Mike Zito is an accomplished singer, songwriter and producer. He has recorded and released several studio albums over the last two decades. Women In Rock met him at the annual Greeley Blues Festival in Greeley, CO just before his scheduled set with Royal Southern Brotherhood. His background and professional association with recently reviewed artist, Samantha Fish, were discussed.
Women In Rock: We saw Samantha Fish at the Western Maryland Blues Fest a couple of weeks ago, and we know you have a connection with her, so we thought we’d look you up and explore that a little. Let’s start with some background on you. How old were you when you started playing guitar and singing?
Mike Zito: Well, I started singing when I was really young—about five, I guess. I got a guitar when I was eight. No one in my family knew how to play music, so I had no clue what I was doing. I didn’t have lessons, or anything. I met some kids in high school who taught me how to tune it and how to play chords and stuff. And I kind of took off from there. I went to a music shop out of high school and worked there for about ten years. That’s where I really learned how to get the most out of it.
WIR: Everyone has musical influences. Tell me about some of yours early on.
Zito: I’ve had a lot of influences. I have guitar influences and other musical influences. The first time I heard Eddie Van Halen, I remember thinking, “Wow, what is that? That’s crazy!” The guitar, you know? That’s why, I remember, I wanted to get a guitar. But singing—my dad played a lot of Big Band records, a lot of Sinatra, and things like that. So when I was a kid I sang Sinatra songs, Dean Martin songs, stuff like that. But I like all that music still, today. I like Muddy Waters, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Tina Turner, CCR. I continually try to be influenced in a good way. I’m always looking for new music or old music I don’t know. A lot of times, I like to go back. My sisters all had CCR records. It seems like I can’t get enough of it.
WIR: Talk a little about how you produced and released your first few albums. You did that on your own label. Describe that whole process for me.
Zito: Coming up in St. Louis, I had played in cover bands for a long time. Some of the original bands in town started to put out records and tapes, then CDs in the 90s. So somewhere in the 90s I decided I wasn’t going to do covers any more. I wanted to play Blues, I wanted to play my guitar and I wanted to do my own songs. And I was going to make a recording. That was like a big commitment. Around 1997-98 was when I did my first one. We got a guy who put up a thousand dollars, and we went to a studio and recorded in one day. Then I had to sell the CDs to pay him back. That was a real inspiration. You hear about these guys like Muddy Waters that have been playing music, and then they hear themselves for the first time. It’s very inspirational. For me, I didn’t know if it would be good or not; I just wanted to do it. Then when I heard it I thought: Well, it’s not terrible. I mean, it sounds pretty good. It sounds like music. So I was eager to do it again. I did five or six on my own over the years. For a while, I stayed there in St. Louis. Then I ended up in Texas and kind of got started over again. But the idea then was for me to get a recording contract. I wanted to get a record deal and do this for real. So I kept making records and trying to learn how to make really good records. The last one I did on my own was called Superman. It came out in 2006, and that was when I finally figured out how to make a record. I wrote songs that told a story, and that ended up getting me a recording contract with Delta Groove Records.
WIR: That contract got you some good exposure and led to some recognition with the Blues Music Awards.
Zito: Yea, it was really good. The owner, Randy Chortkoff, is a real good guy. It was the right time. He had a record label, Eclecto Groove, which was new. He already had a Blues lable, but he was looking for something that was a little more open. The stuff I was doing was Blues, but it wasn’t traditional Blues. It was more like a little country-ish, but it worked out really well. Randy helped me a lot. On my second record, Pearl River, I wrote the title song with Cyril Neville and it won the BMA for “Song of the Year”. That was big for me.
WIR: You and Cyril went on to form Royal Southern Brotherhood.
Zito: That’s right. We had success with the songwriting and we started to write more. Devon Allman’s been a friend of mine for years, and it just kind of all fell together, and here we are.
WIR: So that moment really defined you during that time period.
Zito: It definitely helped me in the Blues world I was trying to break into. And I was still kind of doing my own style, what I call Blues. That meant a lot, because a lot of times, like any community, they get stuck on what they think it’s supposed to be. It was a big deal for me to get accepted doing my thing. It got this band started, as well.
WIR: During your 3-album contract with Groove, where did you think you were going? Was that to be your launching pad to doing your own thing after that?
Zito: It’s really funny. After all those years of doing my own records I finally get a recording contract. I mean, that’s huge, right? It was like starting all over again, but for real. I don’t think I knew what was gonna happen or what I was gonna do or what this was gonna mean. I was just paying attention. By the third album, Greyhound, I knew what I wanted to do. I started to realize that I loved the Blues, but also that I was a good songwriter. I was learning how to tell stories, so I think I had an idea of where I wanted to go—not just in a genre, but in becoming an artist. Before, I just thought about what genre I wanted to be in, then I realized I had many styles I could do. If people started to see Mike Zito as an artist they wouldn’t really care what the genre was. It started to come together by the end of that recording contract. It was like, I get it now. I can do all these things at once and make it work.
WIR: Speaking of Greyhound, how did your song “Roll On” get shopped for a Sons of Anarchy TV episode?
