Los Angeles, An Interview with Blues Woman Fiona Boyes, by Jerry Rosen

Posted on 9/17/2009 by Monica Yasher

Blues music is an indigenous American art form.  It was developed in the early part of the 20th century by hundreds (maybe thousands) of blacks in the Southern region of the U.S.  People such as Son House, Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Memphis Minnie, Blind Lemon Jefferson gave blues the very distinctive sounds that we still associate with it today.  Muddy Waters brought the Southern Blues to the north and amplified it so that the music could be heard in noisy clubs.  Even though Muddy and company rocked out the blues, a bit, it still sounded very much like the old Southern blues.  The Chicago blues of the fifties (as well as blues from other geographic regions such as New Orleans and Texas) also retained direct connections to their origins.

As blues record sales and radio play began to decline in this country, young kids in England started discovering the music. Artists such as the Rolling Stones, Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and so many other Brits, reinvigorated blues music.  The more they rocked it out, the greater the money the record companies, promoters and artists made.  On one hand, they brought blues back into focus, but in doing so changed the very distinctive sound and quality of the music.

These days, some blues labels deal with the paucity of blues sales by releasing CDs that are hybrids of roots and rock.  There is talk that the definition of blues needs to expand.  While there is nothing wrong with some variety, I believe that a CD, which contains no blues music, should not be given the blues label. We need some real blues artists to keep the art form alive.

This is where Fiona Boyes comes in.  As the title of her latest CD proclaims, she is a Blues Woman. Fiona Boyes is an artist who has perfected a sound that is true to the origins of the music.  Her music captures the spirit of blues as good as any contemporary blues musician on the planet.  Blues music began with chants and gospel and Boyes singing style is rooted in these influences.  She is equally adept at playing slide guitar along with rollicking juke-joint instrumentation, belting out a mid temp shuffle or playing a haunting minor groove.  She is a protégé of Hubert Sumlin who has taught her a few “tricks” that he learned when he was young. None other than Pinetop Perkins has given her finger picking work extremely high praise. 

Fiona is from Australia and came to the U.S. in 2003.  Before coming to our shores, Fiona had been playing blues in Australia for 16 years and she released 8 CDs there. Her first stop in the U.S. was Beale Street in Memphis where she represented the Melbourne Blues Appreciation Society.  She competed in and won the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge that year in the Solo Acoustic competition.  Later, in the same year, she returned to the U.S. and played at the W.C. Handy Awards, the Blues Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, the Chicago Blues Festival, New York Rhythm and Blues Festival, the Chicago Blues Festival and Portland’s Waterfront Blues Festival.  Since that time, she has frequently toured the American blues circuit and has appeared with virtually every major blues star in the world.

Her two American CDs were released by Yellow Dog Records (   Her first CD on YDR was Lucky 13 (released in 06) and the second is Blues Woman (released in 09).  Mark ‘Kaz’ Kazanoff produced both CDs.  Bob Margolin, Marcia Ball and Watermelon Slim make special guest appearances on the discs.  The songs, which are mostly original, were informed by Boyes’ own life experiences channeled through old time blues grooves.  Kazanoff, the engineer and the musicians deserve credit for keeping an ambient feel (it’s almost like listening to vinyl) to the recordings.  The listener has the sensation that they are in same room as the musicians. The two discs have the same basic musical feel, but one can hear a definite progression in both the song writing and Boyes’ playing and singing.  It’s a pleasure to watch an artist honing her craft.  So many blues artists these days release the same (highly competent) CD over and over.  When I discover a new (to me) blues artist, I find that it is rewarding to follow their development.  Song writing is a craft and the artistry in Boyes’ writing, singing and playing is truly palpable.  Finally, if there are any budding blues artists reading this interview, I would strongly urge them to listen to Boyes’ CDs and take a cue from her by going back to the masters to absorb the essence of blues.

Q:  What attracted you to blues and roots music in the first place?

 A: Chart rock & pop music really didn't interest me that much as I was growing up my parents listened to some big band Swing and jazz stuff - which I liked - and when I was in high school I was a fan of an Australian band called 'Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band'. They were an eccentric jug band with lots of Vaudeville touches.  Everything changed when I got to college and a friend introduced me to Blues. It was a revelation!  I loved it from the first listen and something really profound 'fell into place' for me. 

 Q: Who were some of your early influences?

 A: My college friend, Kim Windsor, was really into all sorts of Blues - but early country blues and Delta material in particular.   I loved it immediately and listened avidly to recordings by all the early classic players of the genre - Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Willie McTell, Mississippi John Hurt - and so many more!  Naturally, I listened to lots of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, too - and still do. The earliest local influence for me was a singer/guitarist called 'Dutch' Tilders, who is still playing around my home city of Melbourne, Aust.  He could really do fantastic Big Bill Broonzy style material and was the first person I saw actually play this sort of stuff's one thing to hear a record, another to see an actual musician cranking it out live! 

