Songs in the Key of Love: An Interview with Liona Boyd, Canada’s First Lady of the Guitar

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Most artists don’t publish one autobiography, let alone two, but classical guitarist Liona Boyd’s life is so rich with career milestones, professional achievements, and personal fulfillment that she has filled two volumes, and no doubt will eventually have enough for a third.

Cover Photo Credit:  Dean Marrantz

She is known as the First Lady of the Guitar, a title she earned through decades of practice and devotion to her instrument. Born in London, she grew up in Toronto and received her first guitar as a Christmas present when she was 13. Boyd studied with master instructors and earned a degree in music from the University of Toronto. She released her debut album, The Guitar, in 1974, and within a year was performing at Carnegie Hall. The world took notice of the young virtuoso; she has toured internationally, performed on stages, television, and in front of royalty, sold millions of albums, and won five Juno awards.

Her success has not been without hardship. She was stricken with musician’s focal dystonia, which affected her right middle finger. For six years, she sought treatments, cures, and rehabilitation. The experience would have felled many, but Boyd is nothing if not passionate and tenacious, and she never gave up. She reinvented her technique and her career, successfully transitioning into a singer/songwriter while still incorporating classical pieces into her ever-growing repertoire.

It is fitting that a prolific author and poet would eventually come to write her own material. Likewise, the genre allows her to share her many interests and causes, among them her concerns about the welfare of our planet and its inhabitants, both human and animal.


Liona Boyd connected with Guitar Girl Magazine via e-mail shortly before the holidays, as she wrapped up a series of Christmas concerts and prepared for some 2018 dates.


In 1998, you published your autobiography, In My Own Key: My Life in Love and Music. Almost twenty years later, you’ve published another autobiographical book, No Remedy For Love [2017], named after your recent album and its title track. What made this the right time?

My first autobiography became a bestseller in Canada and I enjoyed writing it, telling my stories of all the behind the scenes craziness that goes on with the concert career and all my many international tours. But it ended in 1998, and I realized in 2013 that almost everything had changed in my life, so it was time to write another book! I was approached by Dundurn Press, a company based in Toronto, and they were happy to publish both of my books. They are available on iBooks all over the world and in physical form through Amazon and Canadian booksellers.

When did you begin thinking about writing another book, particularly one with this theme?

I simply began chronicling my life, and only a year before completion did I choose the title of the book. It was taken from a famous quote by the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau that I read on a local church billboard. It said, “There is no remedy for love but to love more.” I thought it quite a profound statement, so had decided to write a song titled “No Remedy For Love,” which ended up providing the title of both my new book and my new CD. Both my book and my songs often deal with the many manifestations and challenges of different aspects of love, so I thought it would be a fitting title.

“People told me they greatly appreciated my self-deprecating British sense of humour.”

One of the many things that stands out is how deeply personal this book is, yet it does not reveal, as we say, “too much information.” What is the key to effectively sharing one’s intimate stories while maintaining one’s sense of privacy?

Thank you. Yes, I think that a writer needs to share some of the intimate stories when writing a good autobiography, yet there are still some things that have to remain private. Perhaps I reveal more of my conflicts and emotional ups and downs in this second book, and the reason is probably that, as I have grown older, I tend to become more reflective, nostalgic, hopefully a little wiser, and at the same time hopeful that readers can be inspired in some way by my self-directed life.

In the first book I had many great international stories to recount, including of course my childhood and the times living in Mexico and France, so I was more focused on detailing my different musical and personal adventures. People told me they greatly appreciated my self-deprecating British sense of humour. In the new book, I hope I maintained some of that, and indeed I was very fortunate that HRH Prince Philip, who has been my pen pal for 30 years and is now 96, gave me permission to write about our friendship. I selected some of his humorous quotes from our correspondence. I know I am a good writer and won my first writing prize when I was in Adamsrill Infants School in London, England. Now, having led such an adventurous international life, I have had so much to write about.

The great love of your life, of course, is music, and playing classical guitar. In No Remedy for Love, you discuss your struggle with focal dystonia and the years during which you sought treatment and had to reinvent yourself and your technique. Were there times during that period when your love for music waned?

I have always loved music, but I went through several years of frustration as I did not understand Musician’s Focal Dystonia at the beginning, and believed at first that there was something physically wrong with my fingers. Of course I finally found out this was completely untrue, and that in 2 percent of musicians, usually the ones with virtuoso techniques, over-practicing an instrument can confuse the precise maps in the brain, so they do not give the correct signal to each finger. In my case it only affected my middle right hand finger, but it threw out the alignment of the others, and that is why I decided not to perform for six years until I had found a solution.

“I feel it was all part of my destiny to write lyrics and sing, and that I fulfilled a dream I used to consider impossible.”

In several interviews you looked back upon this experience as almost a blessing in disguise. Many of us would have simply given up. To what do you credit your tenacity?

I am a very determined person and never wanted to give up, although many times I did despair of ever finding a solution. I had no physical pain, of course, but suffered much mental anguish. I am one of the lucky ones who was able to retrain my fingers and reinvent my career, which still includes classical guitar playing, but has transformed me into a singer-songwriter/classical guitarist … and yes, that has been a great blessing, as I absolutely love composing and singing my own songs. I feel it was all part of my destiny to write lyrics and sing, and that I fulfilled a dream I used to consider impossible.

