Editor’s note: Samantha Fish will perform at 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2 at the Battle, Axe & Tracks festival in San Rafael Park in downtown Reno.
Samantha Fish readily admits she was caught off guard when the pandemic hit in March 2020 and she had to cut short a European tour and return to her home in New Orleans. The shock was shared by many of her musician peers, and Fish never imagined the COVID crisis would be more than a minor speed bump interrupting her busy 2020 touring schedule.
“I never thought this thing would last more than two weeks,” Fish said in a recent phone interview. “I didn’t really get comfortable with the idea that I was going to have time off until somewhere in the summertime when it was like ‘OK, wake up, wake up! This is real.’ I just didn’t really know. The TV was yelling at me every morning, telling me something kind of different. I just wasn’t sure. And we kept booking shows, but they’re pushing them back. I think seeing those dates on my calendar was like a little bit of a mind trick because I’d be like ‘Oh, July, we can make something work in July.’ Then July went away.”
Eventually, Fish figured out a way to get back to playing live. She trimmed her band down from its previous six-person lineup to a trio of bass, drums and Fish on her customary guitar and vocals and began playing drive-in and socially distanced shows at venues that could make reduced attendance work financially.
“We got to October (2020) and we realized OK, we can actually do this safely,” Fish said. “We just have to have really strict rules, not only for the venues and the fans, but for us as a band as well that we have to follow protocols. But it was nice just being able to do it, even though it’s a little more restrictive than usual. I still think we were having fun and we were getting to play music.”
Fish continued to play these sort of shows well into spring of 2021 before heading into more traditional venues as touring opened up last year.
Getting back on the road – even for shows with limited attendance – made good sense for Fish. And she didn’t just sit idle during 2020 waiting for touring to resume. She used the time to make her latest album, “Faster.”
“I spent pretty much the whole year (2020) writing songs,” Fish said. “I did a bunch of virtual collaboration sessions over Zoom, like writing sessions. I just made the most of it.”
“Faster,” was released this past September and it marks the next chapter in what has been an impressive run of albums for Fish. After establishing herself as a blues artist to watch with her 2013 debut “Black Wind Howlin’” and her 2015 follow-up, “Wildheart” (which had some roots rock added to the mix). Fish really began to stretch out stylistically.
For “Chills & Fever,” released in March 2017, Fish went to Detroit to record with the members of the Detroit Cobras and came out with a stellar album that still had a blues element, but also included rocking vintage R&B (“It’s Your Voodoo Working,” “Somebody’s Always Trying” and the song “Chills & Fever”) uptempo rock (“He Did It” and “Crow Jane”), classic soul (“Nearer To You” and “Hello Stranger”) and sultry balladry (“Either Way I Lose”). In December of that year, her music took another turn on “Belle of the West,” as Fish successfully delved into rootsy Americana, with more of an acoustic, fiddle-laced sound, plenty of spunk and still a blues thread running through many of the songs.
For 2019’s “Kill or Be Kind,” Fish went to Memphis to record, plugged back in and delivered an album with stinging rock (“Love Your Lies,” “Watch It Die” and “Bulletproof”), soul (“Try Not to Fall in Love With You,” “She Don’t Live Here Anymore” and the title track) and blues-tinged pop ballads (Fair-Weather” and “Dream Girl”), all wrapped in the most sophisticated songwriting of her career and a more modern feel that contrasted with the vintage vibe of “Chills & Fever.”
“I think ‘Kill or Be Kind’ has that soulfulness,” Fish said. “Memphis was such a big part of it. You know, it’s like our backdrop says so much, like really sets the tone for the album.”
“Faster” covers its share of stylistic ground and introduces a few more new wrinkles to Fish’s sound. In particular, Fish said she was able to bring a pop dimension to the album by co-writing and working with producer Martin Kierszenbaum.
“Martin’s a pretty incredible producer. He’s worked with some major pop acts in the kind of mainstream field,” Fish said, noting a resume that includes Sting, Lady Gaga and Madonna. “I think my goal with this record was I wanted to make songs that could cross over into a realm that I hadn’t crossed into yet, but also maintain the authenticity of who I am as an artist and a guitar player. That, of course, is always the challenge when you’re trying something new, maintaining who you are, but also committing, committing to the process. I see these songs, it’s a very diverse record. They all feel very different from one another. I think they’re empowering. They’re fun. There are some that are more skewed rock and roll. There’s some pop influence. I feel like there’s bluesy guitar all over it. My voice just tends to skew bluesy anyway. So it’s kind of got this soulful quality to it.”
Now Fish is back where she spends much of her time each year – on tour. She enjoyed playing in the trio, a format that really relies on her guitar playing to carry the melodies of the songs, but also gives the musicians more room to be spontaneous and stretch out on songs if they are so inclined.
“The thing with a trio is you can make it rock harder, play with different dynamics,” Fish said. “I mean, I love playing with big, lush bands, but the nature of it when you have more people on stage, we have little more orchestration that goes on. In the trio, I don’t prefer one over the other, to be completely honest. On certain songs, I completely miss the big band. And on other songs, I love the freedom that the trio kind of brings where you’re communicating with two people on stage, like ‘Hey, I’m going to try something completely different. You guys follow me.’”
But as 2021 progressed, she expanded to a four-piece band, adding Matt Wade on keyboards, along with Ron Johnson on bass and Sara Tomek on drums.
And once “Faster” was released, she began to liberally feature those new songs in her sets, along with a few songs from “Kill or Be Kind,” while touching back on earlier material.
“We’re doing throwback stuff. We’re doing stuff from the ‘Wildheart’ record,” Fish said. “That’s cool for the old-school fans because they’ve been hollering out those requests for the last couple of years, and I’ve been, not ignoring them, I just forgot the songs. It’s nice to get to play those again.”
-Alan Sculley, Last Word Features