FIONA BOYES Adelaide International Guitar Festival 08

FIONA BOYES – Adelaide International Guitar Festival 08
September 10, 2008 | Author: Greg Phillips

Fiona_Boyes_-_Acoustic_PortraitSince winning the International Blues Challenge in Memphis in 2003, blues guitarist and singer/songwriter Fiona Boyes has been carving a nice little niche for herself in the blues music world. Fiona has gained much respect from not only American audiences, but also from her US blues counterparts, particularly for her stunning BMA nominated album ‘Lucky 13’. Boyes enjoyed her time so much at the inaugural Adelaide Guitar Festival last year, that she’s travelling back home to participate again. Fiona Spoke to Greg Phillips from her American headquarters in Portland, Oregon.

What was it about last year’s AIGF that made you want to come back so soon?
I was really impressed with Adelaide. The way it was organised and run was just seamless and a lot of the international acts were impressed too. Absolutely world class. When they said they were going to be setting up an international festival, well, everything about it said this is a prestigious international festival.

Do the festival performers tend to congregate socially in Adelaide?
They had things set up nicely for that. We were all staying at the same hotel and they had a private party where we could mingle. The forums were really good for that too. For me, I had a wonderful connection where I played a solo acoustic show and Jorma Kaukone from Hot Tuna was on the bill and saw me play and approached me. He and his mandolin player were doing a duo spot the next day and asked me to play with him. So there’s an incredible connection. My philosophy is never turn down an opportunity to play with someone. He turned out to be a lovely guy and out of that … I have been invited to his teaching guitar camp to teach blues guitar next year, and that came out of the Adelaide festival.

So the festival is great for the performers. What does it offer a guitar player as spectator?
It offers a comprehensive experience. Because it focuses on the guitar as an instrument and not any particular genre of music, it makes it a really interesting festival. You know sometimes people say they want to learn to play guitar and you think, what does that mean? Do you want to learn classical or flamenco, do you want to shred, play heavy metal or blues? Even within blues there’s variation, and then there’s zydeco, rockabilly, western swing. So many different ways the instrument an express itself. Then you have the music component and all the shows are set up in very comfortable venues, but they also have workshops. I did workshop last year where I sat in a small room with a  dozen people. I took apart my understanding of blues traditions as I express it. Then there were the forums. I was involved in one based on the direction of Australian blues and roots music and the other was about being a women in the guitar world. Which I am sometimes a little bit shy of, particularly in the blues scene it is very male dominated. There aren’t that many female blues artists, then even less women blues guitarists, so it is obviously an issue. I get contacted by young women who aspire to play blues guitar and I always encourage them, because we could do with more women. It’s frustrating sometimes when you get interviewed and most of the article is about the fact that you are a woman. I just think if that wasn’t the case they would have nothing to talk about except the music, dammit! No musician wants to be treated as a novelty and you can’t sustain a career on being a novelty, but it obviously still a novelty to some people.

You’ve made a real name for yourself and played with many blues greats, you even jammed with Hubert Sumlin in his home. How much of that experience was a little Melbourne girl underneath, pinching herself?
A big chunk. Yes, even to be able to meet people like that. I sometimes have to break down experiences like that. At home, I used to see as many local and international touring acts as I could. You think, even if I see someone like that play live it would be a thrill. But sometimes you have those dumb kind of meetings where you go like like ‘Hello Mr Sumlin, love your work’. When you get a chance to hang out with someone a little longer, you start having a chance to relate to them it’s a very different experience, but there is still a part of you that is still very much the blues fan. I didn’t actually hear blues until college at 17 or 18, but I never really bonded with contemporary music or what was on the charts. When I heard the blues I thought, ‘I love this’. This is what I am missing in my life. But I was 26 before I decided to start playing myself, so I had to listen and be fan long before I was a musician. When I stayed at Hubert’s, the first day we just sat and chatted and then jammed the next day. But we were sitting in his little lounge room talking and the phone rang, and it was (blues legend) James Cotton, and you just think … yeah!
There’s an intrinsic thing about blues. In some ways people think of it as a limited genre that is very hog tied by traditions. It can descend to the lowest common denominator and be parodied on that level but when you actually get someone who understands the nuances and traditions of blues it can also be a transcendent sort of music. So you have all that tension. Although I do a lot of original material it is very important for me to be connected to that traditional thread. So there has been a history of jamming and mentoring. To sit down and play with someone it is not just about stealing licks off them or being able to play like they play. You get a sense of how to play the music and who they are. By talking with them and hearing stories and their lives, that’s a continuous part of the fabric of it. Like a relay race passing the baton on. Sso that respect for traditions and the elders, the way they play is all part of that. To be considered someone who is worthy of hanging out with and talking with, and passing that torch on, is really profound to me. I can’t believe how the Chicago players in particular have embraced and encouraged me.

