Samantha Fish can shred her blues guitar with the best. So a new album with a dual focus on her voice and hits from the 1950s and 60s is a bit of a curve-ball. Fish calls it freeing.
“When you start music, you don’t go, ‘This is the way my band is going to be forever,'" said Fish. “I started with the trio format, but now is the right time to expand and add layers. Every time I write, I can hear different dynamic things I can add, whether it’s a pedal steel, a horn line, or piano part. Now is the opportunity to spread out and do these things.”
The 14 songs on “Chills & Fever” lean heavily on the soulful side; that's no surprise to anyone who has known of her decades admiring soul singers. But despite the turn away from blues-rock for this album, Fish feels she has stayed true to the rock-and-roll trio presentation that has been the hallmark of her act.
“This was an opportunity to spread my wings and sing, and focus on the vocals. You know, channel some of the singers I grew up loving, like Nina Simone,” said Fish.
The Van McCoy-penned “Either Way I Lose” is the Simone cover she’s referring to.
“I love her version,” said Fish. “And that was one of the more challenging ones to record because she has such a unique … she’s incomparable. To go into the studio in the style of Simone is quite a feat. I just tried to get some inspiration and make it my own.”
Brainstorming with producer Bobby Harlow, Fish unearthed a number of sweet, but long forgotten gems, including “Hello Stranger,” an early 60s hit for Barbara Lewis. More than any other song on “Chills & Fever,” “Hello Stranger” was a daunting challenge.
“If you listen to the original, it has all these ‘do bop dee bop my baby,’” laughed Fish. “I didn’t know how I was going to pull that off. We ended up modernizing it. We had the horn section play the old vocal line and gave it a real hip drum beat. That ended up being one of my favorites on the record.”
Veering outside expectations can confound fans. But so can repetition. Fish said despite both raves and furrowed brows in reaction to “Chills & Fever,” giving the album a different vibe than previous releases has been a good move.
“It keeps my inspired … it keeps me working and moving. If you’re doing that and constantly challenging to grow, you’re going to come up with better stuff, and it’s going to benefit the music,” said Fish.
Being able to focus on her voice has allowed the critically acclaimed guitarist showcase her versatility, and allowed her to stretch out her singing chops
“I’m still playing just as much guitar now,” said Fish. “I’m just not splitting my brains in half focusing so hard on these rhythms where singing becomes secondary. Now I feel the guitar and voice are more evenly matched.
And playing off another melodic instrument in the band has been invigorating.
“I’ve only been me and a rhythm section. Now I have horns, and they play a line and I can play off of that. It just gives me more to work with, and really fun!” said Fish.
Samantha Fish plays the Castle Theater in Bloomington on Aug. 29. Peoria native Bret Bunton is the opener. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and show starts at 7:30 p.m.
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