With an operatic vocal range of three octaves—some say four, it’s a big mystery— Diamanda Galás’ music praises love and honor through the realization of death’s imminence. Her nearly four decade-spanning career has even seen her condemned by the Catholic Church for performing her piece Plague Mass topless and covered in blood (a protest of the clergy’s religious indignation towards AIDS victims). In 2003, she released Defixiones: Will and Testament, a live album made as a tribute to the Greek-Anatolian, Assyrian, and Armenian victims of the Turkish Genocides from 1914 to 1924. Her mastery of piano was cemented at a young age when she accompanied her father’s New Orleans-style jazz band (based out of San Diego). Since then, she has paid homage to that heritage in her expressive avant-garde work by twisting traditional gospel, jazz, and blues songs into raucous covers that seem to strain both ears and throat. Galás has even collaborated with John Paul Jones with 1994’s The Sporting Life. The root of the blues tradition is in the suffering one feels, and how immensely difficult it can be to express that sense of misery. Diamanda Galás wrenches the same soul-filled agony as she shrieks the name of death into the world.
You have a history with New Orleans, is that correct?
New Orleans is one of the first traditions I ever learned on the piano. My father’s band was a New Orleans jazz band. I’ve never been there to the city, but I’m so thrilled to go to one of the most divine places in the world. His [band] was called The Flames (he also had other bands I played in). He played bass and I played piano. We did Fats Waller songs and a lot of New Orleans jazz songs, and that’s what I grew up playing on the piano. As well as classical piano. It was a very thorough musical education.
When did you first start singing?
My father’s side of the family is Greek and Egyptian, but the Greek side is from Turkey, or what is called Turkey. I don’t use that expression. It means a country to and for the Turks, but the word should be Anatolia (meaning the sun rising in the east). My father’s background was very extreme about women. His idea was that every woman that opened her mouth to sing was a whore. He would say “putana” which means whore. I would sing when he was out of the house, and I would listen very carefully to make sure I didn’t hear any feet coming up the stairs. [laughs] But you know what, it was probably for the best that ever happened because I learned how to play chords. Maybe he did me a favor because he said that in all the bands that he played in, the singers sang out of tune—they didn’t have any sense of time and their pitch was off. The singer was just the thing, the model that stood in front of the band, and she was usually drunk. Everybody had to help her through the set. The bass, the drum and the trombone were laying down the time and the melody. My dad wanted me to be a real musician. It’s kind of a blessing, because I can do these gigs, and I don’t need anybody except for me—just voice and piano. But I do need great engineers, because I like to work with electronic processing of the voice and also the piano. I have been more and more interested in that. I do want to do stuff with bands and I occasionally do. But it’s difficult enough to get paid to do vocals and piano, much less to bring other people in. We do not get the money to create like they do in other countries such as Canada and Europe. Like, “why would I give you a buck to create?”
Art never seems to be given any credit.
I was raised as an artist. The only time I actually feel free is when I’m doing my art. It’s hard for me to sleep. It’s hard for me to wake up. I feel like I’m in some sort of weird cage and I can’t get out. I can’t escape the feeling, and I can’t really fill myself. I can’t really live, but when I’m doing the music then I’m free.
Is that sense of freedom based in the creative process or the actual performance?
If you’re doing a performance the way I like to do it, each time is different. But this would be the same of any musician who was a great musician: the person takes the piece and rediscovers it, reinterprets it, and does the research again on the piece. When you compose a piece or when you interpret a piece, you discover new levels of what the lyricist meant. And with chord changes you shape that—unlike some alternative musicians, who don’t understand that you move from chord to chord to tell a story. Chords are the narrative and if you only have three chords, you’re not telling the whole story.
There is no god, and there is no hope. There is only one thing you can depend upon, and that’s your own death. Everything else is just an illusion.
