A Conversation with Buffy Sainte-Marie
Mike Ragogna: Buffy, your new album Power In The Blood starts off with the remake of your classic "It's My Way." By kicking off the album with this track, were you making a statement about your creative approach this time out?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Oh gosh, there was absolutely no strategy at all, but thanks for the thought. Actually, after I finished Running For The Drum and I put together a band and I told them we were going on a two-year world tour of which we're now on year five or six. The record company asked my manager if I felt like recording something. I was on the road all the time and we were singing all kinds of songs, including "It's My Way," "Generation," "Power In The Blood." We were doing all these songs live anyway so I was just plain ready. It's just coincidence. "It's My Way" is just one of those classic songs about a universal theme that just doesn't change. I learned on Sesame Street that there's always a new crop of five-year-olds and there are a lot of people who never heard "It's My Way" since the first time I recorded it was in 1964. That was the year Billboard magazine gave me an award for "Best New Artist" and it was also the year that The Beatles came to America.
MR: Nice, lucky you!
BS: It was very lucky. My first album got a lot of play. It's really about self-identity, and although I'm singing about myself, I'm really singing to the audience and trying to encourage their own uniqueness. I think there are so few opportunities for people to hear anybody encourage their own uniqueness that it still stands out.
MR: And "Carry It On" includes that theme as it ups the ante. What's the story behind that song?
BS: "Carry It On" is one my favorites. Every time we do it on stage, people just love it. For some reason, the words are just the right medicine for right now. I think there are so many people who are scared and they're angry and they don't know what to do with either their concern or their anger. I think they're right on the edge of not a good kind of revolution but the kind of overreaction that comes from not having the tools for nonviolence. They seem to be ready to step forward in their anger and become a suicide by getting outgunned. The song "Power In The Blood" and the song at the very end of the album, "Carry It On," are kind of antidotes for that. It's about coming up with nonviolent conflict resolution and nonviolent alternatives to the real troubles in the world today. The lyrics of "Carry It On" are about taking care of your link with life. Individuals and nations and nature itself are all just here by the skin of our teeth. We need to be taking care of things, we need to be learning, we need to be offering college courses in alternative conflict resolution. People are just on the edge of shooting themselves in the foot, I think, but that's not how to aim. We've got to be using our brains.
MR: Beyond all the recently covered social injustices, what do you think is at the very root of this country's current civil unrest?
BS: In the first place, I think we have to take time to celebrate the fact that this year is better than last year because more people are seeing the proof of what's been going on for a long time. We have to see that. I think the next step to it is to encourage each other to not get outgunned and to explore alternatives to solving the problem. It's very tricky, the times that we're living in are not new, but a lot more people can see them right now than could see them last year. In my opinion, the kind of racketeering that everybody's seeing right now is the same old racketeering that's been going on since before the old testament. But we've always had people like Jesus, we've always had people like Gandhi, we've always had people like Martin Luther King in our communities and we still do have them. There's a very nice slogan that's out right now: "Keep Calm & Decolonize." It's a good one. I think the songs "Carry It On" and "We Are Circling" on this album say it best. "We are ripening, ripening together. Babies, elders, bozos, and angels. This is how we grow, this is how we get to know. This is celebration, this is sacred."
I think we really have to be reaching deep within ourselves for the positive understanding that power isn't just the power of the feudal system coming down upon us like the rackets have been doing for so many years; the Roman empire; the serial killer kings of Europe who during the inquisition discovered indigenous people. We have to reach deep inside ourselves and find the positivity of the other side of power. The other side of power is that we can survive these things, we can ripen. So can the other side. Everybody, in my opinion, is ripening at the same time. Little by little, every single minute of every single day, but it's slow. I think if we understand that the other side of "power" is the power in our own brains, our own blood, our own DNA. We are creative. If we're made in the image of the Creator, we create our own worlds, we create our songs, we create our lives, we create our communities, our children. We are the cutting edge of the future. We do have creativity on our side but it's really, really easy to get overwhelmed by the power of the feudal system and the rackets. As it says in the song, "Power in the blood, justice in the soul, and when that call it comes, I will say, 'No, no, no to war.'" Have you ever heard the original of it by Alabama 3?
MR: Oh, yeah. It's powerful but with a different approach for sure.
BS: It's good, but it's definitely a song for violence. It says, "And when that call it comes I will be ready for war." I changed it. They're friends of mine and they're big fans of mine and they walked in on their knees and said, "Buffy, you're a f**king legend!" And I'm a big fan of theirs, I love the energy of their original. When I said to them, "This would make a great peace song," they kind of laughed, but they do understand and they love it. I think the beauty of being in the arts is that in just a three minute song we can turn things around, and a lot of us do. We've got to be grateful for that. We've got to celebrate that. It is sacred.
MR: Isn't it interesting how easily the whole concept of that song was flipped with just the change of a few words?
