Music Interview: Talking with Samantha Fish about the “Death Wish Blues”

By Blake Maddux

Samantha Fish is coming to the Cabot Theater on June 16. Her latest disc, produced by Jon Spencer, currently sits atop Billboard’s Blues Albums chart.

Blueswoman Samantha Fish — “Boston is always a rowdy spot for us.” Photo: Daniel Sanda

In his review of her 2019 show at The Sinclair, the Arts Fuse’s Paul Robicheau praised Samantha Fish’s “devil-may-care prowess … as a singer and guitarist,” noted that “while Fish shines with her guitar work on the new album, she impressed more with her singing live,” and predicted that “2020 looms with promise” for the already lustrously shining blues luminary.

Alas, neither Robicheau nor Fish (or anyone else, for that matter) had any idea what 2020 had in store.

Thankfully, Fish bounced back in 2021 with Faster, her third consecutive — and fourth overall — #1 entry on Billboard’s Blues Albums chart.

Her latest effort, the Jon Spencer-produced Death Wish Blues, hit stores on May 19 and currently sits atop said survey.

Fish wrote and recorded Death Wish Blues with Jesse Dayton, a prolific country solo artist who has collaborated with artists as varied as Waylon Jennings, Rob Zombie, and Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses.

The dyad recently finished a trek of Europe and are set to kick off a US tour that will land at Beverly’s Cabot Theatre on June 16.

Fish kindly answered several questions for me via email in advance of her visit to the North Shore.

The Arts Fuse: How did being raised in Kansas City shape your musical tastes and your style as a musician?

Samantha Fish: Kansas City has a long-standing tradition of jazz and blues. When I was a young person learning how to play guitar, learning how to perform in a band setting, I would go out and sit in at jam sessions. The only way that you would ever get called up was if you understood the form and knew some standards. I had to figure out how to play the blues, and I found my footing in a way that felt really natural. That sent me on the path to where I am now.

AF: What were some specific albums that inspired you as a guitarist?

SF: I really liked North Mississippi blues, so artists like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside had a pretty big influence on me. Sticky Fingers is one of my favorite albums of all time. There are some iconic riffs. B.B. Kings’ Indianola Mississippi Seeds was another massive record for me as well.

AF: Same question, but as a vocalist?

SF: Betty Harris is one of my favorite singers. Al Green.

AF: What is your history with Jesse Dayton?

SF: I’ve known Jesse Dayton for about 12 years. When I was young, I would go to this club called Knuckleheads, and Jesse used to come through all the time with his band. I met him then and kept in touch with him through social media. We reconnected last year when he played in New Orleans. I had thought about him for this project because I was a fan of how varied his art has been over the years. He’s all over the map in a good way. I thought he would be able to pull something like this off well. So, we started talking about it, then we started writing together.

AF: How did the stars align so as to make your recent collaborations possible?

SF: He seemed interested in the idea, so we started to work on writing songs together. We had a somewhat fixed idea of what the album could be, but as we wrote together, it started to take on its own personality and its own character.

AF: How did the two of you decide who would sing lead on which songs from Death Wish Blues? Did you also trade leads on guitar?

SF: We really based those decisions off what felt the most natural. Most of the songs that I brought in naturally fell to me, and the same goes for Jesse. For example, when he brought the song “Trauma” to the table, it felt more natural for me to play a supportive role, just made the choice through instinct. As far as guitar solos, where he was singing lead, I would play the lead guitar and vice versa. It didn’t take a lot of consideration. It just worked out that way.

AF: How did Jon Spencer end up being brought on board as the producer?

SF: I’ve been a fan of Jon Spencer for years, since I was young. My manager brought his name up to be considered for production on this album. I was really, really thrilled about it. Jon makes exciting albums. He wrings every little drop out of a performance and finds a way to utilize it. He helped us find our edge and stay with it throughout the recording process.

AF: What did he bring to the album that you are particularly pleased about?

SF: Jon brought the rock and roll. He brought a wealth of knowledge on how to get great sounds. He wanted to record to two-inch tape. He wanted to go up to Woodstock. We had all this great vintage gear at our fingertips, and we were excited to follow his lead. He knows how to get good performances out of artists. He helped us dial up the attitude and keep it at the forefront of the sessions.

AF: Who are some contemporary artists, blues or otherwise, whom you admire and are inspired by?

SF: I like guitar players of course. I try to keep up with what St. Vincent and Tedeschi Trucks Band are doing. Jack White and Queens of the Stone Age always do surprising stuff with their guitar tones. I love great writers like Jason Isbell, etc.

Samantha Fish and Jesse Dayton. Photo: Kaelan Barowsky

AF: Which artists or styles of music are among your favorites that might surprise those familiar with your work?

SF: My love of music is not limited to specific genres. I’m a rock and roll and blues lover obviously, but I like good hooks and melodies. Music speaks to you in different ways at different moments. Because of that, I’m all over the place with what I listen to.

AF: You have released five Billboard Blues Albums chart-toppers and won a combined 20-plus Blues Music Awards, Independent Blues Awards, and Best of the Beat Awards. How important to you are chart success and awards?

SF: They are nice to receive, but they’re not the reason I do it. I’d be doing this if it was successful or not. I think a lot of artists feel that way too. It’s nice to have your hard work be recognized.

AF: Have you had any Boston-related experiences — personally, professionally, or both — that stick in your memory?

SF: Boston is always a rowdy spot for us. The fans are fun and speak their minds, so it makes for good banter … usually. I feel like we are only ever up there in the intensely cold winters, so I’m looking forward to making some new memories.

Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to the Arts Fuse, Somerville Times, and Beverly Citizen. He has also written for DigBoston, the ARTery, Lynn Happens, the Providence Journal, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and the Columbus Dispatch. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife and five-year-old twins — Elliot Samuel and Xander Jackson — in Salem, MA.

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