Canadian Guitar Players Association

Interview with Liona Boyd

January, 2003

With special thanks to the team of Helen and Warren Powis, we are pleased to present our engaging conversation with the elegant Liona Boyd...

Interview by Dave Alexander, Edited by Jan Menkal

 

CGPA - How often are you able to get back to Toronto?

Liona - Not as much as I'd like.  My family is there and I was back last November.  Usually four or five times a year.  My manager, my producer and my brother and sister as well as my parents are all there.

CGPA - We look forward to you coming back to play here in Canada...

Liona - I'd love to do more things in Canada, more films, but I don't have an agent that represents me there.  I've only done one film there actually, "A Walk In The Clouds" which won a Golden Globe and I'm hoping to do more of that.  My career really started in Canada and a lot of it is still based in Canada and I don't want to lose that.  I have a great loyalty to my fans across the country.  We did 45 concerts there last year, so that was a pretty extensive tour.

CGPA - What was your first experience with the guitar?

Liona - When I was thirteen, I had asked my parents for a guitar for Christmas.  My father bought it when we were staying with my Grandparents in the northern region of Spain and I just totally fell in love with the guitar.  In the beginning it was a nice little hobby, something about it appealed to me, just the physical motion of playing the guitar, the sound, the touch of the guitar.  But it was only when I had heard Julian Bream that I really was totally captivated and knew that I wanted to play it, I had no idea that it would become my life's passion and lead me all over the world.

CGPA - With that career in mind, how did your family take your desire to make the guitar your living?

Liona - They always encouraged me to be creative.  They were thrilled when I got my first little recital, won some music competitions.  I know my father was a little concerned at the beginning after I met with different agents and managers in New York, he was worried that it was going to be a cut-throat business and he discouraged me actually, at the beginning because he thought it would be too much pressure.  My mother was always extremely supportive and in fact went on a lot of my early tours with me, helped arrange some of them, made my concert dresses and got involved in every aspect that she could lend a hand.

CGPA - When you started out, how hard was it to find a major label as a classical guitarist?

Liona - An opportunity was basically dropped into my lap.  Through Eleanor Snider, I was put in touch with a small Canadian label called Boot Records which was owned by Stompin' Tom Connors.  The resulting recording was then quickly picked up by London Records for distribution so all my international releases came out on the London label, so it was just the Canadian release that had Boot Records on it.  But that record really launched my career and through that record, I was introduced to Gordon Lightfoot and through that introduction I played to hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people all over Canada and the U.S. It was then  I was introduced to the whole pop music world.  I had studied for two really intense years in Paris with Alexander Lagoya so I felt my technique was ready, but I still didn't feel that this was going to be an international career.  I thought I would come back and play for little guitar societies, so everything that happened along the way, I was just thrilled.  I did the Today Show in New York which was my first big TV show and I got to meet Chet Atkins and some of the other major players around the world.  It was very exciting.  I had to pinch myself several times.

CGPA - Can you tell us about your very first recording experience?

Liona - It was back in the mid-seventies when I did this recording for Boot Records and I really didn't have any idea of the impact on my life that the recording would have.  I thought it was very flattering to be asked to make a record and I just did two or three takes of every piece and then my producer decided when they thought I had it right.  I just treated it more like a concert.  Now that I know you can do twenty takes I can get very fanatic about it. 

CGPA - Your resume is very impressive, even playing for the Queen...

Liona - I've played for her three times, but actually more than that because I've been doing some private concerts for the Royal Family.  Three times in Canada and then some private concerts in the Queen's Guard Chamber in Windsor Castle.

CGPA - How do you handle the differences playing large venues as opposed to small but important performances like playing for the Royal Family?

Liona - Well, I always just try and play my best and really try and get into my music and project the emotion of the piece.  It doesn't really matter if I'm playing something where the whole Royal Family were just sitting right in front of me.  I felt really relaxed, I was really happy.  I had written a special piece for the Queen and Prince Phillip.  Prince Phillip has been a fan of mine for years and I'm a fan of his.  He's so nice and a great sense of humor.  I have a long correspondence with him.  He writes to me regularly.  I've done quite a few benefit concerts as well, but this was just a private one in Windsor Castle where I met the Queen's mother and Princess Ann and even met all the Queen's dogs.  We had dinner with them and got to stay the night in Windsor Castle.  That was a special performance, but I wasn't really nervous for that at all, I was just really excited.  The ones where I've been more nervous is when I'm playing New York and there are critics who are very demanding sitting in the front row or playing at a guitar festival when you know all the audience is made up of guitarists and they know every note and they're there with the scores just waiting for you to make a mistake.

CGPA - So how do you handle stage fright?