 Q: Did your career grow gradually, or was there a single event which really helped you get noticed?

 A: What is it they say?  Blues is the sort of genre where you can work really hard for 20 years to become an overnight success!  

Plenty of local bars with sticky carpet are in my past... I was lucky that when I first started playing, there were a lot of local gigs around Melbourne; lots of good opportunities to play and lots of good musicians to listen and learn from. So, it's been a slow, gradual thing.  My aspirations as a player have always been to keep playing, try to improve my musicianship and to get to the next gig.

 Having said that - the pivotal event, for me, was winning the Blues Foundation's International Blues Challenge.  Before that I had not even been to America.  Being a full-time musician, my desire to make a pilgrimage to the 'home of the blues' was tempered by a chronic lack of funds.  Deep thanks go to the Melbourne Blues Appreciation Society, who bought me a ticket to Memphis to represent them at the competition in 2003. Winning the solo/duo category gave me an invaluable platform to network and perform in the US blues scene.

 Q: Are there any individuals who helped you get recognition?

 A: Like most musicians, my playing life is the sum of a thousand small acts of help, mercy and grace.  Even people who 'dissed' me, probably helped by making me more determined to keep playing and to try to get better! 

I've been lucky to get some wider recognition in the last few years - particularly thanks to the incredibly supportive efforts of my husband, manager, booker and best mate Steve 'The Preacher' Clarke.

Kind words from respected players, such as 'Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin, 'Pinetop' Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and others, has helped a lot.  I feel privileged to have had the chance to play with musicians of their caliber, who have such deep links to the history and roots of the music.  I'd also like to acknowledge industry people like Bill Wax from Sirius/XM 'Bluesville' radio and Chip Eagle (Blues Revue magazine)...

 Q: You are an accomplished guitarist in several genres of music.  How did you develop these skills?

 A: Slowly!  With a stack of old records at my side.  As a self-taught guitarist, who started playing in their late 20's, I was keenly aware that I was a 'late-starter'.  The acoustic country blues that I first fell in love with was my starting point.  I think that's why I'm a finger-style player - it never felt comfortable to use a plectrum or thumb pick. 

Maybe it helped that I loved and listened to all sort of Blues styles for many years before I started trying to play myself... 

 After a couple of years of playing acoustic, I got the chance to join a band.  To celebrate, I borrowed an electric guitar, which I had no idea what to do with!  Your role as a guitarist in a band setting is very different from trying to play solo country blues guitar.  Luckily I could sing, so I just played rhythm parts for a while until I felt ready to attempt straight single-string guitar solos.  There were lots of distractions and sidetracks along the way.  I played electric bass on the side for several years, and I was also trying to learn about the industry: how to organize a band, run a PA system, hustle a gig, write songs....

 Q: It is always said that the only way for a blues artist to make money is through touring.  Have you found this to be the case?

 A: This is a tough question....  Touring leads to greater awareness of your act and your music; you are more likely to sell CD's on the road etc.  Generally, unless you are really lucky (!) and get one of your original songs covered by someone really famous and thus make a fortune on royalties, the only way for a musician to make money is to play.  But the current economic situation is making it really tough on touring acts.  I feel really lucky that I'm flexible and keen to make the most of my opportunities.   I'm equally happy playing electric with a band at a rowdy bar - or at an acoustic concert show for a listening audience - and, increasingly, I have been invited to teach at places like 'Fur Peace Ranch'.  Basically, I'll play wherever they let me loose!   

 Q How much of the year do you spend on the road?

 A: At the moment, I have been spending a great deal of time on the road.  This year has been the busiest yet...

I only spent 10 days 'at home' between the beginning of May and the end of August - and by years end, I will have flown back and forth across the Pacific eight times. There has been a bit of transition for me, having moved back to Australia late last year after living full-time in America for two years.  Next year, I am planning to be on the road from my US base during Spring/Summer - and then spend the Northern winter at home in Australia when our local festival season is just beginning

 Q: I noticed that your husband does your management and helps with booking.  Does this arrangement have advantages in terms of communication or anything else?

 A: Steve 'The Preacher' Clarke, has been a one-man cheer squad for me.  He is an extremely interesting character and has a wonderful, lateral way of tackling projects and coming up with new ideas.  I'd never had a partner before that had really been involved with my music and career. In fact, my previous attitude was that working so closely with your spouse sounded potentially unhealthy!  Although it can be difficult at times to balance the personal and professional aspects of your relationship, Steve and I work extremely well together.  He is a fantastic tour manager, too, which I have been coming to appreciate more and more, as I tour alone this year. 

