“Belle of the West”
Ruf Records / Release Date: November 3, 2017
“You should always get outside of the box,” Samantha Fish says while discussing her boundary-breaking new album Belle of the West. “Challenging yourself is how you grow.”
After launching her recording career in 2009, Samantha Fish quickly established herself as a rising star in the contemporary blues world. Since then, the charismatic young singer-guitarist-songwriter has earned a reputation as a rising guitar hero and powerful live performer, while releasing a series of acclaimed albums that have shown her restless creative spirit consistently taking her in new and exciting musical directions.
The New York Times called Fish “an impressive blues guitarist who sings with sweet power” and “one of the genre’s most promising young talents.” Her hometown paper The Kansas City Star noted, “Samantha Fish has kicked down the door of the patriarchal blues club” and observed that the young artist “displays more imagination and creativity than some blues veterans exhibit over the course of their careers.”
Having already made it clear that she’s more interested in following her heart than she is in repeating past triumphs, Samantha Fish delivers some of her most compelling music to date with Belle of the West, her fifth studio album. The deeply soulful, personally charged 11-song set showcases Fish’s sublime acoustic guitar skills as well as her rootsy, emotionally resonant songwriting.
Such memorable new originals as “American Dream,” “Blood in the Water,” “Need You More” and “Don’t Say You Love Me” demonstrate the artist’s knack for organic Americana songcraft, while a trio of cover tunes—R.L. Burnside’s “Poor Black Mattie,” Lillie Mae’s “Nearing Home” and the Jimbo Mathus-penned title track—attest to her substantial interpretive skills as well as her varied musical interests.
“To me, this is a natural progression,” Fish notes. “It’s a storytelling record by a girl who grew up in the Midwest. It’s very personal. I really focused on the songwriting and vocals, the melodies and emotion, and on bringing another dimension to what I do. I wasn’t interested in shredding on guitar, although we ended up with a few heavier tracks. I love Mississippi blues; there’s something very soulful and very real about that style of music, so this was a chance to immerse myself in that.”
Fish recorded Belle of the West in the relaxed, rural creative atmosphere of the legendary Zebra Ranch Studios in the North Hills of Mississippi with producer Luther Dickinson (of North Mississippi Allstars fame), with whom she worked previously on her 2015 album Wild Heart. The studio team included some of the region’s most iconoclastic musicians, including Dickinson, solo artist and Jack White associate Lillie Mae (whose distinctive vocals are featured on “Nearing Home”), much-traveled juke-joint blues artist Lightnin’ Malcolm (whose featured on “Poor Black Mattie”), Squirrel Nut Zippers founder Jimbo Mathus, upright bassist and beloved solo artist Amy LaVere, Tikyra Jackson, Trina Raimey and Shardé Thomas, granddaughter of the legendary Southern bluesman Otha Turner.
“I wanted to do this acoustic-electric record, and tap into the style and swagger of Mississippi,” Fish states, adding, “Any time you dive into another place, another vibe and a new group of people, you’re challenging yourself to grow musically. I felt very at home a Zebra Ranch, and I’ve known Luther and Malcolm for years, so it was a very comfortable situation. When you’re making a record like this, it has to feel natural if you want people to respond to it.
Belle of the West follows on the heels of Fish’s March 2017 release Chills & Fever, which achieved top 10 status in the Billboard Blues charts. Here she expanded her stylistic arsenal to take on a set of lesser-known vintage R&B gems, with help from members of garage-soul stalwarts the Detroit Cobras. “Having these two very different records come out back to back this year has been really liberating,” says Samantha.
The creative drive that fuels Belle of the West and Chills & Fever has been a crucial element of Samantha Fish’s approach from the beginning. Growing up in a musical family in Kansas City, Missouri, she became obsessed with music early life, taking up drums before switching to guitar at the age of 15. By the time she was 20, she had formed her own trio and self-released her first album. She soon caught the ear of the renowned blues label Ruf Records, which in 2011 released Girls with Guitars, which teamed her with fellow axewomen Cassie Taylor and Dani Wilde. The same year saw Ruf release Fish’s solo studio debut Runaway. The album was named Best Artist Debut at the 2012 Blues Music Awards in Memphis.
