by Michael Bell
(2009) A career that spans decades Buffy Sainte Marie first started performing in the early 60’s, sharpening her craft along side other 60’s legends like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. By 24 she had toured around the world and was voted 1964 Billboard Best New Artist for her debut album “It’s My Way”. She penned “Universal Soldier”, which became the anthem of the 60’s peace movement while sharing songs about love like “Until It’s Time For You To Go” which was covered by Elvis, Barbara Streisand and Cher. Other songs would be covered by artists as unrelated as Chet Atkins, Janis Joplin and Bobby Darin. She has appeared in film and TV, and her songs have become iconic hits. “Up Where We Belong” received an Academy Award for Best Song in 1981 for the unforgettable rendition Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes were to give for the film “An Officer and A Gentleman”. In 1992, after a 16 year hiatus, she recorded and released “Coincidence and Likely Stories” from her home in Hawaii and via internet with producer Chris Birkett. Always true to her native roots, she founded the Cradleboard Teaching Project in 1996 and developed projects across Mohawk, Cree, Ojibwe, Menominee, Coeur D'Alene, Navajo, Quinault, Hawaiian, and Apache communities in eleven states. 2008 marked the year she was to make her musical comeback onto the scene releasing “Running For The Drum”. An Academy Award-winning Canadian First Nations musician, composer, visual artist, pacifist, educator and social activist, Buffy spoke to me by phone from her home in the mountains of Hawaii surrounded by her chickens, goats, computers and memories....
Mb: Hi Buffy! My apologies, I’m late calling.
BSM: It’s always troublesome because we never know in Hawaii what time everybody thinks we’re at. It’s very easy to get confused.
Mb: So you’re in Hawaii?
BSM: I’ve lived here for most of my life.
Mb: What a beautiful place to live.
BSM: It is. It’s nice. It’s just a very long sit-down to go anywhere else because we’re in the most isolated spot on earth. Hawaii is more isolated than anywhere else on the globe.
Mb: You’re flying to everywhere you need to go...
BSM: My gosh, thousands of miles of ocean to everywhere. It’s a great place to live but ... I’m out there!
Mb: So, you know, there’s just too many things to talk about, so what do you want to talk about?
BSM: Did anyone send you the new album or the new video?
Mb: Yes they did.
BSM: Ok, start there and if you want to back up from there you can.
Mb: OK, how was making the new record?
BSM: It was great. I made it at home, as I have the last two albums. I just make it when I feel like it. I flew my co-producer in from France five times. So, we just recorded at home and got it the way we wanted to do it, and boy it’s a lot of fun. We’ve been out promoting it a little bit, because it hasn’t been out too long, and... oh man, my summer schedule... I get tired just looking at it! It’s all over Europe, all over Canada, we’re going to the U.S.... The album is being released in a staggered release so we don’t have to be everywhere at once. Boy, people really like it and I Iike that!
Mb: And you really like the recoding process?
BSM: Ya! Chris Birkett and I, this is our third album together so we know each other real well and he’s real nice to work with, so we enjoy it. There’s just far less pressure on us than if we were on the clock in somebody’s studio in some city... and it’s pretty out here too!
Mb: So at this point in your career do you feel like you’re able to record and write the way you want, shooting from the hip, as it were, rather than worrying about CD sales?
BSM: (Laughs) An artist better not! Things are different now because I’m not under contract to a big corporation so... I’ve always made records the same way. The only difference has been whether I’m making the artistic decisions or somebody else is. I much rather prefer to be in the driver’s seat since I’m the one who writes the songs and records them and all. So now I have a distribution deal with EMI where they do the marketing and distribution but otherwise no one but me and Chris have anything to do with making the album. It’s nice because artists are artists and business is business.
Mb: What do you think of the way the industry works now?
BSM: Of course it’s inevitable and in many ways it’s much better for fans and for artists, but it’s also a very competitive world. Yet it does seem kind of “fairer” now for people to be able to find just the songs they want.... to be able to get music from all over the world right into their house... I like it. I looked forward to it for a very long time and I tried to talk several record companies into getting interested in “this internet thing” and they didn’t want anything to do with it. I was real real early. I was making electronic music in the 60’s and went to movie scoring and was using computers starting in the mid 80’s for recording. When it all was just bubbling under I spoke to several record companies and people in the recording industry about it, but they just didn’t want to know. They didn’t understand how it would work. It was too early for them.
Mb: So you’re obviously a big fan of the internet.
BSM: Ya, sure! I’m a fan of communication. I think it’s wonderful. There’s casual communication and social communication and business communication but there’s also artistic communication. I’ve been using computers to record my music and to record my paintings and record my writings for a very long time. That’s what a computer does. It allows you to record things much better than the old equipment did. To record it and manipulate it and to change it and develop it and save lots of different versions and then to be able to distribute it to a very narrowly targeted audience or to put it out to where everyone can hear it... it’s much more in the hands of the artist now.
Mb: How do you feel about people being able to download your music for free.
BSM: Well, if I offer it for free, then I expect them to download it for free. I think things should be free anyway. But the reality is that not everything can be. I have never liked record companies stealing from artists and I don’t like audiences stealing from artists. I prefer downloads for pay. Then it’s an option on the part of the artist to what you want to give for free. I give away a lot of things for free. I founded the Cradleboard Teaching Project in the early 90’s and my dream was to have enough money and to have it develop far enough so that I could give it away for free to everybody on the internet and now that dream has come true. So I think that’s the idea, to make things available without having all kinds of middlemen between the artist and the audience.
Mb: What about your visual art?
BSM: You can see it online. If people want to buy the real deal, then they can get in touch with us. I think the images, whether it’s mine or some other artist’s... the images that artists make and the records that we make and the songs and the writings that we make are best if shared, but that’s not the business model that developed in the Middle East Judeo Christian, European kings model. It’s kind of a money model... a Caesar owns everything model! Everybody else just works here! The business model that developed has nothing to do with art that artists make. There will always be someone who wants to stand between the audience and the artist and take their piece, but now more than ever an artist can do things in a new way or a unique way or in a way they like. There are just more options now!
Mb: When people hear your music or hear your name for that matter, what do want them to think?
BSM: Oh god, I don’t care! (laughs) I’m a songwriter and various songs are interesting to various people for various reasons. Some people only want to hear “Universal Soldier” and other people only want to hear “Up Where We Belong”, and it’s all ok with me cause I like it all!
Mb: But as a communicator, what do you want to communicate?
BSM: I want people to take away something from a concert or hearing a record. I want them to take away something they didn’t have when they came in; a way of thinking or some pleasure. Some of my songs are topical and they are about being affective in the real world and some are just love songs and some are just fun to dance to. So I don’t care... help yourself.... enjoy!