“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,” “More Than You Know” 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 a personal album. I really focused on the songwriting and the vocals and the melodies and the emotion, and on bringing another dimension to what I do. I wasn’t interested in shredding on guitar, although we did end up doing a few heavier things. I love the Mississippi style of the blues; there’s something very soulful and very real about that style of music, so this was a chance to immerse myself in that. It’s definitely a song record and an emotional record, and I’m really excited to play these songs live.”
Fish recorded Belle of the West at the fabled Zebra Ranch Studios in the North Hills of Mississippi with producer Luther Dickinson (of North Mississippi Allstars fame), with whom she’d worked previously on her 2015 album Wild Heart. The studio team included some of the region’s most notable musicians, including Dickinson, Tikyra Jackson, Amy LaVere, Lightnin’ Malcolm, Lillie Mae, Jimbo Mathus, Trina Raimey and Shardé Thomas, granddaughter of the legendary Southern bluesman Otha Turner.
“I wanted to do this semi-acoustic 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.
“We had a great group of people to share the experience,” she continues. “Luther’s an amazing producer and an amazing guitar player, and he brings so much to the table. Another thing that we had on this record that I hadn’t done in the past was having all of these beautiful female voices, with Amy and Lillie Mae singing backup. There’s a lot of harmonizing on this record, which I’m a big fan of. I looked around the studio at one point and realized that there were more women than men in the band, and I thought that was pretty beautiful. It felt so good to make a record that way.”
The vibrant creative drive that fuels Belle of the West 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. As a teen, she spent much of her time in local clubs listening to visiting blues combos and befriending local blues players.
Samantha was just 20 when she self-released her first album, the on-stage set Live Bait. 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, recorded with her own recently-formed trio. 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.
Although she’d firmly established herself in the blues world, Samantha pursued a fresh new direction with 2017’s Chills & Fever. For that project, she traveled to Detroit to record a soulful set of vintage R&B covers in a raw garage-soul style, with help from members of local heroes the Detroit Cobras. Although a substantial departure from Fish’s prior releases, Chills & Fever was well received by fans and critics alike, winning Fish new fans outside of the blues world.
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 I do make a lot of albums, 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. For me, you’ve gotta keep that kind of fire and spirit. And I’m never gonna do Muddy Waters better than Muddy Waters, so I have to be who I am and find my best voice.
“Having these two very different records come out back to back this year has been really liberating,” she concludes. “Even if I go in a completely different direction on the next one, I feel like as long as I’m convinced, the music will convince other people.”
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