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Samantha Fish: “Guitar playing is a puzzle you’ll never put together, but you find little things that make you happy, and they fuel the pursuit to get better”

Samantha Fish
(Image credit: Kevin & King)

Faster, the new album from New Orleans blues-rocker Samantha Fish, doesn’t sound like it was created during a dark time in history. With a slinky, devious opening riff and a flirtatious vow to “make your heart beat faster,” Fish lets us know from note one that life in COVID lockdown hasn’t taken the mischievous glint out of her eyes. 

“This album… I feel like it’s a big moment for me,” the 32-year-old singer/guitarist offers. “I feel like we all went through something collectively last year. I think it’s transformative for us as a group of people, but also individually, and so for me, this is about shaking off everything.” 

Though her first love is the blues, Fish has taken many musical styles to the fitting room over the years – soul, country and funk, to name just a few. This time out, her music intermittently recalls a time long before anyone had ever heard of the coronavirus… namely, the '80s. With its tastefully placed splashes of synth and occasional visits from the ghosts of Prince and David Bowie, Faster is long on catchy pop choruses and stick-out-your-tongue rock ’n’ roll swagger. 

The new sound owes much to the influence of producer Martin Kierszenbaum (Lady Gaga, Sting, Madonna, Feist). Along with co-writing several of the songs on Faster with Fish, Kierszenbaum became a de facto member of the band for this album, playing synth, piano, guitar and percussion. 

Rounding out an all-new studio lineup are bassist Diego Navaira of the Tex-Mex band the Last Bandoleros and drummer Josh Freese, who has worked with Nine Inch Nails, Guns N’ Roses, Sting and A Perfect Circle. 

Rapper/singer Tech N9ne, who is something of a legend in his and Fish’s mutual hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, makes a guest appearance on Loud. Rattling off rapid-fire rhymes, he rides the band’s chord changes with the ferocity of an impassioned lead guitarist. 

“I always thought it would be so cool to get to do a cameo on one of his songs someday,” says Fish, a longtime fan of Tech N9ne. “For him to come and do something on one of mine was really a treat for me. I’m super-proud of that. I play it for all my Kansas City friends, and they’re blown away.” 

Don’t let her little dalliances with pop and hip-hop fool you, though. Gritty, blues-based rock is still Fish’s North Star, and with Faster, she doesn’t let us forget why GW’s readers voted her in at No. 7 in our 2019 readers’ poll of the 30 best contemporary blues guitarists

With the same enthusiasm that she brings to her recordings and live performances, Fish recently gave GW the lowdown on the new album, the impact of COVID and her feelings about her own guitar playing. 

The last time we spoke, you were getting ready to put out Kill or Be Kind. Then the pandemic came along. Were you in the middle of touring when COVID hit? 

“Yeah, we were on our European Kill or Be Kind tour. As we left home, we were starting to hear about this COVID thing, and we were like, ‘Aw, it’ll be OK.’ Then we were in the U.K., and they’re like, ‘That’s all the way down in the southern part of Europe. That’s not happening here.’ And then within two weeks, everything just went mad. We had to fly home mid-tour. I’ve never canceled a tour before, so it felt really surreal: ‘Are we really doing this? We’re really not going to finish this?’ 

“Then there was this mad dash to get home, because at 2 a.m. on a Thursday, they told us if we weren’t home by Friday in the U.S., the border was going to be shut down for 30 days. It didn’t turn out to be true, but everybody panicked, and we bought the only ticket we could get. 

“The only itinerary that worked was to fly us all the way from Amsterdam to Moscow, and then we had to sit in Moscow for about eight hours and then go all the way to New York. By the time I got home, I’d been in the airport for around 45 hours. I was like, ‘If I didn’t have [COVID already], I might have it now!’”

Samantha Fish

(Image credit: Kevin & King)

With all the madness that was going on when you were creating Faster, how is it that this album ended up having a fun, upbeat sound? 

“As I was writing the songs, when I first realized, ‘OK, we’re not going anywhere for a really long time,’ the songs I was writing back in May and June were all really dark, apocalypse-driven and sad. I thought this whole record was going to be pretty dark, but as the year wore on, [I started] writing from a place I wanted to be rather than where I was. 

