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Fiona Boyes

Singer-Songwriter Q&A

Photo credit: Debra Novak



How old were you when you started playing guitar?


I didn’t really start playing guitar until I was in my mid-20’s. The first step was discovering blues music and becoming a huge fan; listening to a lot of records, going to see lots of live gigs and enjoying the music. About 5 or 6 years later, I thought, “I love this music so much, I’d like to try and play it myself!”



What was your first guitar? Did you buy it yourself? Do you still have it?


I didn’t know it at the time, but my first open mic performance was also a ‘Talent

Encouragement’ competition sponsored by Maton Guitars, the leading guitar maker from

my hometown Melbourne, Australia. The prize was a beautiful brand new Maton CW80 acoustic guitar. I borrowed a guitar from a friend to play that night as I didn’t even have one of my own. To my amazement, I won, and that’s how I got my first guitar – and, of course, I still have it.


Fiona's first guitar, a Maton CW80.


Did your parents or grandparents play any instruments? If so, what did they play? Did you ever get a chance to play with them?


My mother and grandmother played piano, and my father loved to sing, occasionally

accompanying himself on a little button concertina. On extended family holidays my Uncle Paul would play the piano and we’d have singalongs with all the cousins and adults – mostly from old books of war-era tunes like ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’. Nothing like the music that I would be writing and playing as an adult.


Fiona's parents.


What are the guitars that you play? Do you have a favorite? If so, why is it your

favorite?


Over the years my instrument collection has expanded exponentially! My first Maton

acoustic was soon joined by an old Fender Telecaster electric, and a bass guitar. I ‘moonlighted’ as a bass player for many years, which overlapped with playing solo acoustic shows and fronting my electric blues band.



Recently I have been having a ball exploring a range of one-off cigarbox guitars, mostly 3 or 4 stringed instruments.




My favourite touring guitar is my custom Maton Mastersound electric. It’s so versatile; rigid enough to play fingerpicking old-style blues on, and with lots of bottom end for grittier Chicago and Mississippi style material too.




Other special favourites include the low tones of my very rare National Reso-Lectric baritone and a 3-string cigarbox which my husband has recently re-built and dubbed ‘The Revenant’ – it’s a fabulous little mongrel of an instrument.


Fiona's National Reso-Lectric.



Fiona's, 'The Revenant', rebuilt by her husband, The Preacher.



What strings do you use (brands and gauges)? How often do you change your strings?


I use Elixir guitar strings on all my instruments: Acoustic 80/20 Bronze light, Electric light-heavy, Baritone, and generally heavier acoustic strings on the cigar box instruments. As a finger-style player, I was initially resistant to the idea of coated strings. They felt too ‘slippery’ on my fingers somehow, but the newer, thinner coatings of the Nanoweb Elixir strings totally convinced me. The tone and feel of these strings really last so much longer in the face of a bunch of hot, sweaty gigs. Instead of having to change strings every few shows, I now just wait until the strings start to look a little ‘fuzzy’, indicating that the coating has started to wear.




Do you use a pick? If so, what brand and thickness?


Not applicable! I am a finger-style player, both on electric and acoustic guitars. Country

blues players like Big Bill Broonzy, Mississippi John Hurt and Australian Bluesman Dutch

Tilders were my initial major influences. I never took to using a pick when I moved on to

electric guitar and was thrilled to later discover that some of my musical heroes, like

Howling Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin, didn’t use picks either.


Photo credit: Stuart Anderson


Photo credit: Steve Spoulos


Do you use any effect pedals? If so, what are your favorites?


My approach is very old-school. I’ve never embraced pedals and effects, preferring to just use vintage valve/tube amps with built-in spring reverb or tremolo.



I got my first effect pedal quite recently. At live gigs now I use a Boss Super Octave OC-3 octave pedal on a few songs to beef up the tones on my little 3-string cigarbox guitar. Other than that, my only other piece of equipment is a custom built clean-boost pedal, just to get my solos heard over my brilliant (but loud!) Hammond player when I’m playing in band format.



Do you work on your own guitars or do you bring them to a guitar tech? Are there any guitar techs that you would like to recommend?


