Diamanda Galas and the Arts of the Craft
Over three nights at Harlem's St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Red Bull Music Academy brought iconic avant-garde vocalist Diamanda Galás to play some of her first live shows in the NYC area in years. The setting matched the performance: ethereal, brooding, otherworldly, emotional, intense and one for the record books. Thankfully, the audio from this monumental occasion was preserved across a live LP, At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem.
The new live LP is one of two recently released by the incomparable vocalist, who also is responsible for All the Way, a set of "radical reworkings of traditional and jazz standards" as only Galás could deliver. Both are her first releases in close to a decade, with All the Way serving as her first set of studio material in more than two decades. Her fans have been waiting, and Galás plans to make up for lost time with her new Intravenal Sound Operations label, readying a decade of material for release.
Diamanda Galás is one of the greatest living performers, boasting some of the most impressive vocals and techniques in all of music. But none of that would matter if she didn't have the unequaled creativity to keep things fresh and interesting show after show. And while her dark live intensity is unparalleled, she is an open and inviting presence on the phone, answering all questions about her new recordings, vocal techniques and history with jokes, snide remarks and an approach that screamed "old New York." The results of our incredible conversation — which spanned everything from Jaz Coleman to her newfound freedom as a label head — are below.
Let’s get down to brass tacks: You have two albums coming out on March 24, and it’s been such a long time since your last release. Why not space them out a little bit?
Well, why don’t you ask another question? Why haven’t I released 10 albums at this point? I have so much material from the last 10 years — I have enough material for 10 albums. But there’s a reason I don’t have 10 albums. I just didn’t have the money to produce them, but I have so much material that it’s like coming out of my bloody ears! I have everyone saying, “Why didn’t you include this song? Why didn’t you include this song?” and I’m just like, “Oh, hell, just give me a break.”
Give me a thousand dollar bills, too! As far as spacing them out, I couldn’t possibly space them out because I’d be a motherfucking liar. I’d be telling you, “Oh yeah, it took me one year to learn these songs,” you know? No! I’m a one-take girl. I take a song, I look at it, I practice it and then I get it on the first take. Then I’m ready for the next song. It’s not that hard for me. I came up playing this shit with my father when I was 13, so a lot of this stuff is not the standards. It’s not hard for me — I just know it.
But I’m sure the way you did them with your father was way different.
You’re not kidding! I wasn’t allowed to sing at all! He said singers ... anyone who sang is a whore! Any woman who sits at the microphone is a bloody whore, so I wasn’t allowed to sing. But I was allowed to play piano 50 songs a night with no music and just do it by ear. That’s why I have so many bloody songs, and why it would be such a lie to just release one record and say, “Oh, well, you know I just did these six songs in the last 10 years. Think about how much is invested in each song. Let’s see. One year!” So, that’s kind of a lie, really, so … I thought that maybe I should be a little bit more honest. But I’m going to tell you what: When I heard the result of the concert, I was so intoxicated with the sound of that church that I said we must release it. Red Bull Music Academy gave me the studio for free! I don’t know who paid for that, but I’m very grateful for that.
So, you’ve performed in a church like that before?
Oh yes, of course. I’ve even performed in [Cathedral] Saint John the Divine before. Saint John the Divine is extremely difficult to perform in because the sound sometimes gets trapped in the ceiling. Sometimes you’re singing and you say, “Where’s the sound?” and the sound is still in the ceiling, so you have to wait it out. But I love those places. You can’t possibly simulate with electronics the kind of sounds you get in a place like that. Forget about it! I’m not saying it’s not going to be as good, but it’s not going to be that. It’ll be good in a different way, you know.
I’m sure you could get a similar sound, but it won’t be as impactful in the moment, and thereby your performance won’t be quite as good, etc.
Yeah, like, if I’m gonna do that, then I should just do a soul ballad. I think a soul ballad still sounds good in a church because, after all, they’re still based off gospel singing, which brings us back into the church. A lot of music that I sing, a lot of Middle Eastern music, comes from the Byzantine tradition, which brings us still back into the church. I guess I’m a church singer — whaddya know? But also, the best place to sing is in a very tightly tiled surface, or rock. So, there’s a lot of acoustical and industrial spaces that are good, too.
Let's go back to these eight years of recordings that you have. A lot of this is putting your spin on jazz classics and stuff. Is that kind of what you’ve done? Do you have original stuff?
