Featured Interview – Fiona Boyes

I love it when an “authentic” blues artist forces the blues police to re-adjust their judgment on the validity of that artist’s work even though that artist’s back story doesn’t fit the cliché of who a “real” blues artist should be.

Fiona Boyes is a blonde Australian woman of Scottish descent who never heard a lick of blues until she was in college. When she did pick up on it, it took her several years as a graphic designer before she began playing it on guitar, and – unlike most white blues guitarists who get hooked on the genre after hearing Jimi, Eric, or Keith – her entre was pre-war acoustic blues she heard on Paul Oliver’s History of Blues Volumes I and II. Add to that, she’s married to an Anglican priest and puts her tongue firmly in cheek when she says, “I play the devil’s music. Thus, we keep the whole universe in balance.”

Boyes was already 44 when she made her first foray to Memphis representing the Melbourne Blues Society in the International Blues Challenge in 2003. She won that contest in the acoustic division and in short order began meeting many of the seminal “precious” artists whose recordings had influenced her to become a blues guitarist in the first place. One of the first she met was blues pianist and icon Pinetop Perkins. He of course hit on her.

“Pinetop actually played on a track on one of my albums, Blues Woman, and I wrote a song kind of tongue in cheek with him in mind called “Old Time Ways” which was a mesh up of all those kind of blues lyrics which just used sexual metaphors and rhythms.

“Because Pinetop was such a ladies’ man, he loved it.

“He came into the studio, played it, and he was really cheeky. So we did a couple of takes, and we were thrilled that he was able to come in and wanted to do it. He was in fine fiddle. So after a few takes I think – I’m not sure if it was me or Kaz Kazanoff who was producing – said, “Do you want to play that again, Pinetop,” and he said, “No. Nope! I want to go outside and smoke cigarettes.”

“He looked at me and said, “I’d like to take you home, but I’d only make you mad, ’cause if you can’t do what the womens wants, they get mad with you. And I can’t do the things I used to do.”

“(I said,) ‘That’s alright, Pinetop.’”

“Anyway, we stood outside, and I said to the preacher, ‘Pinetop hit on me,’ but it was to me those kind of interactions and an opportunity to meet the old players that’s just so precious, so precious.”

The preacher Boyes refers to is her husband, Steve Clark. He, too, blows away any stereotypical images you might have about ministers and priests.

“He was actually a Baptist minister when we met. In the intervening years he’s been re-ordained, and he’s now an Anglican priest. So he’s in that high incarnate tradition. But you know what? I’ve got some Baptist as well. In fact, there’s a song called “The Preacher and the Yellow-haired Girl” which is about when we first got together: ‘There ain’t nothing but a yellow-haired gal to make a preacher lay his Bible down.’

“And it’s funny. I say that sometimes I’m married to an Anglican priest, and I play the devil’s music. Thus, we keep the whole universe in balance, but Steve’s actually a huge blues fan and always has been. We have lively theological debates as we drive between gigs, but he doesn’t subscribe to that kind of view of theology. In fact, it’s probably worth a whole interview with him (laugh).

“The funny thing is when we met at that time he was a chaplain to motor bike clubs, and I was playing a little blues bar. It wasn’t actually my gig. I was filling in for a friend, so it was a funny little gig. I was in the corner. It wasn’t actually a biker bar, but it was next door to a Harley store, and it was sort of mutual ground for a lot of people. So I was playing acoustic blues in the corner, and this guy walked in. He was the sergeant at arms of the Hell’s Angels and The Outlaws, and they were having some sit-down negotiations of some problems between the two clubs, and Steve was considered a safe person to do the negotiations with.

“At the time, he looked like a big old biker. He had a big beard, long hair, rode a Harley, and I was playing away on a song you would not normally play in a bar, but I just felt like playing Rev. Gary Davis’s “Mean World Until You Die.” It’s got beautiful fingerpicking, and I just felt like playing it.

“Everyone was drinking and not really paying attention anyway. So I played the song, and everyone just kept on drinking and chatting, but this one guy at the bar sang along, and that was Steve, and he talked to me on the break. So it was much later I found out he was actually a priest, and he’d just come back from some symposium in England at the time where he’d presented a paper on spirituality and the blues, and that was one of the songs he’d used in his presentation.

“So suddenly this guy started talking to me, and the standard conversation that was coming out of him was much, much higher than I would have expected from the average patron at the bar. So that was the beginning of an intriguing friendship which led to wedding bells.”

Fourteen years into her marriage to an Anglican priest, this 56-year-old Australian blues singer/songwriter and guitarist is a grandmother to eight. “They say to be very careful when you get into a relationship with a songwriter,” she explains, “because you’ll be all over the next album whether it’s good or bad. When I hooked up with Steve, I got instant five kids and a three-year-old daughter. So, yeah, I got a head start. What’s that old blues lyric that ‘I want to have a house full of children that all look just like me?’ I’ve got a house full of children. None of them look like me.”

If you haven’t heard or seen Fiona Boyes’ perform, you could imagine that her style might be a revisionist rehash of songs borrowed from Paul Oliver’s History of Blues Volume I and II.

