Featured Interview – Fiona Boyes

Fiona Boyes is a dynamic and totally unique performer. She won the 2003 International Blues Challenge Solo competition and has been traveling around the world playing her brand of Blues ever since. At home with an acoustic guitar or banging heads with the big boys of the blues. We spent some time chatting right when she was coming out of the studio and about to play the 4th of July in Portland.

Blues Blast: I see you have come stateside this July, you will perform at the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland. That’s great, wish I could have made it this year. Is Portland your home away from home?

Fiona Boyes: Yes, Portland has welcomed me with open arms! During our two year sojourn in the US, my husband Steve ‘The Preacher’ Clarke & I spent a year living in Portland and we really bonded with the city. In some ways it reminds me of my home town of Melbourne, Australia: it’s on a river, it’s got an arty coffee-shop culture – and there’s a great music scene and good musicians here. There’s a sort of critical mass when a town has good talent; it’s very inspiring. Actually, my first visit to Portland was for the Waterfront Blues Festival. It’s an interesting festival because although it is big and has great, varied programming, it also is a benefit for the Oregon Food Bank – so it has a community component as well. Very Portland…

BB: I checked your travel log/schedule on your site, goodness you are one busy lady! How was the French tour – three weeks correct?

FB: C’est fantastique! Alain Michel (PBox Blues) organized it….it was my first time touring in France. Everyone was so friendly; great audiences, venues and sound crews.

Most of the shows were at regional art centers, with very attentive listening audiences. In contrast to playing a rowdy bar gig, a concert setting is usually the perfect scenario to talk to the audience and tell them the stories behind the songs…but, of course, I don’t speak French! It was an interesting challenge. Most of the shows were solo, but I did do a couple of shows with French band ‘Bo Weavil’. They were great guys, with a very rootsy old-school sound.

My shows were all over the country (and one show in Belgium) so I got to see a lot of interesting regional areas. I used to be a graphic designer before going crazy and becoming a musician so I loved the chance to check out the architecture, street art and atmosphere of the places we visited. It was a great experience and we are working towards another tour in 2012.

BB: So with all this touring and playing for the folks, how do you find time to work on recordings? You have consistently put out quality work, most currently for Yellow Dog Records, what have you got under your sleeve for us?

FB: Here’s the scoop! I just spent a few days in the studio in Austin, TX, on my way to the Waterfront Festival and I am incredibly excited about the material we did in the session. My ‘Lucky 13’ and ‘Blues Woman’ albums were engineered by Stuart Sullivan (Wire Recording) and produced by Kaz Kazanoff (Texas Horns). Being in the studio with these guys is catching up with friends – I love the way they work and we have a really good relationship.

Logistics are tricky for me to juggle sometimes. For example, I started this year with 9 straight weeks on the road, all the time feeling very strongly that I wanted to record a new project by mid-year. The only time I had off was about 10 days in late May, when I started writing and compiling 16 tracks worth of material. I had to fit the recording into this trip to the USA because – well, the studio and the people I want to work with are not just down the road from my house in Australia! While my last two Yellow Dog records have been electric albums, this time I wanted to concentrate on more acoustic material.

I always have an interest in different regional styles, so this also has a range of material – but I’m exploring the breadth of acoustic and small ensemble styles. There’s lots of acoustic guitar, resonator, slide, acoustic guitar with piano and tuba, Mississippi Hills solo electric with percussion – even a songwhere I play lap steel… Bob Margolin also guests on a fantastic song which is about a friends’ experience, in her youth, of seeing Muddy Waters for the first time – his performance is absolutely wonderful. Most of the tracks don’t have drums or a formal rhythm section, but I have got a few tracks featuring Jimi Bott on drums. Watch this space for release details TBA because I am truly excited about this recording!!!

BB: Can you share with us how Fiona Boyes got here? An Australian, finger picking guitarist with a penchant for the blues?

