Blues guitarist, singer, and songwriter Fiona Boyes hasn't always been a blues musician. In our recent interview, Boyes laughed as she remembered her early musical experiences with a different instrument: the clarinet. "It was kind of ... a nerdy instrument," she said. "Maybe if I'd been given a bit of New Orleans jazz or something, I would've stuck with that instrument."
Luckily for blues fans, Boyes chose not to pursue a career playing classical music with her clarinet. "I just wasn't relating to the music, which is I guess why I dropped playing it," she said. "I couldn't play without [written] music, so I couldn't just ... jam with myself or play with other people."
Boyes decided instead to teach herself to play the guitar in her mid-20s after being introduced to blues music in college. "Blues shifted something for me," she said. From there, Boyes has gone on to become an internationally recognized blues artist.
Boyes first came to the United States in 2003 for the solo/duo competition in the International Blues Challenge, which she won. Since then, the sassy blond Aussie has gone on to receive such prestigious awards as "Best Live or Compilation Album" at the 2008 Blues Critic Awards for Live from Bluesville and a nomination for "Acoustic Album of the Year" at the 2009 Blues Music Awards for Lucky 13.
Boyes has caught the attention of not only her audiences but also several blues legends. Pinetop Perkins, piano player for Muddy Waters and guest musician on Boyes' new album Blues Woman, said of her, "I ain't never heard a woman finger-pick a guitar like that since Memphis Minnie. ... She's the best gal guitar player I heard in more than 35 years."
Known primarily for her acoustic work, Boyes on Blues Woman (released May 5) explores several different styles, including the electric side of her repertoire.
"I was finding that I was being quite influenced by my experiences in the last couple of years being here in America and getting a chance to play with some heroes of mine and musicians that I deeply admire, particularly in the Chicago blues kind of field," she said. "I can really hear a lot more assertive guitar-playing [in Blues Woman]. I can hear the influence of those great American players I've had the chance to work with and hang out with over the last few years."
Some of those "great American players" show up on Blues Woman, including Perkins, slide guitarist Watermelon Slim, and singer/pianist Marcia Ball. And after touring with Muddy Waters guitarist Bob Margolin and Howlin' Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin, the influences of those players show up in her music, as well. In an earlier interview, Boyes said, "They've made me want to be an edgier performer, and to explore more, and really pick up my electric guitar and dig in."
Blues Woman has more than just electric blues, however; Boyes also includes big-band swing and her famed finger-picking acoustic work.
At this year's festival, Boyes will be playing solo acoustic but will also play many of the electric songs off of Blues Woman, showing off the fluid nature of her music. "Because I was interested in that whole notion of how you have acoustic stuff and then how it transforms into Chicago electric stuff, a lot of that material [from Blues Woman] is very playable on acoustic," she said.
But don't expect just fantastic guitar-playing from this artist. Boyes writes most of her own music, peppering her songs with lively and clever lyrics that will keep audiences hanging on her every word. In "Celebrate the Curves," an anthem to the full-figured woman, Boyes sings, "People say, 'Am I in the family way?' / But hey, I just love my food / I'm built like a woman's meant to be built / with a belly, butt, and boobs!"
Along with other feisty songs such as "Woman Ain't A Mule" and melancholy ballads such as "Stranger in Your Eyes," Boyes' lyrical variety is as wide as her stylistic range.
However, Boyes' songs all have one thing in common: They tell a story. As the BluesWax newsletter said, Boyes' songs are "some of the purest, sassiest, and smartest blues yet. ... She is living proof of the universality of the blues experience, coming from around the world to give back the raw blues of the Delta in a fresh, personal way."