Fiona Boyes, one of the world’s best fingerpicking blues guitarists, had wanted to record an album with engineer and recording alchemist “Professor” Keith O Johnson for ages.
She didn’t expect it would involve rubber chickens.
Boyes, who was born in Mount Waverley in east Melbourne, had been asked by Reference Recordings, the renowned audiophile label co-founded by Johnson in the 1970s, if she wanted to record with him in the US at the famed Skywalker Sound studios. She jumped at the chance.
“I walked in there being very formal and reverential, going into this hallowed studio with this revered engineer, and [Johnson] is running around with a squeaky chicken,” Boyes says. “He was running around this huge space with a squeaky rubber chicken that was dressed like Elvis, and I was like, ‘Um, this is not what I was expecting.’”
The pair recorded 16 songs in two days.
The result? That album, Professin’ the Blues, has just won best acoustic album for 2017 at the Blues Blast music awards in the US, making Boyes the only Australian to achieve the feat.
Boyes didn’t learn to play guitar until her mid 20s but she has been on a winning streak ever since.
She stormed on to the international stage in 2003 when she became the first woman and first non-American to win the International Blues Challenge, and has been recognised by American blues royalty as one of the best female fingerpickers since Memphis Minnie, who recorded from the 1920s to 50s.
The Blues Hall of Fame pianist and singer Pinetop Perkins called Boyes “the best gal guitar player I heard in more than 35 years”.
Her versatility means she’s impossible to categorise: she’ll jump from Louisiana swamp blues to driving classic Chicago sounds, rollicking New Orleans barrelhouse to wailing laments, and back again, in a 30-minute set.
Boyes recently returned to Australia from an eight-week international tour, but she still wants to talk about Johnson.
“He’s an audio genius,” she says. “We had three days in the studio but the first day was just Professor Keith setting up his equipment. “Then we recorded live. There was no monitor, no headphones, no ability to overdub, you just had to capture the performance.”
Johnson’s methods might be unconventional but that only adds to the magic, she says. “He’s like the Wizard of Oz. He likes to use these toys and other strange things, like a mechanical music box, to tune the room, to get a sense of where the overtones are, and how the sounds sound.” Skywalker Sound studio itself, located on a California ranch once owned by the Star Wars director George Lucas, was built to record film soundtracks, which it still does.
But Johnson used the cavernous space, which fits a symphony orchestra, to sit only Boyes and a couple of musicians. Then he captured all of their sounds from different positions in the room, quietly.
“I’ve always preferred to record live in the studio … but this was like doing a live concert in a beautiful space,” she says.
Conditions had to be “just right” to “capture the organic sounds” of the acoustic instruments, Boyes says. “The drummer and the double bass player had to play with a great deal of control … for the drums to be at the same acoustic level as an acoustic guitar.
“That’s one of the nicest ways of capturing roots music.”
Boyes says she didn’t hear the album until this year, even though she recorded it in February 2016. And when she received a special two-disc vinyl version in May, complete with her extensive liner notes, it felt as though she’d finally made it.
“To see that on a proper gatefold vinyl album, it felt like I’d arrived,” she says, adding: “I haven’t been game to play it! I’ve taken it out of its package and stroked it lovingly, because it’s so exciting to see, there’s something intrinsically marvellous about holding vinyl, but I haven’t played it.”
The critical reception to the album has delighted Boyes, who says the record captured a special moment in time for her.
“I think it’s served the music well,” she says of Johnson’s collaboration. “He recorded this with a lot of the equipment he built himself. Even the cables. I mean, that was a whole trip.”