FB: I never really related to pop or rock music as I was growing up. Then I got to college and met a harp player who introduced me to the Blues; I was instantly hooked. I thought, ‘Yeah, this is what I’ve been missing!’ So, I was a blues fan for many years before I started trying to play myself. While the Blues is not ‘mainstream music in Australia, it has a good following. My home town of Melbourne has traditionally had a strong blues scene and we have some great blues festivals around the country. I think Americans are sometimes surprised to discover how universal the Blues have become; how loved and followed they are all around the world.

BB: Did you still work with a band (The Fortune Tellers)? How did you decide to, almost, be a ‘one-woman’ band ?

FB: Currently I have two versions of the Fortune Tellers, in my ‘home bases’ of Melbourne, Australia, and Portland, OR. Both bands are extremely talented, professional players and cool people. I really wish it was possible to get them all together in the same town, or bring the US guys to Australia and vice versa just to let the people hear these guys. As I said, it’s hard juggling things between countries! My Aussie band is Dean Addison (upright bass) & Marky Grunden (drums) with Tim Neal (Hammond/sax) and sometimes Ali Penney (piano) and Niels Rosendahl (sax). Currently in Portland I am working with ex-Paul deLay bassist Dave Kahl, drummer extraordinaire Jimi Bott and Jim Wallace (harp). It’s a good format because we’ll add feature players too. My Aussie band has featured Duke Robillard, Debbie Davies, Hubert Sumlin, Bob Margolin and others – and we’ve added people like Kaz Kazanoff & the Texas Horns or Terry Hanck to festival shows with the Portland band.

Originally I got started playing solo acoustic finger-style blues in coffee shops in my home town. At the time there were more electric gigs around, so a year or so later, when I got a chance to join a band (Melbourne’s seminal all-female blues band ‘The Mojos’) I jumped at it. The Mojos stayed together for many years, but when the band finally broke up I felt I had the chance to ‘spread my wings’ musically and explore. Coming to America has been an incredible experience for me because I’ve had the chance to meet and, sometimes, play with some of my musician heroes. Playing solo, or electric with the band, are both equally enjoyable for me – but I guess that the ‘one woman’ band thing is really my roots!

BB: Mr. Hubert Sumlin has said some super things about you, as did the late Pinetop Perkins how did you meet them?

FB: The chance to meet and play with Hubert Sumlin came courtesy of ‘Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin – and that is just one of many things I have to thank him for! After playing with Bob several times in the US (in fact he recorded with me on my ‘Live From Atlanta’ CD) we planned a tour together in Australia. The dates didn’t work out with Bob’s schedule, so I got a message to the effect of ‘well, how would it be if Hubert Sumlin came instead?’ I couldn’t believe it! The tour was a fabulous experience. Even better, I once spent the weekend with Hubert at his house. We got his huge old Cadillac out of the garage and drove it to the store. We just talked, jammed and sat together…Hubert smiling and shaking his finger… ‘That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout!’ In addition to being a highly distinctive, seminal guitarist, Hubert is also a very sweet gentleman. There is historic significance, of course, in Hubert’s links to Howlin’ Wolf, but that’s not the sum of his importance as a player – he continues to be a profound influence on guitarists across generations and genres. Incidentally, we went on to do two rescheduled Australian tours with Bob Margolin later…so that worked out really well. Bob is a very deep, soulful musician and I have learned a great deal from the opportunity to play and record with him over recent years.

I met Pinetop for the first time at the 2003 WC Handy Awards. Pinetop was always very sweet to me; he came into the studio to record a track with me on the ‘Blues Woman’ session. The song is called ‘Old Time Ways’ and is laden with good old fashioned Blues double entendres. He loved it and it seemed just right to sing those sorts of lyrics to Pinetop. He may have been in his mid 90’s but he was still such a ladies man! When we asked if he wanted to do another take, he thought for a moment and then replied, ‘No…I want to go outside and smoke cigarettes!’ I made a special trip to Austin, TX, last summer just to visit with him. We went together to his regular hangout at Nuno’s where he held court, nodding sagely to his many admirers. He played and sang about half a dozen songs with the house band that night and he was sounding great. What an incredible man…and I’ll admit I got tired in the early hours of the ning and left before he did.

