Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Power in the Blood is up for the Polaris Music Prize on Monday. It’s a brilliant and somewhat unexpected comeback record; my full review is here.
I had a chance to interview her back in April, just before the album’s release, for this article in Aux magazine. The following interview, which contains more exclamation points than any other transcript I've done in recent memory, has not been edited or condensed.
April 23, 2015
Why make this album in Toronto?
I’ve made the last four albums at home in Hawaii. Chris Birkett was my co-producer for those. After I made Running for the Drum, I put a band together and told them we were going on the road for two years. It turned out to be five, and we went everywhere. We had many songs we were doing live that I had not recorded, or that I recorded during the blacklist years so they were never heard. So I had all this material and Geoff Kulawick from True North Records asked my manager if I felt like recording, and I did. He said, “Who’s going to produce? Where do you want to do it? Because we’d like you to do it here in Canada.” I said that’d be great. I knew I wanted to use Chris again. But I went on some airplanes and interviewed maybe seven producers. I really loved Chris, Michael [Phillip Wojewoda] and Jon Levine, so I told Geoff I wanted to use all three. I gave each of them my demo playlist and let them choose the songs they wanted to work on. Michael mixed everybody at the end, to help homogenize the sonics so that everything sounded good together.
Did the Sadies bring any role in bringing you back to Toronto?
They’re friends of mine. Dallas [Good] had bought one of my paintings, and let me know that they wanted me to do something for their album [2013’s Internal Sounds]. So I did a demo version of “We Are Circling.”
Why do that song again here?
The chorus is an old hippie campfire song, and I’d written words I really liked. We do it live. I wasn’t ready to make my own record yet, so I sent the Sadies that demo. I like the way it turned out on the album. There’s a lot on this album that feels real contemporary to me. I hope it will have some kind of purpose in people’s lives. In such a crazy world with so much racketeering, that the album will offer recognition and support to people. There are a lot of people standing up for what is right, and God bless them all. Hopefully this record will give them some encouragement to keep going in those directions.
Why re-record the title track from your very first album, “It’s My Way”?
I do it in concert all the time. People always say, where can I get it? And they don’t want to hear that old Vanguard [Records] version! So we redid it with the band.
Does the meaning of that song change for you? It’s on your very first record, it’s 50 years old, it goes, “I’ve got my own seeds / I’ve got my own weeds / I’ve got my own harvest that I’ve sown.” Does the harvest mean something different when you’re 24 as opposed to 74?
I don’t know. It means pretty much the exact same thing to me. It’s a recognition of what I’m discovering every day in my own life. It was so different in its time, and it’s still different. I’m not a celebrity saying, “Be like me! Buy my T-shirt!” I’m encouraging people to be themselves, to discover their own path. When I wrote it I had a lot of fans showing up as kind of Buffy [clones]. I didn’t see any sense in that. I feel what we need are the same ideas recycled again and again, but new ideas from everybody. [pause] Hey, you hear those roosters? I live on a farm.
Yeah, in the middle of nowhere! [There’s a new track called “Farm in the Middle of Nowhere.”]
It’s the truth!
You’ve obviously evolved and every couple of records there’s some kind of shift. I think of your contemporaries and how Joni evolved and how Leonard evolved, and to me the people who are most fascinating are the ones who challenge themselves, who make records completely different than the ones they started out making.
In a way, from the very beginning, the only thing my albums had in common with one another was their diversity. You know how every Motown album every song sounds like the next one? They’re stylistically very similar. I was never troubled by that, so I continue to write songs that are heavy rockers one minute and then a gentle, folkie love song the next. Hopefully I come up with something that is original enough to be considered unique. I never wanted to copy anyone else, including myself.
On the title track, we hear you singing, with strength and defiance, “I don’t mind dying.” It’s really striking. It’s by no means a resignation. It’s powerful. Why did you make that phrase so central to the song?
Partly because that’s the song itself. It’s an Alabama 3 song.
Yeah, but I didn’t know which parts were theirs and which were yours. Did they write the lyrics, too?
