Samantha Fish first began sitting in with local legends in her hometown of Kansas City and learning the ropes of the music industry when she was fresh out of high school. Only two years later in 2009, she released her first solo record and landed a record deal with Ruf Records. Since then, she has toured the globe playing original music, collaborated with celebrated artists like Buddy Guy and Devon Allman, and put out seven more solo records. But her most recent album, Death Wish Blues, is a departure into duets with Jesse Dayton, a touring musician, producer, and actor who can be seen playing the lead singer of the fictional band in Rob Zombie’s 2009 remake Halloween II. The result of their collaboration is at once gritty and fresh, and the trust and respect Fish and Dayton have for each other is palpable. I got to sit down with them both in between Jazz Fest weekends to ask them more about the new album, working with Jon Spencer, and reliving childhood dreams.
How did you guys first meet and come to play together?
SF: We met each other about 12 years ago. I used to go to this bar in Kansas City when I was really young, and Jesse’s band would come through a couple times a year. We sort of knew each other as musical peers, keeping up through social media through the years, and we reconnected last year here in New Orleans. He had a show and there had been this buzz around my camp for the last couple years about doing a project that was collaborative. I had been wanting to do something in a certain vein, a certain style, and just hadn’t really found the right person to take on that journey with. But when I saw Jesse, it was just sort of a light bulb moment, you know? He was into it so we started writing and seeing if we had good chemistry and we’ve been really fortunate. It’s been a very quick journey, in a way.
JD: There’s a million things that could’ve gone wrong—and knock on wood—but nothing terrible has happened. I always tell people that this has happened really fast.
I am surprised that it’s only been a year.
JD: We wrote the songs and went in the studio and were doing press for the record in Paris a few weeks ago—all within a year. A whirlwind is not an exaggeration.
Are you a purveyor of certain kinds of music or are there certain genres of music that speak more to you?
SF: I love rock’n’roll and I love blues and country and Americana. But they’re all so close. We like to separate everything into neat little boxes, but a good song is a good song. If it’s a great song, I like it. I like a good hook, I like something infectious, I like something that affects people emotionally. That’s the beauty of it and that could be anything. I’m a little all over the place with my musical taste.
JD: Yeah, when me and Sam hang out and listen to music, it goes all over the map. It’s everything from Townes Van Zandt to The Clash. It could be Michael Jackson, you know? Old school ‘70s pop music or whatever. We love it all.
Are there any people you have worked with in your careers or contemporaries who you get that feeling with?
[Samantha points to Jesse]
JD: We get it from each other. Without sounding gushy, when I listen to Sam play—obviously I’m more invested in it because I listen to her more than anybody else—it’s inspiring. There are things that we’ve done together that I get that throwback feeling to when I was a little kid listening to music. Sometimes when we walk out on stage, I feel like I’m 12 years old. I feel like I’m in my brother’s room while he’s studying and I’m sneaking listening to his Hendrix record.
The singles you have released for the record so far are so cool. “Deathwish” is so good and I’m glad I got to see you guys play that live at Jazz Fest.
SF: Thank you. I think we have good chemistry. I think that’s why we’re lucky in that way. The writing compliments each other. I’m excited about the songs. They’re different for both of us.
What makes you each say that? How is this music different for you compared to before?
JD: I’m this cult artist who has been kind of underground but I’ll poke my head out and do some really big things with people, but then I go back and do my own thing. It’s this hybrid of blues and old country music and stuff like that. And then when I got with Sam, it was like, let’s crank our guitars up and do this for the reason I wanted to start doing it when I was a little kid—to play loud guitars and piss off the authorities and let our freak flags fly. That’s why it’s different for me.
SF: I guess I’m pretty well known in blues circles but I’ve always kind of pushed the envelope with every record. Every album I’ve done is sort of like, I hate to say concept, but every album is a different world you’re living in at the time, and things take their own shape. But this is different because I haven’t done a collaborative record in a very, very long time. We definitely set out to do this in a really ballsy, raw, rock’n’roll… we wanted it to really be exciting to listen to. I think that it is the most exciting record I’ve made, ever. I love it.