BS: Exactly! Do you know John Horgan's book The End Of War? He keeps making the point that human beings can be cornered into going to war but we can also choose peace. We can make peace just as easily as we can make war, but because there's more money in war, the racketeers would prefer we choose war. But we can choose peace. But peace is kind of a wimpy word sometimes, so that's why I use phrases like "alternative conflict resolution." [laughs]
MR: Buffy, how does it work creatively for you when you write songs? Is there mostly a mission?
BS: Well ,it is a little bit different, and you'll understand this as a journalist. I read one of our earlier interviews and we talked a bit about when you go to sleep at night and you don't know whether or not you're going to dream, or if you do dream you don't know what it's going to be. There is such thing as inspiration that comes into the mind of an artist but then like you and I understand the editor steps in and you can turn a song into a piece of journalism. But with a love song you don't usually do that. You might work on it a little bit, but a song like "Power In The Blood," "Universal Soldier" or "Carry It On," there's a lot of perspiration and journalism that goes into creating a three-minute piece or a three-inch article that's brief and engaging. This is something that I think is partly a talent and partly honed in my case by the University of Massachusetts and wanting to get an A in some thesis where the professor doesn't like me or my topic and I'm still determined to convince him, and that I also got to hone on Sesame Street.
It's one thing to try to turn the world on to higher thoughts via "Universal Soldier" and that kind of practical message that is not necessarily popular at the time, and it's another thing to try to do the same thing to a similarly short attention span for five year olds. It's really the same job; it's a matter of staying focused on your topic and putting it into such a charming packaging that people will enjoy it. You don't want to give people the message in an enema. When I'm teaching native studies it's a painful subject so I try to give it to people in a way that will make them want to remain engaged and want to learn more. That's the real skill. It's one thing to yell and it's another thing to be effective. You want to be brief, engaging and charming.
MR: Nicely said. Sometimes it feels like people are choosing to either be functioning with their prefrontal cortex or dinosaur brain.
BS: Both can be effective, and not everybody does things in the same way, but I don't know. It's one thing to be rooting for the human beings on our side and it's another thing to understand the human beings on the other side of the issue. In my perspective they, too, are ripening. They said that there would never be an end to slavery, they said women would never get the vote, they said people would never stop smoking, they said that the inquisition would never come to an end. The inquisition went on from the eleven hundreds to the twentieth century. It really did. It only ended recently.
The Doctrine Of Discovery was a papal decree that came out in 1493 and was reinforced later in the 1500s by a couple of popes. It says if explorers are out exploring and they come upon lands inhabited by a non-Christian power then it's up for grabs. "The land is ours and the people can be killed or enslaved." It's the basis of US law and all other European colonies in dealing with indigenous people. It was held even until recently. It's still in power, and it was held in Spain, Portugal, France, Holland and England. Canada and the US were founded on the Doctrine Of Discovery.
But people are waking up now to the fact that the rackets are really, really obvious right now. So that is a good thing, but what we do about it is what's important next. I have my ideas and you have your ideas. John Horgen's The End Of War is a very important little teeny, tiny need-to-read book that I'm still championing.
MR: That reminds me of your "Sing Our Own Song" from the new album. How did "Sing Our Own Song" come to you?
BS: It was a huge anthem in South Africa during Nelson Mandela's anti-apartheid changes. When the label came and asked my manager if I felt like recording I had all of these songs to record, but I also asked them, "Is anybody writing songs of meaning right now that I would like to know about?" My manager actually suggested "Sing Our Own Song" and I thought it was a great idea. I love how it turned out.
MR: Once again, your few small changes significantly enhanced the meaning of the song.
BS: Oh thank you! I don't know whether UB40 have heard "Sing Our Own Song" yet but I would like to know if they like it. I think they will.
MR: Let's talk about "Uranium War." What a heartbreaker. And it's the official prequel to "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee," right?
BS: It is, really. It's about the same people, there really is a Cordell Tulley and there really is a Norman Brown and Annie Mae really was a friend of mine, it's the same story but it's before "Bury." I actually dedicate it to the family of Annie Mae. I know her daughters. It's such a tragic story, but I wrote it almost like a little three-act Broadway play. It's a little bit different.
MR: What should we be focused on as far as First Nations and indigenous people's issues?
BS: Well, certainly the work that goes on under the umbrella of Idle No More, which is not an organization, it's a grassroots movement started by four women in Canada, several of whom are PhDs and three of whom are aboriginal. It really started as a reaction to the terribly devastating bill, over five hundred pages long, which had tucked inside it the rape of aboriginal lands and navigable rivers. The other thing that Idle No More and I are focusing on are the residential schools and the missing and murdered indigenous women, especially in Canada but also throughout the world. Canada is about to release their Truth & Reconciliation report on June third and we're going to be doing a concert on that day in Ottawa. That's about the residential schools. All of this terrible news from Indian country is all justified by the Doctrine of Discovery, so it's so important for me to have people look up the Doctrine of Discovery online, to see not only what it was, but understand that it's still in effect. Lawyers and congress still bring up the doctrine of discovery as making it okay to exploit indigenous people and indigenous lands. What we're hoping for is that Pope Francis might finally abolish it and with that abolish the sin of colonization.
