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ROCKWiRED iNTERViEWS: BUFFY SAiNTE-MARiE

SiNG iT AND PRAY iT AND LiVE iT
THE LEGENDARY BUFFY SAiNTE-MARiE TALKS TO ROCKWiRED
ABOUT HER LATEST CD RUNNiNG FOR THE DRUM
BEiNG BLACKLiSTED BY JOHNSON AND NiXON
AND THE BOUNDLESS CREATiViTY THAT COMES NATURALLY
http://www.rockwired.com/buffysaintemarie.jpgMARCH 8, 2010
iNTERViEWED BY BRiAN LUSH
In a career spanning nearly fifty years, the music of BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE is marked by its unparalleled range of styles and the artist’s unwillingness to compromise. While the plight of the Indigenous peoples of the North Americas is the issue most familiar in her music with songs such as ‘MY COUNTRY TIS OF THY PEOPLE YOU’RE DYING’ and ‘BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE’, SAINTE-MARIE has also given voice to the plight of the human condition with songs like ‘UNIVERSAL SOLDIER’ whose anti-war message is frightfully as relevant today as it was back in 1965. The Cree songwriter’s innate ability to articulate matters of the heart into words and music is one that has endeared her to millions and has inspired countless interpretations of her work from a varied and legendary group of artists such as ELVIS PRESLEY, BARBARA STREISAND, NEIL DIAMOND, JANIS JOPLIN, CHET ATKINS and JOE COCKER. Now with the release of ‘RUNNING FOR THE DRUM’ – her first album in many, many moons – the first lady of “Pow Wow Rock” proves to be every bit as spirited and committed to the art of making music as ever. Co-produced by CHRIS BIRKETT, ‘RUNNING…’ puts the listener on a musical journey that kicks off with the opening track ‘NO NO KESHAGESH’ – an indictment against greed and corruption set to an irresistible driving beat. On the track ‘I BET MY HEART ON YOU’, SAINTE-MARIE gets a little help from TAJ MAHAL on the ivory and a haunting sample of THE BLACK LODGE SINGERS echoes in the chorus of the rambunctious rocker ‘CHO CHO FIRE’. Coupled with the CD is a DVD documentary entitled ‘BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE : A MULTIMEDIA LIFE’ which features interviews with JONI MITCHELL, ROBBIE ROBERTSON and BILL COSBY and shines a light on SAINTE-MARIE as a singer-songwriter, digital media artist, activist and educator.

ROCKWIRED had the privilege of speaking with BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE over the phone. Here is how it went.

What kept you away from recording and what was it that brought you back?
I never left. I’m always recording. I’ve got a recording studio in my house. And the last three albums I made, which started in the late eighties, were all recorded at home, so I’m recording all of the time. I never break from recording. Every now and then I will go ‘Okay, I feel like going on the road!’ My life is in a good place where I feel like I can go on the road and I’ll put things together on an album. I co-produce with the same person all of the time and I’ve put out my last three albums like that. The reason that I wasn’t recording during the last administration is probably perfectly clear. There is no sense in putting your baby out in the rain. I knew that the timing wasn’t right. I had also been working on the CRADLEBOARD PROJECT for along time and I wanted to get that to a place where our dream would come true – where we could make it free online to everyone instead of having to run a business. I got it to that point a couple of years ago and at that  time, someone wanted to make a bio documentary about me and I always turned those down because I think they’re always so freaking boring with a bunch of talking heads and the camera panning slowly from left to right over a black and white photo. No thank you! Everybody else wanted to do stories of who I was back in the sixties but the film crew from Canada knew that I was more than that and I think they did a good job of capturing all of the things that I like to do. That was happening and I had all of these songs that I really liked and I was campaigning for BARACK OBAMA in Albuquerque and the timing was right. It was personal timing as well as market timing. I’ve never been the kind of recording artist that does things just because the record company needs money right now. This album is on my own label.

There aren’t any record companies anymore anyway.
I know.