JD: I feel that way too. It’s got a full-on punk energy. That’s the cool thing about working with Samantha. She didn’t pander at all.
SF: Well, not to you. [laughs]
For the new record, did you have any specific influences that you were tapping into or was it more playing off each other?
SF: I was listening to a lot of Detroit rock’n’roll and getting into The Stooges and proto punk rock, early era type stuff. But we wanted to keep it in the blues world so knowing that Jon Spencer was going to be involved, I dove back into my Fat Possum collection of north Mississippi blues.
JD: I was listening to a lot of ‘70s stuff when we were writing the record. Sam’s really into north Mississippi blues and being around her gave me a reason to get back into it. We referred to that kind of vibe a lot.
And Jon Spencer produced the record?
SF: He produced it, yeah. We wanted to find somewhere in between the world of blues and rock’n’roll and create something explosive. I also love soul music. I love great hooks. Anything that creates that earworm. But sometimes it’s good to not listen to music when you’re going to create, too.
JD: Yeah, it happened real organically because our mutual manager said, “Hey, what about Jon Spencer Blues Explosion working with ya?” And I said that’s a great idea! I would never have thought of that in a million years. We got into the studio and had never met Jon but he added so much to this record. He makes records that are fun to listen to and he did that with our record.
At the Civic Theatre in May
Photo by Steven Hatley
What can you tell me about what you’re saying on the record? Where did the content of the lyrics come into play for you?
SF: We co-wrote most of these songs together. It’s really unique. I have collaborated on songwriting before but I’ve never approached it the way we have. We’re doing a lot of these as duets so there’s a different dynamic. It’s more interpersonal, it’s less vague. We’re in this partnership together making these songs come to life. Having that dynamic created more of a story for us to start with.
JD: We wanted to make a record with heavy blues influence that wasn’t just a typical rehash blues record. And people will ask, “Is it really blues?” And I’m like, I don’t know, do you want us to mimic Muddy Waters? Was Led Zeppelin the blues? I grew up listening to Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, is that blues? It’s a hybrid and what we’re trying to say is for the people who want to enjoy this record and let themselves in it, come into the fold. We’re opening our arms because the record is about freedom and about doing your own thing.
SF: The constants of the songs lyrically, the motif of the album is about the dynamic between us. We’re telling stories with these songs. “Riders” is about living on the road—
JD: Treating cities like—
SF: Like lovers, like one-night stands. But you’re really tight with the people on the road with you.
Outside the Marigny Opera House
Photo by Katie Sikora
What is that mental process like going from writing on your own to being so intentional, not just for one person but for three different artists and three different mindsets?
SF: It’s always scary at first because you worry if you’re going to connect. Is it going to be enough? Am I going to get lost in the process? Is it going to be me? There’s always that anxiety going in but once we started working together, I found it to be freeing in a way. You’re opening yourself up to this process; it’s not easy to do. You’re really vulnerable but you end up trying things that you wouldn’t normally try on your own. When I go and write my own stuff by myself, I’m very rigid and I’m constantly checking myself. When you’re doing a collaboration it’s like, let’s just try it and see if it works. And sometimes you stumble onto something really magical that changes you and you grow from it. I think the most important thing about that is just going in with an open mind and being open to the magic in the room and making new art.
Before Death Wish Blues you collaborated on The Stardust Sessions. How did that come to be?
JD: When we first got together, we literally went into a little studio in this guy’s backyard in New Orleans. I don’t mean for it to sound like it wasn’t cool, it was really cool. But for us, it was perfect for our first thing. We were just laying songs down. We had Mike Dillon playing drums.
He’s a trip.
JD: He was so good. We just started banging them out and they were pretty good. I took the tapes back to Austin and hung out with them for a day and mixed a bunch of stuff and sent them to Sam and she liked them too.
SF: The label liked it! We were supposed to be writing. Jesse flew into town and three days prior to this, we sat in a writer’s room and were supposed to be writing together, and we didn’t write a damn thing.
