We recently had the pleasure of welcoming the legendary singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie to our Roland Inspiration Centre in Toronto. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s bold new album, Power in the Blood, begins where it all started more than 50 years ago, with a contemporary version of “It’s My Way,” the title track of her 1964 debut. Its message, about the road to self-identity and the conviction to be oneself, still resonates with the Cree singer-songwriter, activist, educator, visual artist, and winner of countless awards (Oscar, Juno, and Golden Globe, among them). Check out our interview with Buffy below where we asked about her creative process, gear and what she’s working on now.
What were some of your earliest musical influences?
Tchaikovsky, anything that was on the radio, music from India, flamenco & Edith Piaf, and 50s rockabilly/R&B – Elvis, Fats, Chuck, Buddy, Scotty Moore, Dr John, Miles Davis.
Do you find that living in Hawaii is helpful for you creatively?
No. I’m creative anywhere, and being in Hawaii is actually a huge career sacrifice, if you’re into careers. Unless you’re playing covers at hotels, there are few places to play here, and local musicians have it rough. Also it adds another 6-7 hours and thousands of bucks to anywhere you’re trying to go, and you’re all beat up by the time you get to the concert, living on jet lag. In Europe, you’re 12 hours off.
On the good side, living on a farm in the middle of nowhere does save my life as a human being which, in the long run, does contribute to my whole health and attitude, including all things creative. I like it both ways and it’s all creative. To pull back from the lights-camera-action of a hot tour and go invisible is what I like best.
Power in the Blood is a very diverse album and there’s a lot of electronic elements and you’ve done some very influential work with synths in the past. Do you think you’ll continue to explore more electronically-centered music?
I kinda got over electronic music in the 60s and 70s. Illuminations and film scores were very satisfying. There were no Apple loops or cut and paste unless you used Scotch tape and scissors (which we did, no kidding). Back then there was a sense of giving audiences something very unique and original. Now that it’s become a formula genre, I find it less interesting just by virtue of so much sameness. However, it IS fun and I hope that I and others will continue to discover music among the wacky worlds of frequency and amplitude.
You’ve been recording for years in your own home studio, how has your process changed as the recording technology gets better?
I still suck. I’m hopeless as an engineer, although I love to edit and will do so for hours on my own. I find it very creative.
But if I’m hot to record a new song, by the time I get everything all set up I’ve forgotten the song and the inspiration has gone bye bye. I can engineer for another person, but can’t be both the talent and the engineer at the same time. Two different heads.
It’s like my inspired self has really got to pee; and my engineer self is trying to build a bathroom. Too different people. I need help ha ha.
But I still have a lot of fun with real experimentation in the studio by myself. That is, I like to play with new sound in creativity mode. I’m just not very linear.
You’ve been interested in experimenting with traditional guitar tunings and sounds, did you ever get into guitar synthesis?
I’ve always loved uncommon instruments. And yes, I’m that guy who used to tune my guitar all upside down and inside out which was pretty rare in the 1960s. At various times I’ve played mouthbow (harmonics), had a Mellotron and a Continental Baroque, later a Fairlight and a Synclavier, and lots of Mayan flutes, ocarinas, bells, percussion thingies, so you know I get intrigued by unique sounds.
In the 1980s my friend Jill Fraser (a student of Milton Subotnick) brought her self-made Serge synthesizer on the road with me and my Roland GR-707 guitar synth and MIDI board and we wowed ’em in Belgium and a few other European countries. (I remember Belgium best because the food was so good.) In the USA however, my previous folkie fans thought I was nuts, had lost it on Illuminations. The idea of solo me playing a silver trapezoid guitar and bringing in invisible strings from the MIDI pedals at my feet was just too much for some folks. Funny, eh – musical prejudices? Anyway, I loved a lot about that guitar/synth setup and it was very inspirational at the time. However, I’m not a schooled guitarist and a cleaner player would have made better use of the MIDI controller. I play more like Robert Johnson than Eric Clapton, very dirty, dampened strings, a lot of emotional banging around, and I found the tracking on the GR-707 would have been better played if it were played correctly and cleanly.
How long have you been using Roland or BOSS products and what’s your favourite Roland keyboard?
Holy smoke, besides the Gr-707 MIDI guitar, I’ve had a bunch of em. Heck, I still have 3 – three! – D50s! That was definitely my favorite. I wrote a lot of songs on my D50s and toured with them for years. It fries me when I hear bully musicos putting down some great keyboard because something else great has also come along, and now You’re just plain obsolete, nya nya nya. No kidding, I’ve witnessed it. Great things stay great, People! The rest is pecking order marketing. Pianos don’t replace guitars and synths don’t replace saxophones – it’s all delicious, forever.
Some of the D50 sounds on my album Coincidence and Likely Stories were integral to the writing of the song, the emotional feeling, and the sound of the eventual recording. To play it on another keyboard or other sounds changes everything. “The Big Ones Get Away” uses an unmistakably Roland sound called Shamus Theme which I used with a delay- clangadee clangadee – and along with several other Roland sounds, it became “part of my band”.
We hire certain musicians for that specific unique tone they can give a piece of music. Same thing for certain preferred keyboard sounds.
I’ve also loved the BOSS delay pedal forever. I do some sweet things at home with an old sample-and-hold stomper I can’t get any other way.
What are you working on right now?
I just came back from Australia where I took my new JUNO-DS keyboard for her maiden voyage and we both had a great time doing solo concerts at the wonderful Woodford Folk Festival. The month before I’d been home, working on a new song called “The War Racket”, using my new Roland JUNO-DS. Switching over to the new keyboard was real easy as they’re quite similar, and all my old songs did fine with the new keyboard. Also your instructional videos are great. Just detailed enough, but still brief and clear.
Right now I’m getting ready to record “The War Racket” at home. I plan to include it on an upcoming album called Medicine Songs. Out some time this spring I hope.
Thank you Lyle Crilly for your very helpful walk through of the JUNO-DS when I visited you in Toronto, and to everybody at Roland Canada, USA and Japan for making consistently wonderful instruments that make the world a better place.
Visit Buffy Saint-Marie’s website here: http://buffysainte-marie.com/