A first-hand look at the life of a folk hero and living legend.
The first and only authorized biography about Buffy Sainte-Marie is coming out this September, and SAY Magazine was one of the first to interview author Andrea Warner in anticipation of its release.
Warner is an acclaimed author, pop culture writer and music critic who shares a close bond with Sainte-Marie. Warner joined Sainte-Marie on tour and spent more than 60 hours interviewing the musician to write this book. In this interview, Warner offers a more intimate, personal look at Sainte-Marie’s remarkable life and career, including her commitment to Indigenous advocacy and activism, her leadership and her unparalleled talent as a songwriter, artist and entertainer.
SAY: Why was it important to write this biography?
Warner: There has never been this close unpacking of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s famous and creative life – that angle has never really been told.
I remember digging deeper into the folk movement and the protest movement. It’s My Way! is such an important album and utterly critical to the protest movement, the peace movement and the folk movement. What’s crazy is that I could only find one book that had been written about Buffy Sainte-Marie, but I could find 70 books written about Bob Dylan (who’s great and I get it). Dylan and the myth of Dylan takes up all the space, and that is seriously compromising the folk movement’s glorious history and erasing women, particularly women of colour, from a critical time in our world.
I also started digging into and unpacking what it means to be a Canadian musician. I started to listen, appreciate and understand more what “Canadian” has often meant and why that might in itself be a barrier for some people. The history of colonization in this country is devastating and damaging. I started to think a lot about what I was seeing on the best Canadian musician list, who qualified, who sprang to the top, and whose stories were not being represented.
I’m a settler, I was born here in Vancouver and I’m white. As a country we have forced people to identify and be a part of the mythology of Canada, and we continue to erase Indigenous voices and immigrant settler voices. I spent more time thinking about what it meant to be a Canadian musician and who was not represented or purposely erased by using the term “Canadian musician”. By default, people constantly talk about Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, who I love and appreciate, yet, the more I listened to Buffy’s music, the more I started to wonder why she was not being counted in the same way. She is a very celebrated artist, especially in Canada; however, I feel like she never gets the same level of acknowledgement or appreciation for how truly innovative she is. Buffy is a brilliant songwriter and activist and she writes about things the are truly important and crucial to the human experience.
SAY: What was it like meeting Buffy Sainte-Marie for the first time?
Warner: I was writing a lot about Buffy’s music and we happened to be following each other on Twitter. I interviewed Buffy for Power in the Blood, which I think is the most important record of 2015, and we got along so brilliantly – neither of us wanted to get off the phone. We had such a great connection and I thought, ‘If I can write her biography and have her be the one telling her story, I can help make space for it because her story belongs in this world.’ I felt that up until now, her story had not fully been told.
When I asked whether she would be interested in this idea, I was so excited and honoured that she said yes. When we met to start the process, we clicked immediately. She had said no to others before, but she said yes to me. I am incredibly lucky.
SAY: What is one of the things you admire most about Buffy Sainte-Marie?
Warner: I love her curiosity about everything. Her brain is never really quiet, even if her body is enjoying the quiet and the solitude, her brain is always racing. I really appreciate and love that level of engagement – it’s such an exhilarating thing to be in conversation with her.
SAY: The two of you put in a lot of time together to create this book; what was your experience like touring with Buffy and her band?
Warner: Prior to the tour, we had formed such a nice bond over the phone. We spoke twice a week for two hours at a time and created a kind of space where we built trust that deepened with each passing conversation. After two months of phone calls, I spent three full days on tour with her, in and out of a van with her and her band.
I sat next to Buffy in the van and we listened to audiobooks, she showed me pictures of her vacations and we talked about different things happening in the world. We also discovered we both share a love of pinball!
I didn’t record the whole time because I didn’t want to create any kind of intrusion; I wanted things to continue to flow and happen around me. Buffy and I would hang out after shows and do our interviews, and that’s when I would take out the tape recorder. It was such an incredible experience. When it was done, I didn’t want to go home.
SAY: What is one of your most memorable experiences touring with Buffy?
Warner: Getting a chance to see Buffy and her band do sound check every day and just being a part of it all. They invited me into their smudging ceremony before they went on stage which was such a beautiful experience. The whole team was such an inviting, accepting and loving group – they were so kind and generous. I really enjoyed witnessing what their collaboration looks likes.
Now I know all the words to all the songs, and I sing along to them all – I’m one of those people in the audience now! I never get tired of hearing/listening to their songs because she [Buffy] has such a unique way of bringing them to life.
I thought about what it is to perform a song you wrote more than 50 years ago and when the world is still very difficult and increasingly difficult – to go out there and still believe in its power and its message. The word “tireless” is used a lot in reference to Buffy, and I understand why. She is not someone whose message has ever faded or been compromised. She has had a strong belief system centered in her—probably since birth—and she has always been able to listen to and cultivate it and share it with the world. It’s extraordinary to witness.
SAY: Was there anything that surprised you or shocked you throughout the interview process?
Warner: I was not aware of the extent of the intimate partner violence and the childhood trauma that she experienced. I cried many times. She hadn’t really talked about it or gone on record about it before. I am grateful to her for trusting me with this part of her life. I know that people are going to read this and feel seen and validated in their experiences. I think people will see a part of themselves in this book that they didn’t anticipate.
The way in which she frames the relationship between colonialism and pedophilia is going to allow people to better examine the real costs of colonialism. If people haven’t been able to make it real through understanding residential schools, I think this is another way people can confront colonialism and understand why decolonization is so important. People will further understand why movements like “Me Too” and “Time’s Up” are so prevalent. Our cultural history is so rooted in exploitation that I think this will be an emotional and eye opening read for a lot of people.
SAY: What did you learn about yourself along the way?
Warner: I was very privileged and welcomed into cultural ceremonies and traditions which was a beautiful and emotional experience for me. I really valued that. Buffy has such a capacity for creation – she talks a lot about creation and the creator, and I think that’s part of how she maintains her energy and her momentum – she’s very much an optimist. She has helped reframe things for me and helped me think about things from more positive viewpoints – I need to be part of a solution. I hope that stays with me forever.
SAY: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers – with young people reading SAY?
Warner: Buffy has an incredible love of learning – she truly values education and learning. She’s looking at ways to further digitize and revitalize the Cradleboard Teaching Project (www.cradleboard.org); making it relevant to Canada and to the United States. I think she would be excited if young people checked it out and thought about how it could be useful in modern society because it’s an interesting way of approaching education.
Edited in collaboration with Sainte-Marie herself, no book, article or interview has offered as powerful or intimate of a look at the amazing artist’s life, and Warner takes the reader on a brilliantly emotional and engaging journey. Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography by Andrea Warner, foreword by Joni Mitchell. Available September 25, 2018, from Greystone Books.