The biographer-subject relationship can be fraught, even when the biography is authorized and the subject complicit. There’s often a gulf between what the subject wants known and what has to be told, either to sell the book or present an honest overview. But if any such conflicts arose between Andrea Warner and Buffy Sainte-Marie during interviews for Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography, they left no lingering resentments.
“I love her so much,” Warner—a CBC staffer and one of this magazine’s theatre critics—says in a telephone interview from downtown Vancouver.
That love is clearly reciprocal. “It’s been like a mutual-admiration society,” Sainte-Marie earlier told the Straight, in a telephone call from a Nova Scotia tour date. “We laugh a lot.”
The instant rapport that the two achieved during an early telephone conversation convinced the iconic Indigenous singer and songwriter that it was time for her story to be told, and that she’d found the perfect person to tell it. “I had said no to a lot of biographers, because they only saw kind of the sensationalizable—is that a word?—points of what I was,” Sainte-Marie said. “An ‘angry Indian’, you know. Fist-in-the-air protester. You know, all that kind of stuff that I didn’t see as being true. But Andrea got it right away. She saw that you have to have a lot of positivity to deal with negativity, I think.”
Warner’s book does not go easy on difficult topics. In order to give a full picture of its subject, we’re allowed access to areas of Sainte-Marie’s life that the average fan bio might skip: childhood sexual abuse; painful relationships with difficult, alcoholic men; the suspicious and still not fully understood death of her friend Anna Mae Aquash in 1975; and the blacklisting of her music during the very years—the late 1960s—that made many of her peers fabulously wealthy and internationally renowned.
But we also hear Sainte-Marie’s voice, and anyone who’s ever encountered the supernaturally vivacious 77-year-old knows that she’s always found a way to turn her sorrows into artistic triumphs, and to beam her joys from the stage in the most beautifully contagious way. Warner’s greatest success with Buffy Sainte-Marie is almost certainly her ability to get out of the way of the story and to let her subject speak.
“Buffy doesn’t need someone to tell her story,” Warner says, laughing. “She is capable, incredibly capable, of doing that. She is a masterful storyteller.”
And Warner, it’s equally clear, was a capable listener. “I tried really hard to establish and build trust pretty quickly,” Warner says. “We had an in-person meeting before she fully agreed to the book, and we just talked for two hours. That really set the tone for everything. It turned out that she was quite a fan of my first book [We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the ’90s and Changed Canadian Music], and I didn’t know that. She had read it really deeply and thoroughly, and had a lot of questions and thoughts and comments. And I feel like she thought she could trust me to not be some kind of sycophant, you know.”
After that, Warner says, “We talked twice a week for two hours at a time, and I wanted her to tell me the songs that she felt were completely overlooked. And I think that starting from a place where she could talk about the songs that not everyone wanted to talk about was important for us, and allowed us to really dig into some of the reasons why those songs were overlooked.
“When we look at why there are about 70 books about Bob Dylan and there’s been only one about Buffy until now…we have to recognize that there is racism at work. There is systemic marginalization of racialized people; there’s gender playing a part there; there’s the erasure of Indigenized people, overall. And this isn’t a criticism of Bob Dylan at all: it’s just that he has benefited from a lot of aspects of the media that are very colonial, very patriarchal, and all about mythologizing and lionizing white male genius. So that’s sort of where I’m coming from, when I think about the ways in which Buffy’s innovations don’t have nearly the same respect as a lot of her peers.”
That’s clearly changing. Thanks to Sainte-Marie’s relentless touring, her high-profile collaborations with young artists such as Tanya Tagaq and A Tribe Called Red, and greater appreciation for Indigenous art both at home and around the globe, she’s beginning to be recognized as the truly innovative and iconic performer she’s always been—and Warner’s witnessing of her journey will only help with that.
Andrea Warner appears in conversation with Buffy Sainte-Marie on Sunday (October 21) at this year’s Vancouver Writers Fest. See the festival's website for the complete program.