Meet the Author Behind the New Buffy Sainte-Marie Bio
It’s not every day you get an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at one of Canada’s most iconic and influential musicians of all time. But next Tuesday will be one of those days.
On Sept. 25, Greystone Press will release the first (and only) authorized biography of living legend Buffy Sainte-Marie. Written by Andrea Warner, an author, music critic and journalist who’s contributed to Pitchfork, Exclaim! and more, the book offers an intimate and powerful portrait covering Buffy’s 77-year life and prolific career spanning more than half a century.
Over the course of her research, Warner interviewed Sainte-Marie multiple times for a total of more than 60 hours. The result is a comprehensive collection of not only Buffy’s accomplishments (20+ albums, multiple JUNOS, a Polaris Music Prize, an Academy Award and more), but also the challenges she has faced — and overcome — on her journey as not only an artist, but an educator, an activist, a pioneer and, above all else, a human being.
In advance of Buffy Sainte Marie: The Authorized Biography‘s release, we had a chance to speak with Warner about the new book. Here’s what she had to say about the writing process, her favourite Buffy songs and more.
She’s now in her 70s and has led an incredible life, but this is somehow Buffy’s first and only authorized biography. Why do you think it took so long for this to happen? Why you? Why now?
I think it’s a variety of factors, and probably only Buffy can speak to the full particulars. Blair Stonechild wrote a great book in 2012 about Buffy’s life, and it centred primarily on her relationship to her Cree family, but there hadn’t been a full, authorized biography that really dove into Buffy’s music and how it has been this map of her remarkable life. I’m a music journalist, and I was digging into her discography and it was just this wonderful never-ending surprise. I felt like I was Alice falling down the rabbit hole because Buffy was and is such a musical innovator and so curious. She’s so experimental and creative, and it’s hard to grasp the scope of her work because it’s just so broad.
And yet, I was also frustrated by how little credit she’s received for that innovation and her musical legacy. There are about 70 or more books on Bob Dylan, and there was just one on Buffy, and that’s just ridiculous. Mainstream media and the music industry power holders have tended to act as gatekeepers that have upheld the patriarchy and its racist, sexist roots for too long. Mythologizing white male genius has resulted in the erasure and minimization of too many remarkable people of colour, particularly women. Buffy is an icon, and the world can only benefit from a closer reading of her life, her activism, and her music.
Break down your research process: How many people did you interview for the book? How many hours of interviews? How many with Buffy? How long did the project take in its entirety?
I pitched the book in September or October 2016, Buffy and I met in person for the first time in November. I had been researching Buffy off and on for at least four years at that point, just for different features or articles I was writing at various places, but I definitely went into full, intense research mode after our initial meeting and then throughout November and December 2016. We began the interviewing process the first week of January 2017, and spoke twice a week for two-hour sessions for about seven weeks, and then I flew to New York and joined her on tour for a little bit. We resumed our calls, but at once a week after that, and then we took a little break while I transcribed until my wrists almost fell off, and then I joined her on tour again on the west coast for a few dates. In total, I roughly estimate we did about 60 hours of actual interviewing, but I think that’s probably low-balling it.
I wrote the entire first draft of the book in the summer of 2017, sent it to Buffy in September, and then I did several edits, including a big restructuring edit. But I submitted the first draft of the manuscript to my publisher, Greystone, in November of 2017. The final draft was around March 2018. Ultimately, that’s a pretty quick turnaround time from what I’ve heard. Most non-fiction books usually have a three-year cycle apparently, but I get quite focused and write relatively quickly.
To take on a project like this, we assume you’re a pretty big Buffy fan. What’s it like trying to be as objective as possible while writing about someone you admire and look up to?
I’m not very interested in putting people on a pedestal. Even people whom I love and admire and respect — like Buffy — I feel those things in a fairly objective way. And I think my genuine interest and connection to Buffy’s music, advocacy, and writing has really allowed me to approach this biography from a position of strength. To her credit, she was also anxious that the biography not be too fawning or anything like that.
