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Polaris Winner Buffy Sainte-Marie on Kanye, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen

Native Canadian singer-songwriter talks “peer-to-peer” activism and latest album, ‘Power in the Blood’

Buffy Sainte-Marie

Buffy Sainte-Marie, this year's Polaris Music Prize winner, recalls her brushes with everyone from Leonard Cohen to Kanye West.

Matt Barnes

“I don’t think it really has sunk in yet — I really didn’t expect to win,” says Buffy Sainte-Marie. The 74-year-old Native Canadian singer-songwriter is referring to recently winning this year’s Polaris Music Prize (Canada’s annual award for the country’s best full-length album of the year) for her record Power in the Blood, beating out artists including Drake, the New Pornographers, Caribou and Viet Cong.

This accolade is the latest in a long career for the Saskatchewan-born artist (“I’ve got an Academy Award and a Golden Globe and a couple Junos and a Gemini Award — this is the only one I’ve ever heard that gives the artist money,” she said during the ceremony), who got her start in the Sixties folk scene. After recovering from a throat illness in 1963, Sainte-Marie became addicted to codeine, which lead to her writing “Cod’ine,” later covered by artists including Donovan, Janis Joplin, Gram Parsons and Courtney Love. Undeterred after being blacklisted by U.S. radio stations in the Seventies for her politically charged lyrics — her protest song “Universal Soldier” later became a hit for Donovan — she regularly appeared on Sesame Street, and wrote songs for films and television.

Released earlier this year, Power in the Blood contains new material and reworked versions of the Sainte-Marie’s old songs (the title track reinterprets English electronic group Alabama 3’s “Power in the Blood” as a peace anthem), while addressing topics including environmental destruction and Aboriginal rights. Speaking on the phone from her home in Hawaii, Sainte-Marie discussed her long career, the upcoming Canadian election and why she’s not planning on retiring any time soon.

Power in the Blood is your 20th studio album and your first since 2008. What was the biggest difference in making this record compared to the others?
It’s much easier to explain to people that I make diverse albums. I started out doing electronic music in the Sixties, and I had one of the very first Macintosh computers. In a way, artists who are kind of experimental and have a wide, diverse catalogue are much better off than we were before. People understand that electronic music doesn’t mean it’s going to sound like Star Trek. I think the biggest change is audiences’ ears have become hungry not for the same-old, same-old, but originality and seeking out music and genres that five years ago they wouldn’t have or couldn’t have. Things have really caught up with me, and I’m really happy, because I’ve been ahead of the curve too many times. 

I’d also really like to thank my label True North Records, because a big difference between this and my other records is that this one got heard.

When you first started playing and making music in the Sixties, who were the artists that you were influenced or inspired by?
Certainly Leonard Cohen. He was not so much influencing me as giving me hope, seeing that level of poetry and lyric and humor in music. I think what Leonard and I had in common is that we were one-offs; we were mostly influenced by our own lives instead of each other. None of us were trendy. Other people that encouraged me … Miles Davis was really good to me, Harry Belafonte; Nina Simone was a fan, and she used to come see me and we’d encourage each other. I always loved Phil Ochs — he was an influence on me in just having the courage to be very, very clear about what you’re going to say.

The biggest shot in the arm I got in the music business was spending time in Nashville and meeting Norbert Putnam and the Area Code 615 band, who were not at all country musicians; they were just hot rockers from Muscle Shoals. I was such a loner; that’s kind of what shows through in my music. I learned to relax playing with them. When I hear young solo singers coming up, I would give them the same criticism that I eventually learned to give myself, that when it’s just you and one instrument sometimes you over-sing.

“I live on a farm in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of goats, so I tend not to hang out with a lot of celebrities or even hear about them.”

What was your relationship with Joni Mitchell like? I understand the two of you worked on music together.
No, never — Joni and I hardly knew each other. She had heard me at Mariposa [Folk Festival], and I think that’s one of the reasons she became a singer. She gave me a cassette tape that I carried around in my purse for a long time, and I played it for every record company that I came across. Nobody was interested until finally I played it for Elliot Roberts, who was a junior agent in the office where I had my agent, and he made a great career with Joni. We also spent some time together in Saskatoon [in 2005]; we were both there because the Queen was there and we were both playing.