Uh-uh. This self-taught guitarist plays like she has a hell hound on her trail. Yes, she has a deep, abiding respect for blues’ traditions, but those traditions are merely a starting line for a style that’s as paint-peeling raw as anything fellow Australian Dave Hole or Harper puts out and is in that pioneering Australian tradition of rockers like AC/DC and Midnight Oil.

“(There is that) Australian archetype of someone who is brave and fearless, and happy to jump in and easy going and is cheeky and has a can-do attitude and the energy and maybe it’s our anti-authoritarianism. I think we like the idea of characters and, even though the vast majority of Australians live in cities, the rugged outback character is out of our mythology which maybe is why we feel drawn to places like Clarksdale where you have those characters and downhome places.

“(But) sometimes you seem to be in the acoustic blues world at least here in Australia where people play country blues music, and it might be perfectly the way Robert Johnson played it or whatever, but they’re playing it like it’s a history lesson. Nobody can really play Rev. Gary Davis. You do your version of it. Even now and for many years I’ve mostly done original songs, and I like to have a few classic songs to give my own stuff context, but even when I try to do a fairly factual version of someone else’s song, and I think I got that fairly right, I go away and play it, and at some point I listen back to the original and think, ‘Whoa! What happened to me?’

“It used to kind of worry me because I’d think I’m trying to play blues like other people play it, but it just comes out – my fingers work somehow different. Something happens, and it just (ends up being) my version. Now I think that’s a wonderful thing.”

Box and Dice, Boyce’s eight album released in 2015, gets its name from one of the cigar box guitars she plays. The guitar she discovered hanging on a bar wall had dice for the volume and tone knobs. The sound she gets has the barbed wire immediacy of Johnny Winter and the emotional intensity of the best of Rory Block’s work.

“There was a lot of immediacy in the writing and recording of this one. It started really with these two cigar box guitars, two separate guitars. The first one was the one hanging on the wall at the Star Hotel in Yackandandah, It’s a rarity because it’s a six-string cigar box guitar. I actually knew the guy who makes them, and over the years he’d brought them to different festivals, and he more typically makes cigar box guitars that are like broom stick handles. They’re not fretable and often added vintage cookie tins and things, and I’d always looked at those instruments and gone, ‘Great, but I’m a guitarist. What Am I going to do with this?’

“I hadn’t really gotten my head around those sort of outside instruments. So when I saw this one that was six strings, more like a traditional guitar, but with the cigar box body, it was (like) I can probably have a go at playing one, and so I ended up playing it. I went down and found it the next day and bought the guitar, and took it with me. I was actually on tour with Watermelon Slim at the time. So I was messing with playing dobro and it was fun, particularly when we were doing a duo because this crazy cigar box was really fitting in with that demo stuff we were doing. I mean it’s a bitch to play. It’s very hard to keep in time. It’s not braced.

“So I started exploring those rawer sounds. Shortly after that I had an extended tour in Europe. So I took it along really as a bit of fun, and people loved it and said, “Which album is that on?” So that was really the beginning. The Box and Dice is named for that guitar.

“Its volume and tone nobs are dice, but it was just before the recording session that I came up with this four-string cigar box, but I’d never played that technique of lap steel. It’s only got two notes essentially, and so you can’t fret anything. I have to make a full commitment to playing slide. Yeah, so I put it on my lap, and tuned up with at a gig, and I just went, ‘Let’s plug this thing in and see what it does,’ and I’ve been having a lot of fun exploring with it.”

Boyce says she feels like Cinderella being invited back to the ball. She will be in Memphis in May where she’s nominated for the fifth time for a Blues Music Award. This time it’s for the Koko Taylor Award as best traditional blues female. By that time she will have recorded her ninth CD for the audiophile Reference label for whom Doug MacLeod records.

“They took me up to Skywalker Ranch, and because they’re an audiophile label, most of their recordings are classical and large ensemble jazz. So this space is actually the sound stage where they record orchestral soundtrack stuff. It’s a huge space, and Skywalker Ranch is sort of a culture on its own. Within this huge space would normally be a symphony orchestra. They just put one person with an acoustic guitar, and then over there somewhere is a percussionist. So, one, two, or three people in this space that could normally accommodate a symphony orchestra and it’s most astonishing – lots of acoustic baffles. It’s completely unlike a normal recording session.”

Fiona Boyes certainly flies in the face of blues stereotypes, but she respects the heritage and adds a colorful voice to a lineage based on honesty and respect for her forbearers.

“I love the roots of the music, and I love that sense of blues being an ongoing dynamic tradition. It has this stark thread and that thing of mentorship from older players to newer players. So when I finally got around to trying to write my own stuff, I was very conscious of those things, and I think that the beautiful challenge is that you have those signposts that say you have a tradition.

“So there’s this dynamic tension when you’re songwriting in the blues tradition to say you’re writing in a traditional format. So you need to have sign posts that say you’re writing in the format, and yet then there’s this tension of having your own voice in the tradition and telling your own stories. That tension and innovation I find fantastic as a songwriter. I enjoy it, and I enjoy the notion of different regional styles of blues which gives you other perspectives.”

Visit Fiona’s website at www.fionaboyes.com

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