For many years, Liona Boyd had something distressing happening to her hand, specifically to her right middle finger, and it was only getting worse.
Famous for bringing classical guitar into the mainstream (and for an eight-year relationship with Pierre Trudeau), Boyd had always taken her plucking hand for granted. Like most right-handed players, she focused more on her left as she contorted her fingers across the fret board in concert and during long years of daily practice.
But a few years back, she began noticing that one finger had begun rising from the strings, throwing off her trademark rapid tremolos. For a casual player, that would have been a nuisance. For a concert guitarist, it was a disaster.
Her natural instinct was to practise more, but that only worsened the problem. Classical guitar, always the constant in her itinerant life, was failing her.
After several rounds of tests, she was diagnosed as having task-specific focal dystonia - incurable neurological damage due to overuse. It's a condition shared by American pianist and conductor Leon Fleisher, who found relief through injections of Botox.
Boyd, however, hasn't had the same luck, despite five visits to specialists, complete with injections, at the National Institutes of Health in Washington. But she's coping: "The solution, I've figured out, is retraining, learning to undo some of the pathways that have been locked in the brain."
She still plays, but she now plucks the strings by relaxing her hand, pivoting it to the right, and using the right edge of her nails. "It's got to be very relaxed," she says. "I had too much tension happening in my hand; probably my life, too."
In the end, her condition led to a wholesale shift in her celebrated career and a new life as a single woman.
"I was - how can I say it? - not depressed. I'm not a depressive person. But I was very devastated," she says by phone from her home in Connecticut.
Her tone is neither emotional nor starkly matter-of-fact. It's more one of the breathy astonishment that comes after debilitating change has been given time to sink in - and some way, somehow brings a sense of renewal.
"Everything in my life was around guitars," says Boyd, 60, who was born in London and moved with her family to Canada at age 8.
"Since I first fell in love with classical guitar when I was 13, that had been my life's passion. And to suddenly find that I couldn't play what I took for granted was a very scary thing."
Adding to her distress: Her marriage to Los Angeles businessman John B. Simon, 24 years her senior, was ending, prompting Boyd to leave Beverly Hills, Calif., where she had lived with Simon for 14 years, to relocate to Miami to live what she now dismisses as la vida loca .
"I had to leave not just my husband, but my whole life behind," she says.
Five years later, much has changed. Boyd has two new albums coming out in a two-month span - and, it seems, a new career as a singer and songwriter.
The first of her new records, Liona Boyd Sings Songs of Love , which was released in September, is a collection of soft duets with Croatian singer-guitarist Srdjan Givoje, with Boyd playing more basic guitar, carrying the tunes, and putting an end to her lifelong aversion to singing publicly.
She also wrote most of the lyrics. The songs, some derived from classical compositions, have an ethereal, light-classical quality similar to some of her past recordings.
The second album, Seven Journeys , due out later in November, is comprised of new-age, atmospheric music. In her contract with Universal Music Canada, Seven Journeys is referred to as "the option" record, Boyd says with a laugh, although record executives considered bringing it out first. It does feature Boyd singing, but Songs of Love is much more song-based.
(Her back catalogue is also being reissued by Universal on iTunes, a point she is careful to mention. Boyd is taking a very hands-on, self-managing approach to her re-emergence. She is up every morning firing off business e-mails. Never known to be camera-shy, she had her first bathing-suit pictorial in a recent issue of Hello! magazine.)
The two new albums "are the most important records of my life," she says. "I put more of my life, my heart and passion and soul and everything into these records than I ever have before. … I suffered for these records."
Not that she is one to search for sympathy. Few people even knew about the focal dystonia. "I just didn't want to be telling people at first, because I'd get sympathy from other guitarists and the media. And I didn't really want that. I wanted to find a solution to my life. My life was in kind of a crisis."
Indeed, in 2003, she had stopped performing. "My former husband wanted me to quit," she recalls. "He said, 'You've won every award, you've sold millions of records. Just be my wife, and let's enjoy a luxury life and go to spas.' But I'm not that type of person. I had more of a bohemian, artsy, intellectual upbringing with English parents living in Toronto. And I also felt I had more music to give the world."
And, it seems, a need to make a few personal changes, too. "I guess after my relationship with Pierre Trudeau, maybe I was conditioned to have older men," she says with a laugh. "But it just didn't work, the age gap, in the end. And then I went the opposite direction in Miami, the younger ones."
Now, she says, "I'd like to find somebody about my own age. That would be ideal. … I'm still looking for my idyllic place in the world."