While out for a stroll in downtown Toronto, Liona Boyd happened upon a quote on a church’s marquee. It was a quote by American philosopher Henry David Thoreau: “There’s no remedy for love but to love more.” Liona was struck by the words, “I thought, ‘Wow, that would make a great title for a song!’” She went on to not only write a song using Thoreau’s famous words — which she dedicated to her old friend, the late Leonard Cohen — she took parts of that quote and used it for the title of her new album and autobiography. Three years ago, when Liona first wrote the song, she shared it with Cohen (who died last November) and he, in turn, expressed his gratitude for the dedication. Now, she is ready to share her song, her album and her autobiography No Remedy for Love, with the rest of the world.
By many accounts, Liona is the first classical guitarist Canadians knew by name — often called the “First Lady of Guitar” — someone who introduced classical music to a 1960/70s generation that lauded rock ‘n’ roll in the decades before. Since 1974, she has released 28 albums, won five Juno awards, and received the second highest honour for a Canadian, the Order of Canada. Her music has been a part of the classical landscape for over three decades, playing to audiences from Victoria to Kathmandu, and at Windsor Castle for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip (a friendship that dates back to the years when she dated Pierre Trudeau).
As we talk on the phone, Liona is helping her mother move out of the home she once lived in with her parents, in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. Liona was born in London, but her parents moved to Canada when she was eight (and then went back to England for a few years before immigrating permanently when she was 12). It set a trend for travel and the exploration of different cultures early in Liona’s life.
“When you’re a kid, it’s all a big adventure. We had two hamsters in biscuit tins that we brought over with us. We had never seen so much snow,” she laughs. Her parents, described as British intellectuals, encouraged Liona’s artistic inclinations. For today’s generation, listening to classical music in lieu of mainstream popular music is rare. For Liona’s generation, it was still unusual to be well versed in Bach or Vivaldi, but her parents made sure she was exposed to as many creative expressions as possible.
“When we immigrated to Canada for the second time, the school told my parents I couldn’t take art and music,” she says. “It was art and home economics or music and home economics, but not both. So, my mother walked to the school and said I was going to take both. [My parents] were both artists and loved music, so I was very lucky they fought for that at my high school. They broke the rules for me.”
It was that type of encouragement that enabled her to study music at the University of Toronto, at the recommendation of her guitar teacher. In university, however, the focus was on learning the musical compositions of other artists. “Strangely enough, I graduated with a degree in music, but I had never written my own songs,” she says. “The program never emphasized composing your own music. Even my guitar teacher didn’t. No one pushed the idea that I should try writing original classical music.”
It wasn’t until she toured with fellow Canadian artist Gordon Lightfoot in the 1970s that the suggestion came to her. “We had a Learjet that we’d travel to shows on and we’d sit at the back together. He would see me studying my scores — I had other concert obligations apart from his — and I would be learning different concertos and new repertoire. One time, he jokingly said, ‘Liona, why are you always playing music by dead composers?’ I said I liked the romantic composers, but he asked me, ‘Why don’t you write your own songs and your own music?’ So, that gave me the idea to start — after all, I was already a travelling musician!” she says.
She remembers the first time she composed her own music, sitting on the beach in Mexico. She was outside a hotel called The Cantarell, playing on a cheap beach guitar. “I started writing a little piece and I ended up naming it Cantarell. I thought, ‘Wow, I just did it! I wrote my first piece of original, classical music.” Thanks to Lightfoot, she says, she now almost exclusively plays her own songs and arrangements.
Over the last few days, as she packs up her mother’s house, she inevitably ventures down memory lane. Many mementoes from her career were stored in that large, 1940s house. “I’ve been going through old photos and albums and had to give away so much. You can’t keep everything,” she muses. “It kind of breaks my heart to see all the things that were once a part of my life.” There are the hundreds of origami butterflies made into a mobile given to her by school children in Japan, the old sewing machine that made one of her first concert gowns, and two of her old teddy bears, Moses and Tonka, after which she named her record company, Moston Records.
As she reflects on her past, Liona laughs, “I kind of used the guitar as an excuse to travel. I look back at my itinerary and think how did I even do it? I didn’t sleep much in those days.” She has had an interesting journey thus far, though to use such a clichéd adjective might undercut the fact that it has been truly of interest to many. It’s the type of life that begs to be read about, watched, and listened to, which is exactly how she has channeled her stories.
Her first book, In My Own Key, released in 1998, chronicled her behind-the-scenes journey, travelling the world as a young artist. Her new book spans the 20 years since, written from the perspective of a mature artist entering a new chapter in her life. As No Remedy for Love suggests, the central theme of her album and autobiography is love in its many incarnations. Although she’s still hoping for her next great love — a soulmate, she says — it has inspired her work since her early years.
When she began writing her second autobiography in 2012, she says something magical happened. “I was in Venice and had no idea how I was going to start writing another book. So, I sat down in Piazza San Marco, the main square in Venice, staring at my Mac computer when I heard music playing. As I tuned into the songs, one by one, I realized that every single piece that was played evoked a part of my life. There was some story or association I had to each piece; either I knew the composer or I had performed or recorded the piece. They played “My Way” by Frank Sinatra, and his house was eight doors away from mine when I lived in Beverly Hills. Every piece had a memory that involved a unique time in my life. So, there I was, reminiscing and musing about my various adventures associated with the music I heard and it made a perfect beginning to the book — It’s called Memories in St. Marco. I was able to do a kind of synopsis of my life, a nostalgia trip of how each piece of music had played a role in my life.”