How is ‘RUNNING FOR THE DRUM’ different from previous releases?
It’s funny. I wish you would say what makes it cohesive with all of my other albums. From my very first album, I’ve always been very diverse in terms of style. I came up in a very lucky time during the sixties when the playlists were very wide. If you turned on a radio station, people would be playing folk music next to flamenco, next to blues next to pop music. People could hear all different kinds of music at the same time. Throughout the seventies and eighties and nineties, the playlists got really tight. A country station was a country station. Now we have a time that is very similar to the sixties with the internet. I’m still creating songs that are the best love songs that ever happened to me and my perfect points of view when it comes to the way I see the world in songs with social meaning like ‘NO NO KESHAGESH’ and ‘WORKING FOR THE GOVERNMENT’. They are the best that I can do about that subject. There are always the songs that are just for fun like ‘I BET MY HEART ON YOU’ or some of the dance tunes that are on the album. Since the late eighties, I’ve been recording at home in my own studio with lots of computers. I’ve recorded on computers since the 1960’s. I had the first ever totally electronic vocal album that was ever made and I made the first album in the nineties to be distributed by the internet. I’ve been comfortable with computers for a really long time and with recording at home. The one thing that is a bit new to people who follow my music but not knew to people who know me is that some of the songs that sound like remixes were done a long time ago but I felt that the market place wasn’t buying that at the time so I held them back. And I certainly held them back during the BUSH and REAGAN years because of their content. They had a real different kind of thing that you could only do with computers and it wasn’t until quite recently that people have been ready and willing to accept some of the crazy things that we can do with computers.

I remember reading about your embrace of technology back in the early nineties and the digital art that you were making. Describe what it was like to play around with that technology in its infancy.
It was really fun because I’m an artist and a musician. I’m not doing taxes and I’m not trying to get someone to vote for me or to launch a rocket or make a war. For me, computers have always been about art. If you go into some artist’s studio you see the damnedest things in there. You see hammer and nails and paintbrushes and stuff that they paste onto other stuff. For me, a computer was just another tool and ingredient in what I had always done all my life which is making sound, music and pictures and make up stories. To me, this is no big mystery. This is what every little kid does at the beach. You take fifteen four year olds to the beach and they are all artists. They all make sand castles, they make pictures and plays and stories. They use their imagination. I’m just one of the lucky ones who always held onto that and I think it’s really, really natural. I have no schooling in music. As a matter of fact, two years ago, I found out that I am dyslexic in music. That was why I could never learn to read it. I know how but it’s so frustrating to me to try to read. I lose my place by the third bar. It’s like trying to write with my left hand. I can write for an orchestra but I can’t read it back.

Given your embrace of technology, what is your stance on the argument that the internet has ruined the music industry?
(Laughs)

Good answer!
The music business has been pumping and pimping artists for money for as long as we can remember. It’s true that those old dinosaurs have gone out of business like some banks have gone out of business. They’ve gone out of business because their cheating ways finally tracked them down and caught up with them. There are a lot of changes that need to be made in the market place and the record business was one of them. It was unfair, inefficient, wasteful, bone-headed and old-fashioned. It wouldn’t listen to opinions and suggestions from outside including artists whose records were being created and shelved and misrepresented. Although the business did give us some great music, the internet is far more efficient way to go about doing things. I like the wide playlist and I like to go online and discover new things as well as finding albums that came out in the forties that I’ve always been curious about. To me, this is a huge palette of millions of colors – just like digital art is – so I’m a happy girl.

Going back to the documentary that is coupled with the CD – Who did you work with in putting it together?
There is this company called CINEFOCUS which is run by the director JOAN PROWSE and her husband JOHN BESSART. They approached me like many other documentary companies had before. I said yes to them because I felt like they “got” me. They were Canadian and not American so they knew me very well. The American – and some of the Canadian companies – that had approached me in the past wanted to do a kind of ‘where are they now?’ piece on the “Little Indian Girl from the Sixties” and I had no interest in that. Not even when I was the “Little Indian Girl from the Sixties”. The CINEFOCUS people had seen some of my paintings in museums and were highly aware of my CRADLEBOARD TEACHING PROJECT and they were really familiar with all of the songs. I thought that they would do a much creative and accurate and fun presentation than any of the other people that wanted to do a documentary on me. I’m happy with the way it turned out.

From the early days of the folk movement up until now, what has been the biggest surprise for you? What didn’t you expect?
You mean in terms of me?

