Canadian-born Cree singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie is a living legend, famous for such Indigenous anthems as “Universal Soldier” and “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” But few know that Sainte-Marie led the earliest charge into electronic music at the same time she was being celebrated worldwide as a “folk” artist. She’s now preparing to make her first album since the award-winning 2008 relase Running For the Drum. Speaking from her current home in Hawaii, Sainte-Marie gave ICTMN the lowdown on the directon she’ll be heading with her new music. This is the second of a three-part series; for the first, which focused on her thoughts about the environment, see Buffy Sainte-Marie on Tar Sands: “You’ve Got to Take This Seriously”.Do you know when your new album is due to come out? Is there a title?We haven’t decided. I just spent three weeks out on the road in Nashville, Toronto and L.A. auditioning producers, so I have not yet made my choices. I don’t know if I’ll work with several producers or just one. But I’m sure excited about the music. We’re choosing from about 30 different songs. It’s going to be fun. It’ll be done when it’s done!
Your last album, of course, got a Juno as well as an Aboriginal People’s Choice Award (and around that time you were inducted into the Canadian Country Music Association Hall of Fame) — in many ways, it was a departure from your other work in the immediacy of it.You think so? The songs, as always, were very diverse. I wasn’t worried about trying to make them all the same. Some of those songs I had in the can for a long time, and some were things I’d written over the years. I’d take something I’d written in my notebook in 1970 and I’ll add a second verse in 1980 and I’ll finish it last week. That’s always how it is for me – I have a kind of helicopter vision of life itself. I don’t think about calendars, deadlines or styles. I just play and sing whatever I dream up. Writing for me is just really, really natural. It’s the same as it was when I was a little kid. I hope I’m getting better though!
There’s an immediacy to your sound that really speaks to today. But you’ve always had that along the way. A lot of people were a little bit surprised hearing me with electronic sounds, but that’s because they maybe hadn’t heard about me for a while – so it might have been new to them, but it wasn’t new to me. In 1965, I made the first-ever electronic quadraphonic (four-channel) vocal album, Illuminations.
Is there anything about your new album people should look out for, in terms of style or subjects you’re addressing? Any surprises? It depends. Most people don’t listen to me, so they’re always surprised! (Laughs) Especially if they think I’m a folk singer. But people who have been listening all along will be surprised, because the whole world continues to grow. And that includes me and you. So it will be different. “The Uranium War” is one song, another is “Look at the Facts,” “Your Link with Life” is another. There’ll be some remixes… It’s a really interesting album. There’s some love songs on it, and some Aboriginal things, but mostly it’s just solid songs that are good to dance to or fun to listen to, or whatever.
One of your most famous songs, ‘Up Where We Belong,’ has really been turned into a love anthem. But it has such a special meaning for many Indigenous people, who can read it in a completely different way from non-Indigenous people. What are your thoughts on that? It’s a beautiful love song, but from the perspective of history suddenly it gives you a chill down your spine. I’m glad that it got to be the main theme for the film An Officer and a Gentleman, that’s about the military. Because sometimes people are surprised to see how many veterans come to my concerts, and to find out that soldiers in Vietnam were carving “Universal Soldier” into their bunk beds. If you think pacifists and military people hate each other, it’s not true. That’s just not accurate at all. The fact that “Up Where We Belong” – a love song that does have a real double-entendre meaning – was heard by so many people who don’t ordinarily come to hear me — how good is that? We always have to remain open to the fact that audiences are going to interpret your songs personally for themselves. I think that’s the true power of songs. It’s wonderful… Music has always been a powerful medium, and now with the Internet it can reach so many more people.
For decades, Buffy Sainte-Marie has been an artistic trailblazer. The Sixties folk explosion saw the Canadian-born Cree songwriter confront the colonial status quo with hit songs like “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” as well as the anti-war anthem “Universal Soldier.” Sainte-Marie, who is currently based in Hawaii, is gearing up to record her first album of new material since 2008 (more on that later), and took a few minutes to share her thoughts on a number of topics with ICTMN.
