The legendary musician talks about dealing with a career crisis, collaboration, and never giving in to burnout:
It’s been more than 50 years since your first album. What’s your secret to career longevity?
Oh, gosh. I think I’ve had success because I’ve been able to step away, refresh and have something new to say each time. I think that creatively, it’s really good to not stay in only one place, and to have experiences. Stepping away wasn’t always my choice. In the ’70s, I was blacklisted from American radio because of my politics—people thought I had either retired or that I had died.
How did you manage that crisis?
I kept on doing what I do, which is writing songs, and thought of ways to share them in different ways. I’m very comfortable thinking out of the box. If one thing isn’t working, I try something else. If you’re motivated by the ideas themselves, your career keeps evolving. I was cut off from American adults, so I spent five years on Sesame Street educating their kids.
What can you tell me about collaborating with Big Bird?
Sesame Street was probably the only time in my career that I really collaborated. They asked me if I would come in and recite the alphabet or count to 10 like the other celebs do on the show. I wasn’t interested in that, but I asked them if they had ever done any Native American programming. They said no, then they called me back, and I joined the cast on that basis.
Sounds like you are a bit of a shrewd negotiator.
Ha! Well, thank you. They gave me a first offer and I came back with something better. I don’t have anything against the alphabet, but I wanted to give people something meaningful they couldn’t get somewhere else.
When Beyoncé released Formation earlier this year, there was debate about whether people want to hear politics from pop stars. As an artist who has always put her politics into her music, what do you think?
That argument was around in the ’60s, too. There were a lot of people who thought the person who wrote the love song “Until It’s Time For You To Go” should know better than to follow it up with “Universal Soldier” on stage. That’s okay—they don’t have to like it.
Has having a strong political identity helped your career?
Maybe, though it’s good I wasn’t counting on it. The songs that have made me money have been love songs [Sainte-Marie co-wrote the 1983 hit “Up Where We Belong”]. “Universal Soldier” never made any money.
Any advice for artists breaking into the business?
You can paint the Mona Lisa, but if nobody sees it, how are they going to enjoy it? I’m very proud of my partnership with True North Records. Everyone says that Power in the Blood [Sainte-Marie’s Juno- and Polaris Music Prize–winning 2015 album] is a great album and, yeah, I love it, but the big difference between it and the ones before it is that it got heard. [True North] got the music to the ears of the people, which I couldn’t have done alone.
You’ve said you don’t believe in burnout, which seems unavoidable these days.
That’s the puritan ethic. I could work every day if I wanted to. I turn down a lot of opportunities.
That can’t be easy to do.
It’s a choice you make, day by day. I lived in the country when everybody else was in the city. I moved to an outer island of Hawaii when everyone else was in Hollywood. These things pay off—it’s just not in cash.
Sainte-Marie is touring Canada and the U.S. this summer.
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