We talk to Buffy Sainte-Marie about her Polaris Music Prize-winning album, Power in the Blood

Buffy Saint-Marie
Photography by Matt Barnes

“Aren’t we trying to write a fashion piece?” asks Buffy Sainte-Marie, her voice trailing off sheepishly. She’s on the phone from her home in Hawaii, and we’ve veered into the intense backstory to the song “Uranium War” from her soon-to-be released album, Power In the Blood. It’s a prequel to the hit protest number “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee,” which recounted the tragic events affecting Native American people at the time and ultimately to this day. “‘Uranium War’ is a true story, but it’s a long story,” she says thoughtfully.

Canadian-born Sainte-Marie has made sport of rebooting her career. She started off as a folk singer-songwriter in politicized 1960s America, but her controversial views got her music blacklisted by the Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon administrations. In 1975 she joined the cast of the much-loved television show Sesame Street, and by the ’80s, Sainte-Marie had embraced the then-nascent Apple computer technologies to establish herself as a digital artist. Through all those sidesteps, she recorded new music, establishing fans like singer Morrissey, who invited her to join his spring arena tour of the British Isles. Toss in multiple Juno Awards, honourary doctorates and an Order of Canada, and you’ve got one respectable career. Basically, when Sainte-Marie does something, she does it very well.

Her 16th album is no different. The hyper-produced 12-song collection is slick and contemporary with the chops to cross over into pop, country or dance. (Not bad for a 74-year-old, right?) So when asked how she’s evolved in five decades, the secret to her success comes out: “I feel exactly the same,” she says. “I honestly still feel like the three-year-old I was when I first saw a piano. I never discovered Barbie dolls or sports because I was so in love with music, crayons and dancing. I was a compulsive artist from as far back as I can remember.”

Adept as she is at reinterpreting existing material, her album’s title track (written by Alabama 3) gets an anti-war makeover, and UB40’s 1986 anti-apartheid hit “Sing Our Own Song” is transformed into “powwow reggae” for the Idle No More cause. “I approach protest songs like a college girl trying to write a thesis for a professor who doesn’t like me. I’m determined to get an A-plus.”

Tracks such as “Uranium War” and “Orion” (composed by her late ex-husband, Jack Nitzsche, with whom she wrote the Oscar-winning “Up Where We Belong”) show she’s an artist who remains true to her roots. The opening track, “It’s My Way,” is a wiser, tougher rendering of a song she wrote for her 1964 debut. “It’s my attitude that a great song stays great even if you write another great song the next day.” Preach.

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