They did, and I modified them. They created a very violent song. They’re friends of mine, so I can say that! We’re mutual fans. When I first heard them sing, “And when that call-up comes, I will be ready for war,” they’re talking about “cutting from limb to limb” and “justice in the sword.” I say there is justice in the soul. To me, there are two kinds of power. Most people are only aware of one. We’re encouraged to believe in the power of the system, the feudal system, which has been going on since before the Old Testament. It’s a long journey of hierarchical, patriarchy, oppressing everybody. There’s a senator named Bernie Sanders who recently said, “The current business model is fraud.” I think that’s true. Power in the blood: there are two kinds of power. One is the power of the feudal system, and the other is the power in our own DNA to not only recognize bad situations, but to brain our way through them. To come up with the mutations that we have to. Not just musically. As a human species, we have to learn how to do without war. It’s not because I’m scared to die. I’m going to die anyway. But I’m not about to get recruited into your damn war. That’s what the song is saying. It’s about the power to overcome the difficulties of the human species, and to mutate into something better. The word “mutate” is used so seldom and often in a negative way that I really try and push it.
Do you think there’s ever a just war?
I don’t know. Not one that I’ve ever thought of. I think self-defence makes sense. Some people say, “Oh, you’re such a warrior for peace.” That’s a load of crap. A warrior is someone who kills people, usually in the pay of somebody else. It’s not the same as alternative conflict resolution. We don’t have any colleges of alternative conflict resolution. We have colleges of war: the Air Force academy, the Royal Military College, West Point. We don’t have one college of alternative conflict resolution in North America, all these years after Vietnam. How is a young person supposed to learn? It’s not like it can’t be done, but it doesn’t make anyone any money. War makes a lot of money. There is no money in peace. Or that’s what people think. So we end up feeling conflicted or stuck, and we’re not really. I have a lot of faith. The song “Carry It On” encapsulates what I feel about it. I have a big-picture view of the human race and nature and everything continually ripening. But we don’t give much thought to it. Everybody is ripening. “Babies, elders, bozos and angels / think of how we grow / this is how we know.”
Some songwriters start out writing about war, especially those in the 1960s, and then they move on as they get older, or get more vague. You’re very direct.
“Universal Soldier” is pretty well thought-out. Some of the other songs that have dealt with war and peace are pretty well thought-out. “Power in the Blood” does express a lot of emotion, but not necessarily anger. Anger might be the fuel in the old tank, but it’s not the destination. After I wrote “Universal Soldier” and during the Vietnam War, I think a lot of songwriters wrote angry songs, just being mad at somebody because it’s hip to be angry. That’s childish. There’s nothing wrong with an emotion, but the whole point is: what do you do with that emotion? How do you use that as fuel? It could be that what we have ahead is a whole new fuel. I mean, I have an electric car!
You literally have new fuel.
I’ve been to Fort McMurray. I’ve seen that horror. I do know what’s coming. I do know the racket. It’s great to write a song. But it’s really not enough for me. You have to keep on thinking and be ready to ripen into the next thing. I make discoveries all the time, in music and in other areas of my life. I don’t take credit for ripening. It’s just what we have. We learn how to appreciate the uniqueness of each person, we might end up happier. I do think it changes the world. It takes a while, but things change all the time. They said slavery would never end. They said we would never stop people from smoking. They said women would never get the vote. But all those things have happened. I have a real positive attitude amidst a lot of racketeering, fraud and chaos being perpetrated in the world for money.
You’re looking at the long arc of history, it sounds like.
I do. And it’s a rainbow!
What makes a good political song? Is it one that’s perfect for the moment, using headlines of the day, or is it one that lasts for decades—or should we even judge political songs by the same standards we do others?
