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  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
MARC JACOBS
  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
ABEL FERRARA
BRIAN WILSON
WILL OLDHAM
DJ SPOOKY

Diamanda Galas, 1999

WITH WILL OLDHAM
PHOTOGRAPHED BY CRIS MOOR


When we heard that Will Oldham was interested to talk with Diamanda Galas, we immediately took him up on the offer. The pairing of the two singers was so unexpected that we knew a conversation between them would be worth listening in on. Oldham, who for years recorded as Palace and Palace Brothers, has a voice that is rooted in the country, folk, and blues traditions of American music. Galas, whose voice is best-described as a force of nature, brings operatic training to performances in which she easily moves from one language to another, from jazz standards and murder ballads to torch songs and otherworldly improvisation.
Galas's most recent album, Malediction and Prayer, brings together live recordings of songs as diverse as "My World Is Empty Without You," "Gloomy Sunday," and "25 Minutes To Go." And although these are songs made famous by The Supremes, Billie Holliday and Johnny Cash, Galas totally transforms them and inhabits them in a world of her own. Little wonder that Oldham thinks of Galas as one of very few artists performing and recording today worth talking to about the voice and singing. Which is exactly what they ended up doing.


WILL: I feel so deprived of singing in everyday life, I was wondering if singing enters at all into your everyday life? Do you ever sing to friends or family in even small ways?
DIAMANDA: No, but that's because I wasn't allowed to sing at home.

WILL: Don't you ever sing a loved one to sleep or something like that?
DIAMANDA: Oh, what a lovely thought. All the loved ones I know would pay me money not to do that! [laughs] Everyone invites me to sing at funerals, but I have not been invited to sing at any weddings. That's just the way it is. I would if they asked me. I mean, I would do Doris Day songs or something. She's a genius. Talk about phrasing! But I've really never had a relationship with someone who asked me to sing. And it's also because of my father. He encouraged me to play music, but he told me he didn't want me singing in the house. Greek men think of that as what whores do — because they sing to advertise.

WILL: Do they really?
DIAMANDA: Yeah, they do.

WILL: Well, I don't think I could resist.
DIAMANDA: [laughs] You mean you can't resist being a singer advertising your work?

WILL: No, I don't think I could resist a prostitute that advertised herself by singing.
DIAMANDA: Don't you think that's so cool? I mean, the people that liberated me from that concept, to tell you the truth, were a bunch of black drag queens that I was living with and working with on the street. I would sing soul songs with them in the '70s and it was so much fun. They said, "You know, you have a really good voice. Why don't you walk down the street and sing?" I thought, "You must be kidding." This black drag queen told me I could sing. [laughs] That was a challenge to my father.

WILL: "Dad ..."
DIAMANDA: "Guess what? Butch over here said I could sing, so fuck you." In a sense, the old-fashioned Greek side of me says, "No, don't sing around people," but I love the idea. Although I can't say that I've always appreciated singers who would suddenly burst into song at the drop of a hat and expect me to listen to it. As a matter of fact, the thing I find most annoying is these rap guys who walk down the street doing their little rap to themselves. Oh, I hate that. I just want to take some sulfuric acid and throw it in their fucking face. Because it's always about "the bitch blah-blah blah," and they walk into your face with that. I want to say, "I know who you're talking to." The only thing that I can think of is responding in kind, just go off on one of those shrieks that I do. Just go, "Oh yeah? Let me tell you about it. I'm just rehearsing, too, buddy."

WILL: I'm interested in the different voices that you have.
DIAMANDA: They're not identifiable by me. I don't have this voice and that voice. But I know what you're saying.

WILL: Because especially from the two performances I've seen of Malediction and Prayer, and from the records, I've noticed that you sometimes choose to use one or another aspect of your voice on a specific line.
DIAMANDA: I like that. To me, that freedom is wonderful, because that's when you're able — not as an actress, but being able to really interpret the words, to interpret the phrasing. It's a beautiful thing.

