Q&A with Polaris Prize winner Buffy Sainte-Marie

The Canadian music icon, 74, wins the $50K annual music prize
The Canadian music icon, 74, wins the $50K annual music prize

Using words like “journalistic” and “like a photographer,” Buffy Sainte-Marie explains her songwriting and music in terms that one doesn’t expect.  At 74, the creator of more than 20 albums and hit singles such as “Starwalker" and “Up Where We Belong” still expresses astonishment at capturing the $50,000 Polaris Prize earlier this week.

“I didn’t think I was going to win,” said Sainte-Marie, whose “Power in the Blood” album beat out the likes of Drake, The New Pornographers, Ghostface Killah and former winner Caribou. 

An 11-member jury made the announcement in Toronto on Monday night — unveiling the Canadian album of the year, based on artistic merit rather than sales. Last year’s winner was throat singer Tanya Tagaq for “Animism.”

“I listened to all the other artists [and] I came up with my own shortlist. I couldn’t come up with a winner,” divulged Sainte-Marie, who wouldn’t go further to reveal her list.

Born on the Piapot Cree First Nation Reserve in the Qu'Appelle Valley, Sask., Sainte-Marie would grow up to obtain degrees in philosophy and fine art while also producing 21 albums and gathering a host of awards from Junos to a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement accolade and an Oscar.  She is also an Officer of the Order of Canada.  

When describing the vast array of songs she’s produced, she speaks of some of them as having a historic narrative and story (journalistic) and then compares her role as a songwriter to that of a photographer who takes “snapshots of what we see or hear and experience.”

The veteran musician, hauling around almost 50 years of music experience and activism, spoke to Yahoo Canada News from her home in Hawaii.

What does it mean for you to win the Polaris Prize at this time in your career?

I love Polaris. For one, it’s about all kinds of music — I’ve had hits in country, pop and protest songs — so it represents what musicians are like anyway and it gives away money! I have a lot of statues in my kitchen and it’s so important to get money because its getting harder for musicians to travel and perform these days.

I’m smiling too because “Power in the Blood” will get heard. This album has some of my old songs — which never got heard. Take “Its My Way,” which was recorded in 1964, you can’t find it!  So there are songs that are like re-do’s or flashbacks and people are loving them. They should be in one place so I included them.

People weren’t ready for songs like “Generation” or “Universal Soldier” or “No No Keshagesh.” Now, with the Internet and the way the world is, people are ready for songs that rail against bankers or the destruction of the environment.

It’s about timing — the songs are like medicine and the people need it now.

So, 50 years on, how are audiences responding to you and your songs?

The audiences now are more like the 60s — more eclectic and diverse.  It was a little stupid before: let’s make a Motown album or be like Britney Spears. People were making one-genre albums. After the 1960s, the business people took over the music business. What my career as a songwriter has taught me is that you don’t scatter your stuff before its time.

The Internet is like the student movement of the 60s. We have self-publishing and our ears are bigger and wider. My music can reach audiences everywhere. I get so much email from people all over who relate to my songs — whether it’s about love or about some issue.

I’m like a first-grade school teacher with my songs: you need to be engaging and concise to attract short attention spans. That way you can reach a lot of people.

I’ve just kept going on. I haven’t changed.  It’s the audience that has come full circle.

You’ve been an activist for indigenous rights, for women and for the environment all these years — what are your thoughts on missing and murdered aboriginal women and the aboriginal issues that have come to the forefront?

I closed the ceremony for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on their last day and had a red dress there as a symbol. Wherever I tour, I try to have the red dress there on the stage and I tell the audience why. I have the luxury of airplane tickets, not penthouses, and I get to be on a lot of stages. That’s what I do.

It’s not just about aboriginal women. The murder rate of women worldwide is unfathomable. Who’s doing it?  It’s men. Maybe we have to figure out how we are turning men that way? It is not part of human culture to be like that. War and rape are not part of who we are as humans.

I don’t get upset with the government. We can love our country and just because we have an objectionable administration, doesn’t mean we can’t love it. It’s an administration of good old boys. They do what they want for a few years and then we have a change. Just keep your eyes and ears open to what they do. We won’t be stuck with one government forever and it may take years to undo what they did but don’t be afraid of those in power.

The good news is that now more people can see what is happening. They [the politicians] got their pants down.

What inspires you these days?

I’m pretty much the same as I’ve been since I was three. Some things I like and some things I don’t. There are things in my day that hurt me or piss me off and other things that are beautiful. I’ve always had a knack to express both.

I find plenty that’s inspiring. Sometimes it’s about making the change — I can take one step. It’s the same as everyone else: one step at a time.

I’m still blown away by the Polaris Prize. I’m so thankful for my record company and for all the broadcasters that played my music. It’s wonderful!

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