pushback to her being a young woman--pretty, blonde and slender--trying to break into a man’s world. Her gender and looks both helped and hurt her at times, and she learned to roll with whatever came her way.

“Some of it is they expect a little less of you because you’re a female--‘oh, she’s a girl’--but I’ve always wanted to be up to the same caliber and held to the same standard as the boys were,” she explains. “Some people, immediately because you’re a girl, don’t take you seriously and they don’t think you have chops. So I was fighting that and wanting to get to the level where I was seriously contending with the boys. Then there are some instances where it helps you get in the door, just because of that, because it’s kind of a rare thing. So there are pros and cons. You are what you are and you take what you can get, as far as that goes. Everybody has their set of obstacles they have to get over and they also have the things they get that nobody else gets because of who they are. There are things that help and things that don’t.”

After a year and a half of grinding it out on the KC circuit, Fish and her band (drummer Danny Montero, bassist Paul Greenlease) noticed they were building a fan base, that the same people were showing up at their gigs and bringing others with them. Their weekly jam sessions became a popular attraction in town. Finally they were finally able to take it on the road, playing gigs in Chicago at Rosa’s Lounge and in St. Louis at BB’s Jazz Blues and Soups, and aboard the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, spreading Fish’s name regionally. Last summer’s Blues from the Top festival in Winter Park, CO, put her on a bill with several established groups and artists, including Mike Zito, who had always welcomed Fish to his own shows in the KC area dating back to her pizza delivery days.

May 2010 was a pivotal month. For a benefit at Knuckleheads the club owner had invited an agent from Piedmont Talent to come and check out Fish. This particular agent was friends with Zito from the earlier Blues Caravans, and at the time was looking for a third female artist to complete a Girls With Guitars trio tour. With an unqualified recommendation from Zito, Thomas Ruf signed Fish less than two weeks after the benefit. Zito then produced the Girls With Guitars album in a week’s time--“It was really fun. Once we got in there we really started cooking. We really did have good chemistry in the studio. We were eager to work together and that overcomes musical boundaries.”

From Samantha Fish’s Runaway CD, a cover of Tom Petty’s ‘Louisiana Rain’

Thinking she might be ready to record her Ruf debut this past March, Thomas Ruf disabused her of that notion, saying it was going to be done in January, when Zito, her Girls With Guitars cohort Cassie Taylor (bass) and drummer Jamie Litte would be available to record, with Zito producing, at a studio located in the label’s home base of Berlin.

The news came as a bit of a shock to Fish that manifested itself physically. “I got to writing immediately. But I think I got stressed out about it and got pretty sick when we were recording, so I had to come back two weeks later and record the vocals. It was a really stressful time, but I’m thankful it was like that. I think it set me up to deal with it immediately and I learned a lot.”

In addition to her sultry voice and emotional guitar work, Fish’s songwriting is another reason to pay attention to her. As is the case with her generation of female blues artists, her music is deeply embedded in the blues, but as a writer she looks to the likes of Dylan, Tom Waits, Petty and Leonard Cohen for inspiration, resulting in lyrics that are a bit more nuanced than “he done me wrong” stories. Waits, especially, has captured her imagination and become a beacon, a standard, for the level of craftsmanship and inspiration she seeks.

“I love Tom Waits,” she says emphatically. “I read a review that said he could write about a gutter and make it sound like the most beautiful place in the world. I think that’s pretty incredible, being able to describe something in a way that puts you there. So if I could ever become half the writer that guy is, maybe I’ll be in good shape. I’m actually in the middle of a book about him. During the Island years I loved the fact that he hardly used any cymbals on his albums. Lot of banging, and that’s the kind of percussive stuff I like--I see myself going in that direction, more with a Delta blues sort of spin, you know. But I love the way he’s progressed as an artist. It’s amazing for me to see someone go through that kind of transformation through their music.”

True to her influences, Fish’s Runaway boasts an interesting array of textures and styles, ranging from the crunching and stomping (“Down In the Swamp”) to Hooker-inspired boogie (“Runaway”) to sassy, Delta-inspired kissoffs (“Today’s My Day,” featuring Zito’s moaning acoustic slide) to wah-wah propelled stomps (“Leavin’ Kind”) to swinging soul-style workouts (“Soft and Slow”). The cover of Petty’s “Louisiana Rain,” with its quiet, searching verses, underpinned by Zito’s atmospheric slide, opening up into majestic, aching choruses, is a moody, dark saga that Fish brings to vivid life with her most dramatic singing on the record. The biggest surprise on the album is the last song, “Feelin’ Alright.” A sexy, slow boiling saloon blues, it sounds a bit like something Melody Gardot might seduce a crowd with in its slinky small combo groove led by Zito’s subdued, deep-blue soloing, squeezing out brittle, crying notes from the lower end of the neck and ripe, sad tones further up. Fish delivers the come-on lyric with post-orgasmic dreaminess, open, vulnerable and yearning, that the young Peggy Lee would have appreciated for the understated intensity of its fleshly desire.

To all this Fish gives out a hearty laugh. She cut the vocal at the end of a long day in the studio as they were trying to finish all the vocals in only two days. It was a roller coaster two days and her emotions were similarly conflicted. No one is more surprised than her at the enthusiastic reaction to her song, which, if you replace Zito’s guitar with a piano, would be in Ray Charles territory.

Samantha Fish channels Melody Gardot on ‘Feelin’ Alright,’ the last track on Runaway: ‘You know, I had never sang like that before.’

“You know, I had never sang like that before,” she says. “I don’t sing like that. Mike was saying, ‘You need a really soft song on the record’ and I would say, ‘Naw, I don’t do that.’ But honestly that’s been a lot of peoples’ favorite song on the CD. I’m amazed. I got in there and didn’t know what I was doing and I sang it like that. Honestly, I was feeling good and I was so defeated; I was up and down that whole day, and by the time we did ‘Feelin’ Alright’ I said, ‘I don’t know if that’s any good. I hope it is. Throw it on there, we’ll see how it goes.’ And it turned out that a lot of people love it. Now that people like it, I thought, well, shoot, maybe I should look into this a little bit. Maybe not quite so jazzy as ‘Feelin’ Alright.’ I’d like to take a more soul approach--Ray Charles, Otis Redding.”

Girls With Guitars will be touring through October. Next year Fish is looking to tour on her own, to stay out there and learn what she needs to learn to get to the next level. She has a plan; maybe not a five-year plan, but a plan.

“I’ve got a vague idea of what I see in the future. I know that I’m going to be playing music, but I’ve changed so much in a year, to think about where I’m going to be in five… I obviously want to be better and be doing more. I think that’s the thing with music. Look at guys like Tom Waits. How long has he been going through that transition becoming who he wants to be as an artist? It takes a long time to really get where you want to go.

“So I’m figuring that out and enjoying the ride as I go.”

Samantha Fish’s Runaway is available at

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