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Buffy Sainte-Marie – The Roots of Inspiration

[ 0 ] August 5, 2010 |

Buffy Sainte-Marie has released eighteen albums, won an Oscar, starred on Sesame Street, and she was blacklisted by the U.S. government in the  1960s and ’70s. She was also the first musician ever to deliver a CD via the internet. Buffy Sainte-Marie is a true icon and she continues to inspire people of all races.

In this interview with FACE, Buffy discusses song composition, 1980s technology and Big Bird.

Composing a Dream

I was about three years old when a piano became my toy, and I com-posed my first song around then. Since it was play for me, I just did it until the song was the way I liked it. I’m still the same way.

Music composition is my passion, or my superhobby, so I get right into it and can’t get it out of my head. I experience the song internally, like a 360-degree movie. The emotion, the story, the characters, the instrumentation, the melody and harmonies and effects, and the mood are all of a sudden there in my head. Different songs lead me in different ways. I usually record a song pretty much the way I first hear and see it in my head.

It became easier for me to capture that initial internal movie in a recording once I had my home studio [in the early 1980s]. It used to be frustrating to hear my songs filtered through the tastes of record companies’ A&R people, engineers, producers, other musicians; and I’m much more satisfied using my own ears and my own hands on the recording equipment. Other people meant well but music is so personal, it’s easy for somebody else to inaccurately portray something that’s basically a dream!

Coincidence and Likely Stories was my best album. It was the first one where people could hear the songs the way that I heard them in my head. [In 1992,] it was also the first album to be delivered via the internet, and I just knew that others would do it this way in the future. I felt pretty Star Treky.

I like to record a song idea immediately. I usually play with it alone and I only keep going on the ones that continue to intrigue me. Later, when I feel like going on the road, I work with a co-producer and we re-record, overdub, whip ’em into shape, but I always follow the original idea. My co-producer, Chris Birkett, and I take turns engineering for each other and making lunch. We get along real well.

The composition I completed the quickest was the music for “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot.” The lyrics of that song are two pages of text from Leonard Cohen’s book Beautiful Losers. I put the book on the music stand and made up the melody in front of the recording microphone. Many of my songs I find almost complete in my head, then I go record them. But “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” took about thirteen years.

Pioneering Digital Technology

I started composing with a Mac computer in 1984. It was very simple compared to the electronic instruments I had been using in the 1960s and 1970s. Utilizing computer software is beneficial in its ability to save multiple versions. As well, it provides the unlimited palette of sounds that I create from my own voice or outside sources, like orchestral, imagined and natural-world sounds and pre-recorded samples like crickets, coyotes and water.

If I hear a heartbreaking solo violin or electric guitar in my head, then I can play a demo digital version of what I’m going for. I’m not good at explaining to other musicians the things I hear in my head but I can come real close by playing them myself in the context of the song. Then I can confidently ask a great player to replace my cheesy attempt with something better in the same ballpark.

[In the 1970s] I committed folk music heresy by travelling around with a SynthAxe, one of the first synth guitars, and I did concerts in Europe, which everybody loved, using the first Roland MIDI guitar, the beautiful silver trapezoid one, which connected to a pedal board and enabled me to bring in strings and other invisible sounds when I was alone onstage. I got a lot of snotty remarks from other musicians who were not yet ready for electronic or digital instruments. Pioneering in digital art and music threatened almost everybody at first. Critics acted as if we smartasses were trying to replace traditional paints and acoustic instruments, but the few of us who were using them were just adding to the menu of available tools. I still love them all!

All-Aboriginal Bandmates

During my solo years, I was mostly a one-man band, doing occasional groups of concerts with hired musicians. I’ve written and recorded so many different kinds of songs that I’ve had several bands, depending on the style of music they could do. It used to be hard to find musicians who weren’t locked in to one style: rock, country, folk, jazz, love songs. There’s sometimes a rigid kind of small-town snobbery from guys who only play one style; and schooled sidemen who can tech-nically play anything can lack real passion and it all sounds like TV.

