When I first reach Buffy Sainte-Marie on the phone, she wants to know all about me before I can ask her any questions. She isn’t trying to figure me out, but is sincerely inquisitive, eager to meet the voice at the other end of the line. Her warmth is infectious and perhaps a necessary characteristic for a musician and activist that has spent the past 50 years raising awareness for the rights of Native Americans and countless other causes. Sainte-Marie isn’t a protester who happens to sing her words; her passion is in music. Among other achievements, she recorded the first completely quadraphonic electronic vocal album, was an early adopter of Macintosh products for the purposes of music recording, and even won an Academy Award in 1982 for her work on the song “Up Where We Belong” from An Officer and a Gentleman.
This year, she added another accolade to her list when she beat out the likes of Drake and The New Pornographers for the Polaris Music Prize, which honors the year’s best full-length Canadian album. Always one to embrace community, Sainte-Marie listened to her fellow nominees’ work before the prize was announced. “I listened to every single cut on every single album, and I really liked the whole bunch of them,” she says. “I was totally surprised when I won.” She laughs at her admission, a reaction that permeates throughout our conversation and reflects the gratitude and modesty of an artist that has long made her home on the outskirts of the music industry.
“I thought it was a wonderful, wonderful group of nominees,” she adds. “I was so honored just to be included. Everybody says that, but for me, it was really true. I’m just kind of impressed with Canada, anyways. A couple of nights ago, I went to Toronto to be a presenter for the Giller Book Prize. They give the winning author $100,000 and they give each of the runners-up $10,000. Just the fact that, in Canada, people actually give money to artists, not only musicians but also writer. I just think it’s wonderful. Also, the idea that the albums [for the Polaris Prize] are chosen regardless of genre, regardless of air play, regardless of sales — it kind of takes the whole payola notion out of it. I just think it’s the way to do things. I just wish the U.S. had prizes like this.”
In her long history as an artist, Sainte-Marie has crossed paths with a number of legendary names, but in the wake of her latest album, Power in the Blood (for which she received the Polaris Prize), she was acquainted with a very well-known fan of her work. “Morrissey showed up at the Bootleg Café in Los Angeles when my band and I were touring behind Power in the Blood,” she says. “It was probably last winter. I had never met him, and he had wanted to meet me for a long time. He’d invited me to participate in things before, but I never could. So we said yes. We were already on tour – we’d just left Australia – and then I flew from Sydney to Hong Kong to Wales. We did Wales, Scotland, Ireland and England with Morrissey. We were doing big arena shows, and he has a very specific audience. I didn’t know if they’d like us or not, but it was great. The sound was impeccable. The crew was fantastic. Their vegetarian catering was just out of this world.”
That an artist like Morrissey would want Sainte-Marie on tour with him is no surprise. Born on the Piapot Cree First Nation Reserve in the Qu’Appelle Valley in Saskatchewan, the Canadian has collaborated with acts ranging from folk-scene pioneers like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell to modern day hip-hop titan Kanye West, who sampled her song “Larzarus” in his production of Cam’ron’s track “Dead or Alive.” Perhaps most intriguing was a long-standing partnership between Sainte-Marie and the television show Sesame Street. The show, known for its bold choices in the topics it explores, initially approached her for a standard appearance, but Saine-Marie had other ideas in mind.
“They called me up and asked me if I would like to come on and count from one to 10, or say the alphabet like everybody else – Stevie Wonder and Burt Lancaster and the whole world – and I said no,” Sainte-Marie tells me. “I was really busy touring. I was really into electronic music. I was scoring movies. I really wasn’t interested, but before we hung-up, I asked them if they had ever done any Native American programming. They said they had not, and they called me back and said they were interested.”
Sainte-Marie recalls that the first year she was on Sesame Street, she became pregnant, so she asked the show about doing some content concerning babies. They proceeded to do episodes about sibling rivalry, and notably, an episode about breastfeeding, during which Sainte-Marie became one of the first women to breastfeed a child on television. “It was just so precious the way [Sesame Street] did it,” she says. “I could just hand them bouquets forever. They never stereotyped me. It was interesting for me, because I was denied airplay for a very long time by the Johnson Administration and then the damn Nixon Administration, who really objected to Native American activism. What I did was take that same sensitivity to what was going on in Native America to little kids and their caregivers, since I was denied my own audience and I realized that something was going on. Sesame Street just became an extension of the same thing, and it really taught me a lot.”
While Sesame Street may have taught Sainte-Marie something, there is plenty for her to impart on a new generation of musicians and artists as the important activist performers of the '60s look to pass the torch on. Sainte-Marie agrees that identifying and supporting such individuals is important. “I think probably all of the great writers have written a song of meaning or two. Noel Paul Stookey [Paul of the folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary] has an organization called Music for Social Change that really supports songs of meaning. I think it’s something that’s really needed.”
She also notes that music’s publishing industry may act as a barrier to getting songs with political messages out in the world. “Record companies are a little scared, you know? They’re afraid of offending sponsors,” she says. “It might not be something that’s foremost in a writer’s mind, but when it comes to deciding which songs are going to go on the album and which ones are not, I bet there are a lot of artists – famous artists like Paul Simon and Sting and all – who have those songs in them but we don’t get to hear them. It takes some courage. Your damn career can be hurt by it. So, if you really care about your damn career, a lot of people won’t do it. And then there are a lot of other people who care about the issues, and that’s important too.”
For Sainte-Marie, music is one of the most effective ways to communicate the issues she is passionate about, but she thinks it is the effort, not the medium, that truly brings change. “I don’t care if you’re a brick layer or a football player or a journalist: you have to do whatever it is that you’re good at,” Sainte-Marie says. “You talk to your friends and you reach whoever you can if you’re trying to ripen the world a little bit and make it a better place.”
In the case of the 74-year-old musician, who emanates energy and hope for the world, what she may be best at is writing songs. “I really love the art of the three-minute song because I think it’s possible to say something that will reach more people more effectively and be repeated and replicated in three minutes than if you write a 400-page text book. I think it’s a fantastic medium. I think it’s just brilliant.”
Zack Ruskin interviewed Buffy Sainte-Marie while she was in town for the American Indian Film Festival on November 13.