above photo by Brian Rozman Photography
Samantha Fish has a knack for revitalizing time-honored sounds and making them her own.
It started when, at 15, she received her first acoustic guitar and hid away in her bedroom to commit chords to memory. She taught herself electric leads by ear, from guitarists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Angus Young and Slash. She then found a place to develop her technique in Kansas City’s blues scene by performing at open jams; at 17, she played her first show at Knuckleheads.
“While I was growing up, I focused on the rock aspect of playing guitar, and the groove of Mississippi blues,” Fish said.
By the time she reached her 20s, she was a proficient player and a burgeoning songwriter who caught the attention of Ruf Records, a blues crossover label based in Germany. Her first two albums on the label — 2011’s “Runaway” and 2013’s “Black Wind Howlin’” — showed an astonishing command of the blues. While her songs and guitar work voiced the threadbare sincerity of the genre, they also conveyed Fish’s distinctive musical personality.
In 2015, with the guidance of producer Luther Dickinson and Nashville songwriter Jim McCormick, she tapped into more of a roots and hill country blues sound in “Wild Heart.” Not only was the album a departure from previous works, it uncovered a desire for Fish to dig deeper into her musical roots.
“I focused on soul artists like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Otis Redding when I was learning to sing. I love the expressiveness of soul vocals and how liberating they can be,” she said. “I was really into that kind of music, but never played it.”
On her new album, “Chills and Fever,” Fish reimagines 14 hidden R&B gems from the 1950s and ’60s.
“A lot of these songs weren’t hits, but they should have been,” she said. “I felt like it was a good time to put my stamp on it.”
Taking on the weighty task of covering songs performed by artists like The Ronettes and Nina Simone, Fish reinvigorates these sounds and takes ownership of them with tenacious and tender vocal inflections, subtle and snarling guitar lines.
Recorded at The 45 Factory in Detroit with producer Bobby Harlow, the album draws upon the rich musical history of the Motor City, from the elegant bounce of Motown to the unfettered garage rock of The White Stripes. To add to the depth of its sound, Fish enlisted four members of The Detroit Cobras, a keyboard player, and two New Orleans horn players.
“I learned so much about dynamics by working with those guys, and the dramatic effect of what horns can add to a song,” she said.
“Chills and Fever,” available Friday, also signifies a new phase of Fish’s career: bringing in a larger band. On her upcoming album tour (which hits CrossroadsKC on May 26 and 27), she’ll double her personnel to six with the addition of a brass section and a piano player.
“I’ve done the trio my entire career, but this felt like the right time to expand into a bigger band,” she said. “I’m used to filling up so much space with my guitar, so it’s gonna be a different dynamic, and I can focus more on singing.”
Even for Fish, it’s hard to predict where her talent and drive will take her next. But for now, the 28-year-old musician is content to be where she is.
“As far as what will inspire me even in two years, I’m not sure yet, but the new material is already influencing what I do, and I’m sure that’ll continue,” she said. “But albums represent where you are in the moment. Leave some of that open to how you feel in that moment.”
— Michelle Bacon is a musician and writer dedicated to the Kansas City music community. She advocates for and helps spotlight music in the area, writes web content for 90.9 The Bridge, plays drums with Chris Meck & the Guilty Birds, and bass for about anyone who asks. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram at @michelleobacon.