Despite never really breaking into U.S. markets, you’ve managed to influence a generation of North American artists, including A Tribe Called Red and [2014 Polaris Prize winner] Tanya Tagaq. Tell me about how Kanye West ended up sampling your song “Lazarus.”

[Laughs] It’s not as if he called me up and said, “Hey, can we use your song?”

He recorded an entire album in Hawaii, and you didn’t get a chance to meet him?
A lot of people visit Hawaii, but I live on a farm in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of goats, so I tend not to hang out with a lot of celebrities or even hear about them. I lucked out on that one; I don’t know how he found it, but I’m glad he did.

Throughout your career, you’ve never been afraid to speak out politically, and you’ve been recognized for your social activism on numerous occasions. The issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada is a widely discussed one right now — what needs to be done to further educate people and enact change?

It’s a bigger issue even than missing or murdered indigenous women throughout the world, of course. We have gotten it in a way that most people from a colonial background wouldn’t understand; it’s been going on for 500 years. However the issue is a global issue. Who is it who makes women go missing? Who is it who murders women? Is it other women? No, not so much. Is it children? No. Who does that leave? It’s men. What do we need to do to raise a different kind of men in the world that we’re living in? It’s not just about policing; it’s not about “Oh, your skirt was too short”; it’s never about that, no. It’s about the violence in the human heart that exists in a world of everything from giant military-industrial complexes to violence in sports and movies. We really do have to look at that as well as the more immediate, closer-to-home issues of safety.

We’re only a few weeks away from a Canadian federal election, what are the topics you feel aren’t been addressed enough?
I would say the environment, indigenous people, missing and murdered women, support for the arts and education are the ones that are most important to me. What we need is not only votes but the follow-through after the votes. When you elect somebody, I don’t care who you elect — if you just give them the keys to the cash register and walk away then you’re going to be disappointed. That’s the one thing we haven’t learned.

A couple years ago I was visiting some reserves in Fort McMurray, so I’m very glad to see Neil Young and other people have finally come around for stepping up to that plate, because for awhile it wasn’t being done, and I was screaming about that. I’m a little more quiet about that since other people are talking about it; that’s the way I tend to be as a musician or a political person. If nobody’s covering that base, you’re going to hear from me; if somebody else is covering that base, I’m not going to stay on that bandwagon once it gets trendy because I think the issue is already being covered.

“I don’t lecture people, and you’ve never seen me carrying a sign down the street and shaking my fist.”

What would you say to Canadians who are on the fence about voting?
I don’t give a lot of advice to people. I would say if you are into making changes that you think are important, have the courage to present it to your friends in a way that they get it too. The things that have really made me successful in the music business as far as I have been successful has not been activism songs, they’ve been love songs. Although I do speak out as an artist, when it comes to talking to strangers on an airplane or peers who might have heard about some issue that is on my mind, I just go easy. I don’t lecture people, and you’ve never seen me carrying a sign down the street and shaking my fist. Peer-to-peer, one-on-one conversations are what means the most to changing our world.

What are you planning on doing with the $50,000 [$37,700 USD] prize money?
Partly, I’m upgrading my studio. The money that an artist spends these days touring is prohibitive; the airlines are just killing us. It’s not only working musicians, but also high-school and college bands who have equipment and sports teams. I thought I might make some money touring, but it turns out I didn’t, and I spent it all on hotels and airfare and stuff. It was very well-spent, and I’m glad I did it, but I have to upgrade my studio because it’s old and has been through some hurricanes. I’m going to be giving some money to a couple of animal charities, and some of the money is going to women’s and children’s health organizations in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and, of course, some family gifts.

You’ve certainly earned a well-deserved vacation. What’s next for you?
We’re going to be working hard next year. I’m writing a piece for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with Owen Pallett. I’m not sure what it’s going to be, but I like Owen, and his music always surprises me. Whether he’s coming from a real traditional, orchestral, almost European sound or something else, you can always tell that a real artist made it, and I’m really looking forward to working with him.

In This Article: Polaris Music Prize

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