JD: We were just talking about music and about our lives.
SF: It was a new thing. You have to develop some synergy and a little chemistry before you can go on that journey.
JD: We’re not Nashville cubicle writers, you know? We needed to bond. Plus that record gave us a foundation of music so that we could both build on it together.
SF: We didn’t even know that was going to be something cool. It has that feeling of “we don’t know what the fuck is going to happen” and it actually turned out really special, I think. It was a good introduction for people.
JD: I still like listening to that. It really holds up.
Jesse, what can you tell me about working with Rob Zombie?
SF: I want to know too.
JD: It’s funny because I just spoke with him recently for the first time in a while. He is not what he looks like. He is the most rock’n’roll guy you’ll ever meet but he also has a genius IQ. He’s a cinematographer, he’s a filmmaker, he was a [P.A.] on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. He draws. He taught me so much. He’s the one who got me directing because he cast me in Halloween II and it was a blockbuster movie. It was the number one horror movie that year and he got in Forbes magazine for being the richest director of the year. He was like, “I want you to go make these videos and we’re going to put them on the DVD as extra content. I’ll give you a little bit of money and you send them to me and I’ll tell you what to do.” So it was almost like a little film school. I learned all this stuff about lenses and lighting from him. He gave me 75% of the publishing on all the soundtrack stuff, which changed my life and he didn’t have to do that. He could’ve [given] me 10% or not any at all. With him, it’s like once you’re in, you’re in.
JD: The Zombie-verse, yeah. He’s a really good guy.
Is there anything in the pipeline for the two of you at the moment?
JD: For me and Rob? I can’t really talk about it. But he did just call me recently about a project but I can’t say anything else.
Fair enough. To switch lanes a bit, you’re from Kansas City, right Samantha?
SF: Yeah. Kansas City’s got a really rich musical history. You don’t really notice those kinds of things when you’re growing up there. You end up going to other places and realizing how special your hometown is after you leave it. I have a love for Kansas City. I don’t live there anymore but I will say that growing up there really affected my playing. There are serious players there. There are opportunities to sit in somewhere every night of the week if you want. As a young kid learning how to play guitar, I’d show up at a blues jam and figure out how to play either traditional blues or traditional jazz to cut your teeth. I’d go every night and work it out on a stage. There were a lot of gracious musicians, a lot of sharing. I think it was a really wonderful place to come up. Even before that, my dad is very musical, my mom’s musical, my sister is musical. My whole extended family sings in church and plays guitars. I kind of took it for granted because I figured everyone’s family was kind of like that. It wasn’t much of a jump for me to go and pick up an instrument and start doing that.
And Jesse, you were born in Beaumont, Texas? Of all the places in Texas I’ve been, I’ve been to Beaumont the most often.
JD: On your way to Houston or somewhere else?
No, to go to Beaumont itself. I used to go on weekend tours with my buddies’ band who would always play the Logon Cafe.
JD: I know the Logon quite well.
What was it like growing up in that part of Texas?
JD: Looking back on it, I romanticize it, but at the time, I couldn’t wait to get to Austin which is where I’ve been living since the 1900s. It was amazing. When I was a little kid it was no big deal for me to see Johnny Winter or George Jones at the Dairy Queen. Beaumont is more Cajun than Shreveport is, it’s full of Catholic churches, Cajun people. It’s 20 minutes from the border, 20 minutes from the Gulf Coast. The beach is right there. I grew up around a lot of honky tonk, a lot of blues, a lot of rhythm and blues, a lot of soul, a lot of zydeco. I was still listening to what everybody else was listening to on the radio but it made me versatile. When I got older I would get with friends of mine from the Midwest who maybe only grew up on rock’n’roll and they’d ask me how I knew the words to a song, and I’d be like, “It’s a Merle Haggard song, I had to play it in bars.” It helped my plan a lot. I couldn’t wait to get out but now I look back on it fondly.
You both have cited your families as forces who helped usher you into music. After having those first formative experiences with music, what made you want to do it as a life and a career? Why choose that?
