When Buffy Sainte-Marie burst onto the scene in 1964 with the stark, stunning folk protest album It’s My Way, the Canadian-American Cree singer-songwriter established herself as one of the most uncompromising, incisive voices of her generation.
More than 50 years later, she’s just as tuned-in to the world’s myriad of problems and possibilities — but it’s not just politics she pays attention to. Unlike plenty of veteran acts making albums in the 21st century, Sainte-Marie draws on a diverse soundscape for her new album, Power In the Blood, out now. The album is an eclectic bunch of songs both in terms of subject matter (love songs sit alongside examinations of social issues) and sound (full-on rock pushes up against electronics and folk).
Today, Billboard is premiering the music video for the album’s title track, which is Sainte-Marie’s reimagining of Alabama 3’s “Power in the Blood.” Featuring images of oil spills, fracking, protests, tanks, and corporate interests run amok, this clip is a tribute to Buffy, her political convictions and those protesting for a better world.
The folk icon recently got on the phone with Billboard from her farm in Hawaii to discuss everything from her stint on Sesame Street in the ’70s to teaching people about computers in the ’80s (well before anyone cared) to touring with Morrissey earlier this year. Here’s what the 74-year-old iconoclast had to say.
We’re premiering the video for the title track to your new album [above]. It’s a cover of the British rock/electronic band Alabama 3’s “Power In the Blood.” How did you stumble upon this song?
Well, Alabama 3 did The Sopranos theme song, ‘Woke Up This Morning,” which is why I started watching the show — I couldn’t get it out of my head. So I’ve been a fan for a long time. Of course, there are a lot of songs called “Power in the Blood” — it goes back to Gospel songs — but when I heard theirs, I just loved the energy of it. I found out last year they were huge fans of mine, and I’m a huge fan of theirs, so I told them, “This will make a great peace song.” They laughed, but I changed the words around [Their “I will be ready for war” becomes “I will say no, no, no to war”]. My version is a laundry list of contemporary issues that are challenging everyone right now. It’s the age old racketeering problem that’s been going on since before the Old Testament. The Roman Empire, the Inquisition — the whole notion of rackets, where a few guys make a fortune and everyone else is exploited. And it’s everything — it’s in the banks, it’s in the tanks, in the military, the food supply, the college of business…. The business model at the moment is kind of fraud: Take as much as you can get and give back the least you can. It’s a big, huge racket that everyone is seeing with new eyes now. “Power In the Blood” is a double entendre. On one end, it’s the power of the feudal system to hurt and exploit us. The other power is the power in our brains to survive and evolve beyond this. To balance that with what we need — common sense and respect for nature and each other.
Your video takes on so many topics, it’s almost overwhelming. Are you hopeful about the future, or do you think we’re basically just doomed at this point?
Oh no, I don’t think the planet is doomed at all. Rackets come full bloom now and again because the rest of us are lazy and don’t do anything about it. But now that eyes and ears are open, there’s a lot we can do. But I think that what we’re showing in the video is on people’s minds. I feel lucky as a songwriter — and as a cast member of Sesame Street for five and a half years — because I deal with the three-and-a-half-minute attention span. As a songwriter I get to encapsulate big ideas into few words. Of course, those songs never make me any money — my big moneymakers have always been love songs. “Up Where We Belong,” “Until It’s Time For You to Go.” But with these songs, you have to be quick, engaging and invite people to get to know more.
I wanted to ask about “Up Where We Belong” — that won you an Oscar for its inclusion in An Officer and a Gentleman. Joe Cocker, who sang it along with Jennifer Warnes, recently passed. Did you know him well?
Well, I had written that melody at home. Jack Nitzsche, who was scoring the movie, didn’t have theme song yet. He asked me what I had, I played him the melody and that’s how that happened. I met Joe, but we never worked together. But wasn’t he wonderful? I was just doing arena tours with Morrissey in Wales, Ireland and England, and we mentioned Joe before doing the song.
How was touring with Morrissey?
Very interesting. He has a fantastic band. I love his band. I think he was not feeling well — we didn’t see too much of each other. But their crew is impeccable, the band is fantastic — and we had a lot of laughs with them. And of course Morrissey and I are both very much against the cruelty against factory animals.
