The title track to Samantha Fish’s new album, “Chills & Fever,” arrives seemingly out of the blue.
The song, an R&B/soul classic that was a hit for Ronnie Love in the early 1960s and covered by Tom Jones in 1964, is steeped in steamy horns and swampy guitars. It’s a profound departure from the music on Fish’s three previous full-length albums, which explored various flavors of the blues.
The song has a retro vibe, in an Amy Winehouse way. So does its noirish video, which shifts from black-and-white footage of a bejeweled Fish in an elegant black dress or, during a dream sequence, in nightwear, to color footage of her playing electric guitar. This shift in music focus may catch many of her fans off guard, but Fish said the sound of “Chills” represents music she has been deeply interested in for a long time.
“When I started singing, I fell in love with soul singers,” Fish, a Kansas City native who still lives here, told The Star recently. “It was all about Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding. I wanted to sing like Otis Redding and Ray Charles. It’s another kind of music I’ve loved and been interested in.”
“Chills & Fever” was recorded at the 45 Factory, a studio in Waterford Township, Mich., about 20 miles north of Detroit.
“It’s in the back of this motel, the McGuire’s Motor Inn,” Fish said. “The motel is a trip. When I first got there, I thought, ‘There’s no way I can stay here.’ It was pretty wacky.
“But my producer said, ‘Oh, no. You have to. It’ll be like an immersion technique. You have to think about these soul singers back in the ’50s and ’60s who were singing for their lives because it was all they had. So you’ve got to go in there and live this life and sing like that, sing like everything depends on it.’ So really that was my approach going in: Throw everything I had at these songs.”
The approach worked. “Chills” comprises 14 tracks, all covers. Some of the songwriters are well-known, like Allen Toussaint (“Nearer to You”), Jackie DeShannon (“He Did It”), Bert Berns (“I’ll Come Running Over”) and Van McCoy (“Either Way I Lose”). Others are more obscure.
“But with this kind of music in particular there are so many songs that maybe weren’t traditional hits but should have been,” Fish said. “It felt like we could really redo some of them and take people on this musical journey with us.”
Fish compiled the track list with her producer, Bobby Harlow, a former member of the Go, Jack White’s pre-White Stripes band.
“He started sending me all these obscure girl group songs,” she said, “so I learned a lot.”
Fish recorded the album with members of the Detroit Cobras, a garage-rock band from Motown, plus a two-piece horn section, which added another accent to the mix.
“The horns are from New Orleans,” Fish said. “Mark Levron on trumpet and Travis Blotsky on sax. My manager, Reuben Williams, brought them in; he’s from that region. To me you can hear New Orleans all over the record. It’s like a collision of music regions. It adds a different dynamic to the record. We knew we wanted horns, but I’m glad we got them from down South.”
Because of the style of music she was recording and its heritage, Fish said, her vocals are unlike any on previous albums: more expressive and unleashed. And calculated, down to the proper vintage microphone for each song.
“We switched out microphones pretty much every song,” she said. “(Harlow) was like, ‘This song will sound better with this old microphone’; don’t ask me the model names because I’ve no idea. They had an arsenal. Really, it came down to me going in and singing as hard and soulfully as I could.”
She made some adjustments on guitar, as well, tapping into the sounds of Mississippi, music that heavily influenced her previous album, “Wild Heart,” which was produced by Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars.
“We brought in a lot of Mississippi influence,” she said. “Bobby and I talked a lot about Junior Kimbrough, which you may not hear come across, but he fell in love with Junior Kimbrough and wanted to bring that kind of droning, heavy rock ’n’ roll/blues sound to this really gritty, Detroit rock ’n’ roll record.”
“Chills & Fever” was released on Friday, but it had already drawn some positive attention in Guitar World and the Huffington Post. Fish will start touring on the album starting in April. At a show in New Orleans recently, she gave the crowd a preview of the album, which only aroused anticipation for the tour.
“After we get back from Europe, we’ll go into rehearsals in New Orleans and then start that tour with the horns and the keys,” she said. “Everybody is ready and really excited.”
That tour will include a two-night stand at Crossroads KC in late May. By then, Fish and her band will be well-rehearsed in delivering her latest exploration of music that has inspired and influenced her, music from another era with a few contemporary twists and accents.
“I’ve heard it described as everything all over the map,” she said. “To me, it’s a rock ’n’ roll/soul record. That’s what keeps coming across: this powerful, soul/rock ’n’ roll sound. For sure it has a retro vibe. You can see it in the artwork, too. It’s retro, but we’ve given it a modern, contemporary sound. I wanted to make something that sounded timeless.”