The iconic Canadian songwriter has written standards, social-justice anthems and Oscar-winning ballads, but never because it was what the industry expected from her. Fifty years into a career that once got her on U.S. President Lyndon Johnson’s blacklist, Buffy Sainte-Marie is still recording and performing – on Tuesday night she will play David Pecaut Square as part of Toronto’s Luminato Festival. Here, some of the secrets to her decade-spanning success
Make your own kind of music
My motto is keep your nose on the joy trail. What that means to me is that I play music, I don’t work music. I’ve never worked for a record company. I believe the record company works for the artist, not the other way around. I follow my joy and they follow me. I have never really been motivated to write the music that people want to hear, I write the music that I want to write and that comes naturally. Sometimes that has led to me to write social-justice music and other times, a love song like Up Where We Belong. One isn’t more challenging for me than the other, it’s just what I’m feeling at the time. Back in the sixties, I was interested in electronic music, which was not necessarily what people were ready to hear from me. It’s not great to be that early. You’ve got to wait until the disease hits before you go in with the medicine. And now, of course, electronic music is everywhere. Back then people were afraid of the word computer. For me there was never a conflict between electronic and guitar or vocal. Just like a guitar doesn’t replace a piano. It helped me to make my music sound more like what I heard in my head.
Beware the business of show business
I’d like to create a website for young artists that would answer questions they need to know: How do you go on the road? What do you bring? What’s the difference between an agent and a manager? How do you deal with the record company? I would like to make that information available because it is deliberately kept from artists and so many of us have just been screwed by the business of show business. For my first record contract with Vanguard Records, I went in to sign the papers and they asked me who my lawyer was and I said what’s that? They told me I could just use their lawyer and I signed a seven-year deal. Obviously that lawyer had a conflict of interest, but I was so green I didn’t know. Also, I sold the rights to [the 1964 song] Universal Soldier for one dollar. Ten years later I bought it back for $25,000. I try to be positive. I was lucky that my music had put me in a position where I was able to buy it back.
Just water, thanks
I don’t drink alcohol. Not a little, but zero. I only know about three other teetotallers in the world. One is Ewan McGregor (and I don’t actually know him). Another is Randy Bachman who’s a good friend of mine, and Jon Levine who produced a lot of songs on my new record. I wasn’t interested in alcohol – it just never appealed to me and then when I got into show business I was afraid of the things that could happen to a young woman who looked like I did. I didn’t go out to the bar after the shows; I went home. It may have hurt my career because I realized later that the bar is where all the deals are made. I remember when I first went to Europe and people would welcome me with these big receptions and they’d break out their special $400 bottle of wine, and I’d say no thanks. That was definitely the wrong thing to say, but that’s what I did.
It’s possible to be yin and yang
I can’t take any credit for where my songs come from because they really just come into my head like a dream. Something strikes me and it’s there. That part is a gift, but when it comes to constructing songs and refining songs and turning them into something that people are going to love, that takes work. I worked on Universal Soldier like a college student looking for an A. What you’re trying to do with a song with social meaning like that one is to put it in a form that’s attractive to people – you don’t want to give it to them in an enema. Natalie Goldberg has the book Writing Down the Bones. She talks about the difference between the inspirational moment and the editing. It is important to separate those. I’ve learned how to lock the editor outside while inspiration is coming and then let the editor in to work so hard and make it so good.
How to see a weakness as a strength
Chet Atkins [the legendary country musician and producer] was a friend of mine. He brought a lot of artists to Nashville. He loved songwriters and artists and he was just a really nice and supportive guy to work with. Back then I had some self-esteem issues, partly because I am what is known as music dyslexic, which means I can’t really read music. Chet told me that one time somebody asked him if he could read music and his answer was, “Not enough to hurt my playing.” I loved that! It always stuck with me and gave me the confidence to know that my way of playing music is okay.
The best therapists are furry
I live on a farm with lots of goats and a horse and a whole lot of chickens and pigs. I really love animals and when I’m on the road I miss that, so I’ll drop in at random animal shelters in whatever city I’m in. My drummer loves cats, so he’ll sometimes come with me or sometimes I go alone. I like to play with the animals that are up for adoption because I think that the more socialized they are, the better the chance they’ll get adopted. For me it’s the chance to shut up and shut off my human ways and just be quiet with a little animal. It is so rewarding.
This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.