Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Protesting and playing: For Buffy Sainte- Marie, there's room for both focus and fun

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press

For more than four decades, legendary Canadian-American Cree singer/songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie has been blazing trails.

When she first hit the road in the 1960s as a solo performer, touring North America's colleges, reservations and concert halls, she flipped audiences and record companies' expectations -- "Pocahontas in fringes" -- on their ears.

The multi-hyphenate performer -- she's a musician, composer, visual artist, educator and activist -- went on to pen well-covered classics such as Until It's Time For You To Go, Co'dine and Universal Soldier. She's worked tirelessly to put indigenous issues at the fore, through both her music and her activism. She has fistfuls of degrees from universities across Canada. She has 17 albums to her credit. She's an electronic music pioneer -- one of the first to use computers for home recording. She won an Oscar for the An Officer and a Gentleman theme Up Where We Belong. And, in a badass act of feminism, she had middle America clutching its pearls by breastfeeding her son on an episode of Sesame Street in the 1970s. (That's just a slight highlight reel of her illustrious career.)

At 73, Sainte-Marie is still working. Her latest album, 2008's Juno-winning Running for the Drum, continues to have legs, taking her all over the world. Buffy and her all-aboriginal, all-Manitoban backing band -- bassist Leroy Constant, guitarist Jesse Green and drummer Mike Bruyere -- will perform at the West End Cultural Centre tonight as part of a western Canadian tour, but she's also turning her eye to recording. She's famously judicious about making albums; she only does so when she has the time to dedicate to a project.

"I'm actually working on a new album right now," she says on the line from her idyllic home in Hawaii. "I was just in Nashville and Toronto and L.A., where I was interviewing producers to co-produce with."

A forthcoming Buffy Sainte-Marie album will be a lot like the ones that came before it -- genre-spanning, subject-spanning and completely unpredictable. She never writes with a record in mind.

"That might be what people might think -- the company says, 'Oh, it's time to make a record,'" she says, dropping her voice several octaves to imitate an label exec. "But if you're a real writer, you're working all the time. I come from the '60s, when it was OK to be diverse. Record companies got very concerned about genres, and I think the public started thinking that way, too. The Internet has made it a lot more like how it was in the '60s."

Then again, Buffy's always had a healthy disregard for genre boxes and an expansive palette of influences to draw from, whether its music or visual art. She says that one discipline doesn't really inform the other, at least not in a conscious way.

"Same brain, different tools," she says, simply. "I got a lot of college degrees but it's not that high-falutin'. It's just about splashing paint, or words. Painting, music, dancing -- it's all play. What I like, I keep; what I don't, I forget. If we're made in the image of the Creator, then we're meant to be creative. I can bake a cake or learn a dance and be just as happy." (She's dancing a lot lately, taking private ballet lessons. "I've always dreamed of dancing. It's so beautiful to be involved with.")

Her playful approach means her work rarely feels like work. "Work is packing and getting in the airplane. Writing songs -- that's the fun part."

Though she ranks among the greatest protest singers of the 1960s, Sainte-Marie rarely sits down with a fully sketched-out idea. Songs come to her like dreams, ephemeral and fluid.

"Some of my songs are like Universal Soldier or any of the other songs people might call protest songs, others are just songs to dance to. Some are love songs."

When it comes to activism, however, she does have causes that are close to her heart. She says she's proud of Neil Young for sparking vital conversation about the environmental effect of Alberta's oilsands during January's contentious Honor The Treaties tour.

"I'm happy people are getting on board," she says. "You couldn't get people talking about it. Now, I want people to talk louder. It's a total disaster and (the boreal forest) is not coming back."

It's not lost on her that so many of her 1960s-era protest songs still resonate today.

"It's interesting, huh? To me, what that means, the world itself, people's ears, their knowledge base -- it's larger now. The demise of the music biz has helped a lot. I think people are connecting like they did in the '60s again. It was repressed for so long."

Indeed, Sainte-Marie knows what it's like to be censored; she was blacklisted in the U.S. by the administrations of presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, which sought to keep her music off the radio. She warns that we shouldn't take our right to free speech for granted.

"It can be gagged again," she says. "It's important people keep their eyes and ears open. That's what movements like Idle No More are all about."

To that end, Sainte-Marie has some advice for her fellow activists.

"First of all, don't burn out. You have to have the courage to say, 'I need sleep, I'm going home,'" she says. "And I think everyone needs to be aware we're still the same ol' human race and power struggles can establish themselves in even the best-intended circles. Take your voice to where it'll be most effective."

Buffy Sainte-Marie
March 4, 8 p.m.
West End Cultural Centre
Tickets $40 at Ticketmaster, Winnipeg Folk Festival Music Store and WECC

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