Writing Buffy Sainte-Marie bio 'life-changing' for author Andrea Warner

When Andrea Warner noticed there were piles of books out about artists like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, but none about Buffy Sainte-Marie, she decided to change that.
Author Andrea Warner (L) and Buffy Sainte-Marie in the House of Strombo. (Vanessa Heins )

She's a folk music icon, an activist and an Oscar and Polaris Prize winner. So why hadn't anyone written an authorized biography of Buffy Sainte-Marie?

When Andrea Warner noticed there were piles of books out about artists like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, but none about Sainte-Marie's life, she decided to change that. 

"You start to think about what is Canadian music, who counts as Canadian, and who has been  left out of that equation."
Buffy Sainte-Marie and her official biographer Andrea Warner. (Greystone Books)

Warner, who works at CBC Music in Vancouver, said she has always been interested in writing about people who have been unrepresented, including women, queer voices, POC and Indigenous musicians.

"Particularly, as a white settler in Canada. It's not about me bringing those stories to light at all, it's me making spaces for those voices and using my privilege in any way that I can."

Music is her map

Warner was granted exclusive access to the icon; speaking with her on the phone twice a week for two hours at a time and even riding in the van with Sainte-Marie and her band on tour. She also listened to her music to find clues about Sainte-Marie's life.

"Every song of hers, whether it's about Indigenous rights, Indigenous history, or about love or the intersection of those two. Whether it's about historical things or science or technology or the environment, every song is an education," she said.

"It's all there. She's provided this amazing map, it's all there in every song."

She said a perfect example of this is Sainte-Marie's first record and single, It's My Way! Warner said that album is the most important record of the 1964 folk era and so clearly articulated what was important to the Cree singer/songwriter.

"She's a very young woman. She's coming out of a traumatic background, a traumatic childhood. She's an Indigenous woman in a largely white world of college and university," she said, adding the song would be called a feminist anthem if it was released today.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography (Greystone Books)

"She's also articulating for herself very clearly that the way to really find your place in the world is to cut your own path, to make your own way."

Warner said the most memorable moment for her while writing the book was the chapter about her troubled seven-year marriage to Jack Nitzsche, whom Sainte-Marie has never spoken about in media.

It's a conversation the two women saved for last.

"It's such a powerful chapter in her life, it's a powerful chapter in the book and it's a really empowering chapter for a lot women who, we realize, are very strong, strong, strong people and we can still end up in situations that we ask ourselves how did this even happen? How did we get here and how do we extricate ourselves?"

For Warner, writing the book has forever changed her.

"I'm so lucky," she said laughing. "It means so much to me to have people who've have already read this and said to me 'I knew she was incredible' but they didn't know the extent of just how incredible she is."