Music

Blues Cruising Samantha Fish Takes Joy Ride of Her Life on 'Kill or Be Kind' (album premiere + interview)

Photo: Kaelan Barowsky / Courtesy of the artist

"Playing more for the song," Samantha Fish feels right at home dealing with various shades of blues in New Orleans, and proves it with a sneak preview of her sixth studio album.

Kill or Be Kind
Samantha Fish

Rounder

20 September 2019

Samantha Fish is still playing the blues, but the working-class singer-songwriter/guitar goddess sounds like she's found her happy place in 2019.

Now teaming up with well-respected roots label Rounder Records and enjoying the Southern hospitality of New Orleans, where the Midwest-bred musician now resides, Fish relishes her role as a 30-year-old player who still shreds like a teenager but knows a whole lot more.

Saying she's "more focused" as a songwriter, Fish is delighted to bring new, original tunes to the masses this week with the Friday release of Kill or Be Kind. Better yet, she's giving fans a sneak preview by presenting the full-length album stream in its entirety today at PopMatters.

"I've been growing and stretching as a writer," Fish said in response to a series of email questions for this article that accompanies the premiere. "Writing for hooks and themes that can really pull listeners in. I feel like I've matured as a writer; I think the themes and content have developed. I stretched as a guitar player. Playing more for the song, not using it as a vehicle for a guitar solo, but having the guitar support through textures and atmosphere."

Give a listen to the album now, then read on to find out why Fish is exploring new depths as a guitar-slinging artist who is taking a fresh approach while spreading the blues news.

It's the sixth studio album of her impressively prolific career that started percolating at the age of 15, when Fish was pounding on drums to impress the grownups who visited her family's home in Kansas City, Missouri, where she and her older sister Amanda were raised.

That same year, a request for an acoustic guitar was added to her Christmas wish list, and it didn't take long to plug into an electrifying feeling. As a tireless touring musician, this road-runner seemingly never runs out of steam, determination or inspiration.

During a recent swirl of festival activity through Colorado, she closed out the Street Faire series in Louisville before an overflowing crowd, capturing their attention for the sixth consecutive year.

There were furious flurries while exhibiting slide guitar prowess or rapid-fire precision on songs like "Wild Heart," "Watch It Die" (with a killer finish), "Bulletproof" or the Blue Rondos cover "Little Baby"; a forceful voice ranging somewhere between the roundhouse punches of Janis Joplin and the rock-climbing delivery of Grace Potter; and her commanding presence fortified by self-assured leadership and a passion for fashion topped by those stunning blonde locks.

Though she may be now considered a veteran of the music industry, Fish yearns to learn more about a livelihood that officially began in 2011 with the release of Runaway, her first solo studio album.

"I feel like I've progressed a lot, just in confidence alone," she said of her development as a blues guitarist that led to landing on the cover of Guitar World. "It's amazing how much better you can get when you start feeling comfortable in your own skin. Knowing what you want is huge in the studio."

Partly responsible for bringing her to a new label, Grammy winner Scott Billington became Fish's latest producer. And while Jim McCormick returns as a cowriter on four of Kill or Be Kind's 11 songs (and also introduced her to Katie Pearlman, who collaborated on soft and bittersweet "Fair-weather"), Fish also found new songwriting blood with the addition of 26-year-old Oklahoma roots rocker Parker Millsap (the slow-building, melancholy "She Don't Live Around Here") through Rounder. The label also recommended 45-year-old Ohio blues musician Patrick Sweany (a propulsive "Watch It Die").

"Each session was unique and really educational. I love writing with different songwriters; it's amazing how broad the perspective becomes," said Fish, who also enlisted colleague Eric McFadden for rip-roaring album closer "You Got It Bad."

Fish also was the sole writer of the explosive, album-opening "Bulletproof" and "Try Not to Fall in Love With You", a mid-tempo, classic-sounding rock 'n' soul number that's boosted by the one-two brass combination of Jim Spake and Tom Clary, who provide notable assists throughout the album.

