Classical guitarist Liona Boyd is writing and singing her own songs these days
She performs a concert with Michael Savona May 11, 2013, at Christ Church Cathedral
By Peter Robb, Ottawa Citizen May 8, 2013
In the downstairs of a rambling home in Etobicoke, Eileen Boyd runs a musical empire.
The diminutive 87-year-old does the books by hand, she does the mail orders, she runs the publishing company. And at this time of year she’s busy. “It’s end of year and tax time, so it’s taking up a lot of my life these days.”
When her labours started, her daughter Liona — yes, that Liona Boyd, Canada’s gift to classical guitar — said to her mom, “Oh dear, would you keep the books?”
“I’m not even good with figures,” Eileen says, admitting she doesn’t use a computer. “I still keep books. I have a computer for emails and things, but I still love my books. I’d rather do that than press buttons. When you’ve written it down it’s there.”
Eileen Boyd has been at Liona’s side throughout her daughter’s amazing musical career.
Even in the interview for this story she was there on her first-ever conference call: “It’s another new experience, mother,” Liona said.
Liona Boyd is coming to Ottawa May 11 for a concert with Michael Savona, a local guitar master, at Christ Church Cathedral, which will benefit ALS Canada.
Some fans might be surprised to see Boyd singing her own songs in this concert. It’s a relatively new development.
“Most classical guitarists never sing. I just started five years ago. I think it’s kind of been my destiny since I was five years old.
“I was attracted to words, but I didn’t have any faith in my ability to sing. I secretly wrote songs, but I didn’t do anything with them. My career was as a classical soloist and that took me all over the world.
“Now it’s come full circle. I’m still playing classical guitar, but it’s not a classical guitar program really. … The only way we could really describe it was Enya meets Leonard Cohen.”
The change was prompted by a health problem.
“I had something called Musicians Focal Dystonia. People always misinterpret it and think I had some terrible disease. It’s nothing to do with my hands. It’s totally the brain, which gives the wrong message, in my case to my middle finger, and it hampered my playing to the point that I quit for six years.” She returned to performing in 2009.
Liona was told she would never play again. “But I’m a very determined person, so I retrained my whole technique.” This was a devastating time for Liona. Her marriage failed as well and she ended up leaving California and returning home to Toronto. But when one door closes, another opens.
Eileen says she had no idea Liona was a singing star. “I knew she could write little poems because we worked together on that when she was a child. It’s what you do, isn’t it?”
Eileen, who was a teacher, would do the first line of a poem and Liona would finish it.
The guitar came later. The family left their home in London, England and emigrated to Canada, bringing with them a guitar that had been purchased in Spain.
“It decorated the living room and one day we asked Liona what she wanted for Christmas. We weren’t really settled, and she said, ‘why don’t you give me that guitar up there and some lessons in the local plaza?’ And that’s what happened. She was so determined.”
Eileen was a fan of the great classical guitarist Julian Bream. The two attended a concert he gave in Toronto and “that was it. She said I want to play like that.”
In the early days of Liona’s professional career Eileen would stitch together concert gowns and book tours. It could be hard going. One booking in Dryden, Ont. was done before they realized where Dryden was. “When Dryden accepted, we looked on a map and said ‘Oh my goodness …”
“They paid $300 and it cost $200 to get there, something like that. I remember I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor,” Liona added.
Eileen typed Liona’s autobiography, and accompanied her daughter on many foreign trips. Not so much in Canada, because “Liona didn’t need my help for those.”
Except for one. “I came on the very first to Ottawa in 1970, it was the very first time on a plane.”
Since her husband passed away two years ago, Eileen has sole status as Liona’s biggest fan. But that doesn’t mean she stays silent.
“I have the right to criticize, it’s not just for criticism, I’m offering something that from my point of view I consider an improvement. I’m not out to flatter.”
Says Liona: “Definitely not, mother.”
These days Liona’s life is taken up by touring (30 concerts coming up) and by a new album of her own songs that will be released this fall.
“I’ve written this whole album about Canada,” she says. “Music has given me so many adventures, it has given me something to write about.” The album is called The Return … To Canada With Love.
Her mother even made it into one of the songs, called You Drew Me Back Again. “I have one line about my mother: “And I nearly froze with fright, stalking tigers in the night with my mother in Kathmandu.” A very Leonard Cohen type of song, Liona says.
“My friend Olivia Newton John (she’s on the new album) says, ‘Liona, because you haven’t been singing these many years, you actually will be able to sing a lot longer than some of us.”
She calls it the most “significant album of my whole life.” It features artists such as Dan Hill, Serena Ryder, Jann Arden and John McDermott. “It’s taken over my life for the past two years.”
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