Musician Interview: The Secret Lives of Buffy Sainte-Marie

Buffy Sainte-Marie

After a three-year love affair with the rest of the world, more than one Buffy Sainte-Marie has recently returned to the States.

“I’ve found out that each of us can be as many people as we have days,” she says. “Which might seem schizophrenic to someone who wants the person with whom he’s talking to be the same tomorrow as she is today. But see, I don’t feel hemmed in by that. I like to explore alternatives; it feels good to be a lot of different ways.”

A Cree Indian who tried college, acting, and teaching before settling on music and becoming a prominent singer/songwriter of the 60s, Buffy had already filled a number of varied roles by the time she went abroad. But the extended world tour expanded her self-conception even further, she says, by allowing her to experiment with lifestyles that she hadn’t even known existed.

“For instance, it’s about two years ago and I’m living in China. My life is consisting of heavy physical martial arts training. I’m really excited because my body feels so good from kung fu and it shows in my music. I’m playing well and feeling happy. And the vibes that I’m getting from people are entirely different from American vibes. People are talking to each other in different ways. Or looking at each other with a look that’s considered a little too intimate here.

“Or I’m living in France, drinking a lot of coffee and playing the piano every day. And I’m feeling physically weak but intellectually strong. I’m reading a lot and speaking French, not even thinking in English anymore. People are touching and looking and nourishing each other in ways that are nothing like the American experience.

“What I learned, basically, is that there are more possibilities than I think most Americans are aware of. You don’t have to live where you’re living or stay with the person you’re with. You don’t have to do the job you’re doing if you don’t dig it. You know, whenever I’m in a situation that I don’t like, it comes to mind that I have two options: find something diggable about it or, by golly, get out of it.”

Buffy says she did just that when, not too long ago, her contract with Vanguard Records expired. Unhappy with the degree of control she says she’d been granted in making LPs for that label, she financed her new record with her own funds. “Norbert Putnam and I went into his studio in Nashville, I hired all our friends and we played the music. Norbert and I mixed the album ourselves, with nobody else around except a great engineer. Then we gave it intact to MCA Records and they gave it intact to the people.”

On the new album, called Buffy, she probes diverse subjects—ranging from teenage romance to politics to hookers—through an assortment of musical modes. The tunes seem to be generated by a broad spectrum of concerns and an unusually variable personality, but the same could be said of Buffy’s earlier compositions. “Universal Soldier,” for example, is a folk tune expressing somber anti-war sentiment while “I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again” is a joyous Nashville production number, and “Until It’s Time for You to Go” shows a tender romantic sensibility.

“My music has grown, but spherically,” comments Buffy. “All the things that I was doing years ago, I’m still doing; the reasons for living that were valid to me then are still valid to me now. ‘Generation’ is an expansion of ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying,’ which is an extension of ‘Now That the Buffalo’s Gone.’ ‘Moratorium’ is an extension of ‘Universal Soldier.’ And so on.

“Each type of song comes from a different part of me. I can be ‘Generation.’ I can be ‘Moratorium.’ I can be the hooker or ‘Sweet Little Vera.’ I can pull them all off, goddamit; I’m doing it. ‘Cause I feel all those different ways; they’re all parts of me.

“And because music is my whole life, I wind up expressing all my emotions through it. See, I don’t have a home or a husband or a newspaper to write for or a roommate. My only outlet is songwriting and performing. My family is the band and my marriage is to the music.

“I’m not just doing it for fun and I’m not just doing it for money. I think the stage is a holy place. And I think music is a social lubricant and a healing force.”

It was this belief, says Buffy, along with the feeling that her music wasn’t reaching enough American listeners, that made her decide to return here. “Not having performed in this country for a long time gives me the opportunity, challenge, and obligation to bring the people up to date. You know, over here they still think of me in terms of ‘Universal Soldier.’

“‘I’m really an international superstar and an American secret. I’ve had a lot of top-five records, gold and silver albums, in other countries that were hardly even heard of in the States. I want to fill the people in on where they were at when I split and where we’re all at now. ‘Cause, see, my old record company stopped distributing my stuff and the people got left behind.”

Though Buffy has no complaints about distribution by her present label, she is now confronted with another retailing problem. Because the jacket of her new LP pictures her with a breast exposed, some record outlets, particularly in the Midwest, are refusing to carry it. Buffy laughs off the difficulty, though, apparently confident that it is minor and that, however it is resolved, her songs will now be more regularly heard in the U.S.

“That’s very important to me,” she says, “because what I want to communicate to people here by letting all sides of my emotional life show in the music is that there are more alternatives open to them than they know about. And that you don’t have to be only the way your parents taught you or the ways your lover wants to interact with you or even only what you can glean from the entire planet…but something else again that you can invent yourself.

“You know, there’s a line in ‘Jeremiah,’ a song of mine, that goes: ‘Some will tell you / tell you what you want ain’t on the menu / Don’t believe them / Cook it up yourself.'”

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