Published May 28, 2015You wanna talk living legends? Buffy Sainte-Marie blazed through the Greenwich Village and Yorkville folk music scenes in the 1960s before embarking on a multi-decade musical, spiritual, political and educational journey that has seen her cultivate a groundbreaking musical career while raising consciousness around issues of ecology, pacifism and indigenous rights. Along the way she earned a PhD from the University of Massachusetts, was blacklisted by the U.S. government, experimented with EDM long before there was a thing called EDM, wrote one of the biggest hit songs of the 1980s ("Up Where We Belong") and became perhaps the first woman to breastfeed her baby on American TV. Beat that.
Born on a Piapot Cree Reserve in Saskatchewan's Qu'Appelle Valley, and raised by adoptive parents in Massachusetts, Sainte-Marie developed a distinct perspective on nationalism, violence, feminism and racial politics that has informed her work ever since. As renowned for her incisive songwriting as for her inimitable vocals, Sainte-Marie inspired countless artists of her generation, from Joni Mitchell to Bob Dylan to Bobby Bare to Janis Joplin, and remains a major touchstone for any act looking to blend political awareness with artistic expression. Her latest album, Power in the Blood, might be her best recorded work since the mid-'60s — this living legend's about to find herself with a whole new generation of acolytes.
What are you up to?
Zipping around the world with my band, playing songs from Power in the Blood — drummer Mike Bruyere from Winnipeg and Vancouver; bass player Mark Olexon from Vancouver; keyboard player Kibwe Thomas from Toronto; guitarist Anthony King from Los Angeles; and our tour manager Denton Frazer from Toronto. Just back from Australia, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England — then across Canada, and now off to the U.S. Kinda busy but fun.
What are your current fixations?
Audible books! I'm a biblioholic but usually in motion so I listen while doing other things — gardening, cleaning house, in the tour van, flying around in planes, in bed. I have over 600 audible books. Current faves: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie; Revolution by Russell Brand; 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles Mann; This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein; The Signature of All Things: A Novel by Elizabeth Gilbert; Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business: Fredric Dannen.
Why do you live where you do?
I live on a farm in the mountains of Hawaii, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, six hours by plane from North America. Just trying to hide from le show biz.
Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art:
Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, made on a four-track tape recorder. Although I was into technology very early and still value having great stuff with which to record art, it has always been about what you actually do with the technology. Sgt Pepper continues to prove that it's always about the music, not the hype.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
For the Smithsonian's 150-year anniversary, we played a concert for a million people in Washington, DC. There were only three bands: Aretha Franklin, Trisha Yearwood and us. Wowww! Big crowd.
What have been your career highs and lows?
Thumbs up: Having my Academy Award on display at the Smithsonian.
Thumbs down: A 27-hour trip last month from Australia through Hong Kong to London. Cathay Pacific charged me $1,345 for one suitcase and a guitar. Argghh. Never again.
What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
When I was just starting out and singing "The Universal Soldier" and "Now That the Buffalo's Gone," my father said to me, "Maybe you could be a success if you sang more like Connie Francis." (FYI, Connie Francis was a 1950s teen pop singer who sang "Where the Boys Are" and "Stupid Cupid.")
What should everyone shut up about?
Nothing. Please blabber on. I always learn something.
What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
I like that I love to learn and do ballet and flamenco. I hate that I'm annoying, always bragging about loving to learn and doing ballet and flamenco.
What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
Sleep till I just can't sleep no more.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
Don't ever sign away your publishing rights for one dollar via a contract on the back of a napkin. Yep, I really did.
What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
Nope, never have done that.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
N a t u r a l b e a u t y.
What was the first LP/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
Elvis Presley. It was his first record, featured "Hound Dog," "Money Honey," "Heartbreak Hotel." As a teenager, he was the best.
What was your most memorable day job?
I've only had three day jobs, all while I was a teenager: At age 14 I was the worst waitress ever, for a week; at 15 I sold cosmetics at a little drug store one summer; then at 16, I worked as a counter girl in a fantastic bakery that used real ingredients.
How do you spoil yourself?
A bath, an audio book, and a very long nap...with a kitty cat.
If I wasn't playing music I would be…
Dreaming of playing music. It's been my best friend and playmate all my life. No lessons: the emphasis is on play.
What do you fear most?
Not much actually, although trying to do a great concert with a 12-hour jetlag is a nightmare asleep and awake.
What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
Just about anything... but I usually restrain myself.
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
The one that never happened. I had a big crush on Jet Li (Romeo Must Die, with Aaliyah). He was reportedly in the lobby of the hotel where I was staying, but I was too star struck to go down and see. Then I figured out that mostly I like leaving my heroes up there on the screen.
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. Anything he wanted.
What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
My late Mom witnessed me at age three discovering the piano. She knew I had found my lifelong partner and true satisfaction, success or not. She was always happy for me.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
"Dance Hard Intertribal" by Northern Cree.