After winning the Maton acoustic guitar that started my career all those years ago, I am now an endorsed Maton player. They really look after me and do any work, set-ups or repairs on my main instruments.



By necessity my husband, The Preacher, has been working on my various cigarbox guitars as they tend to fall apart facing the rigors of touring. To the point where he has started not only repairing, but building cigarbox guitars from scratch - you can check out his work and get some back-story at: blueempressart.com.



If I ever need work done on my lovely resonator instruments, like my National O style or Beeton resonator, I take them to Barron Clarke in Canberra (Australia’s capital city). He specialises in Resophonic instruments and always does a great job - clarkeguitars.com.


Do you have a favorite guitar shop? What makes it a good shop?


At one point my husband and I lived in 10 houses in 8 years, in 2 different countries… Many of those places didn’t even have a guitar shop! We’ve lived in even more places since then, so it’s been hard to have on-going relationships. However, in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia, I still go to Manny’s in Fitzroy for new stuff (I’ve known Manny personally since I got started playing music) www.mannys.com.au – and for second-hand stuff, or just for a fabulous browse, the Music Swop Shop on Elgin Street, Carlton, is a great local institution - musicswopshop.com.au.




At what age did you start writing songs?


A short while after starting my performance career playing solo acoustic in coffee shops, I had the opportunity to join a band. The group, called The Mojos, was an all-female band playing swing, New Orleans style tunes and early blues. We were all fledgling players in the beginning, and we banded together to support each other and learn our craft. The group quickly developed and a year or so into our schedule of regular gigs we started to introduce original material. I guess I was almost 30 years old before I started writing seriously, but I grew into the main songwriter for the group. Original songs have formed the vast majority of my repertoire for decades now.




What is your songwriting process? Is it the music or the lyrics that usually come to

you first? Do you write old school on paper, or electronically?


Old-school all the way! I always write on paper, although sometimes I jot down riff ideas and melodies using the voice recorder app on my phone. A lot of songwriters I know have a standard process, but for me song writing is a mystical process that occurs in all sorts of ways. Sometimes the lyrics come first, sometimes a catchy riff or progression, sometimes a song comes out of exploring a new tuning or instrument. My current love affair with quirky cigar box guitars is a case in point; the joy of these instruments is their limitations, in many ways. I have a ‘bits box’ where I put scraps of ideas, coming back to them at intervals to see if I can match lyrics/melodies/stories from the pieces. Some songs take ages to ‘feel right’, other have practically written themselves the process has been so fast and seamless.



Who are the top three musicians or bands that have had a major influence on you?


Australian Dutch Tilders, Melbourne’s own legendary finger-style blues Godfather was a

huge influence on my playing. He played his own songs, but also masterful versions of Big Bill Broonzy and others. He was clearly influenced by a lot of the foundational country blues players that I listened to and loved, but he was the first person I saw playing that material LIVE, in person and up-close in a small club. Wow – I was hooked!


Fiona playing with Dutch Tilders.


More recently, Bob Margolin, who played guitar for many years with blues legend Muddy Waters, has had a major influence on me in terms of extending myself as a guitar-player. I was more comfortable with country blues and swing when we met, but he challenged me to stretch out and dig into much gritter, tougher Chicago style blues. Playing and touring with him proved to be a turning point and that influenced my song writing too.



Hubert Sumlin – the seminal guitarist with Howling Wolf’s band, the other major player in the classic Chicago blues world. Keith Richards called Hubert ‘the guitar-player's guitarist’. His quirky, rhythm patterns, exciting solos and idiosyncratic phrasing make him totally special. Not only a great guitarist, but also a beautiful person.


Fiona with Hubert Sumlin.


If you could jam with one person, living or dead, who would it be?


Hubert Sumlin! He was one of my blues heroes, right from the first time I heard a Howling Wolf track back when I was a young blues fan. I had no idea that one day I would not only meet him, but also hang out and play tour dates with him. Over all the years of playing, writing, traveling, and touring, my most treasured blues experience was to spend a weekend with him in 2006, at his home in Milwaukee. How sweet it would be to jam with him again!



What are your top three “desert island” albums?