I think songs of social justice have to make sense. “Universal Soldier” makes sense to me, all these years later. It was very intentional when I wrote it. I came up during the real folk music days, when people were singing songs that had lasted 500 years. I wanted to write a song that would not only last but make sense in other languages and from different perspectives. I don’t expect anyone else to do that. I’m just a compulsive college student. I was determined to get an A, but the professor didn’t like me and didn’t want me to write the paper. Most songwriters will write songs with meaning, but getting record companies to believe they can sell them and therefore have a place on a playlist? That’s another thing. Record companies are corporations with investors who need to make money, so they’re always trying to outguess the public. They’re in a whole different thing. I’m on the periphery of show business, and now and then I’m in the record business. I do understand that they have to sell things. They seem to know which songs will sell to certain markets. I don’t care. I just write them and record them.
Songs like “Uranium War” or “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” are story songs, the way they unfold. Do stories help convey those messages more than sloganeering?
Any kind of social action—or even personal action—don’t think about if it’s going to be loud or angry enough: think about if it’s going to be effective. You could shoot yourself right in the foot just by going too fast emotionally, not taking a minute. Some songs may be good at the moment. Others have to last forever. It’s all good. It’s only music!
In 1971 you wrote, “You learn that the lines are tapped all the time now / he’s wondering if maybe his bravery is needed at home now.”
Oh wow, that’s an oldster!
“Moratorium,” 1971, it’s as old as I am, and reading about Edward Snowden and listening to that song, it seemed very prescient.
Yes, the lines have been tapped for a very long time now. The racket has been going on, like I said, since before the Old Testament. Citizens learn again and again and again about corruption and the abuse of power. It’s been around for a long time. Some people are surprised when they read history and realize the specifics they’re going through today have been experienced by many different generations and cultures. Why do we keep forgetting? The First World War was supposed to be the last one. The Second World War was supposed to be the last one.
Twice on this record you reference Idle No More.
Thank you! It might be three times.
As someone who’s witnessed various struggles and resistance over at least the last 50 years, how do you feel about the actual term “Idle No More”?
Oh, I know. I don’t think it was well thought out. You’re doing something wonderful and someone comes up with a name and suddenly it’s off and running. I’ve heard people say, “Yeah, it’s not exactly the best name.” But it is what it is and people know what it is. It’s about communication, not perfection. When it comes to grassroots, real people, they’re not going to sit around quibbling like an advertising agency trying to sell something.
Do you think it also speaks to the fact that people don’t know that history? They don’t know the phrase Red Power? They don’t know Wounded Knee? Leonard Peltier?
You can’t expect them to. Don’t forget, I was on Sesame Street, and there’s always a new generation of five-year-olds who haven’t seen it. That’s something a lot of us don’t think about very much. But being on Sesame Street really brought that home to me. There’s always a new generation of people who haven’t heard the things you mentioned. Marketing people will tell you, “Oh, that certain song is no good anymore because we have a new great song.” No: the other song is still great! Fats Domino and Chuck Berry are still great! Even if they make a new record, the original records are still great. When it comes to songs, some songs really do have longevity and will always find an audience. A song does not stop being great just because you write a new one.
Let me ask you about the UB40 cover on the album. Here we have a song written by Brits, in a Jamaican musical style, written about South Africa, covered by an Aboriginal North American woman. And it’s called “Sing Our Own Song.” So whose song is it?
(laughs) Again, it’s sticking up for the individual culture among many cultures. One is not better than another. The problems of the world are not that different from problems in our neighbourhoods. We’re all dealing with corruption, racketeering, bullying, both personal and collective.
One of my first awakenings to your music was in the 1990s, when the Indigo Girls covered “Bury My Heart.”
To my knowledge, they’re not of Native heritage.
They’re singing a very personal song of yours—there’s a lot of first person in that song. Does that matter, or is that an important protest song that belongs to everyone and needs to be heard by everyone?
Oh gosh, I don’t think songs belong to anybody once you release them, they belong to everybody. That’s kind of the idea. I was delighted when they did that. They’re very close with Native people in Minnesota, including Winona LaDuke.
They’re from Georgia, aren’t they?
I’m not sure, but I know they’re friends with Winona and a lot of AIM [American Indian Movement] people. And a lot of people after AIM, too, people who were doing excellent work in Indian country. So they were just aware. I think it’s terrific they recorded it. I think it’s funny that I recorded “Power in the Blood”!