BB: Your style of finger picking is very solid, hell, solid enough that you teach classes at Fur Peace Ranch. Any insights into how this unique style developed – it is a walking bass line, with percussive overlays, I find it fascinating to listen, and watch, you. Oh yeh plus I love your footwork – so does the ‘soap box’ need to be a certain height for ya when you play (do u carry yer own ?).

FB: An invitation to teach at Fur Peace is a real honor. I have been there a couple of times now and enjoyed it immensely. Hosted by Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Jorma Kaukonen and his wife Vanessa, the ranch is like a special universe where the guitar rules! The staff and students are wonderful and the atmosphere makes you feel really energized about your instrument.

As for style, I started playing guitar later in my 20’s and am self-taught. As I mentioned earlier, I started playing acoustic pre-war style blues first before borrowing an electric guitar and joining a band. Eventually the band broke up and I went back to doing more solo acoustic stuff again. At that time I had an agent who sent me out on a solo tour playing some very down-home country pubs. I suspect the patrons had never seen a woman guitar player in their bar before, let alone someone playing original acoustic blues material. It was hard work…but I suddenly realized if I really concentrated on keeping an insistent pulse to the music, then they’d drink and sometimes even dance. Or, at least it seemed less likely that they might hurt me! That was a pivotal part in the evolution of becoming a more percussive player.

My trusty plastic crate is very low-tech but effective….it sounds great through a concert system! I have a favorite brand of plastic crate and there are several stashed in different parts of the world. It was an organic thing – it was just the box I carried my gear in, but then I realized I could mic it up or use it to put my amp on…so darn handy…

BB: Your songwriting displays a well-groomed sense of humor to it. ‘Two-Legged Dog’, ‘Chicken Wants Corn’, there must be stories behind these ditties, no?

FB: Ah, yes! “Like a chicken wants corn”, was a direct quote from the great Bobby Rush. He introduced my performance at the 2003 WC Handy Awards. Being in Memphis for the Awards, soaking up the atmosphere, seeing all these famous musicians – it was incredible and surreal for me. My first trip to America had been only a few months earlier for the International Blues Challenge! It was a few years before I saw Bobby again, at the Blues Music Awards. After thanking him sincerely for his inspiration, I gave him a copy of my ‘Lucky 13’ album which features the tune. He was just releasing his new album ‘Night Fishing’…funnily enough, my next album, ‘Blues Woman’ has a song called ‘Fishing Hole’ which is almost an answer song. Definitely another Bobby Rush inspired tune. I love quirky turns of phrase – they tend to store themselves away in my head and then pop up in songs later. So, I have songs like ‘Two Legged Dog’ and ‘Drink to Your Health (Until I Ruin my Own).

BB: There is a great song ‘Too Happy To Sing The Blues’ it’s so spot on, so many people say blues is a downer, to sad etc., we’ve heard this from neophytes all along, but that song sends a fun message making points that it ain’t necessarily so !

FB: I wrote that song after being told that I smiled too much to play in a blues band! I’m a fan of the Blues and a passionate advocate. People don’t always realize what a wide ranging genre it is and that Blues has as many rich textures as humans have emotions: happy, sad, wistful, sexy, defiant… While I’ve written some very heart-felt tunes – even a few sad ones – I do tend towards the jaunty, sassy and celebratory end of the spectrum.

BB: Anything else you wish to talk about that we might want to know?

FB: Thanks for the opportunity to talk with you! I love playing the blues and I love to do my best for an audience, so where ever you are I hope to get a chance to play for you somewhere soon…

Interviewer Chefjimi Patricola is a classically trained chef, blues loving writer and creative master of Blues411.com. He can also can be found on FaceBook and at festivals and clubs in your neighborhood and town.

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