Singer/guitarist Fiona Boyes holds up a cigar box guitar she hand-painted herself. On its front, a heart with an eye in it levitates above a dollar sign, the images floating against a sky-blue background, bisected by strings and lipstick pickups. An Australian ten-dollar bill is painted on the back.
You wouldn’t be surprised to see a piece like this like this hanging in an American folk art museum, with a curatorial note explaining it belonged to some sort of blues artist. But what Boyes has in her hands is too bright, too new, and too Australian, to have come out of the American South. It’s a contemporary piece created out of a love for the South.
The cigar box guitar, a classic instrument, built by Boyes’ husband and brought to life by Boyes’ own folk art, summarizes Boyes and her music. She’s respectful of blues traditions and works within them, but also finds ways to bring out her own perspective. Like the guitar’s eye within a heart, she’s all seeing, and doesn’t let her knowledge of blues history drown out her personal voice.
Boyes is known for her classic blues sound, both acoustic and electric, her guitar work driven by fingers and slide. She’s won the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge. She’s been nominated for eight Blues Music Awards, a rarity for an Australian. She won a 2017 Blues Blast Music Award (Best Acoustic Blues Album) for Professin’ The Blues and was nominated in 2010 for Best Traditional Blues Recording (for Blues Woman). Boyes came to the guitar and blues later in life, in college.
“It was like some missing part of my life was suddenly put into place,” she says of discovering the blues. She graduated and worked in graphic design until the pull of music proved too strong to resist: “[I] was about in my late 20s, just about 30, when I had my midlife crisis early, quit my job, borrowed a guitar I couldn’t play really, and joined a band,” she says.
Of course, the notion of a band during COVID is different than it was when Boyes first started playing. Right now she’s at home in Australia, jamming with her band online until she can travel to be with them in-person. In the meantime, Boyes is working on projects, from the liner notes to her 20th anniversary reissue of Blues in My Heart, her solo debut, to creating and leading online classes and performances, to the aforementioned art and cigar box guitar experiments. All of these activities, while not the same as touring the world, have helped Boyes reflect upon the blues.
Boyes always intended to do something special around the 20th anniversary of Blues in My Heart but being at home provided more time for the project than she expected, allowing a deep dive into her past. “I thought one of the things that might be interesting for a wider audience was to give that reissue some context,” she says.
“So I took some time to really, literally dig out boxes of junk that I’ve been dragging around through a host of house relocations. You know, including moving from Australia to America for a couple of years, and back. I had boxes of stuff, files, photos, and I went through a lot of that stuff. And it was good actually, to reflect on what led me to record that album. And then going forward, what happened next for the last two decades of traveling my career.”
Returning to her solo debut also made Boyes realize how much the blues changed her life.
“Part of this interesting reflection was how discovering the blues and falling in love with it really set a course for me, for my life,” she says. Blues in My Heart led to her first trip to America, “which opened up all these wonderful Cinderella moments, really, where I would have an opportunity to meet some of my blues heroes and play with them. And visit some of the the famous historic places for the blues. And so really, it was a pivotal point that was going to kind of launch me on the next adventure, which is ongoing,” she laughs.
For now, the next adventure is online teaching and content creation, which gives fans an opportunity to interact with Boyes in ways that might not have been possible pre-pandemic.
“Recently, I did a Zoom concert for the Blues Society of Central Pennsylvania, which was delightful, because it was one of the first times I’ve done a Zoom concert, and it did mean that afterwards, I could chat to people,” she says. “And that was really satisfying, to actually have a chance to chat with people afterwards, and show them the instruments and all that stuff.”
Boyes is grateful for the internet, as a tool of connection, but also for its blues information depth. While not everything ever created is available online, it often feels like it is.
“When I fell in love with blues, and I was first a fan, you couldn’t get all these old players on YouTube; you had to find the stuff” she recalls. “And I remember once paying a whole year’s subscription to to an inner city film society, because I looked through their whole schedule for the season, and discovered that they had one night playing footage of old blues players. I bought the whole season ticket just to go to that one night. And that’s the sort of stuff anyone can can get these days on YouTube.“
Boyes is also leading a blues songwriting class for an Australian regional youth development group, something she has time for now that she’s not on the road. This project allows her to demonstrate the simultaneous beauty and complexity of the blues.
“On the face of it, blues may seem to be a simple [form] and there’s this sort of reductionist view, often from people who are not well acquainted with the music, that goes, ‘Well, it’s just, you know, 12 bars and it all sounds the same’ and that’s where I just have to get my blues flag and fly it at that point,” she says.
“And I love it when when people say ‘I don’t really like blues but I like what you’re doing.’ And I get to say them, ‘Yes, that’s blues too!’ Because I think blues is a much, much wider genre than a lot of people give it credit for. And there’s so many shades of blue, there’s so many styles and that’s been one of the things that I’ve found fascinating and sustaining about the blues.”
Like so many, Boyes learns through teaching.
“You don’t often think about these things [like songwriting] until someone asks you, how do you do it,” Boyes says. Leading a songwriting workshop for the Augusta Heritage Center helped her realize distillation is a strength of blues songwriting. “[It’s] that idea of taking something personal, but managing to simplify it and render it universal,” she says. “
And I think something that’s really important about blues is the idea that you can take something that’s very personal, and tell your own story, but if you if you make it sound bluesy, you have to simplify it, you have to reduce it to its very essence.”
Boyes cites the inscription on back of blues singer/guitarist Memphis Minnie’s grave (Boyes paid her respect to the fellow blueswoman on her first trip to the United States) as capturing her own songwriting philosophy:
‘The hundreds of sides Minnie recorded are the perfect material to teach us about the blues. For the blues are at once general, and particular, speaking for millions, but in a highly singular, individual voice. Listening to Minnie’s songs we hear her fantasies, her dreams, her desires, but we will hear them as if they were our own.’