 Steve (who really is an ordained priest, despite his demeanor!) has had the opportunity this year to resume his own professional and academic career.  This is why we decided to relocate back to Australia. I knew in my heart that, sooner or later, Steve would need to start 'doing his own gigs', figuratively speaking. This year has been a bit of a juggle as we adapt to new arrangements. Although he remains very involved in my management, it would be extremely useful now to have additional help with booking etc.  Generally though, our musical, professional and personal lives have been so seamlessly intertwined, I don't see that ever really changing.

 Q: The folks at Yellow Dog Records seemed real responsive. How did you hook up with them?

 A: Mike Powers, from Yellow Dog Records, judges at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, and also takes an active interest in the acts competing each year. I'd been traveling between Australia and the US for a few years, touring and looking at various options, after my win at the 2003 International Blues Challenge in the solo/duo category.

Yellow Dog Records was the first label to offer me a deal that I felt comfortable with. The most important thing is they trusted me musically. With my first US release, 'Lucky 13', and the new 'Blues Woman' album, they let me make the records I wished to make.  Artistic freedom is a real gift to a musician.

Yellow Dog has a very interesting and diverse roster of artists and their supportive attitude is probably why! 

 Q: I was wondering how you and the producer achieved the feel of the recording of Blues Woman.  It has a real old style feel to it…like the old records.  Even playing it in my car’s CD player, it sounded like I was listening to vinyl.

 A: Great!  I have retro sensibilities, but it isn't as easy as trying to make an 'old fashioned' sounding album.  You have to respect that most audiences these days have sophisticated ears.  I can't say enough good things about producer Mark 'Kaz' Kazanoff and engineer Stuart Sullivan (Wire Recording, Austin TX).  These guys have worked together as a team on countless albums.  Kaz is not only a great musician - contributing harmonica, sax and horn arrangements - but he also brings a wealth of experience from his many years producing albums for Black Top, Antones etc.  My Yellow Dog Records debut 'Lucky 13' was recorded with these guys and it was a delight to work on another project together.  Both Stuart & Kaz have some funky tips and techniques up their sleeves for achieving certain sounds and feels! 

 I've learned a great deal from being able to work with them.  Once the musical 'intent' is decided (based on the songs that I bring to the session), choosing the right rhythm section is really important - then most of the recording is pretty much done live and fairly quickly.  I wanted an upright bass on a lot of the songs - bassist Ronnie James Webber and drummer Jimi Bott (who lives in my adopted hometown of Portland, OR) definitely bring that great 'old-school' feel that we were aiming for. 

 Q: What brands of guitar and amp do you use on the road.  Is your recording set-up the same as your road one?

 A: My main instruments are both Australian-built Maton guitars: a dreadnaught-style CW80 acoustic and a solid body 'Mastersound' electric.  The Mastersound, a custom long-scale model, has become my favorite.  It's just great for playing gritty stripped-down blues, like a lot of the material on my new 'Blues Woman' album. On the recording session, I also played a single-cone Beeton Resonator acoustic guitar.  Made by Australian builder Greg Beeton, this beautiful instrument was a surprise wedding present from my fantastic husband, Steve.  (I would have married him anyway, but this confirmed my decision was sound!)   Finally, I often gig and record with the stunning 'Blue Empress' custom Telecaster built for me by Steve White from the Tampa Bay area, FL.  

I'm proud to showcase quality Australian products, so the 'Blue Empress' is fitted with Aussie Chris Kinman's 'Broadcaster' model pick-ups.

 In the studio and on the road, as far as humanly possible, I use one of my Category 5 amps.  Based in Texas, Category 5 designs and builds handcrafted tube amps.  My custom-design 'Tracy' model (named after a famous Aust Category 5 cyclone) is designed to allow me to use it on both Aust & US power.  For more intimate clubs, the beautiful small combo 'Mariah' model amp is my favorite. When I was recording, I brought all my guitars and amps into the studio.  Ideally, I'd love to do the same on the road but it's not always practical!

 If folks are interested - there's photos and info on all my guitars, amps and gear at ;)

 Q: Do you have any long-term goals?

 A: First of all, I remain true to my initial aims: keep playing, get to the next gig and improve my musicianship... In the long term, I have lots of new ideas for recording projects, collaborations with other musicians and further explorations of blues genres. I really am excited about new possibilities opening up for me - and I would love to play in Europe, as well as continuing to tour and play in the US and Australia. Where ever the music leads me - I hope to see you out there, come and say g'day!

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You may wish to read about another 2010 Handy Nominee for Traditional Blues Female, Ann Rabson

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