RD Interview: Buffy Sainte-Marie

Singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie on activism, longevity and her new album, Power in the Blood.

RD Interview: Buffy Sainte-MarieIllustration by Aimée van Drimmelen

Power in the Blood features several songs from your back catalogue, including “It’s My Way,” the title track from your debut album, which was released more than 50 years ago. Why revisit the past?
Most people grow up with the idea that things become obsolete. That’s just marketing. Good songs are good songs. I came up in the 1960s, when people were singing songs that were hundreds of years old. The reason they’ve lasted is the same reason an antique chair lasts: because people treasure it, because it’s beautiful, because it remains useful to several generations. 

You became known during a period when folk-based protest songs and popular music dovetailed. Is there space for songs of dissent in the current pop climate?
The ’60s were a special time. Students ruled and we were writing what was in our hearts and heads. With the Internet, I think it’s the closest we’ve been since then. The Internet is free right now. You can hear brand-new artists, music from the Mississippi Delta, people singing folk songs from Scotland. That’s how it was in the ’60s: a narrow window of opportunity for artists to communicate directly to people who wanted to hear what they were giving. To me, that’s beautiful. 

We’re at a watershed moment for First Nations issues in North America. When you hear, for instance, Stephen Harper saying that missing and murdered indigenous women are not “sociological phenomena”-
They’re not a sociological problem for him! It’s more like a nuisance when he has to hear about another dead Indian.

As a pioneering First Nations activist, what do you want to relay to the current generation of advocates? 
No. 1, don’t burn out. At the very least, you deserve a meal, a bed and a bath in your day. You have to take care of yourself or you’re not going to last and you won’t do any good for anyone. All it will be is an ego trip. Don’t do that.

It’s been five decades since you won Billboard magazine’s Best New Artist award-
And I’m still the best new artist!

You know, with the Grammys, there’s a so-called “Best New Artist curse”-musicians who win promptly fade into oblivion. Evidently Billboard doesn’t have the same problem.
You can’t take any of it too seriously. Part of the secret to my longevity in show business is that I have a life outside of it.

You’re in your 70s and obviously thriving. What’s your secret?
I live on a farm in Hawaii, and that allows me to do a lot of the work I really like. I have animals. I’m always outdoors. I have great organic gardens, and I grow food and give it away. Aside from that, I take ballet and flamenco classes. My natural carriage comes from dance, but it’s based on strength in my middle section that’s kept me healthy. You know the place right under your rib cage? I think that if you keep that strong, it’s just a godsend to the whole rest of your health.

Power in the Blood is available May 12. 

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