Barely over 30, Samantha Fish already has more than a decade’s worth of writing and performing in life’s rearview mirror. Her new album, Faster, is the latest step in a career marked by constantly evolving sound, style, and skill.
Working with multi-instrumentalist/producer Martin Kierszenbaum and backed by drummer Josh Freese and bassist Diego Navaira, Faster is her edgiest, widest-ranging work to date, driven by bluesy rock guitar but swerving stylistically to rock and pop. Released September 10, within a week it vaulted to #1 on Billboard’s Blues chart, #2 on Americana/Folk, and was the #10 Current Rock album.
Now on tour, Fish is traversing the U.S. through November and will play a guest spot on three shows with the Allman Family Revival. Early next year, she’ll return to the U.K. and Europe. Nestled at a hotel in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the Kansas City native talked with VG about the new album, her professional growth, gear, and touring amidst a pandemic.
“We’re putting one foot in front of the other and rolling with the punches,” she said. “It’s been a challenge, but we’re accepting what we can’t control and making it work.”
You grew up watching your dad, his brothers, and their friends do guitar-circle jams. What did you take from that?
I was introduced to a lot of music that wasn’t on the radio. Some of my uncles were metalheads and Dad’s friends were into West Coast swing, bluegrass, country, Americana or some kind of inappropriate pirate-radio song I probably shouldn’t have been hearing at 13 (laughs). My dad’s best friend was a cross-country truck driver, and he’d listen to college radio stations, then come back with music from all these obscure indie artists.
Were there certain riffs you saw them play and thought, “That is so cool!”?
Not at those jams, but hearing Angus Young on the radio had that effect. I actually started on drums because everybody around me played guitar; I was like, “I gotta do something different.” And it was cool – I was 13 and did well with lessons even though I wasn’t very disciplined. I picked up guitar later, though, because I could leave the basement with it. I could play in the back yard. I could go hide out. I’d started singing while was I was drumming, and that gave me a rhythmic foundation that helped me figure out how to sing and play.
Was rock still your primary influence?
Yeah, when I started playing, I liked classic and alternative rock because of the guitar solos. You listen to the Stones or Tom Petty or Stevie Ray Vaughan and you realize it’s all blues-based. So I went down this rabbit hole, discovering different genres. By 18 or 19, I started doing leads after seeing Stevie Ray, Freddie King, and Angus videos. I was like, “That’s so empowering.” Watching them pushed me.
Were you hearing any female players at the time?
I heard some, but I didn’t find that there were as many in the mainstream. That had me thinking girls didn’t play lead for some reason. Representation is everything. Looking back, I know there was more than what I’d seen, but still, disparity.
What sort of guitar did you first learn on?
My sister had a pretty stiff acoustic (laughs). Pressing those strings down hurt so bad, but I worked up my callouses and played through the blisters and the pain. I encourage people to learn on an acoustic because you get that out of the way. Then, when you switch to an electric it’s like, “Wow, I’m flying here!” My dad also had a Kramer electric and I’d mess with it even though it was a little wild for my taste. I remember getting my first perfectly set-up guitar and how easy it was to play.
When and where did you first play in front of an audience?
It was at a street party, and there was a band playing; it was three guys – upright bass and two guitars. One of them was a picker like I’d grown up around, and he had this golden voice and a Gibson Chet Atkins that I thought was so cool. I went to check it out on their break and he strapped it on me and said, “Play a couple songs.” Had I thought about it, I would’ve chickened out because I was really, really shy. But it happened so quick. Obviously, it was my worst performance, but people were very nice and they clapped. I remember feeling exhilarated, like, “This is what I want to do!”
Which tune did you play?
I don’t even remember. It was probably Bonnie Raitt’s “Love Me Like a Man” or something bluesy. I barely remember any of it happening (laughs).
Were you into gear at the time?
No! When I started, I didn’t know what an amp was. I used to plug into a keyboard amp I dragged around to jams – an ’80s Peavey KB-300 that weighed a ton and sounded like s**t (laughs).
When did a “real” amp enter the picture?