WILL: My own relationship to the listening experience with you usually not with the lyrics, it's usually just the voice. And your show at the Knitting Factory was so great, it took me so many totally unexpected places. Then at the end to hear you sing, "I'm gonna live the life I sing about in my songs," it was the first time that the lyric and the music ...
DIAMANDA: Where you heard them equally?

WILL: Yeah.
DIAMANDA: For anyone to sing that song, there has to be a total commitment, because it's way over the top. Really! I've sung it many many times. It's very much about the words, about doing this sort of shit for years and years and years and years, and taking the abuse. So I feel very prepared to sing it! [laughs]

WILL: It's a song, that talks about singing, about what happens supposedly outside of the singing — the living. And the feeling is that you've been there and that it's something ...
DIAMANDA: That you know. It's nice to hear that interpretation. Because I think that's exactly how I feel when I'm singing it. I mean, Jesus, here's Mahalia Jackson singing that song, and she's saying, "You don't go to church on Sunday, and you get drunk on Monday." It's just so obvious.

WILL: A friend of mine sent me a recent interview with you. It was the first time I've heard you mention Oum Kalsoum.
DIAMANDA: So many people brag about not learning how to sing, and they think it's far out. With Oum Kalsoum, we have someone for whom the most important thing, as a singer, is not to be weak — to be able to sing and be powerful three hours a night. I just love that. But if people talk about Oum Kalsoum, they think it's an exotic thing. "Exotic." What the fuck is that? World music? Is American music the only music and everything else is world music? The music isn't understood. They think it's just ambient music for rock and roll singers. It's not even ...

WILL: It's atmosphere.
DIAMANDA: "This is about smoking hashish when I was in Morocco ..." Please! Do you think that's all they think about in Morocco? My god, you're fucking crazy. That's the imperialistic use of all the other sources that rock and roll people do all the time. Like the Madonna thing now. She was trying to be Middle Eastern last year. She was African, then she was Puerto Rican, and now ... she's nobody. It hurts me, and it hurts the East Indian singers and all these people to see some person ...

WILL: Some punk-ass ...
DIAMANDA: ... bitch who can't sing even a diatonic scale trying to handle that music. Just leave it alone. Because it has a lot of religious overtones to a large group of people. Just do your own punk shit, sing Christmas carols. Just leave the real shit alone.
Do you know the Rembetika music at all?

WILL: A little bit. I just got a record by this guy Dalgas.
He's Turkish and recorded in Greece in the late '20s, early '30s. His voice has this throatiness ... It's very good. I can't figure out how to sustain that throatiness.

DIAMANDA: What do you mean?

WILL: Oum Kalsoum sings that way, and Dalgas sings that way, with just the throatiness. There's never any texture to the voice. There's never any variety to the timbre.
DIAMANDA: It's one timbre. Pretty much.

WILL: But how did they go so much with that one timbre?
DIAMANDA: Even though it's one timbre, there still may be lots of timbres within one timbre. They're trying to keep an even scale. And that's a bel canto thing, too. That's what opera singers aim for. They do it over three and a half octaves. They try to keep an even scale so high notes don't sound thinner than the lower notes. The Middle Eastern singers have that same tradition. You don't want to hear the break in the voice. It's a little lower. They don't go into the soprano stuff at all.

WILL: It feels more like a real voice.
DIAMANDA: Lower.

WILL: Yes, from the soul or something.
DIAMANDA: Except that the really great opera singers can sing that voice as well. They can sing the chest voice. Like Maria Callas. She'd sing the high soprano stuff, and she'd go straight from a high C right to a G below middle C, just like that, BAM — really in that chest register. So that's another kind of art music. And to tell you the truth, I think it takes more skill.
Do you know the Dixie Hummingbirds?

WILL: No.
DIAMANDA: It's an old gospel group. They're in their sixties and seventies now. I was going to Europe, and we were on the same plane. I was talking with one of them, and he said, "You know, people are under the misapprehension that gospel music is this pure form, and we've influenced everybody but we haven't been influenced by anything." He said, "Bullshit. Every time I hear anything, whether it's country music or whatever it is, I take everything I like and put it right into the next song. That's the way the music stays alive."

