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| 18 March 2024 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar

Riding high with a Grammy nominated album in collaboration with outlaw country stalwart Jesse Drayton, Death Wish Blues, Samantha Fish & Dayton return to Australia this May for a series of shows not to be missed.

On Death Wish Blues – produced by Jon Spencer, of The Blues Explosion and Boss Hogg fame – Fish’s incendiary blues guitar playing melds perfectly with Dayton’s, their voices intertwine and complement each other’s, adding up to one of the best albums of either of their careers – and that’s saying something.

Back home in New Orleans after another run of solo dates, Fish sat down – with one of her cats on her lap – and dialled 100% ROCK for a chat.

I was going to ask this question much later in the in the interview, but I’ll ask now. What do you do to reconnect with yourself after a busy tour? I mean, when you don’t have to write songs for a specific project, there’s no recording or touring booked. What does Samantha Fish do to just be you and just have fun?

Well, I come home and I give my cats a big kiss, because they missed me – I’ve actually got one sitting on me right now. That’s always pretty grounding, I have to say.

I relate – I have dogs at my feet as we speak.

I’m a big animal person. I’m… you know, they always bring me so much joy, so that’s always something that reconnects me like, ‘oh yeah, that’s me.’ But I just try to see my friends, you know, I mean when you’re on the road you miss everybody so much. Everybody’s got lives. So, when I get home, I just try to reconnect with everybody and keep those important connections in my life going and healthy and stable. So, right now I’m just reconnecting with friends. I’m doing my laundry for the next tour, trying to have a little fun while I’m here.

Yeah, nice. How about family? Are you spending some time with them and all that sort of stuff?

I do my best. A lot of them live in Kansas City, which is my hometown, which is about, you know, it’s 13 hours by car or a flight or whatever. If I get a reasonable amount of time off, I might go up there for a couple days and see people, or bring some people down here because New Orleans is a lot of fun. But this break I’m just doing downtime. Samantha stuff! I’ll see the family next time.

New Orleans is a great fun city, and it’s a very musical town as well. Do you get a lot of inspiration from being around that vibe?

Absolutely! I believe it’s the best music city in the US, hands down. I mean, the level and calibre of talent here is just so incredible and it’s just such a part of the culture and the community. And I just like being able to come in and witness it and enjoy it. It’s a wonderful town.

When you tour a lot, how do you mix it up from one leg of the tour to another, or from one show to another, to keep it interesting and exciting for yourself?

Beyond the wardrobe? [chuckles] No, I think, I just try to put on the best show possible. I try to create a set list that is diverse and has a lot of drama and, you know, takes a listener on a trip. So, I try to create a sketch of a show where there’s a lot of movement – variation, and a beginning, middle and end, you know? Then you can swap out the songs that work in those places. I try to create this arc with the show and work songs in and out where they fit the best.

You mentioned your wardrobe there, mixing that up. How important is fashion to you? I mean, you always look immaculate: great hair, great outfits, funky jewellery. Does feeling comfortable with how you look help with your confidence and swagger on stage?

Absolutely. It’s show business, head to toe! I feel like fashion is a part of the art, you know, I mean the art is all about music. It’s what you’re listening to. But I feel like there’s also a visual sense to the music too, you know? You can create a concept and a whole aesthetic that is a well-rounded experience. That’s a part of the art, and you can do it with the visuals too – that’s why lights are important in the show. If visuals weren’t a part of the show, we’d just do it in the dark! But no, we spend thousands and thousands of dollars on light packages and lighting people and it’s because people come to the show to have this full immersive experience, and that’s all part of it. And for me personally, it’s something I enjoy doing. It’s a part of who I am. And sometimes that’ll give you your superpowers before the show! [laughs]

Very cool indeed! Deathwish Blues, obviously, was a bit of a watershed for you: new songwriting partner and collaborator, and new producer. Are you planning on sticking with that team for your next record or do you like to bring in different people for each project and mix things up?

Well, every record’s been really different from one another, really, since 2015 – since I made Wild Heart – whether it’s a different producer or like a completely different concept. You know, when I made Chills and Fever [2017], we made an R&B album that had a horn section, we went to Detroit and did covers of 1950s and 60s soul music. And then The Belle of the West [also 2017] was like North Mississippi meets Nashville. We went to Mississippi and made it with a fiddle, and fyffe and drum. It was very much a different kind of a vibe – and I’m talking about records that were years ago, but that was kind of the start of this trend for me where I utilised the opportunity to evolve as an artist through records as a whole piece, like a concept, you know. As far as what’s next… I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that out… but that’s sort of the fun part in the process of making art. There’s this question mark over it… a Death Wish Blues 2 is not off the table, but I know Jesse’s got a solo record coming out here very, very soon, so it’s definitely not going to be the next record. But who knows, down the line, if we’ll, you know, pull it off or not?

