By Joshua Maloni
Samantha Fish should consider hiring Maxwell Jacob Friedman as her hype man because, as he might say, she’s better than you – and you know it.
She would be the last one to make that claim – and with MJF previously committed, let me be the one to say this: Fish is an amazing talent who should be on the radar – if not the playlist – of music fans.
Known as a premier guitarist, Fish has also proven to be an elite vocalist and hitmaker with her latest offering, “Faster.” The Missouri-bred artist is often described as having a hybrid blues-rock-folk/americana sound – and that’s true with this album. But the thought on the minds of those listening to the 12-song compilation won’t be, “What genre is this,” as much as “Wow, I want to listen to this again.”
“Faster” is catchy – and that might be a dirty word to today’s more-sophisticated musicianados. But consider it this way: If you took the sounds and substance of your favorite albums from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and today – minus all that boy band stuff – and combined them with sizzling guitar licks and sultry vocals, then, yes, the result would be “catchy” – something you want to put on repeat for a few straight days.
It is, as one of Fish’s songs is called, “Hypnotic.”
“Faster” was produced by Martin Kierszenbaum. It is Fish’s sophomore release for Rounder Records. The album debuted atop the Billboard blues charts, while landing at No. 2 on folk/americana and No. 10 on rock albums charts.
The world’s No. 7-ranked guitarist – so says Guitar World – Fish enlisted a backing band comprised of Kierszenbaum, (guitar, piano, keyboards, percussion), drummer Josh Freese (Guns N’ Roses, Nine Inch Nails, The Replacements), bassist Diego Navaira of The Last Bandoleros, and singer Hannah Brier. She also recruited Grammy Award-winning engineer Tony Lake and mixer Robert Orton. Rap legend Tech N9ne joined for “Loud.”
Fish will share her new material when she visits the Town Ballroom on March 9. Tickets are $32 for the 7 p.m. show. It’s a double-bill with The Devon Allman Project.
“We're gonna have a lot of fun, man,” Fish said in a recent phone interview. “We've always had great audiences up there. The music fans, I mean, they're incredibly dedicated. You have to be, like to go out and see shows in the wintertime.
“I'm grateful for the chance to get to play, and also just for the people that come out.”
An edited Q&A follows.
Samantha Fish, “Faster.” (Photo by Kevin & King)
Q: This is your second show in Buffalo this winter – and we’ve had about 3 feet of snow. That is brave! Is someone bribing you, or do you just really like our audiences?
Samantha Fish: I mean, we always love touring the East Coast. But the last couple years have just been crazy-challenging in putting tours together. And we've had so many things move around just in the last couple years playing. So, coming back to Buffalo twice in the wintertime might sound crazy, but it's really like an orchestrated tour that a bunch of people have been working on.
Some of the stuff is made up from the time passed, but I always like playing the East Coast. And the audiences, especially in New York, upstate, we always have a good time. So, really, I could get along just about anywhere – and I have some very nice coats, and some super nice boots. And I'll be ready for it.
Q: That's very good. Well, we do like to pride ourselves as being good music fans, and we have a lot of really good musicians out this way, too. I'm always curious to know about the non-New York/Los Angeles/Tennessee-type markets. What was the Kansas City music scene like for you growing up?
Samantha Fish: To be honest, super-encouraging and very open to young players.
I grew up kind of in the blues scene/contemporary blues scene around Kansas City – and Kansas City has a very long tradition of jazz and blues. Like, if you look at the city historically, it's really kind of like a hidden gem. So, there's all this history that kind of fuels our scene; and nightly jams. And a lot of people, like myself – I was young – can come out and just cut my teeth and kind of get used to playing with a band in different scenarios. You just kind of learn how to improvise and do the stage thing.
I spent years and years kind of honing my craft that way, in the loving community that is Kansas City.
Q: “Faster” is fantastic. All the songs are good, but the first four and the last four, I think, could take the Pepsi Challenge with anything I’ve heard in the past two years. It’s interesting, because you’re quoted as saying, “I really thought that after 2020 I’d end up with a really dismal, bleak album, but instead, we came up with something that’s fun and sexy and so empowering.” Tell me about how these songs came together the way they did.
Samantha Fish: I’m trying to think of the first four and last four (laughs). … I appreciate that, and I think it's awesome that those spoke to you.
So, as far as like the construction of the album and how that all came about, it was the middle of 2020, kind of summer time. I started writing songs on my own. Just sort of, you know, doing what everybody was doing, which is like, I'm inside, under strict kind of isolation-y-type orders. New Orleans was particularly bad at that time. I knew touring was off the table, and I started writing. And, yeah, it was a lot of kind of dismal $hit.
And I don't know; sometime in the summertime, I met Martin and we just started talking. Really, nothing started happening for a couple months, and then once we had the discussion, like, “Hey, I think you should be the producer of the record” – you know, he's worked with Lady Gaga and Sting, and kind of this different direction that I really wanted. I wanted to test the waters and see what I could bring in, and what he could bring in.
So, we started co-writing together. And, I mean, these were just the riffs I was coming up with, and so the subject matter sort of followed. I think I just wanted to write songs about how I wanted to feel. I think I felt really locked down and lonely, and I think we all kind of felt bleak. It was a very depressing time. So, I wanted to write songs that made me feel good, thus making other people feel good.