You have recorded 28 albums, of which five are gold and three are platinum. You have won five Juno awards, the Order of Canada, hold five honorary doctorates, worked with legendary artists ranging from Eric Clapton to Chet Atkins, and have spent a great part of your life on tour. This is a remarkable and enviable career. Has it ever felt like a job?

No, it has never felt at all like a job, as my greatest joy in the world is playing guitar and writing music. I feel immense gratitude that I am still performing, and I have just completed a ten-city Christmas tour in Canada and shall be performing in Florida this January. I hope to resume some international tours in the new year, as the duo I formed with Andrew Dolson is quite unique and audiences are very appreciative of the variety of music we bring on the stage. Andrew is only 26, my latest protégé who is wonderful to tour with.

In a 2002 interview with Fingerstyle Guitar, you said about the instrument, “Its beauty lies in its subtleness of color and tone.” Do you feel that you are constantly rediscovering those colors and tones, as well as finding new ones, each time you play?

Every performance is slightly different, but I think I’ve probably discovered just about all the techniques and tones my guitars can give me at this point! It is claimed that Beethoven once praised the classical guitar as a miniature orchestra … and indeed it is.

How would you describe the “color and tone” of No Remedy For Love? The album was three years in the making. What was the creative process like from inception to completion? Which guitars did you use, and are there specific recording techniques you prefer?

I have a brilliant producer here in Canada, Peter Bond, who has produced and engineered my last five albums. We have recorded in various studios, but my guitars were recorded at the Rose Room in Toronto, where Peter also mixed the records. Peter uses a combination of a Neumann M149 and an AKG C12 for the main guitar mics. These are connected to a Manley Voxbox and an Avalon 737, using the D/A converters in the Avid S5 system. I have played the Vazquez Rubio Solista exclusively since 1999, and have owned several of them. I use Savarez Alliance strings, and Andrew and I use Shubb capos when needed for some of the songs. There is one model from 2008 that I use almost exclusively for recording, though, because it has a particularly glowing midrange sustain that works especially well for lead passages. Sometimes I use a 2013 model for rhythm parts, as it is a little tighter-sounding.

I believe Peter has achieved the best recorded guitar tone of my career in the albums he has worked on with me — the closest to what I heard in my head as the ideal tone. What I like is a big, round tone with a full mid and lower midrange, and without any hyped brightness. A great example of this tone is “Spirit of the Canadian Northlands” from my album The Return….To Canada with Love [2013].

Many of the songs had their origins in Palm Beach, where I live during the winter months. I have a small setup there where I can record initial demos in GarageBand and then send them to Peter in Toronto, where he begins to work on the arrangements. Eventually, when I’m back in Toronto, I record all the final parts in the studio. Peter and I work well together this way, developing ideas while in different locations in a way that was not possible before the modern Internet. In terms of our creative process, we have been inspired and influenced by Vangelis, Hans Zimmer, Enya, and Leonard Cohen, to name a few. For some of the songs, the productions are incredibly complex with layering of vocals, guitars and percussion, and Peter’s ethereal playing on the electric guitar, the flutes of Ron Korb, and of course my vocals and guitar. On my new album I wrote a poetic tribute song to Gordon Lightfoot, with whom I used to tour in the 1970s, and he was thrilled when he heard it. I dedicated the title song, “No Remedy for Love,” to my old friend Leonard Cohen, who told me he was fond of the song, which meant a lot to Peter and myself. In the past we have also recorded in several locations, especially for my album The Return, where we recorded Olivia Newton-John singing with me in Florida. When I wrote my patriotic song that was called “Canada my Canada,” it involved several locations and different instrumentalists and singers.

“I think, in our high-paced and frenzied modern life, we need more than ever to hear sounds such as those made by the nylon string guitar, to soothe us into a more peaceful frame of mind.”

You are often credited with introducing mainstream audiences to classical guitar. Those audiences remain strong, as you continue to prove with recordings and live performances. However, we live in a time of limited attention spans, 140 characters, singles instead of albums, and listening to music on phones. Where does classical guitar fit into this paradigm? Will there always be a place for it? 

Well, I sure hope so, as I believe it is the most beautiful instrument in the world! I think, in our high-paced and frenzied modern life, we need more than ever to hear sounds such as those made by the nylon string guitar, to soothe us into a more peaceful frame of mind. Now, with YouTube, many people can enjoy many fascinating performers from every country. I was very lucky to be one of only six classical guitarists signed to major record labels back in the 1970s and 1980s, and when CDs appeared I sold several million records all over the world. They tell me my YouTube views are now around five million, which is amazing to me, as it is not as though I were a rock star! I just learned yesterday that my simple guitar duo of “We Three Kings” from the A Winter Fantasy album is charting highly on Spotify this season.

As an international traveler, citizen, and artist, you have seen the best and the worst of people and places. How have your experiences informed your worldview? What concerns you most, and what gives you hope for our future?

Yes, my music has taken me on magic carpet rides all over the world, and I feel very blessed to have lived so many different lives.  My hope for the future lies with the young people who will have to find solutions to the problems my generation has created. On my new album I wrote a song called “A Prayer for Planet Earth,” and on a previous album “Song For the Arctic,” both of which deal with global warming, which is having a huge impact upon our earth.

I am saddened when I hear that music has been removed from many school curriculums, as music enriches our lives immeasurably, and children should be exposed to good classical music at an early age or they will never appreciate it. I often sing and play guitar with children’s choirs backing me up, and that is a delightful experience of which I never tire. It gives me hope to see how young people are so inspired by music.

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