‘Goin’ Back to New Orleans’ by Dr John. He won the Traditional Blues Album Grammy for

this album on its release in 1992, justifiably so! It features great classic New Orleans material and a who’s-who of NOLA musicians, including the Neville Brothers. ‘Wicked Grin’ by John Hammond. John Hammond’s fantastic bluesy take on a collection of Tom Waits songs. Cool percussion, great swampy guitar plus Wait’s lyrical genius – what’s

not to love?! Any classic collection of Howlin’ Wolf songs will also make the ‘Desert Island’ cut for me. There’s a heap of good reissues available, and as long as it has ‘Moanin’ at Midnight’, Smokestack Lightning’ and ‘Evil’ on it, I’m going to be a happy camper. Actually, if you could make that a Classic Chicago compilation which also includes a bit of Muddy Waters, Slim Harpo, Little Walter and Jimmy Reed on it…better yet!



What was the first concert you attended? What was the last concert you attended?


Searching the memory banks for my first ‘proper concert’…it was with my first boyfriend, and I was quite young. Yes, I just googled for confirmation: Rod Stewart and The Faces at the South Melbourne Cricket Ground, Australian Tour 1974! Sadly, I can’t say that experience sparked any ongoing attraction for Sir Rod’s music. Like a typical working musician, most of the bigger concerts I see these days are festival shows where I am also on the bill. Recent highlights include seeing the USA acts: The Texas Horns, Mitch Woods, Brandon Santini, Toronzo Cannon and Ruthie Foster at 2022 Edmonton Blues Festival in Canada – Edmonton Blues is such a cool, well-curated festival, one of the best.



The Beatles or the Stones?


OK – this is tricky. I would’ve said The Beatles, initially, because I have a beautiful, funky aunty who came back from Swingin’ London in the late 60’s with a beehive and boots who would play their records and teach me to dance! As a kid I was attracted to the melodic nature of The Beatles. The Stones came later. In their pop incarnation I wasn’t too interested, but I enjoyed digging into their earlier, Blues-inflected stuff. Recently reading Keith Richard’s very entertaining autobiography, ‘My Life’, gave me a better appreciation of the blues influences in the band. And I do love Keef’s masterly way with big riffs.



Where and when was your first paid gig? How much did you make?


My first paid gig was at the venue where I won my guitar in the Open Talent competition

back in the late ‘80’s. It was a little cafe called ‘Fat Bob’s’ and they invited me back after I won the comp. I’m not sure what I got for playing but I do remember feeling very excited, and nervous, to be performing regularly. About a year later I played the first gig with my newly-formed all female blues band, The Mojos. We were paid $50 each to play Saturday afternoons at a rowdy inner-city pub. We held that gig, every Saturday, for more than 18 months.


Fiona Boyes and Kaz Dalla Rosa of The Mojos. Photo credit: Mark Doherty


What has been the highlight of your musical career so far?


So many wonderful experiences - it’s like I’m getting a montage of my musical life right now! In 2003 my career took an incredible turn when I competed at the International Blues Challenge, in Memphis, run by the USA Blues Foundation. I was the first woman, and the first non-American, to win the competition in the solo/duo category. It opened a whole lot of doors for me. So many career highlights have come out of that pivotal event: 8 nominations in the USA Blues Music Awards (most recently for Traditional Female Blues Artist of the Year, aka the ‘Koko Taylor Award’), playing at the Blues Music Awards ceremonies, extensive touring in more than 20 countries…





But along with the many prestigious gigs, and accolades, I also consider the opportunity to meet, play and hang out with some revered elder statesmen-and-women of the blues to be the real musical highlights for me.


Fiona with Hubert Sumlin.


Fiona with Pinetop Perkins.


What has been your worst gig so far and why? (You don’t have to name names).


The benchmark for ‘bad gig’ goes back many years ago, at a far-flung country pub with my all-girl blues band. It was one of our first interstate tours; we were a bit green and the bar owner was a real old-fashioned misogynist. He got us to set up twice, once outside in the beer garden and then later changed his mind and had us re-set the stage inside (during the gig!). I played solo while the band set the PA and gear up again around me. After all that he decided he ‘didn’t feel like paying us’ at the end of the night. As the venue was in the middle of nowhere, we had to stay upstairs for the night with that ugly vibe. In the morning, I followed him around for more than an hour while he got the bar ready to open for the day, hassling him for our meagre pay before we had to hit the road again for our next tour date. I hate conflict, but as stressful as the situation was, I was determined not to give up. In the end, he took the cash out of the till and threw it on the floor at my feet.