Yes. I have all of those kinds of jazz classics, soul classics and all that. Then I have a lot of material that is Middle Eastern singing that I’ve done that has not been released, and a lot of Greek singing that’s not been released. Cante jondo from the south of Spain, gypsy singing that I haven’t released — just so much songs that I haven’t released. So, as far as original material, I have 80 minutes of that material, which I recorded in San Diego and that I recorded in Poland, that I haven’t released. So, there’s a lot of material, and it’s really exciting to have my own label, because now I just go ahead and release the goddamn thing when I feel like it and when I want to do it. That’s the way it should be.
But of course, when you have your own label, you have to be kind of a financial boss. You have to produce it financially every single step of the way, not just the rehearsal of the thing — the recording of the thing, the mastering of the thing, the mixing of the thing, the whole thing. [You’re] paying off sorts of kinds of royalties if you’re working with different poets, you know, all sorts of things. There’s a lot involved in being, in a sense, the publishing company as well. There’s a great deal that I’m discovering because this is, after all, my first foray into the world of being my own record company. And I like it. A lot.
It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s all working out real good, and that’s why I was able to do two albums — because I felt like it. [Laughs]
I think that outwardly, it seemed like you were quiet for a long time, and then all of a sudden — guns blazing.
That’s because I was quiet in New York. People didn’t understand that my mother was dying and I needed to be with my mother, and I was not going to let anything get in the way of that. It wasn’t my job to make a press release and say, “Oh, I’m going to San Diego because my mother’s ill.” So, therefore, I just went to San Diego and worked in a recording studio there; and also, before that, I was working in Europe. I had a Parisian manager and my gigs were all in Europe. I could see people in America saying, “Why don’t you do any gigs here?” Because I don’t perform for 700 bucks, buddy. I’ll show my fucking face when I’m paid! And, if you can’t pay me, then that’s too bad. I don’t do social work. If I’m going to do social work, it’s going to be in the medical area; it’s not going to be in the music field. [Laughs]
Do you have any interest in branching outside of releasing your own material? A record by a band or another singer on your label?
Oh, yes! This morning I had that thought: “Wouldn’t that be funny?” Wouldn’t that be fun if someone gave me a lot of money so I could afford to do shit like that. But at the moment, the problem is, I have to save my money so I can raise my own stuff. I have a backlog [of material], and the backlog is so huge. I have tapes in San Diego that are guarded there. If I get to that point where I want to release other musicians — which is a tremendously exciting thought — then I’ll do it because it should be done. The problem is I’m not a rich person, so I can’t really do that. That being said, I’m taking donations, though.
Sincerely, if you know people in the more altruistic side of the business, and you decide that you think you can find people who will give me money, honey, I’m here.
Do you ever see yourself slowing down? Not ripping things out, running your own label, playing shows, putting out records ...
Do you think I’m going to die?
[Laughs] No! No, no, no. [Laughs]
I’m just pulling your leg. I was on Mute Records for a long time, and Mute Records never distributed my records. They were very bad. Suddenly, they sold all of my records — they sold all of my records and all of Nick Cave’s records — to EMI, who sold them to Universal, who sold them to BMG. So, my work was not available for anyone to get, unless you wanted to pay $100. That’s why I’m so happy, and why I wanted to have my own label for long. I got sick to death of [Mute], and I refuse to speak to Daniel Miller. I have not spoken to him since 2012. I gave him an ultimatum; I said if you want to be remembered well, I suggest you give me all my records back. I need them. So, I’m not going to discuss the outcome of that, but I will tell you that I will be re-releasing my own records under my own label.
So, the reason that you might see pedal-to-the-metal is because I have been fighting for so long with this record company to get my own material back. I had to fight with BMG for five years — since 2012 — to see if we could make a deal so they would let me have my 10 records back. Part of what has happened is, when you take an artist that has been published for so long and then you stop publishing them, the artist suffers profoundly. You don’t know if your work is going to disappear forever. At the same time, they were stupid enough to send me all the fucking masters. So, I’ve had all the masters and have always known that there was going to be some way for me to get all my shit out there. So, if it seems like it is pedal-to-the-metal, it’s because I can. And now I can do just what I want.
I’ll tell you what: You were right about both things. I’m either dead or I’m pedal-to-the-metal. That’s who I am. Dead and pedal-to-the-metal.