SF: I remember the very first time I got on a stage because it was sort of thrust upon me. I didn’t even have time to think about it and chicken out. I got up and played and it was the most exhilarated I ever felt in my life. I recall it being terrible. But it was like tearing off a Band-Aid and I kind of became addicted to the stage. I remember that day sort of changed my life and I knew what I wanted to do then. I had a passion that I chased down. Being a professional musician and chasing down that dream sounds crazy to some people. “It’s a pipe dream, it’s impossible.” But being in Kansas City and at this club, Knuckleheads, that I’d see Jesse and these other touring acts come through showed me I could actually start it and take baby steps and pursue it one day at a time. It became my whole life.
JD: I heard Sam before I saw her. I actually heard her downstairs on the backstage at a club and asked, “Who’s playing guitar down there?” So I went down there to check her out and I knew she was going to do something. People either got it or they don’t. Then she put a band together and she got a van and she started traveling and then boom—lo and behold, I’m opening a show for Samantha Fish. That’s really inspiring because it’s hard to do. And people give up. Most of our friends who we came up with have fizzled. Whoever suffers the most gets to have the longest career, it seems.
SF: [To Jesse] What made you want to do it? Was there a moment?
JD: I saw Chuck Berry on TV when I was a kid and he was beautiful and girls were freaking out. He was doing the duck walk and he had the hollow-bodied guitar and he’s the greatest lyricist. But then I got my first guitar and was hanging out with my brother and his friends who had all been playing guitar for years. I started playing lead and my brother was like, “Dude, you know you’re better than all of us, right?” That was encouraging. I started playing with a little zydeco band in Port Arthur when I was in high school and I was making money and I didn’t have to deliver pizzas or whatever. Well, I did a bunch of jobs before that but once you get hooked and you realize you can make money off of feeling that good, it’s like you discovered the key to the universe.
The last time I saw you play, Samantha, was at your 2018 Jazz Fest set in the Blues Tent. Aside from a pandemic, what has changed for you in your life since then and how has that affected your playing?
SF: That pandemic was pretty life changing. We kind of just got back up and kept at it. I had a really wonderful team and really great people in my life that stayed and supported and we just kept chipping away at it.
Where were you guys posted up?
SF: I was here, in New Orleans. I was actually in Europe when the world shut down and that was really scary because they were like, if you’re not home in 36 hours, you’re not coming home for a month. I freaked and got home. What’s changed? I’ve put out tons of records and my music has changed. Working with Jesse has been a really life-changing thing.
JD: [whispering] She’s gotten bigger.
SF: I know, I gained weight in the pandemic. [laughs] I’m joking. But who didn’t gain weight during the pandemic?
There was nothing else to do!
SF: Even with the shit shutting down, we got through that hurdle, and I’ve made some really incredible music. If you would’ve asked me in 2018 if I’d be doing this kind of thing now, I don’t think I could even fathom it. Life has changed a lot. But we still have this constant of getting to create.
How was your pandemic experience, Jesse? Were you in Austin?
JD: I was in Austin. I had just finished this thing called the Outlaw [Country] Cruise. I was in a petri dish. From there, I headed up to New York to do this show and everything shut down so we cruised back to Austin and the weirdness started. But it was cool because it reset my whole brain about everything and made me think about what was important. I got off the hamster wheel and went down all sorts of musical rabbit holes that I wouldn’t have gone down. I got way into building vintage motorcycles. I built a shop in my backyard. I think it all kind of prepared me for what I was going to do with Sam before I knew it. It was resetting me and opening my mind. We’re so conscientious of each other and that’s rare in this industry. We don’t have any of that Fleetwood Mac bullshit.
SF: I’ve wanted to make this work from the start and I think Jesse’s wanted to make it work from the start. It’s a new dynamic after both having our own solo bands for so long. There’s respect which is at the foundation of everything.
Top photo: Dayton (left) and Fish at Flora Gallery & Coffee Shop (photo by Katie Sikora)