Singer / guitarist Fiona Boyes holds up a cigar box guitar that she hand-painted herself. On its front, a heart with one eye hovers over a dollar sign. The images float against a sky-blue background, halved by cords and lipstick pickups. An Australian ten dollar bill is painted on the back.
You wouldn't be surprised if such a piece was hung in an American folk art museum with a curatorial note stating that it belongs to some kind of blues artist. But what Boyes has in her hands is too light, too new, and too Australian to get out of the American south. It's a contemporary piece that was created out of love for the south.
The cigar box guitar, a classical instrument built by Boyes & # 39; husband and made by Boyes & # 39; own folk art was brought to life, sums up Boyes and their music. She respects and works within blues traditions, but also finds ways to bring out her own perspective. Like the eye of the guitar in a heart, she sees everything and does not allow her knowledge of the blues history to drown out her personal voice.
Known for her classic acoustic and electric blues sound, Boyes is finger-and-slide powered her guitar work. She won the Blues Foundation's International Blues Challenge. She was nominated for eight Blues Music Awards, a rarity for an Australian. She won a Blues Blast Music Award (Best Acoustic Blues Album) in 2017 for Professor & # 39; The Blues and was nominated for Best Traditional Blues Recording (for Blues Woman) in 2010. Boyes later got into the guitar and the blues in college.
"It was like a missing part of my life was suddenly fixed," she says of the blues discovery. She graduated from college and worked in graphic design until the pull of music proved too strong to resist: “(I) was around my late twenties, just 30 when I had my midlife crisis early, quit mine Job and borrowed a guitar that I couldn't really play and I got into a band, ”she says.
Of course, a band's performance during COVID is different than when Boyes started out. Currently based in Australia, she jams online with her band until she can travel to be with them in person. Meanwhile, Boyes has been working on projects ranging from the liner notes to her 20th anniversary reissue of Blues in My Heart, her solo debut, creating and leading online courses and performances, to the aforementioned experiments with art – and cigar box guitars. All of these activities, while not synonymous with world travel, did help Boyes think about the blues.
Boyes always had plans to make Blues' 20th anniversary special in My Heart, but being home allowed more time for the project than expected and allowed for a deep dive into her past. "I thought one of the things that could be of interest to a wider audience would be to give context to this re-edition," she says.
"So I took some time to really literally dig out trash boxes that I dragged through a variety of house moves. You know, including moving from Australia to America for a couple of years and back. I had boxes of things, files, Photos and looked through a lot of them. And it was really good to think about what made me want to record this album. And then what happened next in the last two decades of my career. "
The return to her solo debut also made it clear to Boyes how much the blues changed her life.
“Part of that interesting reflection was how discovering the blues and falling in love with it really set the stage for me and my life,” she says. Blues in My Heart led to their first trip to America, “which opened up all those wonderful Cinderella moments where I had the opportunity to meet and play with some of my blues heroes. And visit some of the famous historical spots for the blues. And so it was really a crucial point that would get me started on the next adventure that is still going on, ”she laughs.
The next adventure for now is teaching online and creating content that gives fans the opportunity to interact with Boyes in ways that might not have been possible before the pandemic.
"I recently did a Zoom concert for the Blues Society of Central Pennsylvania which was very enjoyable as it was one of the first times I did a Zoom concert, and it meant I hang out with people afterwards could entertain. " She says. "And it was really satisfying to actually have the chance to chat with people afterwards and show them the instruments and all that stuff."
Boyes is grateful for the Internet as a connection tool, but also for its depth of blues information. While not everything ever created is available online, it often feels that way.
"When I fell in love with the blues and was a fan for the first time, you couldn't get all of these old players on YouTube. You had to find that stuff," she recalls. "And I remember going once for a whole year Paid a subscription to an inner city film company because I was going through their entire schedule for the season and found that one night they had footage of old blues players. I bought the whole season ticket just to spend that one night. And Anyone can get something like that on YouTube these days. "
Boyes also leads a blues songwriting class for an Australian regional youth development group that she has time for now that she's not on the road. This project allows her to demonstrate the blues beauty and complexity at the same time.
"At first glance, blues seems like a simple (form), and there is this kind of reductionist view, often from people who are not very familiar with the music, which goes, 'Well, it's just, you know, 12 bars and everything sounds the same 'and there I just have to get my blues flag and hoist it at that point,' she says.
“And I love it when people say, 'I don't really like the blues, but I like what you do. & # 39; And I can tell you: 'Yes, that's blues too!' Because I think blues is much, much wider genre than a lot of people think. And there are so many shades of blue, there are so many styles and that was one of the things that fascinated me and lasted me 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 you do it," says Boyes. Leading a songwriting workshop for the Augusta Heritage Center helped her realize that distillation is a strength of blues songwriting. "(It's) this idea of taking something personal but simplifying it and making it universal," she says. "
And I think something that is really important about the blues is the idea that you can take something very personal and tell your own story, but if you make it sound bluesy you have to simplify it, you have to reduce it to the very essence . "
Boyes quotes the inscription on the back of the grave of blues singer / guitarist Memphis Minnie (Boyes paid tribute to the blues woman on her first trip to the USA) as a recording of her own songwriting philosophy:
“The hundreds of pages Minnie has recorded are perfect material to teach us about the blues. Because the blues is general and special at the same time and speaks for millions, but with a highly singular, individual voice. When we hear Minnie's songs, we hear her fantasies, her dreams, her desires, but we will hear them as if they were our own. "
“Because sometimes people would say to me, 'That last song that made me laugh, or that last song that was sad, that really touched me and that's what happened to me,” says Boyes. “And when you get together Sit down for a drink and find that their experience is very different from yours. But (there is) something about this simplification that is connected at this moment, and I love the idea of this inscription on Minnie's grave. It's very cool. "
Boyes is a dedicated blues student who has met many of her heroes and taught herself a variety of styles. If Boyes understands different types of blues, she can write her own music.