Do you remember the first time you were introduced to Buffy’s music? If so, tell us about it.
I don’t remember the very first time, unfortunately, because I kind of feel like her music has just always been there. I knew her name, I knew some of her songs, but it was really about six years ago that I truly became immersed in her discography, and then in 2015, I was sent Power in the Blood and I was just floored. Truly. And I ended up interviewing her when the record came out and we had such a brilliant connection even then in that 20 or 30 minute phone call, it was amazing. I wrote a lot about Power in the Blood in 2015. A LOT. It changed my whole world.
As someone who now has intimate knowledge of Buffy’s life and career path, what are a select few incidents you would point to as major turning points or defining moments in her life?
Putting out her first record in 1964, It’s My Way!, is really what started it all. Meeting the young Indigenous activists on the National Indian Youth Council as well as the American Indian Movement. Moving to Hawaii. Becoming a mother to her son, Cody, in 1976, and joining Sesame Street the year before. Finding out she was blacklisted by two American presidential administrations. Winning an Academy Award and founding the Cradleboard Teaching Project. I don’t know if these are necessarily the milestones she would identify, of course, but they stand out to me as pivotal ones.
What’s your personal favourite song by Buffy?
There are so many songs of hers that I love so very much. Like, it’s almost impossible to pick a favourite, because if I want to feel inspired and triumphant, I play It’s My Way!. If I want a snarling kind of screw you song, which I love, I dig into Not the Lovin’ Kind. I also love the acoustic version of The War Racket and so many other songs. But if I have to choose just one, I pick Until It’s Time For You To Go. I will spend the rest of my life marveling at this song, which she wrote and released in 1965, and which positions the protagonist as a strong woman with sexual agency, and no desire at all to settle down.
You probably learned a LOT during the research of this book. What’s the thing that surprised you most about Buffy?
Buffy is hilarious. Seriously. She’s so funny and she can be totally dirty one minute and utterly innocent the next, and I love it.
What’s the thing that impressed you most about Buffy?
She’s unfailingly optimistic. Even if she’s angry about something or frustrated, she’s very solutions-oriented and practical, and she knows how to fix things or at least how to try and make space for something to be fixed and then establishing boundaries where needed.
If you had to describe Buffy in three words, what would they be?
Creative, curious, and genius.
As an Indigenous music media platform, we’ve interviewed a lot of artists about being labeled as “Indigenous artists” as opposed to just “artists,” and there seems to be this balancing act between wanting to honour their culture but also wanting to be recognized solely for their artistic merits. Based on your interviews with Buffy, how do you think she approached this balancing act?
I kind of think Buffy would need to speak to that, but my observation is that she made music that reflected every facet of her being. As a music journalist, I see her labeled as an “Indigenous artist” quite frequently, even after 50+ years in the business and being one of the most iconic artists in the world.
If you could offer today’s aspiring Indigenous musicians one piece of advice from the life and career of Buffy, what would it be?
Buffy guards herself against burnout, and I see that as particularly important for racialized Indigenous people because they’re already working within the inherently violent colonial system and having to do so much unacknowledged emotional labour. Buffy also writes from a place of truth — like fact-checkable truth, which has not only been smart and strategic on her part, it’s also been extraordinarily powerful.
If readers could take one thing away from reading your book, what would you want it to be?
A feeling of hope. I want them to feel empowered, like they can survive and thrive and find happiness inside themselves.
Anything you want to add?
Please go listen to and buy Buffy’s music. Dig into that back catalogue. It’s an extraordinarily wild mix of styles, voices, and innovation. Also, if you’re in Vancouver, please come to either my book launch on Sept. 24 at the Fox, or if you want to come to see Buffy and I in conversation, we currently have plans to be together in Vancouver (Oct. 21), New York (Oct. 24), and Toronto (Oct. 27, date TBC).