Well, you seem very much in demand. I mean, that Grammy nomination – that’s pretty wild! Has that attracted more mainstream interest to your work?

It’s been a massive honour. I feel like it [only] just happened. Like, we just went to the ceremony last month – like a couple weeks ago. So, I think the effects of it… we’ll see it over time. But in the immediate, like just in the now, it’s just been kind of a huge honour and really, it’s just something that we’ve been talking about to folks, like we’re talking about it right now. There’s so much prestige around it, and it definitely it’s something that I’ve, you know, dreamt of my whole career. So, it’s been really, really cool. I don’t know what it’s going to mean down the road, but – hopefully – I think only good things come from that.

How did you feel when you first heard about your nomination?

Kind of shocked! Like, we were all kind of just like, ‘really? Oh my God!’ I think shocked, humbled. Like, I was really excited. It was emotional because you’re always working to have your work reach a broader audience and you know, a Grammy nomination is – that’s like the biggest stage that you can really be recognised on for music! And being nominated in that world by our peers, it was just really an honour cause it’s a lot of hard work [to get to that point]. It was both Jesse and my, our first nomination as individuals and obviously together, so I think both of us are just kind of blown away.

Fantastic. Well, it’s well deserved, it’s a fantastic album. Going back to when you first started collaborating with Jesse and that Stardust Sessions EP – those are three killer tracks right there, and they’re all covers. Did that make you excited to get to work on your own songs?

Yeah, that was a funny weekend, because Jesse had come to New Orleans and we’d rented out this studio space. And we were supposed to actually collaborate and write songs together that weekend. And I think we had three days, and we didn’t write a single song while we were in there. [laughs] And my manager called and was like, ‘so what songs did you guys write?’ We didn’t write a single one! He was kind of mad at us – like, ‘what do you mean?’ I said, ‘well, we were actually just getting to know each other more, and just talking about our history and the music that we like.’ And when he called us and said you guys are going into the studio to record a couple of covers, really, it was just for a demo. It was just to kind of see if we sounded good together, can we complement one another. And so, we chose those three songs because they sort of fit the vibe of what we talked about doing, if we were to write a solo record together. And after that session, I think it gave us that little boost of confidence that we needed to, you know, start working and writing together – so we made quick work of it after that.

Cool. I’ve read the word cinematic used to describe Death Wish Blues multiple times, and it fits very well. Was it a conscious decision to make the album sound very cinematic and wide screen?

It was a word that we kept throwing around after we’d write a song. Like, ‘wow, I feel like this could be in a movie – it just seems to describe a scene so well.’ But I think a lot of it was, Jesse and I were approaching writing these songs from a different perspective. It wasn’t so much of a singular perspective as it was writing stories about a couple or, you know, just the shifted perspective between the two of us writing a duets record. And, I don’t know, it just opened it up. But yeah, a lot of these songs just felt like, ‘wow, here’s another one that feels like it could be a car chase scene in a film,’ or ‘this one could be some espionage thing,’ or ‘this could be, you know, Quentin Tarantinoesque,’ here or there. It just kind of kept popping up throughout and it made sense [with] Jesse, his background and work in films – he’s written scores for films before, it’s kind of old hat to him. [But] it was exciting for me because, you know, I like writing music like that – it just feels big.

Well, roll on those Hollywood bucks, I reckon!

Heck yes. [chuckles]

You mentioned that first weekend when you were meant to be writing songs and didn’t because you were sharing stories. I would imagine that between your career and Jesse’s career, you’ve got a lot more than one weekend worth of stories to share with each other!

Yeah, I think that was it, and there was also just a little, like, hesitation, you know? We weren’t really sure what to do yet, and I think both of us was kind of scared to bring that first idea forward because – what if the other one doesn’t like it and they shoot it down?!? And then it’s like, now the project takes a different feeling. So, I think there was like kind of a hesitation to [start].

Well, yeah, it doesn’t matter how successful you are as a creative person, there’s still that imposter syndrome going on, isn’t there? That fear that one of your peers might not like what you do because you’re creating something out of nothing?