Black Wind Howlin’ (2013) and Wild Heart (2015) followed, winning considerable critical acclaim and further establishing Fish as a prominent presence in the blues community. Wild Heart reached the top slot on Billboard’s blues chart. She also collaborated with blues-rock veterans Jimmy Hall and Reese Wynans on the 2013 project The Healers. The same year, she jammed onstage with blues icon Buddy Guy, and guested on Devon Allman’s album Turquoise.
Fish continues to maintain the same hardworking, prolific approach that’s carried her this far. “I think I’ve always had that,” she says. “Music is my life, so what other choice do I have but to go out and make music? We do tour quite a bit, and maybe it’s kind of crazy to put out two dramatically different albums in one year. But I like to work hard. This is who I am and this is what I do, and when I’m writing and recording and touring is when I feel the most like myself. And now we have a moment where people are paying attention, so I have to make the most of it. I feel like I have a lot to say right now, so why not say it?”
As far as Samantha Fish is concerned, her musical future is an open road. “I’m never gonna be a traditional blues artist, because that’s not who I am,” she asserts. “But it’s all the blues for me. When Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf came out, what they were doing didn’t sound like anything that had been done in blues before. You’ve gotta keep that kind of fire and spirit. I’m never gonna do Muddy Waters better than Muddy Waters, so I have to be who I am and find my best voice.
Chills & Fever
Whether one leans towards the blues, opts for Americana or ignites some special fervor by playing with a garage band, there’s a common bond that suggests a reverence for the roots. Looking back towards an earlier template — no matter what the genre — proves the point that appreciating what came before can be a stepping stone for what comes next.
Samantha Fish knows that all too well, and it’s been evidenced in the music she’s made her entire career. While she’s well known as a purveyor of blues, having been lauded by such legends as Buddy Guy, the Royal Southern Brotherhood and Luther Dickinson, her real love is simply raw, scrappy rock and roll. “I grew up on it,” she insists. “Working with Luther on my last album further instilled that spirit in me. It made me realize just how much that basic, unfettered sound means to me, and how well it ties into soul music, R&B, country and so many other forms of music that are essential even today.”
It’s little wonder then that when it came time to record her new album, Chills & Fever (released March 17, 2017), Fish ventured off in another new direction, one she was exploring for the first time in her career. She traveled to Detroit and joined forces with members of the Detroit Cobras, a band whose insurgent ethic has made them darlings of the Midwest punk/blues scene. The two entities — which included Joe Mazzola on guitar, Steve Nawara on bass, and Kenny Tudrick along with Bob Mervak on keys, and the New Orleans horn section featuring Mark Levron and Travis Blotsky on trumpet and saxophone — bonded over a common love of classic soul and rollicking rhythms, so much so that the results testify to a seemingly timeless template. Covering songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s — indelible melodies from the pens of legends like Jackie DeShannon, Jerry Ragavoy, Bert Berns and Allen Toussaint — and revisiting some earlier demos she cut along with producer Bobby Harlow, Fish and the Cobras created an album that’s best described as a pure slab of rocking rhythm n’ blues.
“I listened to a lot of soul music, and I dug deep into people like Otis Redding and Ray Charles,” Fish recalls. “I was also influenced by people like R.L. Burnside and North Mississippi’s Junior Kimbrough. It’s a lot less restrained style of music than the sound people may be used to hearing from me, but it’s definitely a different facet of my personality. It’s far more straight forward.”
The fact is, Fish has never been bound by any expectations whatsoever. Growing up in Kansas City, she switched from drums to guitar at the tender age of 15. She spent much of her time in local watering holes listening to visiting blues bands. Samantha caught the attention of Ruf Records. The label subsequently released her album, Girls with Guitars, which found her co-billed with Cassie Taylor and Dani Wilde. That led to her forming her own trio and recording three more albums, Runaway (2011), Black Wind Howlin’ (2013) and Wild Heart (2015), as reaping an awards for Best Artist Debut at the 2012 Blues Music Awards in Memphis. Along the way she found herself working with other artists as well — Jimmy Hall, Devon Allman, and Reese Wynans, among them.
Still, nothing she’s done before can prepare her faithful fans and followers to the seminal sounds of Chills & Fever.
I don’t think I ever enjoyed making a record quite as much as I enjoyed making this one,” Fish insists. “I love the sound of the brass and the edgier intensity. One thing’s for sure. Nothing ever felt so authentic.”