Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Roots of Inspiration- Interview

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.

VIA ( -Face Aboriginal Life and Culture )


Colleen H. said...

Love reading about Buffy, her creativity in the realm of song and sound is astounding... Love the honor and respect she always gives to her First Nations roots.. Very inspiring.

Anonymous said...

It is so fun to read your blog, to learn more about you, your music, your approach, your incredible richness as a person. And, on an off-the-wall note, it made "Guess Who I Saw In Paris" pop into my head. I've always loved the dreaminess of that song, and imagining it was me and my certain someone. "Falling asleep playing his guitar" was/is a powerful, dreamy image. You have such a wonderful way of expressing the inexpressible! --Maryellen L.

marc said...

Thanks so much for sharing the stories and insight into behind the scenes of your history. I've also loved Coincidence and Likely Stories. I noted Chris Birkett's name on some of the songs that meant so much to me from that record. Glad that you have someone like him to help you along and share your vision. Thank-you for your music. My 9 year old son and I will see you tomorrow in concert in Whippany. Looking forward to that and to 2012. In Beauty - Marc and Nicholas.

klockan2310 said...

It must have been the autumn of 1971, when my father and I went to the Concert Hall in Gothenburg Sweden to see and listen to Buffy Sainte Marie. The hour before we should go to the concert I suddenly got a terrible pain in my stomach never experienced before. Laying double on the floor in my home hurt and sad because it felt impossible to go to the concert I had longed for so much a sudden unexpected quick release came. I got surprised, the pain was gone in less than one second. We hurried away the few quarters to the concert hall. I was the happiest 14-year old boy ever. And some nervous too about the meeting obviously. The supporting act was the Swedish band Contact. Then, at last, Buffy Sainte Marie was on stage and also used the bow and I was more than amazed. My father very kind following his son to his idol. Urwah Umar Abdullah, Alexandria, Egypt. Muslim since five years today - 12/1 2012.

Urwah Umar Abdullah said...

Thank You Buffy Sainte Marie!

Anonymous said...

Your political actions, music, and art are such a positive influence on my life, and in the world! I am exceedingly grateful that I had your songs to listen to, while I was growing up, that inspired me, helped me to cope with some harsh realities, and helped me to become a better person. I am so impressed that you are continuing to speak out against injustice, and still creating such wonderful music!

RJ said...

il tuo nominativo รจ stato pubblicato su:

coolcat said...

I remember 1975. Los Angeles. I was invited for an afternoon show. Front Row, in front of the piano and then backstage. Long dark brown hair, brown eyes. Jeans, cord jacket, t shirt. The spirit of ancestors ascended and danced upon the stage. I cried when I looked into your eyes. Our temple was younger then. We are still young in the Universal Symphony. Thank You my sister. Till we play again on the other side, Love Always, before, and forever. Peace

Anonymous said...

Thank you so very much.

I wanted to tell you how the Sweet America album affected me.

I listened and looked at the cover and was amazed. Always to me you were the best and I held you in esteem with the greatest artists.

You reached right out of the album and touched me. I was astounded. Now I would call it medicine but back then ....... Anyway, I felt I was supposed to go find you and I began to hear music in my head….like a radio ( oddly enough I didn’t hear a drum or anything like that, but I heard very clearly, nice light jazz.) My head also seemed to be breaking into two levels – one side was horrible stuff and the other was this clear music. .

So I set out driving thinking I’ll find you and after a few hours, all the time listening to this stuff in my head, I realized I had no clue where to go, so I got a room then went home the next day. Most of the night I just listened to the music. I didn’t particularly judge the experience, just had no clue what to do with it all, although I wondered if I was a nutcase obsessed fan with a side of my mind out of wack.

So I get home and it was a brilliant sunny New York day. I’m looking at our front yard, and suddenly there is a rain shower, thunder, and a bolt of lightining in it, all contained within say a ten foot space of this sunny afternoon.

How can I thank you? And I do thank you!! (PS Hopefully eating well and working out will get rid of the side that seems out of whack ! )

Best always, an old sweet american

Ranka Prelac said...
(foto from the 1991 war. but the old song)

Anne Russell said...

Buffy shares in a very special way .. like a friend

Anonymous said...

Buffy you are the best, your bueatiful music and enchanting voice will live in my life forever
would love to see you in London in August, missed out last year please come and help me find you love always

The Reluctant Gardener said...

Thank you for your AMAZING wisdom and inspiration! I was fortunate to catch your interview at Vancouver Island Musicfest at then get lost in your performance on the Mainstage later!! You rocked it!! Your band is FANTASTIC! Now I'm looking forward to reading more of your blog while listening to Running with the Drum!

Harvey Chometsky said...

This after a scorching hot performance Sunday night, July 8, 2012 Courtenay, British Columbia, Canada:
A continual inspiration for any working artist who is at risk of losing faith concerning the importance of continuing their important work...
many thanks for your decades of creative mentorship....your young musical warriors are the best!!!!!

The Reluctant Gardener said...

* Running for the Drum (apologies for the mistake)

Tityra said...

Buffy, you were my window to another world. You took my narrow, idealistic image of a Native Americans and made it into a living, breathing, and breathtaking "contemporality." To this day, I haven't heard another voice with the power, poetry, awareness and clarity of yours. A humble spark of your legacy lives in me. Thank you.

Flamze said...

I love reading about you Buffy..i loved seseme street, my favourtie was big bird an oscor

I am looking forward to following you in facebook

thanks so much

Anonymous said...

Buffy, you are one of my great inspirations and role models and I love hearing you talk about how your approach to songs and recording them and how you hear them and communicate what you want done with them is like my own. I hope "Universal Soldier" gets re-released or re-discovered and enters the consciousness of the world as it did when I was growing up, and those words and that vibe shaped my young mind and social conscience. Funny how you know if you are advancing any art because they first deride you and all you do

Colleen Lloyd