“I wanted to feel empowered, positive, in charge and sexy. And then I started collaborating with Martin. He’s such a positive person, and connecting with him brought a spark of positivity in my life that really felt absent for the five or six months leading up to our meeting.

“I was shocked when we ended up with this really fun, energetic piece. I thought, This is going to be so much fun to play [live], and I think this is going to be uplifting to people when [COVID] is all said and done, to have something that’s maybe not so cathartic – not looking back, but looking forward. 

“I feel I was extra-prepared for this album. We had nothing to do but prepare! [Laughs] In the past, I have left a lot open to interpretation as far as the demos go. I would just sing a song into the phone on the acoustic, and that would be the demo for the song that the band would then learn, and we would flesh it out in the studio. 

“This album, Martin really took charge of that production and had everything charted out. By the time the band entered the studio, all the band had to do was have fun and play. Normally, going into the studio, I have these jitters the night before day one or day two: ‘Oh, my God! Is this going to work?’ This time I felt really ready. Who knew doing your homework would help, right? Mind blown!” 

Do you think the synths and pop hooks on this album will alienate your more purist fans? 

“I’ve been testing the waters for such a long time. Every album I’ve put out since 2015 has been pretty dramatically different from the last. I have the best group of people in the world around me. The fans, the band and the crew have gone through this abusive thing with me, where they’ve really held on, album after album. 

“I really think there’s so much blues guitar on this record. I feel like to its core, my voicing with my guitar playing and my singing, I come from a really bluesy background. I can’t lose that; all I can do is color it a little differently, modernize it, shape it differently, record to record, but it’s still there, still me, and I always try to keep my guitar forefront.” 

Tell me about working with an all-new band in the studio. 

“It kind of made me feel a little intimidated, ’cause these guys were all really super good, but we all got along really well, and it was fun. I’m a huge Nine Inch Nails fan. With Josh playing with them, I tried so hard not to be a nerd and ask, [in a dopey voice] 'So, are they nice?' [Laughs] But I couldn’t help it. Josh is incredible in the studio. 

“His ideas are incredibly creative. And Diego – a lot of times after you do an album, you go in there and you tune and you tweak and you move things around, but you talk to Martin about it, and he says, 'I didn’t touch a thing that [Diego] did.' This guy just played perfectly, but with a lot of soul. And Martin did all the synths and pianos. Everything’s incredibly well-layered and creative.”

Samantha Fish

(Image credit: Alyssa Gafkjen)

What gear did you use? 

“The tone is pretty straightforward: my [Gibson] SG, straight into a Fender Deluxe cranked all the way to 10. When I came in there, there were a bunch of amps to use, but I really like using smaller amps in the studio. You turn it up, and you can really get ’em to break up nicely, and they sound really good at a lower volume. And I always bring in my AnalogMan King of Tone pedal, but I can’t tell you off the top of my head what songs we used it on.

“On Kill or Be Kind, I really fiddled around a lot! [Laughs] I messed around with different pedals, textures, tones and guitar amps. [This time] we got in there, and Martin was like, 'Man, we’ve got this killer tone, and this should be the connecting factor through all these songs.' 

“I used a [Gibson ES-] 335 on All the Words, and I’m pretty sure I used a [Fender] Jazz-master on the rhythm [track] of one of the songs, but I used my SG for the majority of the album. It’s funny how divisive the SG is, but I think it’s just a really versatile guitar. You can really change it up.”

How close are you to being the guitar player you want to be?

“[Chuckles] Oh, man! I’ll never get there. I think most guitar players might say that, right? It’s a puzzle you’ll never put together, but you find little things that make you happy, and they continue to fuel the pursuit to get better. 

“I’ve always felt like a student; I always feel like there’s more to learn, and I try not to be too hard on myself, because I feel like at some point you’ve got to be confident and comfortable with who you are. It’s like singing: you have the voice that you have. You can make it better, but you are given that voice. 

“For me, I have my hands, and they do what they do. I do try to get better, and I want to learn, but I also see the value in having a voice and an approach that sounds like you. I want to keep that; I think that’s unique, but I feel like there’s a lot to learn, and I’ll probably never be happy with it! [Laughs] That sounds terrible, but I don’t think anybody’s ever quite happy with it.”

  • Faster is out now via Rounder Records.

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