Yeah.
Oh God! I had no idea that I had ever been blacklisted. That was such a huge surprise. I found out that the JOHNSON Administration had blacklisted years after the fact. I was totally surprised. I got to see my FBI file and I was just flabbergasted. Two years ago, I found out about the CIA and the NIXON Administration too. Those have been the two most surprising things in my whole life. I had no idea that anyone thought that I was that important. I had never broken the law. I’ve always had a very clean record. I never smoked dope on the WHITE HOUSE lawn or nothing like that.

Did you ever find out why?
No. they don’t tell you. You see your FBI file and anything pertinent is crossed out. They were following me because they thought that I might be a trouble maker. They continued to follow me after they never turned anything up so it was a total waste of money on their part.

They followed JOHN LENNON around too and what did he ever do?
They followed lots of artists. When I found out about in the eighties, what was I going to do? Call a press conference? Who gave a shit? No one knew who I was anymore. Mission accomplished, I guess. They do it very well and they don’t tell you that they’re going to do it and there is not necessarily a good reason for them to do it. They can destroy a career. TAJ MAHAL was good friends with EARTHA KITT and the three of us were in the same boat. We all found out about it in the eighties. EARTHA felt that LYNDON JOHNSON was just an egotistical man and that people of color were being targeted in his Administration because we were already doing something that he wanted to take claim for which was ‘The Great Society’. We were already doing it. That was what she felt about it but I don’t know. Who knows? I think it was just a bonehead being a bonehead. I never thought I was important enough to warrant such consideration so I was really surprised when it turned out that I did. The only thing that really pissed me off was that at that time I was really very serious about being effective in making good social change and I was gagged. That was the part that bothered me. Now NIXON – that was easy to put together because it was the NIXON Administration that was a part of the PINE RIDGE RESERVATION being transferred to the government in secret – the part of the land that contained uranium. I was one of the people that ended up being hurt because of that. Many other Native people were hurt worse than I was. Where are they now?

They’re all dead.
And I’m still having fun! I’ve got a great record and a great DVD.

Where do you think the need to express yourself musically comes from?
I don’t think it was a need. I think it was fun. It’s not as thought someone sat me down and ordered me to take piano lessons. I saw a piano when I was three and I never developed a fondness for dolls or for sports – team sports. I just nailed myself to the piano and my crayons and paper and dancing around. I used to lie on the floor with vacuum cleaner pipes to my ear listening to SWAN LAKE. I invented the headphones. You didn’t know that did you?

I believe it!
That was the kind of kid I was. I just loved things that people nowadays call the arts. My family didn’t call it the arts though. They just knew that I was playing the piano and they thought that was nice. There no lessons for me and there was no need.

Of the hundreds of people that have covered you songs over the years, whose interpretation stands out the most for you?
Oh God! JOE COCKER and JENNIFER WARNES! I won an ACADEMY AWARD because of them! I like that! I’m actually looking at the statue right now. They did great. That also had a lot to do with the arranger STUART LEVINE and WILL JENNINGS. You know what? I also like CHET ATKINS’ cover of UNTIL IT’S TIME TO GO. His version is so beautiful. They’re all beautiful. What I like about them is that they are all different. To think of writing a song that is so personal to m that is also personal to other people is just a trip. It’s a privilege to write songs that other people like too. How nice is that?

NO NO KESHAGESH strongly resonates for me as a listener. What inspired it?
The state of the world that we’re living in inspired it. I started writing it during a Republican administration and into a Democratic administration and back again to a Republican one. During this time, I saw people go from greedy, to greedier to greediest. I had been saying since the seventies something JOHN TRUDELL once told me. He said “BUFFY, there are some people in the world who don’t want Indians or anybody else interfering with their complete control of all available lands and natural resources. That has been such a stabilizing statement to me. Whenever I see things going really bad, I put myself back at any time in our history and there has always been an upper one-percent who wants to own and control everything including nature and people. We have survived these boneheads that seem to appear in America every thirty years or so. We’re in another war right now and to me war is just ‘Money Laundering 101’. Back to ‘NO NO KESHAGESH’. KESHAGESH is what we call a puppy that eats his own and everybody else’s. It actually means greedy guts. Back on the reserve, we had a little puppy and we called him KESHAGESH. Sometimes, I’m just kind of open hearted about songs – especially love songs, but other times, I’m quite strategic about writing a song like ‘UNIVERSAL SOLDIER’, ‘BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE’ or ‘NO NO KESHAGESH’. ‘UNIVERSAL SOLDIER’ came out at a time when people really like the sound of a voice and a guitar, but ‘BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE’ was written at a different time and I wanted it to be effective but people were into a lot of male-dominated rock n roll so I put ‘BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE’ in that kind of a format so that you’re too busy dancing to it before you realize what it’s about. Strategically, I’ve found that a song that has a strong message is better served in a simple and more danceable format. ‘NO NO KESHAGESH’ is very serious song with very serious things to say but its’ very danceable. It stays interesting and keeps changing and it sounds like a big rally.