Q: The album placed extremely high on blues, folk/americana and rock album charts. Nobody likes labels, or to be pigeonholed, of course. But would you say there is one genre that fits you better, or that you feel more comfortable with? Or do you like being this hybrid artists who's very good at all of these things?
Samantha Fish: I think we're kind of label-obsessed these days, you know, classifying things so that they fit into a box. A lot of my favorite artists kind of transcended genre.
I don't know; when I think of an iconic artist or something, I can't really say, “Oh, they’re specifically a rock artist.” I mean, a lot of them are, but the labels change so much. I always use the anecdote that the Rolling Stones were once a pop act. They were charting in the pop charts, and now they're a rock band. But that's because our perception has changed so much.
So, really, I just try to make good music that I pull from my influences. I think that's my job as an artist. My team would probably be happier if I was easier to label (laughs), because it would make the job easier, because it is hard when people don't know what to call it. It's hard for them to place it into a category. But I just, I don't know, man – I think it's my job just to make good music, and I don't really buy into that it has to fit specifically into a genre. I think it can be influenced by certain things, but it doesn't have to necessarily be that, you know?
Q: That's completely fair. At the same time, I would say that, if you were to go into three different bars, and you were looking at your sort of prototypical blues fans, your prototypical folk/americana fans, your prototypical rock fans – you probably find three very different audiences.
Samantha Fish: Absolutely, yeah.
Q: Is that what you find at your shows? Do you find that you've got a really nice, eclectic mix of people out in the audience?
Samantha Fish: I think because I came up more in the blues world – you know, we played a lot of blues (shows) – and I'm not going to say that's the style of music, specifically, that I was playing, but it was heavily influenced by blues. We did a lot of blues events, you know, like the Blues Cruise; and we did blues festivals and a lot of blues venues, the blues societies and this and that. And definitely with the guitar, I think it all kind of comes down to guitar solos, when you're looking at genre. Because, like really, what genres are guitar solos in now in this contemporary age? You're not hearing a lot on pop radio.
I think it's like the blues was a good medium for me as a guitar player. And when I look at the audience, it's a lot of blues fans. But I think, over the last few albums that we put out, I'm seeing it kind of become more diverse. When I went to Rounder, we got played on a lot of americana radio stations. And when I did the album “Belle of the West,” we had a pretty heavy americana/AAA presence.
You see people come in in these different phases, and you hope they stick around for the rest of the ride. But people come in, they jump in, jump off. But the audience seems pretty diverse to me when I'm up there on the stage.
Q: You mentioned the guitar solos. Guitar World has you as the No. 7 guitarist in the world.
Samantha Fish: Ridiculous! (Laughs)
Q: Who is No. 6, and can we start a campaign to get them knocked down a peg?
Samantha Fish: Oh my god! That’s the weirdest thing to me, because we all do what we do, you know? It's hard to quantify, sometimes, what makes a great guitar player – because everybody's looking for different things. There's some people who want that technical prowess, and then there's some people who just want it to have like a feel. And so, I don't know how you measure who's better, whatever.
It's a funny concept – but I'm not going to turn it down. It's very nice (laughs). I don't know who the other guitarists were, though. I didn't check out the list. I didn’t check out the competition.
Q: Well, I'm going to find out who No. 6 is, and we're going to start a letter-writing campaign to get them flip-flopped with you!
Samantha Fish: We'll do a little like trading fours. A lick war. Because you know people love it when guitar players do that!
Samantha Fish (Photo by Kevin & King)
Q: You started playing guitar at 15. You’re 33. How in the world did you get this good this fast, because we’re not talking about a lot of years here?
Samantha Fish: I don't know. I appreciate that you think I'm good. I worked really hard at it.
I go through phases where I work really hard at it, and then where I'm like, “I hate it.” You know, there's that love-hate, push-pull relationship with the guitar. I think that's healthy.
I practiced a lot. I listened to a lot of records. I think the key to being a good musician is just to have big ears, and to listen, and to just try and be in the moment and play what you feel – because that's what people connect to.
I just try to really dive in fully and commit to it when I'm in the moment, you know? That and, like, scales (laughs). Practice your scales, I guess.
Q: OK. Fair enough. So, the last time you were here, we sort of were going into our lockdown phase again, which was not ideal. But now we've come out of that; people are excited. We still have a ton of snow, but at least the sun is out. I'm sure that there'll be even more people coming out to the second show. For the people who are coming out for the first time – who didn't see you last time – tell me about your live show. What can we expect?
Samantha Fish: So, the lowdown with this show is we have the River Kittens opening. They're an amazing duo out of the St. Louis area. Incredible, incredible band. These girls are fantastic singers and writers and composers.
My band – me and Devon are doing a co-bill. So, my band's gonna play; Devon’s band is gonna play; then we're gonna do a little something probably at the end, with maybe a special guest here and there.
But for my specific show, we're gonna have a lot of new songs off my new album, “Faster.” I'm just gonna keep that energy up. I want people to come out and dance and have fun. I want the weight of the world that’s been riding on all of our shoulders for the last few years, like, I want people to walk in the room and be able to forget about it, and have a good time. And that's my job, is to try and provide that. Rock 'n' roll and high energy and lots of guitar.