Buffy Sainte-Marie

Buffy Sainte-Marie

Matt Barnes

The 2015 Polaris Music Prize awards began with Buffy Sainte-Marie when she opened the gala awards show in Toronto with two songs, and ended with her album, Power In the Blood, declared the Canadian album of the year. The 74-year old's victory also comes with a CAD $50,000 ($37,700) winner's check and the chance to perform a concert with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO).

In the running were Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too LateTobias Jesso Jr.’s GoonThe New Pornographers’ Brill Bruisers; the soon-to-be-renamed Viet Cong and Alvvays for their respective self-titled albums; BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah’s Sour SoulBraids’ Deep in the IrisCaribou’s Our Love; and Jennifer Castle for Pink City.

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“I bought everybody’s album and listened to every cut; they’re all so good,” a beaming Saint-Marie said from the stage. “Thank you all so very much. And to the Polaris Prize in general. Just the idea that it’s all genres; it has nothing to do with record sales so there’s no payola. I’ve got an Academy Award and a Golden Globe and a couple Junos and a Gemini Award -- this is the only one I’ve ever heard that gives the artist money.

“It’s real important,” she explained, “because it’s become almost impossible for an artist to tour with a band and with instruments. The airlines are just killing us…It’s getting so hard to travel now for high school and college sports and music programs with their instruments and their gear…so I’m asking the music community, please put your heads into that and figure out a way so not only arts, but also sports can be supported.”

Sainte-Marie is a long-time activist, dating back 50 years, and often uses her time in the spotlight to highlight causes and issues, including Native rights, war/peace, and government greed, which also inspire her songs. Her anti-war anthem “Universal Soldier” has been covered by everyone from Donovan to Chumbawamba and Jake Bugg, and addiction confessional “Cod’ine” by Donovan, Janis Joplin and Courtney Love

Her new album, Power in the Blood, includes the title track, which is her spin on the Alabama 3 song, and UB40’s “Sing Your Own Song.” She also rerecorded “It’s My Way” from her 1964 album of the same name that prompted Billboard to name her Best New Artist five decades ago.

“The biggest difference between Power In The Blood and other albums that I made…is that this one got heard,” she added, thanking her record label True North, management Paquin Entertainment, and her three producers, Chris Burkett, Michael Phillip Wojewoda and Jon Levine. 

As the performances and tributes took place inside the Carlu event space for a mostly industry crowd, an 11-person grand jury of Canadian music media debated the merits of the 10 shortlisted albums behind closed doors just feet away, in another room.

The night was hosted by children’s entertainer Fred Penner, who moved the night along between two-song sets by half of the short-listed artists, including Sainte-Marie, Braids, Jennifer Castle, Alvvays and Viet Cong (which Penner called “four guys from Calgary”). 

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The Polaris Music Prize recognizes the Canadian album of the year, judged solely on artistic merit, without consideration of genre, sales or affiliation.

The 196-member jury -- comprised of music journalists, broadcasters and music bloggers from across Canada -- selected 197 titles on the first ballot, which asked for their top five picks submitted privately online. The jury was then asked to select their top five from the 40-title long list to determine the final 10.

The eligibility period for the 2015 Polaris Music Prize was June 1, 2014 to May 31, 2015.

The $50,000 prized, upped from last year’s $30,000, is courtesy of Slaight Music, which will also award the nine other artists $3,000 each.

Past Polaris Music Prize winners are Tanya Tagaq (2014), Godspeed You! Black Emperor (2013), Feist (2012), Arcade Fire (2011), Karkwa (2010), Fucked Up (2009), Caribou (2008), Patrick Watson (2007), and Final Fantasy / Owen Pallett (2006).