That’s interesting. I mean, when you play a standard, you should lay down the song the way it was written and make clear the melody. In “Round Midnight,” I do it in a very different way. I make the melody very clear, but most people can’t hear it. Most people can’t hear that I’m playing the fucking melody of the song, and that’s their fucking problem if they can’t hear. In general, you gotta definitely play the melody, and then make the changes. Whenever you decide to do the wilding shit it’s up to you, but you still have to make it clear what the song is that you are doing. I want to agree with you. I just have to make it clear that that’s not always the case because in “O Death,” I start off with the amanes, which is a call to prayer not to a god, but to the mother. It’s a soldier’s last cry on the battlefield before he dies. He knows he’s dying, and he just wants… some sort of comfort, some consolation. That’s how the songs starts, and then I go into the song. It’s a very Middle Eastern and Anatolian tradition.
Did your dad ever catch you singing?
[laughs] Of course he did! That’s why I stopped singing when he was there. He wouldn’t even talk to me while I was practicing piano or improvising. He would scream though, “Tatum! Tatum! Tatum!” He was screaming that because Art Tatum was the master of piano and he would say “Come on, Tatum!” and I’m just a little girl playing my solo, and he’s screaming at me like a military sergeant. You can see this one picture he’s in a wife-beater and these pants… I don’t know, it’s a trip. You see this Greek man and this girl who’s sitting at the piano and he’s screaming at me while I play. [laughs] But that’s how I grew up and learned to play. I would show up to a gig with no lead sheet, no chord changes, no fake book. Do you know what a fake book is?
So fake books are books that might have a thousand songs in them and they’ll have the chord changes with the lyrics. My dad would send me to gigs without any of this: “You don’t need any of that crap, you’ll do fine.” [laughs] So I’d be 13 years old going to gigs without knowing a single song. He would sing the melody, and I’d play the changes and that would be it. I’m telling you, if you can accompany a drunk on “A Clear Day and You Can See Forever,” and the drunk changes keys 12 times, you can play anything. That was his gift to me, but also he taught me that no matter what happens during the gig, you gotta win by the end of the gig. If something goes down that’s bad during the gig, you rescue that shit no matter what it is and you come off that stage as a winner. You don’t lose onstage, you win onstage. I respect that kind of attitude. A lot of people go onstage and when they don’t do too good, they send up a few drinks. They fuck around and stand (usually it’s the singer) there by the mic as if they’re sexy or something. They let the band do all the work, and then they walk off stage like a fucking weasel and fucking whine about the band. This is my theory on them, they should be thrown out on the street and fucked by orangutans.
I feel like that happens with a lot of bands with rockstar mentality.
Yes. Baby, you’re not all that. I wanna say “You think you’re all that? Really, you do? You are not. You have a rhythm section.” This is what I would talk to John Paul Jones about, because the reason why we played together was the mutual respect. You’ll never find a player like him in this world. Nobody can play like John Paul Jones. He could lay down this sound, and his sense of time was just radical. Him and John Bonham were the staple for that band, no matter what anybody else did. They could run around on stage, play or not play, the song is still going on. The rhythm section has to be strong, they don’t get to go out there in the front line and act like all that. They’re like factory workers building the ship, while the admiral was out there talking a bunch of shit to somebody else. Those are the musicians I’m interested in.
There is something elemental to a good rhythm section.
Without that, nothing matters. That’s why I play the piano and that’s what is fascinating about the New Orleans tradition. Jelly Roll Morton studied classical, and then he applied it to his left hand. He held the whole rhythm section in his left hand. I used to get into problems with drummers and bassists because I would play too much of their rhythm. “That’s our job,” they’d say. Well, I’m not gonna fucking lay out. So I started singing, so I could lead the fucking band. I had this kind of attitude, but this was in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The piano wasn’t used as an improvisational instrument; it was in the jazz fusion scene, but that isn’t what I’m talking about. Except maybe Miles Davis. He was way, way happening.
At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem has a few songs that were originally poems, is that correct?
