Liona Boyd: Last Tour for Canada's First Lady?
By David DeRocco
If you are one of the many millions of people who regret the fact they can no longer see legends like Bowie, Petty, Prince or Cohen perform their music, then take note of these contemplative words spoken by revered Canadian classical guitarist, singer and author, Liona Boyd.
“I don’t think I’m going to be going forever, I’m sort of semi-thinking of retiring next year,” said Boyd with a hesitancy that makes it sound like she’s shocked to hear herself say those words. “I really don’t know. It’s not a big announcement because I’m not sure. I’m going to see how I feel after this tour.”
A world where the woman dubbed “First Lady of the Guitar” is no longer seen on stage is hard to imagine, considering the fact she’s been ever-present on stages around the world since her celebrated 1975 debut at New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall. That performance introduced audiences to the Canadian guitar-playing virtuoso and her romantic brand of classical, folk and world music, launching one of the most colourful careers ever enjoyed by a talented, blonde and beautiful female classical guitarist. Now, nearly five decades and 28 albums into her extraordinary journey, Boyd is coming to the realization that her adventurous life on the road may be winding down – if not entirely, then at least to a much less taxing pace.
“I think I just may focus on writing a bit more,” said Boyd, whose current tour brings her to FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre November 18th. “Touring is strenuous. I’m really reconsidering if I should just smell the roses a bit more. I don’t know the answer yet.”
Boyd may be searching her soul for answers, but the question of how impactful the guitar has been on her remarkable life remains clear. “I really did use the guitar as a kind of excuse to travel the world,” said the well-travelled 69-year-old. “That was my passport to the world.”
As a five-time Juno Award winner and Order of Canada recipiant, Boyd has certainly established her reputation as one of Canada’s most accomplished and respected musicians. Her romantic life was equally legendary, including a well-chronicled eight-year romance with Prime Minister Trudeau (Pierre, not Justin), the intimate details of which can be found in her two published memoirs, In My Own Key and 2017’s No Remedy for Love. However, what truly defines Boyd’s impact as an artist is the international acclaim she’s earned over her career, performing and recording with an incredibly diverse list of names that includes Chet Atkins, Eric Clapton, Olivia Newton John, YoY o Ma, Al Di Meola, Rik Emmet and David Gilmour. Her versatility as a performer is a personal point of pride according to Boyd.
“What I think I’ve appreciated most in my career is the great variety I’ve managed to enjoy,” said Boyd, who nearly opted to pursue her passion for writing rather than study music while attending the University of Toronto. “I’ve twice toured with bands, twice toured with string quartets and orchestras. I’ve done all kinds of crazy concerts in South America which were wild in themselves. And crazy things like playing for the OJ Simpson jury, playing in weird places like Greenland. From Moose Factory to Katmandu, if you name it I’ve been there.”
Her chameleon-like ability to reinvent herself through her music was severely tested in 2009, when Boyd was diagnosed with focal dystonia, a neurological condition in her hand that severely affected her ability to play up to her exacting standards. Rather than surrender to the disorder, the eternally motivated guitar player tweaked her style and, for the first time, began writing and singing her own songs. The results lead Boyd to a personal renaissance that she says helped invigorate her passion for performing.
“There was nothing physically wrong with my hands but I’d done so much of the repetitive motion that the brain wasn’t giving the right signal to my middle finger,” recalled Boyd, who still maintains a mastery of her instrument while choosing to play less demanding arrangements. “At the time I was concerned that I wouldn’t play again. But I’m very determined, the sign of the Ox. I knew I had more I wanted to give the world, to keep music in my life.”
Despite never having released music with her vocal accompaniment, Boyd rose to the challenge and has now fully embraced her added role as a vocalist and songwriter.
“It was the best thing that ever happened in my life, because I decided to become a singer in my 50s. I was always the one who was lip syncing Happy Birthday, because I had no confidence in my voice. But I like the sound of my voice, and I’m writing all these songs now that I can sing as well.”
Despite the inevitable rigors of the road, Boyd says she still enjoys live performance, especially when her diverse audiences include a significant percentage of young fans. “I love when young people come,” said Boyd, who has received five honourary doctorates and regularly speaks to and mentors students. “I grew up listening to the music of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. But there was one concert that my mother took me to that inspired my whole career. At 13 I was taken to see Julian Bream. He later became one of my teachers. You never know the impact a performance can have on the lives of young people.”
As for any lasting influence those British Invasion artists had on the classical guitarist’s career choices, Boyd’s rebellious spirit, numerous love affairs and adventurous travels make it clear on which side of the Beatles/Stone debate she landed. “I was actually more of a Rolling Stones fan,” laughs Boyd. “I loved Mick Jagger in high school. I was going to rent his house years later. I’ve never met him but now I realize The Beatles were amazing too. The Stones were just more sexy somehow.”
For more on Liona Boyd’s tour and merchandise, visit: http://lionaboyd.com/.