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Samantha Fish Looks to the Past on Her Unorthodox Covers Album

May. 9, 2017
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Before she was old enough to drive, drink or vote, Samantha Fish’s initial glimmer of a musical vocation came to her the way it has come to many other open-eared, open-minded people: She got blown away by some old-time blues and soul intensity. 

“When I first heard Etta James, she was just so much more convincing than the stuff I heard on mainstream pop radio,” she recalled during a recent phone interview. “She spoke to me and tapped into something much deeper than what I’d heard before.” 

As a teenager, she visited clubs in her native Kansas City, switched from drums to guitar and began writing and performing songs that she hoped would add her own perspective to the feelings she got from listening to “a lot of different American roots genres,” she said.

Yet Fish’s newest album, this year’s Chills & Fever, doesn’t feature any of her songs; instead, it features remakes of songs drawn mainly from the 1950s through the 1970s. However, it is not an especially conventional covers record; the biggest hit is “Hello Stranger,” which its own writer, Barbara Lewis, took to the top of the R&B charts in 1963. 

“It seemed good to make an album of hits that maybe no one had ever heard before,” Fish said. “Some of those more obscure songs should’ve really been hits, but they fell through the cracks. We were just finding stuff that fit well together.”

The “we” indicates a collaborator, and he wasn’t the most obvious choice for a trawl through 45-rpm archives—T Bone Burnett would be that guy—but he was the best for Fish: producer Bobby Harlow, whose Detroit-area band The Go once included Jack White and whose garage-rock attitude and experience tightened up Fish’s tactics toward the material.

“Bobby’s got a poppier, even more mainstream, approach to making records,” she said. “Shorter, more concise sounds. You get to the point a lot faster. I can’t believe these songs all fit onto one record.” 

Harlow also helped bring in supporting players, including a bassist, guitarist and drummer from The Detroit Cobras, a group that absolutely loves to put some punk into soul and girl-group music.

Two New Orleans guys on saxophone and trumpet added additional punch, and Harlow tried to keep the recording experience simple and direct, with Fish in the same room as everyone else except those horn players. 

“It is tough to deal with microphone bleed and mistakes,” she said. “You have to be okay with rawness and loose ends, but that’s how we’ve always done stuff. That can be the coolest part of the performance, is the mistakes. There was some magic there.” 

Chills & Fever manifests that magic from the opener, a brass-bursting “She Did It”—once recorded by The Ronettes and the aforementioned Detroit Cobras—to a torch-bearing “Either Way I Lose”—previously handled by Nina Simone and Gladys Knight—and a tremendous  “Crow Jane,” a Piedmont-blues number Skip James mastered.

While Fish’s guitar skills make themselves known, the key focus is her voice, which technically can’t match the range and power of some of the above singers but which in phrasing and passion represents some of the best and most mature singing the 28-year-old winner of a Blues Music Award has done in her career. And it’s affected the rest of her creativity.

“It was a different style of singing,” she said. “Really spending time with a lot of songs that are classic and timeless, you find yourself analyzing. It’s seeped into my songwriting and helped give me a new method.” 

With producer Luther Dickinson, the North Mississippi Allstars frontman who was also behind the boards for her 2015 album Wild Heart, Fish has already completed a new, all-original, semi-acoustic record set for release this fall.

In the meantime, though, and with her biggest live band to date, she’s staying on the road for Chills & Fever. Reviews and sales suggest it could be her biggest critical and commercial achievement.

“It’s kind of a sigh of relief that people are embracing it,” Fish said. “I’m going for longevity. You have to balance staying true to yourself and your art with getting out there to as many people as possible. That’s success.”

Samantha Fish plays Shank Hall on Friday, May 12 at 8 p.m.

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