WILL: People assume that an influence is going to be so overt.
DIAMANDA: Like stealing. A lot of performers just steal. They don't hear it and integrate it into their vision. They just can't hear — that's the problem! [laughs] But I loved this old guy from the Dixie Hummingbirds. We were talking about that band from England that rips off Stevie Wonder ... That white guy with the hat ...

WILL: Oh, we had a joke about him for a long time.
DIAMANDA: [makes puking sound] I had the television on, and I saw this guy doing Stevie Wonder. Oh my god! This is like Al Jolson. This is tragic. He had all the chord changes, some of the words, the arrangements, everything. I thought, "Why don't you just pretend you're singing at the Blue Note, and just say, "This is by Stevie Wonder, and I'm doing my interpretation." Why do you have to pretend it's your song?
I think it's just cruel to do that. I think it's soul-stealing.

WILL: In some ways, I think it's crueler to the audience.
DIAMANDA: [laughs] It's hard enough on the artist. I mean, I've seen people do it to me, and I really don't like it. I don't consider it flattery. I just want them mowed down in the middle of the street by a fucking tractor. I don't want to be flattered. I just want to get paid! [laughs] But anyway, you were making a point about something and I interrupted twenty-five times.

WILL: Timbre ... How about Stevie Wonder's?
DIAMANDA: I have to tell you, I haven't listened to his singing for a long time. Of course, he's a wonderful singer, but I was never as interested in him as a singer as I was as a songwriter. Those beautiful chord changes, those 11ths and 13ths, those beautiful jazz changes, those things that most of these musicians couldn't do. "Alternative" musicians can't play three changes to save their ass ... But Stevie Wonder — and the Supremes — all that tradition of playing with those beautiful changes, it's so rich. They're so eloquent. They tell such a beautiful story. Wow, how can anyone get past that shit? And how can anyone steal it? When I do the Supremes song, "My World Is Empty Without You," man, I can't imagine how I would write a song and not give them credit.

WILL: In that song, when you go into the verse, it's a unique moment in your music. It's the most released moment, the least tense of any moment of any music of yours that I've heard. And as you listen to it, it's such a cool experience to have all of a sudden this opening up. It's like the chord, and then ...
DIAMANDA: Yeah, you're right. The chords are like that. They're endless major chords.

WILL: Exactly. Your voice almost sounds happy at that moment.
DIAMANDA: I started doing that song in 1986, coming down from crystal methedrine and kicking some man out of my car, out of my life. I was so depressed, and singing the song really slow, just pulverizingly dead. Really a horrible moment. I didn't think I'd sing it again, and then in 1992 I rediscovered it. I don't try to sing it like a dead person, but it is a sad song. I always think that with even the most depressing thing, the challenge for me is transforming it into something of beauty, transforming it into music. Not just trying to act like it's cool or hip or jaded. It's not like saying, "Well, I've been through everything, so ... I'm over." That's not interesting. That's Lou Reed, as far as I'm concerned, which is being repeated over and over again, but I won't go into that. [laughs]

WILL: Because of the variety of languages or non-languages that you sing in — the content is the voice. That's a ton of content. As I listen to a voice go from one kind of melody to another, or one note to another, or one kind of breath to another, that's like ...
DIAMANDA: It's a story.

WILL: Yes, totally.
DIAMANDA: Some people hear it as technique, because they can't hear anything but technique, so they think, "Oh, it's about virtuoso singing." Are they mad? Why do they think a person would be a virtuoso? So she can tell the story properly! Why else? This moron did a review of Ella Fitzgerald, some idiot from Time or Newsweek or whatever, and said that Ella Fitzgerald didn't have as much soul as Billie Holiday, but that she was a great technical singer. And I was like, "Who the fuck are you to make this comment about Ella Fitzgerald? This woman was one of the greatest singers in the fucking world, and because you can't hear what she's doing, it's just technique for you?" Wow, what a slag to say that.
I feel bad for real musicians and real singers. I just feel they have a hard time of it, because a lot of people can't hear. Or because the A&R people can't hear it, so they assume that the public can't hear it — which as we know isn't quite the same thing.