MR: Pope Francis seems like the Pope who would be able to do it.
BS: There are several groups of nuns, priests and other clergy and non-clergy who are working for this as well. There's no reason for this thing to be around. It's obviously wrong and it's affected indigenous people throughout the world, and it's still in place. There is a chance that maybe those changes will be made, abut meanwhile, whether he does it or not thinking people should understand what this thing is.
MR: But isn't it hard to say that people who don't answer to the Pope are using the Doctrine of Discovery?
BS: You absolutely can say that. It's in US law. We don't have time to go into it right now, but you can read online how it's still used in modern law. You mentioned "Orion" and I want to talk about "Not The Lovin' Kind" because that's only two chords and it's a very strong song. A lot of people have no idea -- if they think of me from the sixties or from Sesame Street they have no idea that I sing that way, too, so I would love to give that song a plug. "Not the Lovin' Kind." "Orion" has such a beautiful melody, I love it so much. If they like my version they ought to hear the original, which was the theme song for Revenge. Oh boy, that was good.
MR: What inspired you to add lyrics to that music?
BS: The lyrics just popped into my head because I love the melody so it's on my mind a lot. Jack [Nitzsche] was really a superb, superb composer. He would write these unbelievable melodies, but he wasn't a lyricist at all. I only wrote the lyrics last year, so he never heard it, but I know he would like it. He's in the next world now, but I know if he ever heard it he would approve.
MR: It's a beautiful nod to Jack. In past interviews, I've asked you what advice you have for new artists. But this time around, what advice do you have for creative people?
BS: Oh, creative and non-creative people, remember that you are creative. You're made in the image of the Creator; that's your green light for creativity. Creativity is natural. Everybody has it at the age of three and four and five and then it gets forgotten in school, but it's still in there. We create our worlds, we create our songs, we create our communities, we create our future, so go to it, enjoy it, it's ours, it's free.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
FRAZIERBAND'S "THE ROD & THE CANE" EXCLUSIVE
According to John Frazier...
The original inspiration for 'The Rod & The Cane' was from watching an important person in my life who found themselves constantly struggling in life with no ultimate reward. It hit me hard and this song embodies my empathy for the hardships endured throughout. It surprised me how effortlessly the song came together -- once the idea popped into my head, it all poured out in the purest way. I absolutely adore the way the guys played on this track, which was done in one take. John Cowan's harmony vocals are a dream come true! I guess this song was quick to write, a joy to record, and if every song I wrote and recorded were as smooth and fun as this one I'd get a lot more done! Which is, ironically, almost the total opposite of what the song is about.
BRIAN LISIK'S "JAN. 13" EXCLUSIVE
According to the Brian Lisik...
"Director Benjamin Lehman and I didn't know exactly what or where we wanted to shoot when we started working on the video to 'Jan. 13' -- the first single off the Curtisinterruptedus album. But we did know that we wanted it to look lonely. So we simply rolled camera, walked around some of the seedier parts of Canton and Cleveland, Ohio, ate some dinner, and called it a video shoot. I think the 'character' of the semi-deserted city at sundown was perfect for the song.
"'Jan. 13' itself started as a musical piece. Unfortunates' bass player Steve Norgrove emailed me to 'maybe use in a song somewhere.' I had some lyrics about a guy fighting the temptation to become involved in a relationship he knows is doomed -- and possibly dangerous; kind of a less descriptive 'Darling Nikki.' Steve, album co-producer Benjamin Payne and I further developed the intro and backing harmonies in the studio. Finally, the addition of Ray Flanagan's epic guitar lines and Tim Longfellow's hypnotic organ gave the song a sweeping, cinematic feel -- just right for a video."
BRYAN McPHERSON'S "BULLETS AND BLUES" EXCLUSIVE
According to Bryan McPherson...
I wrote this song in my bedroom in Berkeley when I first moved there from Boston and it was raining for like a month. It started out as a quiet tune and then by the time I went to record it I was trying to turn it into a faster sort of punk rock kind of tune, but it just wasn't working that way. I was staying down in Santa Cruz and started finger picking it and I liked it much more. This was the only song where guitars and vocals were not recorded at the Flying Whale studio in the mountains. This is a Santa Cruz song. We recorded it one night in a warehouse studio down the street from my friend Chris' house. He sang the backup vocals on it. There's some noise on the track -- you can hear stuff moving around, but I dig it. I felt the song needed a horn section and I was able to recruit Chris Tedesco who suggested flugelhorns, which I thought came out very well. He brought a very dramatic feel to the lyrics.
And Bryan's camp adds...
"Los-Angeles based, Boston-bred folk-punk troubadour Bryan McPherson is set to release his third album, the dynamic Wedgewood via O.F.D. Records on June 10th. Melding Americana, folk, alternative, and punk into one incendiary, incisive sound, Bryan pays homage to influences such as Bob Dylan, The Sex Pistols, The Violent Femmes, Bruce Springsteen and Ani DiFranco."
For more info on Wedgewood: http://bit.ly/1KoS9SC