‘CHO CHO FIRE’ is another song. What inspired that one?
That’s got its own story. When my nephew was a teenager, he used to travel around to pow wows with a tape recorder and he’d send me copies of the tapes. Once he sent me a tape of a group of kids and they were singing in their own language. After listening to that tape, I wrote a song around it but we couldn’t figure out who it was that he had taped. He thought it was one thing and I thought it was somebody else. It turned out to be the BLACK LODGE SINGERS when they were kids and they’ve gone on to be one of the most beloved pow wow groups ever. I got in touch with KENNY who is the lead singer for BLACK LODGE and I sent him the tape that I had and he said “Yeah, that’s us!” So I made a deal with him and we went fifty/fifty on it. A lot of people will rip off indigenous music just because they can. I don’t do that. He ended up with half the writing credit on the song even though he never heard it. CHO CHO FIRE is another really danceable tune and it’s dedicated to the jingle dress dancers.

Explain –if it’s explainable – how the creative process works for you in terms of songwriting. How do you go about that?
The same way I go about it with regard to writing curriculum or painting. It just kind of pops into my head and if it’s intriguing enough for me to be intrigued then maybe someone else will like this too. Depending on how long I stay interested is as far as I develop it. I’ve got thousands of songs that I’ve never let other people hear. Usually, it’s all one thing for me whether it’s writing curriculum or a song or a painting. At the heart of it, there is something that needs to be communicated either through visuals or words or through music or interactive multi-media curriculum. If you can say something in three minutes that takes somebody else four hundred pages in a book to make their point, then you’ve done a good job. The song ‘UNIVERSAL SOLDIER’ in three minutes makes a certain point. It’s about individual responsibility for war. I didn’t rite a big, fat book over it. I did it in three minutes. The same can be said about ‘BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE’ – it keeps you rocking all the way through. That is the same thing that I’m trying to do with curriculum writing. The problem with education in my opinion is that kids are bored and teachers are bored and they don’t have to be anymore. We can use all of he new tools to make engaging, accurate curriculums that are also fun to use. Our kids are really sophisticated when it comes to multi-sensory computers. There is no reason why we can’t be using multi-sensory learning in classrooms.

Talk about the CRADLEBOARD PROJECT.
I was a double major in college. I had a degree in Oriental Philosophy and Education. I was already a teacher and I already knew how to write curriculum and I had already been on SESAME STREET and all of that. When my son’s teacher came to me and showed me the materials that she was using, it was the same bologna that they had tried to pass off on me. I knew that changes needed to be made. I put my teacher’s hat on again. So long as I was just writing text and showing pictures, it just wasn’t the live thing that I wanted it to be. I wanted the kids in the classroom the same experience that I had when I went back to Saskatchewan and spent time on the reservation. There was real, live people doing really fun things. The idea of taking kids online in the late eighties was very appealing to me. I connected one of the schools on the Star Blanket Reserve with my son’s school here in Hawaii. It all came alive, once we put the kids in touch with one another using faxes and pen pals and we were taking them online before it was considered possible to go online. The whole thing came alive! I started my foundation in 1968 – the NEWAN FOUNDATION – and I had always been the only donor. It had all been on my own dime so I had continued with the CRADLEBOARD TEACHING PROJECT from the mid to late eighties and in 1996, the KELLOGG FOUNDATION gave us a grant to model the project initially in eighteen states and everywhere form there. We’ve written SCIENCE THROUGH NATIVE AMERICAN EYES as well as GEOGRAPHY and SOCIAL STUDIES THROUGH NATIVE AMERICAN EYES. These are all real school curriculums. This isn’t like those stupid curriculums that are still in schools today. They’re so shallow that they wind up being about nobody. Nobody can identify with them. We were writing real school curriculums. People are surprised that every culture that has survived has science. Science is simply a matter of observing and experimenting and finding out what works and passing that knowledge on to other people. It’s a whole paradigm shift with regard to interactive multimedia as a means of delivering education and also cross-cultural education. I can’t tell how much trouble education departments are with those old fashioned curriculums that don’t seem to be very engaging to students or teachers.

