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