A Classical Act: Liona Boyd on Creativity, Romance and Her New Album ‘Once Upon A Time’
Liona Boyd opens up about returning to her classical guitar roots on what she believes will be her final full length album. Photo: Dean Marrantz
She’s performed for royals and world leaders, played concerts from Kathmandu to Carnegie Hall and even counted the late Prince Philip as a pen pal. But while working on the songs for her latest album, Once Upon A Time, Liona Boyd found herself isolated alone, for months, at her Palm Beach home during COVID lockdown.
With no audience to play for, Canada’s “First Lady of the Guitar” crafted the tunes that “return to my strong classical influences through a largely instrumental album with a cinematic soundstage.”
Boyd, 74, began conceiving some of the songs during what she describes to Zoomer as “a creative period that began in 2018,” drawing inspiration from everything from a performance of Schubert’s Notturno to daily walks near her Palm Beach home. Three of the songs were actually written years earlier and reworked for this release.
The resulting studio album — her 30th, which drops on Nov. 3 — is vintage Boyd, with gorgeous dreamlike instrumentals and a title track in which she sings about lost love.
“I have always been a natural romantic,” Boyd, who famously dated former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, explains. “Most of my song lyrics are a mix of reality and fantasy. I have been fortunate to have many men who have loved me and the special ones usually weave their way into my lyrics.”
Fans, meanwhile, have long enjoyed a love affair with her music. A multi-platinum selling artist, Boyd, who was born in London, England, and grew up in Toronto, released her debut album in 1974. She’s since been ranked among the greatest classical guitarists of all time, re-invented her method of guitar playing following a diagnosis of focal dystonia in the early 2000s and, in 2022, received an upgrade to an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Still, she says that this release, which comes nearly 50 years after her debut, “will be my last full length album. And I think it’s one of my finest ever.”
Read on for Zoomer’s interview with Boyd about Once Upon A Time, the inspiration behind the title track about lost love and what goals she still hopes to achieve in her career.
MIKE CRISOLAGO: Once Upon A Time is being celebrated as a return to a guitar-focussed classical sound for you. Why was that important to you?
LIONA BOYD: I have experimented with different styles over the years, including Latin, jazz, new age, pop and vocal albums and the classical guitar has always been a key part of these records, but on Once Upon A Time I return to my strong classical influences through a largely instrumental album with a cinematic soundstage.
I have always been known for my special tone and phrasing that I bring to the classical guitar. It is influenced by my vibrato as well as nail shape and texture. This album also features solo guitar cadenzas in pieces such as Now That Summer’s Gone and Cantarium.
MC: Last year you released L.O.V.E. and now we have Once Upon A Time. What inspires your creativity at this stage of your career? And has that changed over the years?
LB: Both of these albums come out of a creative period that began in 2018. I have always been driven to create. I love composing and might find new inspirations to interpret musically during my life journey. So the beginning of what would become the Once Upon A Time album goes back five years. Part of the story is also the COVID lockdown, which meant I was in my Palm Beach house alone for many months, composing these pieces.
MC: Romance and love have long been themes you’ve explored in your music. The title track to this album, about a lost love, continues this. What can you tell us about the inspiration for that song?
LB: I have always been a natural romantic and living in England, Mexico and France certainly imprinted that romanticism on my soul. Most of my song lyrics are a mix of reality and fantasy. I have been fortunate to have many men who have loved me and the special ones usually weave their way into my lyrics. I have never lost a great love nor had my heart broken, but can imagine how it would feel. I was influenced by the Irish singer, Enya, for this particular song and (producer) Peter (Bond’s) production complimented it perfectly. I had to sing many background harmonies multiple times so he could build those etherial choirs along as part of his beautiful layers of sound.
MC: Three of the pieces on this album are songs that you actually wrote years earlier. What made you return to them now?
LB: I have been blessed with a talent for writing unique, beautiful melodies that come to me almost like a gift from the heavens. The three tracks based on older pieces are some of my favourite melodies and here they are given a new home with here with completely new performances and expansive arrangements with Peter’s cinematic production style.
MC: This is your 30th album, dating back to 1974. After everything you’ve accomplished, what do you still hope to achieve in your career?
LB: Yes, it’s been almost 50 years since my first LP and in that time my life and career have had many chapters and taken many paths. I put everything into this album and am very proud of the results. I’m also happy it is being released in physical form and also with an immersive Atmos Dolby version, the latest version of surround sound. I do believe this will be my last full length album and I think it’s one of my finest ever. Perhaps I’ll write another children’s book and I also want to be involved with more charitable work focused on children and music education.
MC: What do you hope your fans and listeners take away from this album?
LB: I want them to escape in the nostalgia and beauty of the melodies and soundscapes and to return this music again and again.
Once Upon A Time is available on Nov. 3.
* This interview has been edited and condensed.