Another part of the book that’s sure to garner attention is Liona’s over-30-year correspondence with Prince Philip. They first met when HRH and the Queen visited Ottawa in 1977 and Liona, who was dating Pierre Trudeau at the time, was invited to play for them. Afterwards, Prince Philip received her album and became a great fan of her music. Their friendship continued over the years: Liona did fundraisers for the Duke of Edinburgh Awards and WWF; was a house guest of the Royals in 1996; and when Prince Philip came to Toronto in 2013 to review a battalion in Fort York, she had tea with him.
On the new album, “Love of the Horse,” is dedicated to him, in reference to his and the Queen’s love of horses. When she wrote him to tell him about the song, he invited her to England to play it for him. At Windsor Castle, she asked him if it was okay that she write about their friendship, to which he nodded. “He’s just a remarkable human being, and very considerate,” she says. “He and the Queen have a great relationship.” Her fondness and loyalty towards a public family that guards their private life is a mark of her character.
Although it may appear that her path has been perfectly paved, Liona has endured bumps. In 2003, she left the stage for six years as she was having trouble with her playing, an affliction that was later identified as Focal Dystonia. It’s a neurological movement condition characterized by confused brain signals to the fingers that often affects musical virtuosos due solely to repetitive practicing. In what could have been a career-ending situation, she now calls it the best thing that ever happened to her.
“At the time, I did think, ‘Oh my god, I have to quit because I’m fighting my fingers,’ but now I realize, just like in life, sometimes something you think is a tragedy turns out to be a blessing,” she says. In her time off, she changed her techniques, worked on her songwriting, and began to incorporate singing into her music.
Over the years, Liona has simplified things. She laughs as she says she now prefers not to tour with a band (“It’s a great experience, but so much work!”). She’s no longer a soloist. In a serendipitous moment, when she was looking for a classical guitarist to tour with that matched her quality and who also sang (a difficult feat), her mother came across a magazine with Andrew Dolson on the cover. He had just graduated with a degree in voice and classical guitar and, she jokes, his good looks didn’t hurt either. She tracked him down and they have been touring ever since.
If an outstanding quality could be attributed to Liona, it’s her resilience. She emphasizes to her audience to never give up, that they’re capable of reinventing themselves at any age, and to never quit. She not only talks about it, she lives her words of advice.
“I almost quit many times. I certainly almost quit singing many, many times. Ozzy Osbourne was my neighbour and encouraged me to visit his singing coach who told me, ‘No, no. You’ll never be a singer.’ And he was wrong. I have recorded five new albums since then, all with vocals, plus given over 200 concerts.”
Liona left a marriage when she felt unfulfilled, reinvented her guitar technique, and pursued her desire to break out of her box to become a songwriter. An independent woman by any generation’s standards, Liona Boyd fits perfectly in the current wave of female empowerment.
“I want to represent my generation — the baby boomer generation that are still active and want to contribute to society,” she says. “That’s one of my missions; I want to show you can do something you never thought you could.”
Liona’s latest album and her second autobiography, No Remedy for Love, were both released on August 19, and her original autobiography, In My Own Key, was re-released. All her 28 albums are available for purchase on iTunes.
Snapshot with Liona Boyd
If you were to meet your 20-year-old self, what advice would you give her?
“Well, I do not regret any of the moves I made in my twenties as guitar was my great passion, and I had a very full life filled with all kinds of exciting international concerts. I was careful to leave time for adventures of sightseeing in foreign countries and meeting new people wherever my concerts took me and I kept meticulous diaries. I hardly had time to sleep during those early chapters of my career! I would simply say ‘well done… after all your studies you and your guitar made an amazing life for yourself!’”
Who or what has influenced you the most? And why?
“One particular guitarist who inspired was Julian Bream. He became one of my guitar gods along with Andres Segovia, and I felt very lucky to be able to take tips and lessons from both. Musically, I was influenced by Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Georges Moustaki, Nana Mouskouri, and the Spanish balladeer, Julio Iglesias, who used to write incredibly romantic songs at the start of his career. My parents were very artistic and obviously influenced me considerably. They encouraged me to be creative, not follow the crowd and to read as many books as I could! When I was a teenager, we all moved to Mexico, which had a lasting impact on my life and, later, spending two years in Paris no doubt made me the romantic I am today and it influenced my writing style, as well as making me fall in love with Spanish and French, both of which I speak fluently.”
What does courage mean to you?
“Courage can mean so many different things, but in my case upon reflecting as I wrote my latest autobiography this past four years, I really think I was tremendously brave starting to learn to sing in my 50s after being told I could never manage to do this! I was also courageous to travel around the world for years on my own and to draw on my own resources to build my record label, my publishing company.”
What does success mean to you?
“Success to me means finding happiness through my music and feeling fulfilled that I have been able to touch so many people with my recordings and my concerts. It is always special when people write to me and express how much my music has meant to them at various stages of their lives. Success for me is having many friends who love me even though we are sometimes geographically far apart. Success cannot be measured by material possessions. I feel immensely privileged to have lived the life I have and every day I remind myself to be grateful for all my blessings.”
INSPIRED senior living magazine september 2017
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