If there's one constant theme, it's the traditional L-word, as in "Love Letters" and "Love Your Lies". But the raw, emotional power also finds it way into Kill or Be Kind and its title cut. "Back before I was your heartbreaker, I was someone you could adore / Back before the love I made, made me out a fool, I was looking for something more."

"Kill or Be Kind expresses the duality of love and hate in relationships, but I felt like the title was poignant for other reasons as well," Fish said. "How we operate as individuals in the world, it boils down to making that choice. You can choose love over hate. Using your power for the greater good or to contribute negatively to the world around you."

In a phone interview we did for a music video premiere for the title cut to the cover-filled Chills & Fever at the Huffington Post in 2017, Fish was spending a couple of days house-hunting in New Orleans during Mardi Gras season.

"Laissez les bon temps rouler" might be Fish's latest catchphrase.

Samantha Fish performs at Street Faire in Louisville, Colorado on 9 August 2019. Photo: Michael Bialas

Making her home now in the City That Care Forgot (see more below), she also recorded this album partly at the Rhythm Shack in the Big Easy, but primarily at Royal Studios in Memphis, where parts of Wild Heart, her third studio album, were finished, with North Mississippi Allstar Luther Dickinson producing.

"I wanted to bring the soul element to the studio," Fish said. "I love Memphis, I've always felt at home there. Between the soul sounds and close ties to northern Mississippi (and Zebra Ranch studio in Coldwater), it's just a happy place for me. I feel like wherever you record, it sets the tone for the album. Location is so important."

That could also apply to landing at Rounder Records. Despite all the upheaval in the music industry, the company whose motto is "Our Roots Run Deep", continues to hold onto impressive clientele since it was founded in 1970. A Who's Who of Americana has included established acts Alison Krauss, Bela Fleck and the McCrary Sisters, along with rising stars I'm With Her, Billy Strings … and now Samantha Fish.

"Rounder is a huge step in a good direction for me personally," said Fish, who was introduced to the label through Billington and her manager, Rueben Williams of Thunderbird Management. "They have access to more opportunities and a big [label services] team. Their roster is diverse, and getting added to that is a beautiful thing."

You can almost see the twinkle in her eye and hear the tingle in her voice. That's because this Fish tale keeps getting more intriguing every happy day.

Samantha Fish performs at Street Faire in Louisville, Colorado on 9 August 2019. Photo: Michael Bialas

OFF THE HOOK: 5 MORE FOR SAMANTHA FISH

How much do you study other blues guitarists and what else would you like to learn from them? What other tricks of the trade would you like to add to your arsenal?

I really haven't studied anyone in particular lately. Sometimes it's good to disconnect when you're writing. It keeps the ideas from becoming too derivative. It's a fine line. It's always great to add new tricks, but playing from your soul is a solo journey in a lot of ways. Other instrumentation can be really inspiring and lead you down some interesting paths.

Who tops your wish list of future musical collaborators?

Oh, that's so tough! I really live a blessed life in that I've gotten the opportunity to collaborate with some incredible artists (most recently with Anders Osborne at Telluride Blues and Brews). Whether recording, sharing the stage, or writing. Honestly, anyone who I can share good chemistry with. When you find those people, you gotta make sure you can come back together.

The last time we chatted on the phone (in 2017), you were house-hunting in New Orleans. Any luck? What inspiration did you expect to draw from the Big Easy?

I found one! I got very lucky. I love New Orleans. The people, the food, the culture, the music … it has everything a writer could love.

When we spoke, you were very candid about the uphill climb you and other female musicians have made to get ahead. What changes have you noticed in the past couple of years?

I see more women in the industry. Not just on the stage either ... promoters, producers, sound engineers, roadies, etc. It's inspiring to see. I think more change like that will continue to inspire and knock down doors for women.

As far as touring goes, Colorado has become your traditional stomping grounds for the summer. What is it about the crowds in places like Louisville (Street Faire) and Telluride Blues & Brews that are drawn to your music?

Samantha Fish: They are true music fans. Colorado does not play when it comes to music festivals. They don't sit down, they are completely engaged. It makes my job so much easier and fun.

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