Yes! The first track on the recording isv“Verrá la more e avrá tuoi occhi” [Death will come and have your eyes] by Cesare Pavese. “Die Stunde Kommt” I call it, “The Hour Will Come,” but the poet’s title is “Oh love as long as you can.” He’s talking about a person standing over the grave of a person, wishing he had not said the cruel things he said while the person was alive and sick. So it’s saying, please be kind to someone who is sick, please don’t be angry with them. It will be a temptation at some point, but you will stand at their grave and regret it… it’s hard to talk about. These songs are hard for me to talk about… Artemis [by Gérard de Nerval] is a beautiful poem about loving the one who loves you first from the cradle… and it’s death and only death. There is no god, and there is no hope. There is only one thing you can depend upon, and that’s your own death. Everything else is just an illusion. Nerval suffered a lot mentally. I don’t really believe he suffered undue persecution, but that’s the poet trying to live out an ideal. I mean, just imagine the life of a poet, that’s just ridiculous. Ridiculous like, trying to make money being a poet. It’s also ridiculous because Nerval was a man who walked around with a lobster on a leash. He was pretty crazy, but maybe he found companionship with this creature like many mental patients or prisoners find in their cells upon the entrance of a spider. They suddenly have a friend and someone to talk to. It’s lonely out there. There are so many people thrown out of mental institutions, into the street and without any help. I was in a hospital, and there was a woman standing over the cradle of her one-day-old baby screaming, “Shut up! Why won’t you shut up!” If you are raised in something like this, what can you expect to happen?
It turns cyclical; many people with disabilities get thrown into jail without proper treatment or evaluation. The National Sheriff’s Association has publicly commented that they need to address the mental health of incoming arrestees so they are put into proper treatment.
They put people who are completely weak and powerless in the hands of predators.
In the past, some of your work—like Plague Mass—has attacked the elements of male patriarchal society that condemn those deemed unfit by their standards. What do you think about contemporary groups that use violence to attack these forces?
Look, here’s what I can say about that. I really encourage vigilante groups that take care of rapists. When they know someone is a rapist and the DNA proves it, but they get out because of a stupid bullshit thing they had with their lawyer, I think it’s wonderful that they go out and let themselves have at it. Women, for example, should be allowed to render justice unto the person who has raped them. Women should be left alone with that person in a jail cell and with all the fucking ammunition we need to make their life a living hell. That should be the punishment, but it’s not. We’re disempowered. When we render this justice, we go to prison for the rest of our lives.
You stepped away from playing live and recording for a few years, is that correct?
I left the music business in New York for a few years to take care of my mother. She was dying. She’s the only family I have, and now she’s doing really, really good. But at the time, I had to take care of my mother, so fuck music. Fuck music! Fuck everybody! This is my mother. The reason I do the music I do is because I feel. I feel too much. People who feel too much are in danger. If there are individuals who are parasites to those who are sympathetic, that person needs to be taught a lesson. Like good fucking bye baby, here’s 50 bucks.[laughs]
In the past you’ve done different stage setups; what should the audience expect to see for this tour?
These upcoming shows will be pretty straight-forward with just me and the piano. There’ll be some electronic processing on both, but that’s about it. I have a show I have been working on for three or four years now, The Fever Hospital. I worked on it in Poland and San Diego. Finished the music to it and it’s long, like 80 minutes. Now I’m just developing the theatrical components, the staging and possibly orchestrating the piece, because a lot of people have reached out who want to be a part of it. I’m leery to have too many musicians; I just want a few. I would love to get a couple of guys who know how to work with bullwhips. I want some fucking percussionist who really knows how to fucking use a whip, because I want to do some vocal stuff with it. Trying to find the money to do that in this fucking country is laughable. That’s taking a little time, but it’s going to happen. In the meantime, I’m doing these shows and playing new pieces I’ve never gotten to play in America. So it’ll be a real joy to play them. It’s great to be able to change up what I play as a musician. If I were doing what I were doing in my earlier work, which was mostly quadraphonic, I would be bored to death. After years I would’ve been bored doing it. I like to work in different mediums. It’s natural.
So it’s been on my mind awhile, people online go back and forth saying you have a three octave range, while others say you have a four octave range. Which is it?
I suppose three octaves, but that stuff is absolute nonsense and does not measure the quality of the human voice. If your voice is crap, that just means you can stretch crap further than the next guy.
Diamanda Galás will be at the Joy Theater on April 11th. She is currently touring in support of her two new albums All The Way and Live at St. Thomas the Apostle Harlem, both available via Intravenal Sound Operations. For more info, check out diamandagalas.com.