How far do you think contemporary Native Music has come and where do you think it could go?
When I first started doing Pow Wow Rock and gave it a name in the seventies, I envisioned it as being in the same boat as blues music was in the thirties. It was incredible. It had a lot potential but nobody knew about it. People were pretty surprised when they heard Pow Wow Rock for the first time or when they heard about it for the first time. They didn’t really know what to expect but the Native American community got it immediately. Since that time, we founded the Aboriginal Music category for the JUNO AWARDS in the eighties. Finally the GRAMMY’s caught on and they followed suit in the late nineties. During that time, because of my records and touring and a lot of the work that I had done with local musician groups and aboriginal records companies, people form all different genres who also happened to be of First Nations backgrounds have just plain gotten the idea in their heads that they can be who they are. It’s a new way of thinking for Indian people. It’s a new way of thinking for a lot of people. A lot of people think that there are only a few options available to them because that is all that is being advertised on TV that week. Non-Indian journalists used to ask me “What are you? A folk singer or are you a traditional Indian singer?” or “Oh my God! Are you a pop singer?” As if those things mattered and they don’t. We are who we are. I learned a phrase from a long time ago that goes “…reality is your friend” That’s what keeps me from going nuts during it all. I’ve won a whole lot of awards for ‘RUNNING FOR THE DRUM’ so I’ve been going to a lot of award shows as well as Aboriginal awards shows. In Canada we have three major, ACADEMY AWARD – level Aboriginal music award shows that are televised. That’s a lot of Indian people making all different kinds of music. We’ve come up with all different kinds of music that define our existence and our reality. It wasn’t like the record business invented a whole lot of genres so they would know where to stick their records so that consumers could find them in a store. The new way of thinking is that you make your business fit reality instead of trying to make reality fit into the business.  You get to have a GRAMMY category or a JUNO category just because they feel that the Indians got left out. If you have the numbers you can suggest that they have a category for you and we have the numbers on both sides of the border.

What would you like a person to come away with after they’ve listened to RUNNING FOR THE DRUM?
I want them to come away with the desire to hear it again. I hope that they find something that they absolutely love and that they find new things that are a little surprising. The quote FOREST GUMP, ‘Life is a box of chocolates’. They all taste good to me. I’ve made each song its own little movie. I hope people will come away with a sense that they can do many things. All of the things that they could’ve done when they were younger can still be done now. There is still an artist in there and there is still a musician in there. For me it’s all about play – the music and the paintings. The DALAI LAMA says the purpose of life is happiness and if you can look around and find happiness in this crazy world that e live in then I think you’re on the right trail. For me it’s always been about keeping your nose on the joy trail. You’ve got to find the things in life that bring you closer to joy because there are tears in t he world. We need t keep a good handle on what keeps us going and pass those skills on. For me I pass them on through playing music.

 


http://www.rockwired.com/brian.JPGBRiAN LUSH (FOUNDER, EDiTOR-iN-CHiEF)
BRIAN LUSH holds a BA in Creative Writing from  the UNIVERSITY OF NEW MEXICO. He established ROCKWIRED on New Years of 2004 and hasn’t looked back since. From January 2005 to March 2009, LUSH was the host of the weekly internet radio show ROCKWIRED LIVE. He produced the program for the AMERICAN RADIO NETWORK. As the editor-in-chief for ROCKWiRED MAGAZiNE, LUSH is hands-on when it comes to interviewing and building a lasting rapport with the artists that come ROCKWiRED’s way. As a youngster, BRIAN LUSH had no idea what kind of seed was being planted by reading magazines such as HIT PARADE, HIGH TIMES, SPIN, REQUEST (remember that one?) and even ROLLING STONE (but to a significantly lesser degree). “Those were the days before the internet and being a rock journalist looked like the coolest job imaginable.” says LUSH “But reading these magazines had me imagining that one day I’d be the artist giving all of the clever answers to some poor guy with a tape recorder. Well, life has a way of surprising you. Now, I’m the poor guy with the tape recorder and asking all of the questions.”

CONTACT BRiAN LUSH AT: djlush@rockwired.com

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