WILL: Do you think these singers have a sense of justice? Do you know what I'm saying? DIAMANDA: With Sarah Vaughan, one of the things that most irritated her was that she knew Tom Jones was getting paid so much more than she was. She knew she wasn't getting paid as much as Tom Jones and she could sing a million times better! The bottom line is that we're all human beings and everyone wants to get recognized for what he or she does.

WILL: Getting paid and getting recognized are two different things.
DIAMANDA: Indeed. I should be thankful for that. [laughs]

WILL: Did you ever have teachers?
DIAMANDA: Oh yeah. But not at the beginning. As a kid, I was just singing in choruses and with my father at home. I just had a voice.

WILL: Can you place what those teachers taught you?
DIAMANDA: I would say that the biggest thing that I've learned about timbre is moving through the bone structure of the skull, all through the skull, the resonance of the skull. Let's say if you sing a note and then you get its octave, like 2 or 3 octaves below, you get the sound and you have to keep up the concentration of that sound, keep up a resistance. You keep driving the sound, but it has to be really relaxed so you can get the lower timbre. That's where a person can go between different timbres.
You know, singers try to imitate what I do and they tell me, "I tried to do that last night, and then I couldn't sing for a week." And I say, "Well, that's not my fault, is it? I respect you for trying, but it's a craft, like anything else. I'm not just screaming. Really, I'm not." So if a person approaches it as screaming, they get the rewards of screaming. They won't be able to sing for a week! [laughs]

WILL: What a reward for us.
DIAMANDA: People hear it as screaming. But they used to hear Coltrane as screaming, too, so what the fuck am I going to say about that?

WILL: So where did you learn your power and resilience?
DIAMANDA: That's why I studied bel canto, because I realized with bel canto singing you have to project over an orchestra, like a Wagnerian orchestra, over the horns, without a microphone. So if you can sing over that, when you're singing with saxophone players or drummers like Sonny Murray, you'll be able to cut through the sound.

WILL: Were you singing words?
DIAMANDA: No, just notes. This was back in the mid-'70s, in San Diego. We had this band that was supported by the city. It was all these musicians who were out of work, and there were auditions, and they'd pay you $600 a month if they chose you. So all these different musicians ended up there, and we played together in a club downtown. We actually got paid for playing anything we wanted. Those were some wonderful days. We'd do Ayler songs, my own songs, totally free improvisation, jazz hits. We would go through a Carla Bley-influenced kind of a vibe, from New Orleans music to Ornette to maybe Mediaeval music. The evening would start out one way and it would end another way, and a lot of other musicians would sit in. We had these guys from Haiti, and we would do salsa versions of "Fever," just all sorts of weird things. Those were some wonderful days. They always are, those wonderful days that are relatively undocumented.

WILL: I was wondering about your relationship to your records. Do you consider them pieces, or documentation of pieces, or both?
DIAMANDA: Both, really. For Malediction and Prayer, I selected what I thought were the best performances from a long tour. And of course, every performance is completely different if you're an improviser. I can't imagine doing the same thing every night. I'd go fucking ballistic. So the records, as far as I'm concerned, are almost ... I don't mean to say they're failures, but you can only get a small part of what's happening from the records that I do. The performance is the main thing, I would think.

WILL: Are any of your records not representations of performances?
DIAMANDA: Saint Of The Pit was conceived in the studio. So was Litanies of Satan. That's very hard to do live. And also Divine Punishment. On this trilogy of albums, I was really just working by myself, with the producer and an engineer, playing all the synthesizers and pianos — everything but the drums, pretty much. I wasn't performing then. I had stopped for a few years. I just wanted to get these things out, this music that dealt with AIDS. I was so obsessed with it, and so sad, I felt too much grief to do that and perform.

WILL: You did "Dancing In the Dark" the other night at the Bowery Ballroom.
DIAMANDA: Yeah! We were going to have it on the live record, but I wasn't satisfied with any of the performances I had. But I liked the version the other night. I love that song. And I like singing it in this way where it starts out kind of arhythmic, and then the second verse gets real swing. To me it's scarier that it becomes a straight-ahead thing, because it's this epic, and it's very morbid. I like that.

