Friday, 27 June 2014
Buffy Sainte-Marie stays the course
Article originally published at windsorstar.com by Ted Shaw
Forever outside the mainstream, Buffy Sainte-Marie proudly declares her independence from the business of popular music.
“I’m not in the business, never have been,” said the 73-year-old Sainte-Marie, who is in the studio for yet another new album in Toronto. (She performs Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at Carrousel By The River at Windsor’s Riverfront Festival Plaza. Tickets at the gate are $5.)
“Being in the business is another whole thing I’ve managed to avoid so far. I’m a songwriter and a singer.”
As a singer, her keening vibrato has been an acquired taste since she broke on the folk scene in the early-1960s.
As a songwriter, she boasts hundreds of cover versions of songs like Universal Soldier, Up Where We Belong and Until It’s Time for You to Go.
“I had to provide some information about song covers (for the website) and I lost count,” she said. The site, buffysainte-marie.com, lists dozens of prominent artists who have recorded her songs.
“I used to think Codine had only two or three covers (namely The Charlatans, Janis Joplin and Gram Parsons), but I was up to 60-something and gave up and handed it off to somebody else to research.”
Songwriting, said Sainte-Marie, is her raison d’etre.
“It has always been the most exciting experience when you write something and you surprise yourself. Where did that come from?”
Born to Cree parents in Saskatchewan in 1941, Sainte-Marie was adopted by a white family and raised in Massachusetts. Her earliest musical influences were rockabilly and the white rockers of the American Deep South, Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins.
They fused her rocking sensibilities with a softer focus acoustic music, and it’s a sound that has defined most of her music from the beginning.
“Businessmen and the lawyers who control the music industry will tell you this or that won’t work,” she said. “But the beauty of having a long career like mine is that you realize great music stays great, and it’s true of life itself. No matter what new thing comes along.”
The ’60s rebel is still speaking out. “As you grow,” she said, “you hang onto what was always great in your art and it just enhances whatever is coming up next. I have an incredible library of songs I still love and whatever does come next doesn’t make yesterday’s choices any less.”
Early in her career, Sainte-Marie took a startling left turn with her music by recording an all-electronic album, Illuminations, in 1969. Three or four years earlier, fellow former folkie Bob Dylan alienated the acoustic audience by recording a series of albums with electric instruments.
But Sainte-Marie took the process even further. Illuminations was unlike anything she had done before, a strange and experimental amalgam of synthesized singing and instrumentals. It fell flat commercially, but as the years went on, it proved highly influential in progressive rock circles. When the album was reissued in 2000, Wire Magazine named it among the 100 Albums that Set the World on Fire While No-One was Listening.
Sainte-Marie remembers the reactions of critics and even her longstanding fans. ” Why is this person who we’ve been told is a folksinger doing this kind of thing? The folk community jumped all over me, but art students and the electronic music communities understood it.”
It led her to writing movie scores and investigating digital art. Her computer-generated art is widely admired and some of it hangs in Calgary’s Glenbow Museum.
“I approach music and digital art, and life, not as a manual where you read how to do things, but like a kid at play. I’m an overgrown kindergarten kid.”
Sainte-Marie faded from active recording after the late-1970s, but Up Where We Belong, which won an Academy Award in 1982, provided her with a re-entry into popular music. A comeback album in 1992, titled Coincidence and Likely Stories, however, was again followed by a lengthy hiatus until 2008′s critically praised Running for the Drum.
“I had to put a band together to take the album out on tour,” she said. “We auditioned 27 musicians and settled on three (First Nations) guys from Manitoba.”
It was supposed to be a short-term arrangement, but the band is still with her and on the road throughout this summer, touring in support of a just-released documentary DVD, Buffy Sainte-Marie, A Multimedia Life.
The band consists of Jesse Green, a Lakota/Ojibway from Winnipeg on guitar; Leroy Constant, a Manitoba Cree on bass; and Michel Bruyere, a Manitoba Ojibway on drums.
The recording of her new album has her commuting from Hawaii, where she has lived since the 1960s, to Toronto and Europe. But she’s finding the energy of a woman much younger in the process.
“I feel better than when I was 22,” she said. “And I listen to all the music from then to now. I have a voracious appetite for great music.”