Liona - I just do some deep breathing and I just lose myself in the music.  The best concerts are the ones where the music takes you to another place, transport you and you almost leave your body for a while.  Those are the peak experiences.  It doesn't happen every time, but when you can get to that point and just be flowing with the music, that's really what you live for.  Of course, in order to get there, you have got to have a very confident technique.  The wonderful thing about performing is that every concert is different.  Sometimes I'll feel really prepared and excited and I'll do just a terrible concert, other times I'll feel totally insecure and that I've not practiced and the strings need changed, having a tuning problem and all kinds of things go wrong and then I play just brilliantly.  So it's hard to really predict.

CGPA - What is your procedure when you sit down to write a piece of music?

Liona - Sometimes I'll just get a melodic idea, and just write down the melody and work on the chords later.  Other times, I'll have a rhythmic pattern in mind and that develops, but mostly I'm attracted to melody.  I have written quite a few things with lyrics actually.  I haven't used much of them but I love writing lyrics.  I've just written two new Spanish songs and that's a challenge.  I love the Spanish language and I always check my writing with a couple of my Latino friends.  Some of my best pieces, I've written just in lonely hotel rooms.  I feel I'm inspired if I'm really happy or down in the dumps.  When everything is going just fine, you don't get quite as inspired.  There's some truth that good composers have to suffer a little to get the creative juices going. 

CGPA - Do you play other types of music that your fans may not be readily aware of, like jazz, country or folk?

Liona - I did a country record with Chet Atkins, but basically my technique is classical guitar.  You can still get it as a compilation.  It's called The First National Guitar Quartet.  My record Dancing On The Edge was categorized as Urban Contemporary Jazz, but I am not a jazz player.  Jazz is a whole other way of playing, the chordal knowledge, regrettably, I don't have.  I was trained in a different way so I admire a lot of great jazz players.  I've got some that have some Flamenco techniques, but I'm really not a Flamenco player.  On my new album, there are 23 musicians and we all have different styles.  For instance, Strunz & Farah.  I don't play with a finger pick and I'm totally in awe of all those guy's that have that amazing speed and they are in awe of my classical styles.  We're all mutual fans.  It's great to have somebody like Steve Morse who's an amazing Rock player on the album.  He came to L.A. a few months ago to play with Deep Purple and I got to watch the show and hang out back stage and be on the tour bus.  He's got great chops.  He's a great classical player and many people don't realize that.

CGPA - Youíve played with a wide variety of artists, (if I may list a few of them for our members) Eric Clapton, Steve Morse, Jesse Cook, David Gilmour, Zamfir, Yo-Yo Ma, Chet Atkins, Strunz & Farah, the Boston Pops, a host of Orchestras, Roger Whittaker and the list seems to go on and on!  How do you prepare for playing with such diverse styles and abilities?  Tell us what itís like, for instance to sit down for the very first time with Chet Atkins?

Liona - The first time I met Chet, he came to my concert when I played Nashville.  Then he just invited me over the next day to the RCA offices and we just sat on the couch and exchanged some guitar tips and noodled around on the guitar.  Quite honestly, I wasn't really that aware of Chet Atkins growing up, so I wasn't intimidated or I wasn't even that overly impressed because I didn't know of him and then later on I learned that he's like a legend.  I was a little nervous playing for Segovia because he was like the Grand Old Maestro.  David Gilmour was great, we just hung out all day at the house.  He was just very casual, he did his solo there in his shorts and bare feet.  He took me on a tour of his beautiful English Manor house with a whole museum of guitars.  You know, I'm kind of a bit of a loner.  You know the name Liona, if it's spelled with an 'E' it means 'alone'.  I'm a bit of a recluse, so I don't hang out with a lot of musicians.  Maybe I should more.  So for me, it's a real treat to work with other musicians.  I was a bit scared playing with Strunz & Farah the first time and luckily, they wrote a beautiful piece for me that I recorded on their second-to-last record called 'Stringweave'.  So then I said 'Hey, now you've got to return the favor and play on my record'.  I also called my friend Al DiMiola.  Jesse Cook and I studied with the same guitarist in Toronto and he said he'd like to do one of my pieces.  So it's been really great.

CGPA - You opened a site on mp3.com where people can download and listen to an amazing number of your recordings.  At last count, there were 2,613,417 total plays to date.  What was the idea behind this?

Liona - Yes, that reached all over.  I was getting tons of emails from all over the world.  It introduced my music to a whole lot of people who had never heard of me.  I made quite a bit of money at that too.  I believe they've stopped paying now, when they were taken over.  Twice my pieces were number one on the entire site which is pretty good for a classical guitar musician competing with all the rock people and others.  One thing that's sad is that you don't get to see my videos in CanadaIn the U.S. I'm on the TV constantly on the Classical Arts Showcase.

