It’s easy to lump folk icon Buffy Sainte-Marie in with Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and other activist voices of a generation, but that would be a major disservice to Miss Sainte-Marie.
Her work is at least as influential with fans and with artists as diverse as Kanye West and Samantha Crain. Yet Miss Sainte-Marie has always remained a moving musical target, mixing and matching styles including folk, rock, industrial, electronic, hip-hop and, of course, American Indian. The common denominators in her rich catalog of work are her distinctive vocals wrapped around songs that throb with individual and communal respect. Those themes are resplendent in her dazzling new album, “Power in the Blood.”
“If I’m thinking professionally, I am a songwriter,” Miss Sainte-Marie said when asked whether she defines herself as a songwriter, singer, activist, actor, composer, educator or philanthropist, or by one of the many other roles that have defined her life’s work. “When I started singing, I had already been making up songs for years. It’s just what I did for fun [starting when I was] 3. Other kids would like to go out and play ball or paint or dance, but I wanted to create songs.”
And what a selection she has crafted on this lush album, which brims with more modern and visionary sounds that put listeners in mind of artists such as Nine Inch Nails and Neil Young.
The album was recorded in Toronto with three producers: Michael Phillip Wojewoda (Barenaked Ladies, Rheostatics), Jon Levine (Nelly Furtado, K’NAAN) and Chris Birkett (Sinead O’Connor, Bob Geldof). Miss Sainte-Marie’s strong musical vision includes a new version of her iconic folk classic “It’s My Way,” which she wrote in the mid-1970s when she was frozen out of radio airplay because of her outspoken views on the Vietnam War and American Indian rights.
But don’t think Miss Sainte-Marie or her music bash on America.
“This is not about hating the U.S. government,” she said about the discrimination she underwent after Presidents Johnson and Nixon “blacklisted” her. “These [actions were] the result of specific administrations. Now everyone understands how those big rackets work.”
Those who try to pigeonhole Miss Sainte-Marie and her music don’t understand how her artistry works. That’s one reason the swirl of electronic, rock, folk, country, hip-hop and Native sounds in “Power in the Blood” will surprise many.
But for all the bold synthesizers and samples, Miss Sainte-Marie’s music is still steeped in her rich folk tradition, particularly on the country-based “Farm in the Middle of Nowhere” and “Uranium War,” which continues her lament about Native issues.
Still, Miss Sainte-Marie understands that her fans will interpret the music through the prism by which they first experienced her sound.
“Most audiences stick with whatever [interpretation] they liked in high school,” she said. “A lot of people approach me and say, ‘Oh, you’re that protest singer’ or ‘You are that country singer’ or ‘You were on ‘Sesame Street.’ That always makes me smile.”