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Samantha Fish takes her bluesy sound into new territory

Samantha Fish will play Knuckleheads Saturday.
Samantha Fish will play Knuckleheads Saturday. Richard Ecclestone

Samantha Fish nearly wept during the recording of her new album, “Wild Heart.”

She was in Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studio in Memphis, Tenn., one of the most venerable recording studios in the world, listening to sisters Risse Norman and Shontelle Norman-Beatty record backup vocals on “Go Home.”

“I was getting chills,” Fish told The Star recently. “They were laying down these incredible gospel harmonies. Boo Mitchell, the engineer, and I were almost tearing up. It felt so magical. Knowing the history of that room and knowing that Al Green sang into that same microphone: It was very humbling.”

The moment signifies one of the many changes that sweep through Fish’s music on “Wild Heart.” It’s a country-gospel ballad, cast in acoustic and electric guitars and light percussion and burnished with those sisterly harmonies — far from the blues-based sounds that filled her previous two solo albums. And it’s one of a few songs recorded in what Fish described as a “jug-band” style.”

Fish has been presented as a blues artist since she broke into the music scene in 2011. There are many moments on “Wild Heart” that will satisfy blues fans, although even those songs signify a change in direction. As happy as she was with her first two albums, Fish was itching to tap into other roots and influences.

“It was time to shift,” Fish said. “It’s the third album of my solo career. I felt like we’re always working toward what we think we should sound like. And I think I’m closer now to what I want to be than I’ve ever been.”

That shift included enlisting a different producer. Mike Zito, a solo blues artist and co-founder of the Royal Southern Brotherhood, recorded Fish’s first two solo albums, “Runaway” and “Black Wind Howlin’.” He also produced “Girls With Guitars,” her project with fellow blues guitarists Cassie Taylor and Dani Wilde.

“It was just time for a change,” Fish said. “A lot of people don’t work with the same producer for more than an album or two. I wanted to work with someone new.”

With help from her manager, Reuben Williams, she enlisted Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, who, Fish said, has a history of producing the kind of sound she wanted on “Wild Heart.”

“I really wanted to work with Luther,” she said. “I love the North Mississippi Allstars. When I found out they’d produced their last record, ‘World Boogie Is Coming,’ I wanted to work with him.

“The sound is so good and I really like the way songs were put together, the instrumentation. It was out-of-the-box punk blues, a really fresh vibe.”

Before she went into the studio to record, Fish took another different approach for her third album: In August she went to Nashville and collaborated with Grammy-winning songwriter Jim McCormick, who has written for Jason Aldean, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Luke Bryan, Randy Travis, Trisha Yearwood and others.

“I worked with other songwriters there, but he and I really clicked, and the songs we wrote made it on the album,” she said. “It was kind of a weird thing, something I’d never done. But it was good to sit with someone with so much experience and feel out their approach.”

Most of the songs are “road songs,” Fish said: “Romance songs about the road, that whole kind of travel lifestyle and not being in one place very long and how it affects me and my friends and family. Some are stories, but not about me necessarily.”

The 12 songs on “Wild Heart” were recorded in four studios: Royal Studio and Ardent Studio in Memphis; Zebra Ranch in Coldwater, Miss., founded by the late and legendary Jim Dickinson, father of Luther and Cody Dickinson; and the studio owned by drummer Brady Blade in Shreveport, La. Blade played drums on much of “Wild Heart” and Luther Dickinson played bass and other instruments.

“It was kind of scary at first,” Fish said. “We cut it as a trio. They were the rhythm section, and I was the guitar player. I was like, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ But Luther said, ‘Just do what you do.’ I kind of panicked at first. I thought, ‘What do I do?’ But it was kind of freeing, too.

“I really had to step up into this role of being the guitar player and the singer and really own it and front it. We used no distortion pedals; it was just straight through the amp. I had to trust my hands to make the right sounds.”

The record has a decidedly live feel to it, on purpose.

“We wanted something that would be true to what we do live,” Fish said.

A lot of the songs were cut in one or two takes.

“We’d try to shoot for three, four or five takes,” she said, “but they just weren’t as good. Those first couple takes, there’s an energy there and tension there … this magic. When we’d try to record it again, we’d lost that energy.”

After three days of recording at Blade’s studio, Dickinson scheduled a side session at the Zebra Ranch with Shardé Thomas, granddaughter of the late bluesman Othar Turner, who played drums, and guitarist Lightnin’ Malcom, like the Dickinsons a hill-country bluesman. This is where the album took a precipitous turn.

“We did this acoustic jug-band set,” Fish said, “sitting around one microphone and recording it live. I’d told everybody I like that kind of music, and Luther set it up.”

From there, they went to Royal Studio to record the vocals track with the Norman sisters.

“I really wanted a no-frills, raw presentation,” Fish said. “After we’d recorded the main tracks we could hear what needed to be added. But where we heard keyboards or horns, we put female voices.

“They were so good. Now I feel like I have to find some female singers for my band.”

She, Dickinson and Blade played some of the “Wild Heart” songs live for the first time at this year’s New Orleans Jazz Festival, where Fish had several gigs.

“It was weird,” she said. “I was so out of my comfort zone playing new material with guys I don’t normally play with.”

Saturday, she will give her hometown a chance to hear (and buy) the new music when she and her regular band — Go Go Ray on drums, Chris Alexander on bass — throw a “soft release” party this weekend for “Wild Heart,” which won’t be officially released until July.

At Saturday’s show, Katy Guillen and Claire Adams of Katy Guillen & the Girls, who open the show, will join Fish on several songs, adding those female voices.

“We'll be singing on a couple of the acoustic numbers, playing mandolin and acoustic guitar with Sam and the band as well as singing on a couple of the electric tunes,” Guillen said, “and I'll be joining her on electric guitar. The album is awesome ... it has a lot of cool arrangements with background vocals and pedal steel guitar.”

The show will be something of a coming out for Fish’s new sound.

“I can’t wait to play these songs,” she said. “It’s going to change the sound of the band. It will always be bluesy, and it will still be me and my guitar and the trio. But I’m thinking about adding voices. And Luther laid down some great lap steel that I really liked. And there’s other stuff that we may add down the line, elements that will make it more interesting.”

She’s only 25, but Fish has already figured out that good advice can be priceless. The voice she is most obligated to listen to is her own. And instead of running in place or getting labeled or pigeonholed in her 20s, she’ll pursue what inspires her, wherever it takes her. Because that’s how you arrive in a fabled studio in Memphis, listening to eminent gospel singers add some transcendence to one of your own songs.

“I grew up on a rock ’n’ roll diet,” she said. “And country music was in there, too. I call our sound now Americana/roots rock with bluesy overtones. I don’t know if the Blues Foundation will dig it. There’s not one shuffle or standard, but the blues are there.

“I’m just trying to be who I am. I feel like when you get started, people are quick to say, ‘This is what you do.’ I understand that. It helps market and sell the music. But I’m not being fair to myself or my fans if I don’t explore what I’m interested in.”

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

SATURDAY

Samantha Fish will celebrate the release of “Wild Heart” Saturday night at Knuckleheads, 2715 Rochester. Katy Guillen & the Girls open. Showtime is 9 p.m. Advance tickets are $17.50.

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