CGPA - I understand Ozzy Osbourne is your neighbor?

Liona - I still have not yet met Ozzy can you believe it?  He sent me this huge flower basket over Christmas.  I've seen him a few times, but I haven't sat down to talk to him.  But I think the 'neighbor from hell' is having a party pretty soon and we'll actually have dinner with him at last.  Twice, we were supposed to have tea with him, but it never happened.  It's crazy on this street sometimes with fans yelling for Ozzy in the middle of the night and policeman here, so it's a little insane...

CGPA - Do you sing?

Liona - Very badly.  I sang with Roger Whittaker on the Christmas record and I sang on Dancing On The Edge, but I'm better with my fingers.  I was thrown out of the choir when I was six.  Actually that's one thing about Canada.  We're really impoverished as a country in that we don't have that rich musical heritage that some other countries have and I'm so envious.  When you get any group together from the Latin world, Mexico, Spain, Argentina, they all know hundreds of songs and they all sing together.  I was just recently in Europe with a group of people from all over the world.  There were only about ten Canadians there.  It was in Berlin and we were all having a sing-along get-together and so they said 'O.k. all the Canadians, get up and sing a song.  Well could you believe the only song we could possibly think of to sing was Allouette!  Nobody knew the words, it's a French song and I thought this is so typical that we don't have that rich musical heritage.

CGPA - What is your practice regimen like?

Liona - It's a bit erratic these days.  The computer seems to have taken over, taken so much time out of my life.  I usually end up practicing really late at night.  I'd love nothing more than to get up in the morning and start playing guitar, but it gets interrupted constantly, so mostly when everybody else has gone to sleep, I get my guitar and do my best practice.

CGPA - What woods do you prefer for your guitars?

Liona - I have just acquired a really amazing instrument!  I started off my career playing Ramirez guitars made with Canadian Cedar and then I started playing German Vazquez, then just recently, I commissioned a special guitar made by somebody called Boaz who has got a very revolutionary design.  I just went crazy about this guitar, so he's bringing me up another one next week because I just had to have this guitar.  It doesn't even look like the traditional guitar.  The sound hole is actually on the top, facing the musician.  The sound is incredible.  It's a very heavy guitar and not the easiest to play, but it's worth it for the sound.  This is a cedar one that I have, so I've now commissioned him to make a spruce one.  One of the guys from the L.A. Guitar Quartet is coming up to see this one tomorrow.

*Note:  This is a Picture of Liona and Boaz playing the new guitars.  Notice the location of the sound hole on the top of the first arch and the elongated body.  You can find out more about this incredible Luthier and these astounding guitars on his website.  http://www.boazguitars.com/

CGPA - Do you play any guitars with built in pickups or do you prefer playing through a microphone?

Liona - Yes, in fact Strunz & Farah lead me to the 'Mclish System'(RMC).  My best Vazquez had a pickup put in it when I toured with the band, but it does make it a little bit more metallic, a higher end with a little more edge to the sound.  You can always EQ the treble down.  I've had the Countryman Mic installed, but nothing seemed to work as well as the Mclish.  It gave a good balance.  In the eighties, when I toured with a band, I played with an electric classical guitar and I stood up.  This time I decided to forget about that and not prance around the stage doing Beatles songs like I did in the eighties.  I never really felt that comfortable standing up.

CGPA - What strings do you use?

Liona - I vary depending on the guitar.  I like Savarez.  I've used a copper polished bass which are very hard to buy.  They send them to me.  Sometimes I'll use D'Addario and Hannanbach which are very consistent.  I like high tension strings generally, but I've experimented with different ones.  With the Boaz guitar, it's a whole different way of changing the strings.  You put your hand inside the guitar and thread it through the bridge.

CGPA - How many guitars do you own?

Liona - I have some for sale on the website actually.  I've got about twelve I guess.  One is a Glute.  It's a mixture of a Guitar and a Lute.  On good days, I call it a Lutar and on bad days, I call it a glute.  It was used on 'Dancing on the Edge'.  It's for sale on my website.  I'm trying to simplify my life actually.  I was going through my closet and decided to sell a few of these things.

CGPA - Would you like to be a member of the Canadian Guitar Players Association?

Liona - Oh thank you, sure, I'd be honored.

CGPA - What would you think about the concept of a Canadian Guitar Museum?

Liona - I love it! You can have all the rockers and I'd have a place to send my Junos and my guitars.  Ya, go for it!  Anything I could do to help, for sure.  And absolutely, I would love to have some of my things eventually end up there.  Keep me posted on that.

CGPA - On behalf of all of us, I want to thank you for taking this time to spend with us!

 

The CGPA is honored to welcome Liona Boyd as a member.

You can get much more information about Liona Boyd on her website!  http://www.lionaboyd.com

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