“Because sometimes I’ve had people say to me ‘That last song, that made me laugh, or that last song that was sad, that really touched me, and I had just that thing happen to me,’” Boyes says. “And if you sit down together over a drink, and you’ll find out that their experience is very different to yours. But [there’s] something about that simplification, connected in that moment and I love the idea of that inscription on Minnie’s grave. It’s very cool.”
Boyes is a dedicated student of the blues, having met many of her heroes and taught herself a wide variety of styles. Understanding different types of blues allows Boyes to write her own music.
“It’s like when you see someone doing something and it looks so easy,” she says. “I think that’s at the heart of a lot of roots music. And part of it is, yeah, to kind of be immersed in it. I mean, you certainly can’t write whatever style you choose to write in. You have to immerse yourself in that style. You can’t really expect to write in any style if you don’t kind of [understand] what you’re aiming for.”
The fluency with different blues idioms impacts Boyes’ songwriting, but also her instrumentation.
“In some ways, I’ve ended out now almost, not consciously, but alternating my album projects between acoustic and electric projects, which sort of allows me to roam in my playing and my songwriting across different regional styles of blues. So you can go from jaunty fingerpicking to my latest enthusiasm with exploring, single-chord, Mississippi-style, riffy things on cigar boxes.”
Cigar boxes, with fewer strings than a guitar, and a different sound are more than a canvas replacement for Boyes’ artwork. They also play a role in her songwriting process.
“I think what’s interesting about the cigar boxes is that from the point of view of the guitarist, there’s certain licks and riffs that fall under your fingers in different keys,” she says. “So it’s why, sometimes you’ll, find like C is a good key for the licks that go with rag timey stuff and E is a good key for doing Mississippi stuff, because it’s got open strings.”
But fewer strings and different tunings means fingers no longer magically fall where they need to land. “It makes you just have to rethink everything, and just strip it back to total essentials. You can’t just go ‘I’ll just play that lick.’ Because you have to find new licks with one or two notes.”
The way cigar boxes disrupt familiar fretboard patterns allows Boyes break out of songwriting routines.
“It’s nice to have the different palettes because sometimes the inspiration comes from lyrics and sometimes it comes from exploring a new instrument or visiting somewhere or listening to someone from a particular regional style. The inspiration for songwriting for me comes from a host of different places.”
“I used to keep the acoustic and electric repertoire really separate,” Boyes says. “But then, increasingly, and I think it started with Blues for Hard Times, which was an album that had acoustic and electric stuff on it, everything’s blurred.”
There are artistic reasons for this, but also logistical ones. “Financially it’s often easier for me to tour solo. And certainly in the last eight years or so, I’ve spent a lot of time on the road overseas, and in Europe, so I’m often playing solo or picking up a rhythm section, so everything got blurred. I tend to think about songs [in terms of if] they’re either a solo acoustic song, or I might play them on electric. Or they might be a band song, but it’s a great song. So I need to work out how I can do an effective version of that solo, because I may well be promoting and playing a band album, but on the road, by myself, or maybe just with the drummer or percussionist. I think for the purposes of recording, the acoustic/electric thing is more important.”
Boyes loves crafting albums, obsessing over track order and liner notes, striving to give her fans an experience. Unsurprisingly, this attention to detail also extends to album art.
“With Voodoo in the Shadows, my most recent electric album, I had the music and I had the track order and I was looking to do the album artwork. And I ended [up] doing a hand print of the type.”
“The typography is actually hand designed; it’s one of my pieces of artwork. I was experimenting with this whole idea of folk art and and one of that kind of the Do It Yourself ideas of folk art is using junk and what you’ve got to hand so I started doing a series of prints that were like hand-pulled, I guess like a lino print or something like that. But the block was made out of panels from the polystyrene of old takeout containers. So I was reusing them, just scratching into them to make, and then doing it with with roller ink and blocks. So the type on that album cover is a print. So it’s like with everything there is a possibility here for all creative aspects to be incorporated. And that to me is part of the joy.”
Visual artists seem drawn to blues music. Blues-loving rockers like Jimmy Page and Keith Richards attended art school. Boyes sees a link.
“One of the things I found really interesting and quite compelling, particularly as I got a chance to spend more time in places like Clarksdale, was how many of the musicians were artists, and vice versa,” she says. “You have people like Stan Street at Hambone Gallery, who is an artist, but also a musician, and people like Super Chikan, creating these incredible funky artworks and decorating these crazy homemade cigar box instruments. So you do find tradition, in a lot of places, or in the south, of musicians and artists. Those different disciplines seem to be complementary.”
Boyes is looking ahead to when she can get back on the road, although even that will probably look different for COVID and non-COVID reasons.
“I look back on some of the schedules that I’ve been keeping in recent years, and what I should have been doing over the last year, and I feel almost queasy. It’s very difficult to stop. And speaking to a lot of other musicians, it’s difficult too, to imagine going back to some of the things that we were doing. You realize how much it does take out of you.”
It’s an issue for Future Boyes to grapple with. For now, she’s immersed in music, art, teaching, and reflection upon a unique moment that’s given her time for herself, but at the cost of her livelihood. She’s realizing that like many artists, exploration and creativity drivers her work, not economics.
“I’m doing my best to stay connected with my people and nurture creativity,” she says. “It’s interesting that the songs I’ve been writing recently all seem to be reflections on the music industry. I’ve just written a song called, “I’m So Busy Taking Care of Business, I Think it’s About Time Business Took Care of Me.”
Maybe it sounds too upbeat? It’s nothing less than you’d expect from her.
“I have been told I smile too much to play the blues, but I think it’s either rampant, unrealistic optimism [laughs] or, you know, what are the options?”