Neko Case covered one of your songs recently, Owen Pallett covered one of your songs recently.
Yes, yes. Courtney Love, too. Year after year people discover these songs. It’s a great compliment. It’s really inspiring, to find that people are like-minded enough to adopt a song.
I recently found a used vinyl copy of 1972’s Moonshot, and the previous owner had annotated the track listing on the back, writing descriptive phrases next to each song. “Not the Lovin Kind” was described as a “high-protein rocker.”
(laughs) I love that song. We do that song night after night in concert. People would ask about it, so I wanted to re-record it. I wanted to do it in the original way, too, because I love the arrangement we came up with.
So you didn’t do it for any personal reasons. There was no bad breakup where you thought, “Ah, I gotta pull this one out again.”
No, no, God, no. You kidding me? I’ve been in this business for 50 years. I’ve had 50 bad breakups! (laughs)
“Orion”: that song is new words, old music?
[Ex-husband] Jack Nietzche wrote the score for [the 1990 film] Revenge, and I loved the melody of the love theme so much. Finally, words popped into my head long after Jack had passed. He’s been gone, what, seven, eight years now. He never got to hear it, but I know he would have liked it. I speeded it up. His original version, if you can find the score for Revenge, oh my God, a beautiful melody.
How long were you together?
We were married for eight years.
But you worked together long before that.
We worked together for a little while. We both made the worst record either one of us had ever made! That was one thing we agreed on. That record sucked!
Which one, She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina? 
I wanted to ask you about that time in the late ’60s, early ’70s, because [the heavily electronic 1969 album] Illuminations has got a lot of revisionist praise. It makes sense now considering the breadth of your discography, but how did you feel about it at the time, because it comes right between two very straight-up Nashville records?
I always loved that album. I loved making it. I learned a lot making it. I was happy working with electronics. When I first put it out, folk music people did not want to hear anything with the word electronic in it, never mind computer, which I started using shortly after. It’s not always a good idea to be ahead of your time. There was a lot of silence.
Have you heard the Native North America compilation that came out last year?
Hmm (sounds wary). There’s always somebody coming out with something like that. I don’t know if I did.
There’s a label out of Seattle called Light in the Attic that has done a lot of great reissues of things like Lee Hazlewood, Rodriguez, all kinds of things. There’s a guy in Vancouver who, several years ago, made a compilation of Jamaican artists in Toronto in the 1970s. He loves finding great, old, weird Canadian records, and so for his next project he put together tracks by Lloyd Cheechoo, Willie Dunn, Willy Mitchell, all this stuff, and he put out this incredible two-disc compilation with a great book. It sold out of its first pressing, got amazing reviews.
Oh right. Shingoose and all those guys! You know, I do have the book, but I have not heard the record. Most of those people were friends of mine. Most of the compilations like that, I say not very happily, they don’t have to pay anybody because it’s all public domain. So they can go into the Smithsonian collection. There used to be people who made something called Sacred Vision or sacred something or another, some guy who doesn’t have a career but he has a synthesizer.
Was this some kind of massage music?
I think it was. They tried to get me to tour with it, because they needed some credibility. I said no! But I am glad that all those Willies—Willie Dunn, Willy Mitchell, Willie Thrasher—and Shingoose and all those players are being heard. Shit, those guys couldn’t get arrested. Record companies wouldn’t touch them with a 10-foot-pole. Some of those guys were incredibly talented but were getting no encouragement. I’m glad they’re getting some kind of posthumous due. Better late than never!
I notice that two days after you’re playing a big Toronto show, you’re playing the Neat Coffee Shop in Braeside, Ontario, somewhere between Peterborough and Ottawa.
Yeah! How about that!
How many coffee shop shows do you do these days?
Not many. But I love them. I love a close-up audience. I have always revered coffee houses. I wouldn’t have a career were it not for coffee houses, because I’m a teetotaler. I was young and looked how I looked and hanging around bars at late hours, that was not a good idea for me. Were it not for coffee houses and students, you and I would not be talking right now!