Offbeat: Samantha Fish Talks Back

New Orleans has long been a magnet for musicians and other artists working in many disciplines. Samantha Fish, a singer, songwriter and guitarist who’s released five albums via Germany’s blues-centric Ruf Records, is among the city’s newest residents.

A native of Kansas City, Missouri, Fish moved to New Orleans in May. She’d already made important Louisiana connections, including Tab Benoit, the Houma-based blues artist, and Rueben Williams, owner of the Larose-based Thunderbird Management. Williams’ clients include Fish, Benoit, Cyril Neville, Royal Southern Brotherhood, former RSB member Mike Zito, the Devon Allman Band and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux.

When Fish was growing up in Kansas City, her father played many genres of music with his talented friends at the family’s home. Her mother sang in church. After Fish’s parents divorced, she and her father bonded over musical performances at Knuckleheads, an eclectic Kansas City music venue that presents blues, rock ’n’ roll, country, Americana, bluegrass and more.

Fish played drums in her early teens, but switched to guitar at 15. Singing and writing songs became her passion. Still in her teens, Fish overcame her extreme shyness and joined Benoit, Zito and others on stage at Knuckleheads.

Zito became a mentor. In 2010, when Ruf Records needed a third female performer to join Cassie Taylor and Dani Wilde for the trio album Girls with Guitars, Zito recommended Fish. He also produced Girls with Guitars as well as Fish’s first solo album for Ruf, Runaway. In 2012, the album won Fish the Best New Artist Debut award at the Blues Music Awards in Memphis.

In March, Ruf Records released Fish’s latest album, Chills & Fever. She recorded the project in Waterford Township, Michigan, with producer Bobby Harlow, members of the Detroit Cobras and New Orleans horn players Mark Levron and Travis Blotsky.

Chills & Fever features songs recorded in the 1960s and ’70s by Betty Harris, the Ronettes, Lulu, Bettye LaVette, Nina Simone, Ronnie Love and others. The composers include Allen Toussaint, Jackie DeShannon, Bert Berns and Jerry Ragovoy.

A busy tour schedule won’t leave Fish much time to enjoy her new residence in New Orleans. Her upcoming appearances include the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest, Philadelphia Folk Festival, Telluride Blues & Brews Festival and her second performance at the Bogalusa Blues & Heritage Festival.

Why did you move to New Orleans?

Half of my band is in Louisiana. And I fell in love with the city. It’s beautiful and inspiring. Moving here always felt like something I wanted to do. But Kansas City will always be my home. I’m a Kansas City girl, but it felt like the right time to try something new.

Did Kansas City have a good music scene when you were growing up?

Kansas City has a great, underrated music scene. We’ve got a long tradition and history of jazz and blues. There’s a vibrant music scene there now, but it ebbs and flows, like music scenes everywhere. But when I was coming up, I could play in Kansas City six nights a week. When I was 19, 20 years old, I was booking dates like crazy. And there were bands to see all the time.

You played drums before you played guitar. Why did you switch instruments?

I wanted to play drums because I thought it was the most physical instrument. As a kid, I was attracted to that. I could move my arms and my legs and make the loudest noise possible. I wanted to rock. But then I realized how much education had to go into drums. At 13, I didn’t have the discipline for that. I still love the drums and I go back to them all the time. I’m grateful I had that foundation. I don’t know why, but I picked up the guitar and started writing and singing.

Drummers aren’t normally the center of attention. Did you want to be a frontwoman?

I always wanted to be a frontwoman. But I was so shy. I could barely talk to people when I was a kid. The idea of singing and playing, it was really rough. But the thing you’re scared of most is the thing you want to do.

How did you overcome your shyness?

It took a couple of years. The first time I played in front of a crowd, it was terrifying. I got thrown on the stage by accident at a party. They said, ‘Hey, play a couple of songs for these people.’ They turned the PA on. It happened so fast that I couldn’t run away. If I’d had time to think about it, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I felt sick. But I also had this addictive feeling, like I had to do it again.

How important was Knuckleheads, a music venue in Kansas City, to you?

I went there with my dad. I was 17 when I saw my first band up there. That was so inspiring. Knuckleheads became my second home. I credit a lot of my career to Frank Hicks, the owner. He put me up on stage. That’s how I got to play with Mike Zito for the first time and with Tab Benoit the first time. Frank asked them, ‘Hey, do you mind if this kid joins you on stage?’ Mike and Tab were patient and tolerant. And that’s how I met most of the people I know now, because of Frank and Knuckleheads.

Was Mike Zito a mentor for you?

Mike saw that I was putting my band together and putting the work in. Whenever he saw an opportunity for me, he’d throw my name out there. So, when Ruf Records was doing the Girls with Guitars album, Mike recommended me. I ended up signing a deal with Ruf and getting a booking agency.

Ruf Records is a German record label that’s released albums by Cyril Neville, Royal Southern Brotherhood, Honey Island Swamp Band, Mike Zito, Ana Popovic as well as five of your albums.

They’re great. Rueben Williams, my manager, has a lot of artists with Ruf. They release progressive kind of stuff. It’s cutting edge for the blues world.

Your new album, Chills & Fever, features songs by such classic songwriters as Allen Toussaint, Bert Berns, Jerry Ragovoy and Jackie DeShannon. But why did you pick songs they’d written that weren’t necessarily hits?

My producer and I, Bobby Harlow, found songs that we thought should have been hits. For some reason, they weren’t—maybe because there were so many great songs coming out at that time. But we have beautiful songs on this album that have great melodies and hit hooks. We looked for hidden gems.

How much time did you and Harlow spend gathering songs for Chills & Fever?

A few months. All of these songs feel like they belong together. And because of the way we recorded them, they fit cohesively together. We recorded them and put on them on an album to let people hear them again or for the first time.

You’ve just released an entire album of songs you didn’t write. Is writing your original songs still important to you?

Being a songwriter is my favorite part of what I do. I feel really good when I’m turning out songs at a rapid pace. It’s my favorite way of expressing myself. And your writing is your legacy. I’m not letting that go. Chills & Fever is just another of my elaborate experiments.

Why did you record your latest album in Michigan?

We wanted Detroit rock ‘n’ roll meets soul and blues. And we brought New Orleans into it, too. It’s a combination of regions. Because my producer and the Detroit Cobras are in Michigan, it made sense for me to go up there. And to me, where you record is just as important as anything else. That sets the pace for what you’re doing. Detroit has an incredible blues, soul and punk-rock history.

What was your recording experience at the 45 Factory studio in Michigan like?

Everything in the 45 Factory is retro and old. It’s perfect for what we were doing. And the studio is in the back of this motel called McGuire’s Motor Inn. It was definitely a scene. It all worked. It was an experience. And it lent itself to how the recording ended up sounding. The grittiness comes across. That’s Detroit. Raw energy.

Why did you recently expand your road band from an economical trio to a six-person group, including horns?

I want my audiences to experience the drama that we have on Chills & Fever. And I love having these guys on the road. Honestly, I’ve always wanted to do a bigger band. When I was doing the trio, I always heard horn parts, keyboard parts. I was ready to break out of the trio format. You’ve just got to jump sometimes and make it happen. It’s just a matter of doing it when the time is right.

New Orleans is a hot housing market. What was your house-shopping like?

The real estate in New Orleans is crazy. I started with a price range in the Bywater and soon realized how unrealistic that was. But every house here is unique. The architecture is something the city has going for it. Everything’s got so much personality. I found a cute house, but it’s going to need some love.

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