Listening to Samantha Fish is like opening the window in the morning after an all-night poker game. Her bracing bluesy voice is both a clean breeze and bright sunshine, blowing out the stale smoke, chasing away the darkness, clearing your head. It’s not that the songs she sings are necessarily happy, but she presents them in such a soulful, unaffected way, that her ascetic approach makes you feel so good, even if her tunes are often full of pain. It’s a paradox, but a wonderful one.
On her just-released album, Chills & Fever (Ruf Records), the 28-year-old Fish uses her fully-refined singing voice and guitar playing to make her bid for mainstream success. Full of fine but under-heard soul songs (by legendary writers like Jerry Ragavoy, Bert Berns and Jackie DeShannon), the record is her most accessible to date. And this is no TV talent show type belting out “Respect” for the millionth time. But a fully-mature, nuanced singer, who has taken old gems and polished them to shimmering perfection.
Ironically, it’s new technology that helped teach Fish about the Old School.
“All the kids from my generation picked up what they were interested in from the Internet,” says the Kansas City born singer. “If you’re interested in blues or soul, as I was, you could find it all on the web. I first got into this kind of music by hearing Stevie Ray Vaughn and The Stones. That led me back to people like (Howlin’ Wolf guitarist) Hubert Sumlin and Fat Possum artists like Junior Kimbrough. The more of this kind of music I heard, the more I loved it.”
Switching from drums to guitar at age 15, Fish found herself visiting all the bluesy watering holes in her city, listening to all kinds of rootsy music. Ruf Records heard her and signed her when she was barely out of her teens. She began with the compilation album, Girls with Guitars, released three more wonderful records, played with punk-blues legends The Detroit Cobras and vets like Devon Allman and Luther Dickinson and honed her craft. But Chills & Fever is where Fish breaks training and joins the big leagues.
Aside from the crisp production by Bobby Harlow and the killer grooves by her rockin’ band (which includes participation from those legends The Cobras), what may be most striking about this young singer’s album is her strong, unusual song choices. From the kickass, strutting opener, “He Did It” (an old Ronettes song) to the sinuous funk of Charles Sheffield’s “It’s Your Voodoo Working,” to the spooky ballad “Either Way I Lose” (done by Nina Simone), there isn’t a dud or obvious track on the record. It’s not an accident.
“I took my time and dug really deep to find songs that not many people have heard,” says the savvy Fish. “They were tunes I could really get into, first and foremost. But so many r&b songs have been done to death. I figured it was time for a fresh approach to this kind of music.”
A proven road warrior for someone still so young, Fish will soon be promoting Chills & Fever with a lengthy tour of both the U.S. and Europe (at any number of outdoor festivals). The album is also starting to get airplay and make Fish new fans. As for purists, Samantha Fish isn’t worried that a ‘blues’ singer is venturing into soul territory. She thinks of it all as just great music.
“I love the sound of the new album, the fact that I’m using horns and that there’s an edgier intensity this record has than my first three. In any great music, the singer sings each song as if their life depended on it. That’s what I always try to do. And I think I accomplished that here.”