WILL: Where did you learn the song from?
DIAMANDA: Actually, from Clive Barker. He came to a show I did with John Paul Jones in L.A. He was doing a film called Lord of Illusions, and he wanted me to sing "Dancing In the Dark." I didn't really know the song, and he started singing it to me, and then he gave me a tape of different people doing it — even Sonny Rollins's version. And he asked me if I would record it for his film. So I worked on it with my father, because he knew all the changes. Then I kept working on it until I had my own interpretation. The song was used in a Shirley Bassey way in the sense that it was at the end of the film, like "Goldfinger." It's a long film, a two-hour film, and then there's "Dancing In the Dark." I see it as a very apocalyptic song, and that's why I like singing it. I sing it straighter, but the piano is more wild in the beginning and out of time. Those changes could be like Cesar Franck or some of the earlier Hungarian composers. Beautiful changes ... I mean, if people can hear them! [laughs]

WILL: Yeah.
DIAMANDA: Which I really can't say. My boyfriend thinks that people probably don't have to know about them, because they can feel them. That's a beautiful point of view, and I hope it's true.

WILL: Ideally that's the point of the changes, that people should just feel them. Not know what happened to them, not know why they went from to A to B.
DIAMANDA: I'd like to think that. And it's my job to do that. Of course, the only thing that ever gets in my way is when there's some goddamn bitch in the front row, like in Frankfurt last year. This fucking bitch is talking to her boyfriend, laughing about some boy or something, and you have to hear this while you're singing a song with has a lot of breaks. So every time you pause, and change voicings and stop, you hear this chattering in the front row. That's the only time I really feel hopeless about it. Because I think, "People don't want to hear this shit."

WILL: Does that kind of experience ever serve — even perversely — to remind you of why you do things the way you do?
DIAMANDA: [laughs] No!

WILL: Sometimes if somebody in the audience seems contrary, then I think, "This is why we fight."
DIAMANDA: Maybe the difference is, when you're on stage, you're playing guitar and singing, and you're facing the audience. When I'm playing the piano, I've got my side to the audience. I'm in a totally defenseless position. If someone's going to throw turds on stage, I won't even know who the fuck it is. And if someone's going to take a shot at me while I'm sitting there, facing the piano, that's the most cowardly shot you can possibly take. There's nothing I can do. I can't stop playing — and I'm not going to stop playing.

WILL: That's the position you take in a duel, with pistols.
DIAMANDA: A straight-ahead position?

WILL: No, to your side. Because there's the least amount of attack surface. Facing straight ahead, you can get shot in the heart, but standing sideways, if you get shot it may only hit your shoulder.
DIAMANDA: Except for one thing ...

WILL: Yes?
DIAMANDA: That person is still facing the opponent. When I'm playing, I'm not facing toward anybody. I just think it's so beneath me when I'm playing this kind of music to have to fight with somebody like that. Especially at this stage of the game. When I was twenty-five, I had to do it all the time. When I was thirty-five, I still had to do it. But now, when I'm doing something that is like a recital program I don't want to go through that. It makes me very angry. And I have enough to be angry about, rather than being angry with some goddamn junked-up bitch in the front row who can't shut her mouth.

WILL: Is that something that really influences the performance?
DIAMANDA: Well, of course it does. Because it puts me in a really bad mood. And usually I transform it, and I get out of being angry. I never stop. Never. I never go off the stage. But now I think what I'm going to have to do is hire a couple of guys to pound the shit out of people who make a sound while I'm playing. As a matter of fact, I think I would enjoy having these guys around. "Hey, you see that bitch over there?" Or I would like to be able to jump on the bitch and beat her across the face. But then it would interrupt the show. So that's the next step, to acquire these big guys. I'd love to be like Tammy Wynette and ride around in one of those big fucking buses with a bed and a gold lamŽ bedspread, play cards with the engineers all night, and have these bouncers for the concerts ... What a life.


 
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Diamanda Galas by Cris Moor, 1999
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Diamanda Galas by Cris Moor, 1999
 
 
 
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