Cod’ine • from YSM
Cod’ine by Buffy Sainte-Marie
Young Saint Marie
Two musical icons from Western Canada: Neil Young, the reed-throated folk-rocker whose wayward spark has magnetized generations of listeners and fellow creators; and Buffy Sainte-Marie, the artist-activist with the raw vibrato who played a key role in reintroducing an aboriginal voice to North American pop culture, from chart to protest march to Sesame Street, but whose vast songwriting gift often goes overlooked.
Now they intersect with a third, Vancouver’s Veda Hille, who over the course of a dozen albums has gathered a tribe of fans and peers who rely upon her jackknife intelligence, darting humour and burrowing fancy — not to mention the advanced algebra her fingers calculate on keyboards. All of that was recognized with a Polaris Music Prize nomination for her last studio album, the rapturous This Riot Life.
No one intimate with Hille’s work would expect a typical “tribute” album, and that’s just what Young Sainte Marie is not — the standard fare of a singer-songwriter paying homage to formative influences.
Hille has long played havoc with the singer-songwriter model linked to adolescent-rock-culture individualism and the celebrity cult of personality. Her songs are not memoirs, not reports on the pleasures and sufferings of some special, singular soul. Rather they are vessels for personae in the sense that her collaborator on Young Saint Marie, Italian-Canadian composer-arranger Giorgio Magnanensi, points out as coming from the Latin per sonare, “to sound through” – theatrical masks that resonate with and amplify sonics and selves, voices and identities, absences and presences, zeroes and ones and manys.
What can sound through a Veda Hille song, then, might be a historical figure such as British Columbia native artist Emily Carr, or birdsong, blood cells or growing lichen, or antique Presbyterian hymnals, the inmates of Bedlam or the cats that prowl Bertolt Brecht’s grave. The same willful inter-habitation drives her many partnerships with theatre companies, dancers, artists, children’s bands and the vaudevillian revue act called The Fits.
This project began with a commission from the late, lamented CBC Radio Orchestra under conductor Alain Trudel for a series called The Great Canadian Songbook, where Hille performed alongside artists such as Ron Sexsmith and Sarah Slean. So Sainte-Marie and Young were, at first, assignments: Hille says she is “fond” of the fact that she wasn’t a big fan of either artist in advance, though she says she sometimes played “After the Goldrush” in the high-school music room on lunch breaks.
Still the two composers proved apt counterparts as artists true to their idiosyncrasies. All three are modernists who don’t forget the past, street-smart urbanites who are also enchanted with the natural, and souls attuned to injustice but unsentimental about human weakness. And they all have a feel for melodies simple as spoons that surprisingly, telekinetically bend. Perhaps it’s something in the air that drifts westward from the dry lucid Prairies through cloud-crowned mountain ranges to Hille’s mistier, littoral northwest.
A kindred breeze seems to waft through Magnanensi’s arrangements, which rather than accent or illustrate seem to turn about the spines of the songs like Calder mobiles. His style disperses the ego-command model of western composition into an assemblage without centre or maybe with a myriad of them, evolving in relationship rather than static form. As in the lyrics of the final Sainte-Marie song here, Magnanensi’s little musical wheels spin and spin, and turn big wheels around.
Hille emphasizes that she is but one among those interlocking hubs: “I actually feel like this is his album more than my own,” she says. “I am just a lucky orchestra member.” (The Sainte-Marie recordings come from their premiere with Trudel’s musicians at Vancouver’s Chan Centre, while the Young tunes were conducted by Magnanensi in the studio with Hille’s Swell Band, who also played on This Riot Life.)
These dynamics combined to make Young Saint Marie a breakthrough in Hille’s own artistic growth: “I really felt something large happen to me: a new requirement of delivering the song as cleanly as possible.”
It was partly the fact that these were other people’s songs, a situation that calls on a performer to let go her own ego. It was partly the meditative concentration it took to stay in synch with the orchestra and Magnanensi’s arrangements. But it was also, Hille says, “perhaps because of the difficulties I was having with pregnancies during that time.”
These were complications that brought the fragility of life perilously close. (Listen to Hille’s tough reading of Young’s line in “Cortez the Killer,” about those who “offered life in sacrifice so that others could go on.”) That background made particular touchstones of the two songs dedicated to children here, Sainte-Marie’s “Winter Boy”and Young’s “Transformer Man,”which Hille still sings frequently to her young son Anders.
On the day of the premiere all these factors came together: “I just did it, and it took everything I had.”
What you hear on Young Saint Marie, then, with its Joan-of-Arc-recalling title, is an artist throwing herself on the pyre of song and trusting to what comes next. It’s there in the way she revives the potent oddness (and undoes the sexism) of Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid,” with its lines, “It’s hard to make that change/ When life and love turns strange and old./ To give a love you’ve got to live a love… You’ve got to be ‘part of.’ ”
And it’s there in the final seconds of the record, when she caps the hypnagogic dream-truths of “After the Goldrush” with the chorus of another tune, to “leave us helpless, helpless, helpless.”
It’s an unexpected word on which to end such a fearless performance, but a perfect note to incarnate the self-abandon that animates Young Saint Marie: We are helpless, we are part of, we are little wheels. One and one and one make three … giving everything they have.