"It's like seeing someone doing something and it looks so simple," she says. "I think that's at the heart of a lot of roots music. And part of it is, yeah, kind of immersed in it. I mean, you certainly can't write what style you want to write in. You have to dive into that style. You can't really expect to write in any style if you don't understand what you are aiming for. "
The fluency with various blues phrases influences Boyes' songwriting, but also her instrumentation.
“In a way, I've landed almost unconsciously now, but I've switched my album projects between acoustic and electrical projects, which allows me to move across different regional blues styles in my playing and songwriting. So you can move on from brisk finger pecking to my latest craze for exploring single-chord riffy things Mississippi-style on cigar boxes. "
Cigar boxes with fewer strings than a guitar and a different sound are more than a canvas substitute for Boyes' works of art. They also play a role in their songwriting process.
"I think what is interesting about the cigar boxes is that, from the guitarist's point of view, there are certain licks and riffs that fall under your fingers in different keys," she says. "So you will sometimes find that C is a good key for the licks that go with contemporary stuff, and E is a good key for Mississippi stuff because it has open strings."
But fewer strings and different tunings mean that fingers no longer magically fall where they need to land. “You just have to rethink everything and reduce it to the essentials. You can't just say, "I'm just playing that lick." Because you have to find new licks with a note or two. "
The way cigar boxes disrupt familiar fretboard patterns allows Boyes to break out of the songwriting routines.
“It's nice to have the different palettes because sometimes the inspiration comes from lyrics and sometimes 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 many different places. "
“I used to really keep the acoustic and electrical repertoire separate,” says Boyes. "But then, increasingly, and I think it started with Blues for Hard Times, an album of acoustic and electrical stuff, everything is blurry."
There are artistic, but also logistical reasons for this. “Financially, it is often easier for me to tour alone. And certainly I've spent a lot of time overseas and in Europe over the past eight years, so I often play alone or record a rhythm section to make it all blur. I tend to think about songs (in terms of whether), whether it's either an acoustic solo song or whether I could play it electrically. Or maybe it's a band song, but it's a great song. So I need to figure out how to make an effective version of this solo because I might be able to promote and play a band album, but on the go, alone, or maybe just with the drummer or percussionist. I think for the recording, the acoustic / electrical thing is more important. "
Boyes loves making albums, obsessing about the order of the tracks and the liner notes, and giving her fans an experience. Unsurprisingly, that attention to detail extends to the album cover as well.
“With Voodoo in the Shadows, my latest electric album, I had the music and the track order and wanted to do the album cover. And in the end I made a handprint of this type. "
“The typography is actually designed by hand. It is one of my works of art. I was experimenting with this whole folk art idea and using one of those Do It Yourself folk art ideas, Junk and what you have on hand, so I started making a series of prints that were like hand drawn I think like a lino print or something like that. However, the block consisted of panels made of styrofoam from old take-out containers. So I reused them, just scratched into them to make them, then did it with rolling ink and pads. So the guy on this album cover is a print. So it's as if everything here has the opportunity to include all creative aspects. And that's part of the joy for me. "
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 that I found really interesting and very compelling, especially when I got the chance to spend more time in places like Clarksdale, was how many of the musicians were artists and vice versa," she says. “There are people like Stan Street at Hambone Gallery who are artists, but also musicians, and people like Super Chikan who create these amazing funky works of art and decorate those crazy homemade cigar box instruments. You will find tradition of musicians and artists in many places or in the south. These different disciplines seem to be complementary. "
Boyes is looking forward to when she can hit the streets again, although even that is likely to be different for COVID and non-COVID reasons.
"I look back on some of the schedules I've kept to over the past few years and what I should have done over the past year and I feel almost uncomfortable. It's very hard to stop. And with a lot of other musicians too Speaking is also difficult to imagine going back to some of the things we did. You realize how much it costs you. "
It's a problem Future Boyes has to grapple with. Right now she's lost in music, art, lessons, and reflection on a unique moment that gave her time for herself but at the cost of her living. She realizes that, like many artists, it is exploration and creativity that drives their work, not the economy.
"I do my best to keep in touch with my employees and encourage creativity," she says. “It's interesting that the songs I wrote recently all seem to be reflections on the music industry. I just wrote a song called "I'm so busy looking after the business, I think it's time the business took care of me".
Maybe it sounds too optimistic? It is nothing less than what you would expect from her.
"I've been told I'm smiling too much to play the blues, but I think it's either rampant, unrealistic optimism (laughs) or, do you know what the options are?"
Reviewer Steven Ovadia writes about music and technology. You can see more of his music writing at https://steven.ovadia.org/music/.