Your new album features electronics, which I have to say surprised me, being familiar mostly with your folk stuff.
Well, you gotta back up before you were born. I was doing electronic music in the ’60s. I made the first-ever totally electronic, quadraphonic vocal album in history. 1969, Illuminations. Folk music people held their nose and walked the other way — and once I was blacklisted in the U.S., a lot of people didn’t hear my electronic music. But about 15 years ago Wired magazine named that one of 100 albums that set the world on fire. But electronic music I got into very early. When the Macintosh came out in 1984, I had one of the pre-issue Macintoshes. So I’ve been doing it a very long time, but a lot of the U.S. audience wasn’t hearing it. But Illuminations is old, get Running for the Drum, you might like that, it has a lot of electronics on it. But Illuminations was interesting — especially my song “God Is Alive, Magic is Afoot.”
A lot of ’60s musicians avoid the Internet like the plague. They even fear it. But not you.
I was teaching digital music and art in the ’80s in colleges. But that’s not the kind of thing that’s gonna make headlines. I had one of the very first websites in Hawaii in the ’80s, but nobody cared. Almost no one was online in those days. I saw the value of computers as recording tools, whether you’re making music or brushstrokes. No one was interested until they smelled money — then it became a stampede. I was telling record companies about it in the ’80s, but they just saw it as a typewriter. They would say, “Oh, my girl handles that.” They were way behind, and consequently the record business has lost out.
The Internet has also been key for a lot of social movements, like Occupy Wall Street.
And Idle No More, which I mention on my album, has definitely been helped by social media.
That movement (Idle No More protests abuses against Indigenous peoples and treaty violations in Canada) seems to be gaining traction.
The thing is, it doesn’t want traction — it doesn’t want to be around forever. It’s a genuine grassroots movement based on a resistance that’s been going on for hundreds of years. On days that are slow, people pay attention to it. When people are busy, not as much. But Idle No More has made a difference as part of the American Indian resistance movement.
This is something you know a lot about — are there any books you can recommend for someone who might be curious to learn more?
There’s a very interesting book called In the Spirit of Crazy Horse that ties contemporary stuff to the history of the Lakota in South Dakota. Charles Mann has a very interesting book out now called 1491. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee will break your heart, but you probably ought to read it. And a new one, which is quite scholarly, is called An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.
You re-record “It’s My Way” on your new album. That’s a 51-year-old song — do you still relate to it?
Yeah, pretty much. The song is about my road or path, but really what I’m trying to do is encourage uniqueness in the listener. Uniqueness is the undersold quality that all of us are looking for, but no one says it. But we should be creating new things every day: New attitudes, new communities, new ways of looking at things. But there are always people who want you to work for them, to draw more coins into their organization. And it’s silly.
There was a lot of optimism after the ’60s about that way of thinking — but then corporate mentality came back with a vengeance.
I think it comes in waves. You think you’re rid of certain things in the ’60s, then everybody goes to sleep on it, buys a station wagon, has three kids, blab la bla. And you turn around and there it is again. There’s always been racketeers — and there probably always will be. But what makes a difference is whether we go along with them or not. They stepped back in the ’60s when a whole lot of people said, “No, I’m not going to your war.” That was a big deal.
That’s true. But there was a draft then.
That’s true, there’s not a draft now. But in the ’60s we had the grassroots students movement. Now we have social media and the Internet. There’s a lot of information being exchanged, a lot of people seeking education about stuff that was kept from us before.
Do you have thoughts on Hillary in 2016?
Not yet, I don’t. I haven’t made a decision, I’m still watching. But I’m not much of a hawk myself. So I’m doing a lot of looking and listening. But no matter who gets elected, politics is a greasy pipe. I’m cynical about it in any country. Your responsibility as a citizen, or someone who wants a better world, doesn’t stop the day after you vote. That’s when you really have to get on the case — because you’ve probably put some very wealthy person into a position of huge power. And somebody is going to lead them down the wrong creek unless you steer. And that’s the basic citizenship that all of us hate, but it’s gotta be done.