What are some of the venues you enjoy performing at the most? What things make

the venue enjoyable for the performer (location, equipment, setup, organizers)?


Some beautiful festivals come to mind immediately! Edmonton Blues Festival, Canada, for example is boutique, very well curated, and super friendly. I adored playing Cognac Blues, France; a beautiful garden setting, great crowd, and they gift each musician a bottle of very fine Cognac too! I really hope I get the opportunity to return to Europe soon because so many of the venues and festivals are just wonderful. Festivals in Switzerland, Germany, France, Italy…they tend to be very well-organised, in lovely locations, and with a very European focus on hospitality.



At the other end of the spectrum, I am thrilled that I’ve had the chance to play at a few iconic, traditional juke joints in Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida. It is an honour to be accepted in those spaces, which are so richly steeped in the history of the music. The jukes are down home, the equipment (and the venue itself) tend to be tacked together, the décor filled with trinkets, folk art and mardi gras beads…. The last time I played at Red Paden’s famous Juke joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi, I got an electric shock off the vocal mic – ah, that’s the blues right there!



How do you work out your setlist?


Argh! I generally hate writing setlists. It is a really good idea to have one, though, especially for featured sets at festivals, or when playing with other musicians. However, my band members know that I always reserve the right to depart from the plan if I feel the audience needs something different! I play a lot of solo shows where I can be more flexible and have a ‘stream of consciousness’ – but, in any case, I usually plan the first couple of songs, and the last couple. I like to make sure that the set starts and finishes in a satisfying way.


Photo credit: Jason Rosewarne


Is there any advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out in the music business?


I’m sure I got heaps of advice at the start - some of it very confusing – and I can’t really

remember any of it! However, I think that if you are going to play a roots music style, you should be mindful of being respectful to the tradition, while trying to find your own voice within it. To make a living as a musician, you may have to make some creative compromises, but you shouldn’t make too many. Music is too important to ‘spoil’ for

yourself by playing material that you don’t enjoy or feel connected to.


Do you have any suggestions for a guitarist or songwriter who might be stuck in a

musical rut?


Sometimes working musicians, by necessity, get side-tracked by all the hack business

work/booking/social media/promo etc. It’s good to remember to re-visit the source and listen to both the musicians that inspired you to play in the first place, and to discover new artists. Exploring a new instrument can strengthen your main practice – for example, I get a lot of crazy inspiration and fun messing around with my new feral cigar box guitars. The usual licks that fall under your fingers as a guitarist are gone when you suddenly have only 2 notes and 3 or 4 strings! It makes you re-think things. An alternative tuning, a new technique – maybe slide or lap-style playing - or seeking collaborations with other musicians can also be helpful strategies.


Photo credit: Ken Shaffer



If you weren’t a singer-songwriter, what would you be doing for work?


Before I went crazy, borrowed a guitar, and quit my job to become a full-time musician, I worked as a commercial artist/graphic designer. I still take an active interest in art and design, including involvement with my CD packaging design. In recent years, I’ve been playing around creating my own expression of Mississippi style folk-art as well as painting and photography. It is a satisfying extension of my creativity when I’m not on the road. I’ve been selling pieces for a while –– I reckon I could have fun doing more of that!




Please list some of your upcoming shows, plug your music and provide links to your

merchandise.


I am based in southern NSW, Australia, and you can find my regularly updated gig schedule at: fionaboyes.com/tour-dates.


I have released a dozen albums of predominantly original material, across a range of

acoustic and electric blues styles. CD’s/vinyl available at my website merch store.


Recent albums and audiophile vinyl of ‘Professin’ the Blues’ are available in USA via Reference Recordings, CA.


Plenty more information on my albums, awards, guitar gallery, gigs at my website…and, of

course, all the socials!


Official Website: fionaboyes.com





Facebook profile: facebook.com/fionaboyes



Photo credit: Robert Davy






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