A friend in Wichita sold me a Fender Super for $300, but as he was bringing it to the city, he knocked it against something and the Reverb knob broke off [in the 10 position]. At first, I was like, “That amp sucks,” but after I got it fixed, I realized it was really nice.
I didn’t put much thought into gear for quite a while, and now I think that if I’d found something better, I’d have grown faster as a player. My relationship with gear is much different now.
Before you had a band, you hosted a popular jam.
Yes, every Monday night at The Waldo Bar, so I knew a lot of standards. It was a tiny little place and the surrounding businesses would complain about the noise, so the cops would always come shut us down. My main memory is walking around outside with a decibel meter while people were playing (laughs). I did that for two years, and it was really successful; I’m still so proud of it. For awhile, we were averaging 35 to 40 sit-ins each night, which was pretty bangin’. And the bar loved it because they had business on a Monday night.
Being a devout music fan and a musician growing up in K.C., you must’ve seen some pretty good live music.
Oh, yeah. I remember going to Knuckleheads Saloon for the first time and seeing Papa Chubby. Later, I’d go to watch Michael Burks and Mike Zito. I also used to love watching Randy Ellis with Chubby Carrier, and Albert Castiglia and Tab Benoit. Kansas City has always had a vibrant music scene and Knuckleheads was the club touring acts would roll through on the blues circuit, along with every kind of country music, Americana acts, bluegrass, and rockabilly. After touring the U.S., I realize how fortunate I was to grow up there.
Was your attention focused on the guitar when you watched other players?
For sure. I remember Michael Burks being incredible; I’d fixate on his hands, and I always knew I was watching a great show if I wanted to leave halfway through and go play. He inspired me so much.
Your very first band was a trio, which is bold for a young, inexperienced player…
I did that because I wasn’t skilled enough. I wanted to challenge myself. I really felt strongly about holding down that role. So yeah, I might’ve taken it on sooner than I had the skill set, but had I not, I might’ve never gotten there.
I’m not afraid to fail in front of people (laughs). I don’t think I ever really did, but I’ve struggled enough to think, “Okay… I’m not fitting the bill here. What can I do to make this better?” When I first started, I developed crutches like relying too much on effects. So, I wanted to prove I could hold it down. It’s a never-ending journey, trying to improve. But being the sole guitar player called to me. I wanted people to say, “Yeah, that’s her…”
What kind of music were you playing, early on?
A lot of blues and classic-rock covers. I was starting to write, but had to fill a set. When you start out, people get an idea of what you do through covers.
Which guitar were you using at the time?
A Les Paul Studio. We picked up a friend’s gig and he ended up selling that guitar to me because he didn’t want to come to the city to get it.
How about your amp?
It was that Super, by then I’d had it fixed so I could turn down the reverb.
I didn’t know much about pedals, so all I had was a wah, but I used it for every single solo (laughs). It wasn’t always for the wah sound – sometimes I just wanted a bit of extra bite to my tone like you get when you open the wah for a different EQ.
What was your next step?
Well, my goal was to fill my calendar – keep the band busy enough to where everyone would make it a priority. I’d open up the phone book and call every bar and restaurant. At the time, I wasn’t popular enough to play places like Knuckleheads, so I had to go from the ground level and call places that didn’t even have bands or music. Sounds cheesy, but that’s what I did. I had a PA, so we could set up anywhere.
We slowly started expanding regionally – going to Chicago and St. Louis and Wichita. That’s when my friend, Mike Zito, hooked me up with his record label, Ruf Records, which was putting together a touring package. He said, “They’re looking for a third person to do a Girls With Guitars tour, and I recommended you.” And I was so against it – adamantly, like, “Girls with guitars? That sounds like everything I don’t want to do.” At that point, I was dressing in Chuck Taylors and baggy shirts because I didn’t want to be seen in that way. But he saw it as a great opportunity. And he was so right. That was such an exciting time because I got to jump up to this next level of professionalism. It was the first big break I had.
Who else was on it?
Dani Wilde and Cassie Taylor, who is Otis Taylor’s daughter. We toured Europe, which was really awesome. At first, I was intimidated; I was 20 years old and everybody was warning me about the evil music business and record labels. But there were good people around, like Mike, to coach me through those moments. I’m glad I didn’t talk myself out of that because it really opened a door.