[Laughs] For the record, I never said you were dead!
Yes you did. You said I was dying.
[Laughs] No I didn’t.
You are right, though: I can’t slow down because I just can’t slow down. I want to be slow. Sometimes I get myself slow, but I won’t discuss that at all. [Laughs]
Obviously, your vocal style is so unique and so varied. There are people that can’t even sing more than two octaves on a scale ...
Wait a second — two octaves is a lot of singing. C, middle C, to the C above that to the high C. Two octaves is huge, and when people talk about having six octaves, I just burst out laughing. The only people I know that have six octaves were singers from the very, very early Del Gato style in Italy. They had four octaves. I’ve never even heard of a singer with six octaves, except maybe one man in my whole life. Now, there are idiots out there who talk about how many octaves they have, but is even one of your octaves interesting? If one of your octaves isn’t interesting, who cares about the others?
[Laughs] That is totally true.
Yes! It’s what you want to do. If you sing five octaves, six octaves, seven octaves, eight — if you sing like a choo-choo train, I could give a fuck. I care if you’re a musician. That’s all I care about. There’s some thing up there that puts me in that category with having the most octaves in the world, and I want to tell those people — at the most, I want to tell them to fuck off. I’m gonna say fuck off!
Let me put it this way: Your range and ability — creativity aside — is also very impressive technically.
Well, it has to be. I work on it. I have a natural talent for it.
How do you work on it?
Well, I continue to study the voice. I have a teacher and I continue to work with her. People make mistakes, and people can always make mistakes. I’ve studied vocal technique since I was 28 years old. I’m not going to stop. Plácido Domingo does the same thing. He never stops working with a teacher. It’s like Chinese martial arts, which I’m so inspired by: You never ever think of not having a teacher. That person is the one you go to to make sure that you are on the cutting edge, because if you don’t, and you have no discipline, then you can forget it. I’m not interested in octaves; I’m interested in the quality of the sound.
So, you’re still going to a vocal coach. I’m just trying to imagine this vocal coach.
She’s amazing! She’s five feet tall at most. She’s four-foot-eight or 10 or whatever. She’s a genius. Her name is Barbara Maier Gustern. She’s a vocal genius, and she works with a lot of different people that do very radically different things than I do. I met her many years ago when I met her best friend when I was in a mental institution, and her friend said, “When you get out of here, if you go to New York, why don’t you call my best friend?” And I called her best friend, who happened to be one of the best teachers in the world, period. That’s it. I say that laughing because the last reference you’d ever think you’d get would be in a mental institution, but there it was!
A lot of genius comes from teetering on insanity, as they say.
Well, I don’t have the qualifying papers to argue with it, but I’d say there’s a lot of [dullness] in those places, too. I wouldn’t say that mental illness is a qualification for being a good artist. I would say being a good artist is what’s important. There [are] things that happen in life that put us in places in different times, whether you work in a gas station or whether you’re a poet. You know what I mean? I wouldn’t say that’s my kind of thing. I’d say working hard and being incapable of separating myself from pain — other people’s pain — is perhaps something that can hurt and can be wounding, but it is imperative because it gives you the vocabulary to work honestly.
You’re such an interesting character, and people want to know as much as they can about you. What’s an interesting fact about you that is probably not known to the general public? It could be really anything.
Well, probably anything not known by the general public is something I don’t want them to know. [Laughs]
It could be something as mundane as “I love modern pop music.”
Well, I’ll tell you something right now: I’m standing here looking at a box set of Marlene Dietrich. I adore Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead. I’m probably Tallulah Bankhead’s biggest fan. You might say that. That might be interesting.
Do you think you’re going to be doing any more live shows in the coming year?
Oh, dear. I’m just doing a tour right now — a tour in America and a tour in Europe. I am so happy about that. Then we go to Europe after that, but I am really excited about going to New Orleans. I’m very excited that I have a wonderful, wonderful booking agent in America now, and I haven’t had that in many, many years. So, I’ll be able to actually play the hell out of America. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s really going to be a great pleasure. I just want to say my great booking agent is Jody Harper.
Who booked that last Killing Joke tour.
Yep! Jaz Coleman called me about 15 years ago, and he said, “You and I should go to Morocco where I have a place, and we should do a record together.” And I said, “Let's do it!” We didn’t have the money to do it, but I gave her a message to say hello to Jaz Coleman for me.