Record companies and radio stations created narrower genres and playlists, which were sort of divisive and added to the snobbery. The internet has widened the available playlist and now everybody can hear excellence in all styles, which is good for everybody, I think, especially somebody like me.

The solo days were wonderful for sharing some of my songs, but solo acoustic concerts are not nearly as much fun as sharing the stage with a band. My new bandmates are all Aboriginal, which gives a special power to the show. I know that every person onstage with me knows what the songs are about, and it gives a passion to the music that you can feel. They’re all professional, a lot of fun, really supportive, and they deserve a lot of credit.

My band and I rehearse a lot before a tour, and during sound checks
we go over anything that any of us want to practise. My theory is that, with professionals, it isn’t how good you are when you’re good; it’s how good you are when you’re bad that counts.

Fellow Musicians

The Gipsy Kings, when they were teenagers and before they were the Gipsy Kings, were my favourite musicians to play with. God, it was fun! Hot! I sang with them and their uncle, the flamenco guitar player Manitas de Plata, in the 1960s in the basement of a theatre in Amsterdam, where we were doing a show for UNICEF. I also liked Chet Atkins, who loved my songs and used to fall asleep playing his guitar.

It’s great to have accomplished singers record my songs. What a com-pliment, to have other singers like my songs enough to take them into their very different lives and give them to their audiences in a brand-new forms. Neko Case. Janis Joplin. Quicksilver Messenger Service. Cam’ron. So many great artists.

The only song I’ve ever written specifically hoping another artist would do it is “To the Ends of the World” from my new CD [Running for the Drum]. The melody had popped into my head years before and I had written it as a brass quartet instrumental; but when I finally “heard” the words, it felt like an Aaron Neville song and I went with that feel. My version of the song on Running for the Drum is like a demo; Aaron would sing it a lot better than I do.

Breast Feeding and Big Bird

Working on Sesame Street was one of the most wonderful things that I’ve ever done, easy as pie and usually hilarious, a real privilege. They appreciated the Native American input I provided—as well as my ideas for the breastfeeding episode. They never tried to stereotype me and taught me a lot, including the valuable discipline of focussed, engaging scripts necessary for short attention spans. I still keep in touch with some of the cast members. My favourite characters are Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, who are both played by Caroll Spinney.

[At first] they had invited me on to count from one to ten but I turned it down, as I was busy with serious grassroots issues. But before we hung up, I asked whether they had ever done any Native American programming and they said no. They called me back in a few days and said, “Let’s do it.” Most shows were done in New York City, but for my first show we went to Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, and once they all came to my backyard in Hawaii for a multicultural show.

The only thing challenging in the five years that I was involved with Sesame Street was doing two shows a day with a toddler on my hip. I was exhausted all the time.

Two Great Honours

Truthfully, my greatest honour was something outside of showbiz: it was receiving my Cree name, and later my Blackfoot name.

But regarding honours in the big music world: I really loved the Juno Hall of Fame tribute, which CARAS [the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences] and Elaine Bomberry of Six Nations created: so many dancers, and traditional singers Stoney Park, and folk singers, and on and on—unforgettable!

Running for the Drum

Running for the Drum is the maturation of the themes and styles that I love the most, but it’s true to the diverse nature of how I see the world through songs.

I really loved working with Chris Birkett for the third time, making Running for the Drum. I had loved those songs and the powwow samples—from the Black Lodge Singers when they were kids on “Cho Cho Fire” and from Whitefish Jrs. on “Working for the Government”—for years before I released the songs on a record, and I just couldn’t wait to get them out to the public.

Running For the Drum was released in July 2009 and won the 2010 Juno for Aboriginal Recording of the Year.

Order Running for the Drum and check out Buffy’s July 2010 Canadian tour dates on her website,


Buffy Sainte-Marie and Martha Fred onstage in Port Alberni, 1974. Buffy is drawing the winning raffle ticket for the Japanese glass fishing float that Martha beaded and raffled off at Buffy’s show.

Photo: Robert Soderlund.


Category: Interviews

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