You’ve set up base in Portland, Oregon. I believe it’s a very creative town?
It sounds funny but it really felt like a comfortable fit for me. Last year I did 13 American states, 20 festivals and I had been based in Atlanta and then North Carolina, Florida. But I came to Portland for their Waterfront Blues Festival. They have a great blues festival on 4th July weekend and it was a wonderful festival and great sense of a blues community here, great musicians, imports as well as people from Portland. It kind of reminds me of Melbourne being a Melbourne girl. They have this coffee shop culture and it’s on a river, it’s arty and has this diversity of weirdness and it felt so comfortable.

What impact did  winning the international blues challenge in Memphis in 2003 have on your career?
Winning the international blues challenge made a huge difference. It opened a lot of doors. it’s like an automatic entree into a certain range of people and also there were some gigs which were part of winning. That was kind of awkward because some of the shows were spread out over the year and coming from Australia, it wasn’t feasible to play them all. But the international blues challenge itself is really pivotal to the blues scene. There are a handful of events where blues lovers and all the people from the blues society, the media, this is where they gather. The main ones are the International Blues Challenge, the Blues Music Awards and the Handy Awards and that’s when you have the opportunity to network with people from all over America, all over the world in fact. But the International Blues Challenge is really a hopping scene . You have all the competitors playing in bars up and down Beale Street. For me it was an incredible experience being my first trip to America. Being a broke musician, it w as only that I won the local play off in Melbourne that the melbourne blues society did a fundraiser and bought me a ticket to Memphis. So after being a blues musician and a blues fan for so long, you are suddenly in the middle of very historic Beale Street Memphis. It was very exciting but I was wondering what they would make of me. I wasn’t sure if they’d understand my accent and or sense of humour, or think I was being presumptuous playing this kind of music And then it gets you a lot of attention and some of the people I met on that first trip have become organically great personal friends as well as network opportunities. In fact Mike Powers from Yellowdog records, who I am now signed to, was on that judging panel the year I won the blues challenge. So he kept his eye on me for a couple of years and ended up signing me. Now I have ben invited back myself to judge. It was fantastic, but on the other hand having won, my husband Steve said, this is great but in a year’s time, someone else is going to win the challenge. We had better work on how we can capitalise on this. The first thing we did was go home. I had just recorded an album but hadn’t quite completed it all. So it was a flurry of activity. I got that finished quickly then came back to America to tour for 3 months to basically network it while I had freshly won the competition.

You’ve always been loyal to the Australian gear brands  …
It’s been really good because I have always played a Maton. One of my very first public performances I went into a coffee shop with a borrowed guitar and didn’t realise at the time they were running a  competition. The prize was a Maton guitar and I won it. I was so beside myself because I hadn’t  been playing long and could never afford to buy one. It was so beautiful and it was the thing that really got me playing. Finally I had a quality instrument and I took off from there. I always stayed in touch with them. When I came to America for the first time people would ask me what guitar I was playing and it was really nice to be able to say, this is a hand made quality instrument built in my home town. Americans are very parochial so it was nice to be able to say I am Australian and this is an Australian instrument. I got the Mastersound not long before I got to play with Bob Margolin from the Muddy Waters band and and Hubert, and I was just beginning to delve into Chicago blues. The Mastersound has the most wonderfully rude Chicago blues tone. Different guitars make you play differently. The same with the Maton archtop, incredibly different voices in that guitar. It was a nice organic relationship which has grown since my first guitar to now. I have a classic vintage ’68 Telecaster and also a hand built Tele-style guitar from a guy in Florida and again it was nice to be able to say I’m a fan of these Australian made pickups from Kinman and can I have those fitted. It’s been nice to be able to fly the Australian flag not just because they are Australian but because they are so good and I play them.