Were people doubting you?
There are always those people, and if you allow them in, you’ll doubt yourself. I still hear from people like that, but you’ve got to see it for what it is and put it in its place. Some people are scared for you – and there are sh***y deals out there – but this was not one of them.
Has your being female added to others’ “doubts”?
When I was coming up, there were plenty of chauvinistic men who’d say derogatory things about my gender and the fact I was playing guitar. It still continues. Every single female artist goes through this. You just have to keep showing up to shut them up.
Your sister, Amanda, is also a singer/songwriter and performer. Safe to say you’ve had the support of your family?
Being a real quiet person and very shy, when I started playing music, I was embarrassed to share it with my family. I learned to play almost secretly. So did Amanda; the second our parents left to do an errand, she’d run up to her room, slam the door, and start singing. When they pulled in the driveway, she’d turn the stereo off and come back downstairs.
Were you afraid of being judged?
Maybe it was a vulnerability thing, I don’t know. Kids are weird, and I don’t assign too much meaning behind it. Maybe it was about not being judged, but I just wanted time to figure it out. Sometimes you’ve got to struggle alone before you bring your craft to people.
Were your parents onboard with music as your career choice?
They were apprehensive, but it didn’t matter to me. I love them both, but when they split up, I started doing my own thing. I was a teenager by then, so I slipped under their radar.
What do they do?
Dad’s a really talented master carpenter and contractor, and Mom is a claims adjuster. She’s also a classically trained vocalist, and was very involved with our church choir. When Amanda and I were kids, she was put in charge of the kids Christmas choir one year, and of course she was harder on us than anybody. She taught the choir “Lean on Me,” and I hate that f***ing song now (laughs). When I hear it, I get a sick feeling in my stomach because I remember mom yelling at us. She wanted us to be the best, so that’s what we worked for.
Did she teach you about singing?
Mom can project. In church, she was the loudest singer – the star of the congregation – and I may have picked that up from her.
Your new album, Faster, steps away from the blues-rock you’re known for.
It’s a huge step and I was motivated and inspired by the whole process making it.
You were writing songs as the pandemic was forcing the world into shutdown mode. What was motivating you at the time?
I think I was in denial, like a lot of people at the beginning. We were in Europe in March of 2020, in the middle of a tour, when we were sent home. I remember thinking, “Alright, in a couple weeks we’ll get back at it.” In June, we were canceling August dates.
When I started writing, the first couple songs were pretty bleak. “The Way Down,” which is on the deluxe version of the album, was written when I was mad, sad, frustrated, and lonely. I was dealing with a lot of things, kind of depressed. In June, I got in contact with Martin over the phone and before we ever talked about the record, he was like, “I think you’re great and you’re doing all the right things.”
Having that feedback sparked me to start writing more-empowered, more-confident material from a perspective of where I wanted to be rather than where I was. When we started writing together, he brought this positivity, energy, and enthusiasm for what we were doing. You can’t help but feel confident when you’re working with Martin.
How did the process work?
The majority of the songs that we wrote together started with a riff. We actually got together in Kansas City, where we wrote “Faster” and “Hypnotic,” and we started “Twisted Ambition.” I brought a guitar riff and said, “What about something starting like…” and “How about a high-falsetto melody here?” Then we’d start bouncing ideas off each other. He went to France to work on Sting’s new record, but we got together on Zoom nearly every night to work on ideas. It was constant work over several months.
There are great guitar parts and tones in every song. But what’s different is the edgier rock/pop flavor. Is that Martin’s influence?
Well, I started working more with modern instrumentation on Kill Or Be Kind, which had a pretty traditional Memphis vibe but mixed a throwback sound and soul with a bit of synths. This time, though, I wanted to commit. We were bringing in Josh Freese to play drums; he played with Nine Inch Nails, which is one of my favorite bands. I love the instrumentation in bands like that, where you don’t always know what the hell you’re hearing, but it’s a cool soundscape.
Martin also did Lady Gaga’s The Fame, and I’ve been leaning more toward that sort of music over the years. It’s about having the right people, and this was the right time to dive in.