Zito: I don’t know. The album had been out a little while, maybe over a year. The record label had hired somebody who was working with placement. For years, I had hounded them about how to get a song into a movie or something. So I found out during that summer that this guy picked my song up in the first week for some TV show. I had already been watching Sons of Anarchy, and I thought, “Oh, really. Right on, that’s cool.” It just happened. I thought maybe they’d do some more shows, but not yet. They could have turned it up a little louder in the scene, though. [laughs]
WIR: There’s a connection with Royal Southern Brotherhood and Samantha Fish. How and when did you first meet Smanatha?
Zito: We’ve had a friendship and have been working together for a while. I met Samantha at Knuckleheads Saloon in Kansas City. I think she was just out of high school. I met her dad first. He was a fan and had bought some of my CDs. He started bringing her to shows there, and she came out and sat in with us. Kids come out and do that, and I’m all for it. I have five kids, so when young people come and they want to sit in, it’s great. So, here’s another young girl who’s playing guitar, and she was real nice. She could sing pretty good, and she was definitely really interested. Some of them come and play really good, but they don’t say two words or they’re not comfortable talking. But Samantha was saying she had a lot she wanted to learn and was asking what she had to do and who she had to listen to. She was real vocal about it. So we started talking. Every time we’d come back into town, her dad would bring her to our show. She got a little better every time she played. She would ask about certain guitar players, and I’d tell her to go home and listen to them. The next time she came in she told me she had done that. She went out and got their record, listened to it, and played like it. Right away that interested me, cuz that’s me. I always want to learn. We got along right away.
Ruf Records was a label I had been trying to get signed on with in the 90s when I was doing my first records. I really wanted to work with Ruf cuz I was a big Luther Allison fan and a big Walter Trout fan. But Thomas Ruf asked me if I had ever wanted to produce, since he saw I was making records pretty good. So he had this Girls With Guitars project. I already knew Cassie Taylor cuz I knew her dad, Otis Taylor. There was an English girl, Dani Wilde. I knew her, and they were looking for another girl. I said, “Have you heard of Samantha Fish? That’s who you want.” She had the right mindset and was ready to go. Next thing you know, we were off to Germany.
WIR: You produced Samantha’s Runaway and Black Wind Howlin’ albums. You performed with her on “Push Comes to Shove”. You co-wrote “Go to Hell” with her.
Zito: Girls With Guitars was the first record I produced for Ruf and the first one we worked on together with Samantha. It’s funny, I had already gone through this process making my own records and then with Eclecto/Delta Groove, and it was like, I’m starting to get it now and I’m paying attention. And then to go through with it with Samantha, and watching her—she’s getting her success a lot younger than I did. She learned to work with a lot of people on Girls With Guitars, and they did a great job. Then we did her first record, Runaway. I told her it just needed to be good, that it didn’t have to be the greatest thing in the world. I told her she just needed to let people know that she sings and plays guitar and writes songs, and that she does it all really good. That’s all it had to be. It was an introduction. And she made a great solid record, and it won a BMA for Best New Artist. We did that in one week in East Berlin. She had a cold and couldn’t sing all the tracks cuz her voice was cutting out. That’s funny, because that’s exactly what happened on my very first record. I think it’s just nerves and stress. But with this last one, Black Wind Howlin’, she’s getting more confident and more comfortable with what she wants to do and how she wants to do it. She’s following direction and letting people be involved; which is when, as you become a good artist, you start to see the bigger picture. It’s fun for me because everything I’ve been through I’m going through again with Samantha. It’s funny to be on the other side. She would call and be upset or nervous about something and I’d say, “Oh, that’s fine. What are you worried about. It’ll be all right.” And she’d say, “Well, how do you know?” And I’d say, “Well, cuz I just did it five years ago.”
WIR: You’re almost like a mentor to her.
Zito: That’s nice. We’re good friends. I definitely believe in her career. She’s really got a great shot at a bigger picture because she’s young. When I was trying to do what she’s doing at her age I was doing drugs, drinking and just pissing it all away. So I’m really lucky I get to do this now. Things are going great. I encourage her and tell her she can really do something big, that she can be a star—big time. I told her if she played country music she could be in the Top 40. She said she didn’t wanna do that. I asked her why not. Didn’t she want to make millions of dollars? Yes, make millions of dollars and give me some!
WIR: Are there any other collaborations in progress with Samantha or anything coming up?
Zito: We always have a lot going on because we genuinely get along, and I believe in her. She’s definitely doing another record. We’ve talked a little about it. I’m hopeful that we’ll do one more with me producing. I enjoy producing now, and she’s really great to work with. The great producer, Jimmy Iovine, once said that when you’ve done three records with your producer it’s time to fire him. So I told Samantha that Jimmy Iovine said I should get one more. [laughs] We have a big tour coming up in the fall with Mike Zito, Samantha Fish, and The Wheel (which is my other band). It’s a five week European tour from the end of October through all of November. We’re gonna do 30 dates over five weeks. Next year, there’ll be more time to do other things here in the U.S., so we’ll probably get out and do more shows then. We’ve also talked about maybe doing a record together. I think the Blues fans, especially, would really enjoy it. We both have big commitments right now, but we’ll do it one of these days.
WIR: Mike, thank you for talking with me today. We wish you the best in whatever you’re doing.