Yeah, and also, at least that maybe was my feeling when we first started, like, if he doesn’t like this, then … well, this is what I think the project is… I don’t know. It’s just what we were idealising the project to be. But we had a very real conversation after we did the demo. You know he’s brought it up many times, like there was a lot of just getting real. We had to drop the vulnerability. You had to. You had to drop the insecurity and just be, like, totally OK with being vulnerable. Like, ‘hey, I’m gonna send you an idea. Please, if you think it’s stupid, just be honest,’ you know? But we had to get to it really quick and I feel with collaboration it was sort of cool because ‘no’ wasn’t really a big part of the vocabulary. If somebody had an idea and they were really passionate about it, it’s like, OK, let’s explore it, because we both had the same part in this project – like, we really had the same goal in mind. So, if somebody felt strongly about something, it was like, yeah, let’s chase it down and try it. And you know, there was maybe only a couple times in the studio where an idea didn’t pan out, but it was like, you know you just have a different perspective when you’re working as a collaborator. And just once we took those training wheels off, or you know got rid of the insecurities, it just it went really quick.

Lovely. Yeah, so, Jesse’s got a history of working in the outlaw country and punk realms. You’re a bit more blues based. Have either of your influences started permeating each other’s work, do you think?

I think so. I think this project sort of brought us both into each other’s worlds and then also brought us into a new place altogether. You know, this album was different than anything we’ve done on our own. But I think you just can’t help but soak up the essence of another person that you’re making art with. I think you just kind of absorb these different styles and these are all things that I really enjoyed. Jesse’s been a fan of blues music for a long time. I mean, he’s a musicologist really. His radio show, he was playing all kinds of diverse stuff. So, I think we both absorbed a lot of each other’s influences and it’s just kind of been part of the natural process with that collaboration.

I really love that the album’s so equally balanced in in the guitar, in the vocals, in the songwriting. Would you agree that that was a big part of why it worked so well, that you melded so well together and so equally?

Yeah, and it was something that we kept discussing throughout the process. We wanted to make sure the record at the end of the day was ‘beautifully even’, was the wording we kept using. And I credit a lot of that to Jon Spencer, our producer, who was just really diligent in making sure both of us came through and were well represented on the album. He also had a lot of experience with his work in The Blues Explosion, how to create tones on guitars that sonically stand apart on records but still support each other, and how to create just a really expansive sound, you know? Yeah, exactly.

The man’s a fireball, right?


His work has always just been amazing. You just talked about sonically and all that – I suppose that answers my next question, as to what he brought to the project.

Yeah, he brought a lot of energy to what we were doing. He had a lot of creative input, you know, just the style in which we recorded. I always tell people the way Jon mixes albums or, you know, how he recorded them, it’s kind of like a party for your ears. If you listen to it with headphones on, there’s just different things coming from different places in the speaker system. So, you know, it’s kind of like confetti in a way – like, you got something coming from the left, and then you have like one guitar squeal coming from the right, and it’s like it’s constantly exciting to listen to and he is really, really good at making albums exciting. I think if we’d recorded this record, you know, flat, it would not have that same ‘wow, this is like a really great exciting record to listen to’. I think Jon’s expertise in the studio, and just also the way he coached us through recording our vocals and helping us connect on these duets, like how he just made everything so conversational, I credit so much of that to Jon. He really is good at getting into the character of the song.

That’s such a really good point. That’s exactly what a really good producer should do, right? Just take what’s there and elevate it up to this next level. I’ve wondered a lot recently, with the music industry not being as financial as it used to be, the role of the big producer and everything is being sidelined a lot. People are just self-producing and whatnot, and they’re not taking that work – which could be amazing – where a top notch producer could – taking it somewhere different.

Yeah. And I think there’s so many roles that the producer has to play. For me as an artist, it’s so hard for me to look at things as objectively as a producer can. You know, I will sit there and play the same guitar solo until it has lost every little bit of soul. [laughs] If you let me, I will just wring all the life out of it because I’m looking for perfection. And whereas I’m getting away from that more and more, like I think that was something I faced when I was younger. I was like, trying so hard to make it perfect, but early on, my producers would be like, ‘it’s great – we’re done,’ you know, and that was such an important thing for me as an artist, ‘cos it’s like, you’re trying to keep it on time, on budget, all this other stuff, but the producer is trying to get the best performance out of you too. So, it’s nice to just have that objective set of ears in the room, you know, and that frees you up to just be artistic and just have that sense of direction.

Fantastic. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you, Samantha. Thanks. Thanks again for your time today. We’re looking forward to the tour. It’s coming up fast.

Me too. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s gonna be so fun.

Smantha Fish & Jesse Dayton Australian tour: May 2024

May 16 – Metro Theatre, Sydney
May 17 – Blues on Broadbeach
May 18 – Blues on Broadbeach
May 21 – Memo Music Hall, St Kilda
May 22 – Freo Social, Fremantle
May 24 – The Gov, Adelaide
May 25 – Corner Hotel, Melbourne

Category: Interviews

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