There’s still a lot of guitar, though. Are you proclaiming, “I’m a guitar player, first and foremost?”
Well, my playing and singing are what people know me for. It’s who I am. I can’t lose it.
Which guitars did you use most?
I used my white SG for most of the solos and a Jazzmaster for some rhythm parts. That’s a ES-335 on “All the Words” because it was a slightly different song, tonally, and was the last song of the entire session.
There’s a Telecaster on some rhythm parts, but all the solos are the SG because it’s comfortable. When you’re feeling it on a new track and want to express yourself, comfort is important.
If I had it my way, I would’ve been in the studio for three more weeks, messing with every guitar, every different pedal, every amp. Sometimes, it’s good having a producer say, “Hey, you’re done. We found the sound and it’s awesome.” I’m grateful he did that because it allowed me to focus on playing rather than dickin’ around with gear.
What spurred you to sometimes grab the Jazzmaster?
It’s one of those guitars I really like, but don’t have one of. So I just wanted to play it.
Which amps did you run most often?
We blended a Fender Deluxe with a Super Reverb, but favored the Deluxe. In the studio, I like smaller amps. No offense to Fender Twins, but I don’t want that in the studio. I need something small but mighty, so when they told me they had a Deluxe, I didn’t care what year it was.
In your live rig you’ve been using Category 5 amps for years, right?
Yes, and they sound incredible. They’re all-tube, old-school point-to-point wired. I’ve got different speaker configurations and different cabinets, different wattages. Right now, my favorite is a 50-watt combo with a 10″ and 12″ speaker. It’s called the Andrew, and it’s self-biasing. I can pop tubes in and out like light bulbs.
Let’s break down a few Faster tracks you’ve come to especially like because of the solo or the guitar tones.
Well, I love the first single, of course – “Twisted Ambition” – but the focus songs already get plenty of attention. So, from the rest I really like “All Ice No Whiskey” because it’s exciting and encompasses everything I’m trying to represent on the record. It’s got a screaming vocal and a really cool lead where it drops to another key. It plays back and forth off a heavy synth part, so it might not be a guitar solo where you’re like, “Oh, it’s got a real structured melodic lead,” but it plays off of the synth. It’s a cool moment, kind of crazy, with a lot of energy and attitude.
Another cool guitar moment is “Hypnotic,” which… I hate comparing myself with somebody so great, but when we were writing and recording it, I was like, “This is a little Prince-esque,” because it’s got this really cool vibe; the vocals and lyrics are different than anything I’ve ever done. I sing in a high falsetto, then, in the middle is this monstrous guitar moment – the lead is huge – then it goes away just like that and we’re back into this wild vibe.
I also like the lead in “So-Called Lover,” which we did in one take; I was pretty proud of that. I was really warmed up, so my right hand was just goin’ as we hit this perfect peak moment where I was feeling like, “I can do anything.” It’s that sweet spot, and that solo is the result.
There’s a lot of cool guitar moments on this record. As a player, I feel we captured something special and different and unique. I don’t like to toot the horn or pat myself on the back too much, but I’m incredibly proud of what we accomplished.
Doing Kill Or Be Kind a couple years ago was the first time I was the only guitar player on a record. In the past, I had Mike Zito and Luther Dickinson producing, and they’re incredible guitarists, so of course I wanted them to play on the album. Bobby Harlow brought in some incredible musicians for Chills & Fever. We utilize our strengths when making a record, and carrying that weight solely is a fun challenge, but I’ve settled into the role, like, “Okay, I know what I’ve got to do,” and it’s a good feeling.
Do you practice guitar?
I go through phases where I feel inspired and want to pick it up. Then I’ll go through a phase where I’m like, “I don’t even want to look at it right now.” But I love the guitar. We have a healthy relationship and there are moments where I go to it, but I don’t want to make it a chore. That’s when I might start hating it.
Sometimes, it requires a little discipline. When I pick it up and my fingers hurt because my callouses have worn down, that’s when I’ve gone too long. But if I lose the fun in it, I lose the creativity. You’ve got to find the balance. Plus, it is my job, so I feel a responsibility to keep up.
This article originally appeared in VG’s December 2021 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.