By Brent Thompson
For more than a decade, Samantha Fish has been a torchbearer for the blues. But on her latest release, Faster (Rounder Records), the vocalist/guitarist expands her sound with the help of producer and collaborator Martin Kierszenbaum (Sting, Lady Gaga, Keane, Feist). On Wednesday, April 20, Fish will perform at Saturn. Recently, Fish spoke with us by phone from a tour stop in Albany, New York.
Southern Stages: Samantha, thanks for your time. We are looking forward to your return to Birmingham.
Samantha Fish: We like Saturn a lot – Saturn is a fun venue and they’ve got some cool stuff going on in there. I like Birmingham a lot, too.
Southern Stages: We are really enjoying Faster. How did the album’s body of material take shape?
Fish: To be honest, it was mostly new compositions. I do have some stuff that I’ve put together over the years, but when I start a new record I end up putting a lot of stuff in the trash bin and just start over. Writing feels fresh and feels new and your older stuff that you wrote a couple of years ago just doesn’t feel right for some reason. So this record specifically started from scratch – I spent a good year working on it. It was not a rushed process – I had all the time in the world off.
Southern Stages: I was going to ask how you spent your time during the lockdown, but I think you just addressed it.
Fish: There wasn’t much else to do [laughs]. You better make some use out of your time.
Southern Stages: How would you describe your writing process?
Fish: I wish I could tell you there was a really methodical process because that would help me tap into better each time. Really, you just get what you can. Sometimes you start with a melody – I’ll have a melody stuck in my head and I don’t know if it’s a guitar riff or a vocal melody or a bass line, but it’s something and you start from there. It’s like a seed you plant and you start working off of that. Other times, I’ll have pages and pages of written lyrics and I want to put the stories to some kind of music and I’ll try to come up with a chord structure to bounce around behind it. I think my most successful songs are the ones that have a key melody that people can really latch onto. That’s something I’m really trying these days to focus on – hook-writing and writing stories that appeal to everybody.
Southern Stages: How did you end up working with Martin Kierszenbaum on the new album?
Fish: He called me through some mutual friends in Kansas City – he has a Kansas City connection and I’m originally from there. He just reached out and told me he appreciated my work and we got to talking over the summer of 2020. He has so many incredible albums under his belt and it’s stuff that’s different from what I’ve done. I really wanted the opportunity to work with somebody who has all these massive pop credits to their name, but also figure out how to marry what I do with what they do. It was just a great opportunity for me to challenge myself and that’s how it came about. We started working really hard together via Zoom – I met him in October in Kansas City but it was still in pretty heavy lockdown. So, we started collaborating over Zoom and he was overseas working on an album and he’d get on Zoom calls with me at like 2 a.m. and we’d be fleshing out these songs and putting all the work in before we went to the studio. We really worked really fast and really well together – he’s a really energetic person and he really charged me up and I think we did some good work together.
Southern Stages: As a guitarist, are you someone that combs music stores to build your collection or do you basically stick with what you have?
Fish: I do have the desire. I walked by a guitar shop last night – we played a gig in Northampton and I walked around the town a little bit. There was this beautiful-looking Mom-and-Pop guitar store – you never see those anymore. The reason I don’t really go gear shopping anymore is that a lot of those great little spots are gone. I like what I have and I always get leery when someone tries to sell me something, but I am feeling the itch for something new.
Southern Stages: How many guitars do you take out on the road?
Fish: Let me count…I guess I’m at six right now. I have a cigar box that’s always in open-G (tuning) and I have another guitar that I’ve been using that’s in open-D.
Southern Stages: You are closely associated with the blues genre, but your sound is more expansive than just blues. Do you ever feel pigeonholed by the blues label?
Fish: I think as an artist it’s our job to make music and connect with our fans. I’m always aiming to widen the audience, but I also try to speak to the fans and express myself and get some joy out of it and make something that I feel proud of. As an artist, you’re just trying to make good music – it’s up to the labels and your manager to figure out what to call it and how to sell that to people. There’s so much music out there across the board and I think it’s a struggle to keep up. It’s an exciting time to live in as an artist because you don’t necessarily have to fall into those six categories the radio allows. We have the beautiful Internet to thank for that.
Southern Stages: I’m so glad you touched on the Internet. Some artists say now is a great time given instant accessibility to listeners and numerous outlets. Others say the current model makes it challenging to be found among the crowd. How do you view the current climate?
Fish: It’s a constant evolution. The music business that I entered into when I started my career is not the same music business that exists today. If you kind to expect to fall in the same pattern – it doesn’t exist like that anymore. I’ve been lucky to have a team to facilitate my albums and my tour schedule and all of that, but it’s a challenge for all of us to evolve and keep up with the current times. It used to be you’d put out an album every two years and get by with that, but now you have to continue to feed people. I’m going to be telling someday someday, “Oh, it was like this before,” but they’re never going to know so it’s all about perspective. It’s a bummer that your albums don’t mean anything monetarily liked they used to – anybody can go and stream it or steal it online. You just realize that this is where we’re at now.
Southern Stages: You’ve been releasing albums for more than a decade. How do songs stay fresh to you after you’ve performed some of them hundreds of times?
Fish: Life experience definitely helps [laughs]. There are songs that I wrote early in my career and I’m like, “I’ve actually lived this now – I don’t know how I wrote about it, but I’ve actually lived it and it hurts in a whole new way.” But re-imagining the music is how I keep stuff fresh – let’s still put [a song] in the live set, but let’s play it differently to keep it fun and keep it fresh. I really get into transition – like how can we artfully transition from an old song into one of these new songs. I like to take something old and something new and say, “All of this stuff does actually belong together.” It’s all centered around blues music and live instrumentation and that’s fun.
Samantha Fish will perform at Saturn on Wednesday. April 20. Django will open the 8 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $22 and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com.