We’ve seen your Tweets (@BuffySteMarie) about the oil sands, or tar sands as they’re sometimes called — what’s your take on the situation?
Almost a year ago I went to Fort McMurray (Alberta) and I was just devastated with what’s going on there. Just devastated. I just told everybody I could: “You’ve got to take this seriously.” Even since I was there, other people have really stepped forward in their own ways, Neil Young in particular. He’s caught a lot of criticism because he didn’t involve me, Susan Aglukark or other Native people. Neil came to the induction ceremony in Nashville, at the Musicians Hall of Fame, and I told him I’d seen some of the criticism and not to listen to it at all! Because it’s so important, it has to be everybody doing whatever they can, whenever they can, and being effective at whatever level they can be. You reach people your way, I do it my way and Neil does it his way. But people have to see it.
It’s really worth a trip to Fort McMurray just to see it with your own eyes. If you really want to see something historic in your life, go to Fort McMurray and just bear witness to what they’re doing. It’s never going to return, and this is the future of the planet if the present people are allowed to stay in charge. We are allowing them to stay in charge. We are allowing it. That’s why we have wars. We have to be really vigilant and supportive of one another, because it has to stop. There’s no turning back.
Neil Young toured with the First Nation that’s experiencing high cancer rates from the tar sands. And yet he also caught criticism when people said, “Oh, he’s just an outsider, he lives in California — what right does he have to criticize this?”
(Laughs). Because it’s not only about Canada, that’s why! Good for Neil for stepping up. Everybody should be stepping up at whatever their most effective level is. It’s not just about Native people and it’s not just about Canada. Just the weather changes are indicative: people just gotta wake up.
Have the issues changed over time, or is it still the same root issues as in your songs “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” or “Universal Soldier”?
The root issue is always the same. It’s about corporate greed in charge of all of our energy. That’s the root issue. But in the 1500s it was gold and silver in Central America, and then coal, oil, and now uranium. I have a song that’s going to be on the album I’m recording now called “The Uranium War.” It has a line:
Coal and oil and hey, now uranium
Keep the Indians under your thumb
Pray like hell when your bad times come
Get ’em up, rip ’em up, strip ’em up
Get ’em with a gun.
So the violence that occurs, and has been occurring against Indigenous People in the world because of resources has now become obvious to the non-indigenous people too. There are now more people understanding how devastating the misuse of resources not only can be, but just plain is.
Let’s talk about the Longest Walk. Richie Havens passed on last year, and you were a long supporter of the Longest Walk and affirming treaty rights. Could you offer some thoughts on him, his passing and his legacy?
He and I kind of emerged around the same time — the summer of 1963-4. We would see each other over the years. He came and visited me in Hawaii a few times. We were good friends. He was such an incredible interpreter of other people’s songs, and such a good guy. Pete Seeger too — he just did so much for the world through music, in ways both subtle and big. You know, heaven must be a great place, because there’s a lot of people going there!
Pete Seeger with Buffy Sainte-Marie. Source: twitter.com/buffystemarie
You were with Pete Seeger at Clearwater Fest last summer. The photos were just beautiful, you guys having a lovely hug.
He was just really, really special, huh?
Do you ever feel nostalgic for that era, when you all emerged almost at once? It must have been such a different energy because it was also a social movement as well as being about music.
It was, but I’ve been waiting for it to come back. And I think it has. For me, the Internet is like the Sixties. It used to be, in the Sixties, all kinds of music was available to you, but it was kept away. You had to go with this label and that genre. It really became a very narrow-minded corporate world. They’d sign 90 artists and shelve 90 others. It used to be so unfair. But now you can hear all kinds of music, and everybody can get played, publish a song, or share things on the Internet. It’s such a wonderful time that we’re living in. You shouldn’t discount it or think that the Sixties were better. The Sixties were about a true student movement. And now there’s another true populist movement, so let’s do what we can, while we can.