DIAMANDA GALAS: IT HAS TO GO TO MARS
illustration by alice rutherford
Diamanda Galás saved me from grunge. Back in the 90s, when everyone was jumping up-and-down about guitar tone/flannel/ misery (circle one or more) and most of popular culture seemed violently dull and satanically boring, shining out of this morass was a brilliant light of limitless voice and singular vision. Striking record stores in autumn 1993, her double CD Masque of the Red Death collected three previous releases—The Divine Punishment, Saint of the Pit and You Must Be Certain Of The Devil—and even now, I haven’t got the faintest clue what compelled me to buy it. As a cover star, her face was hidden beneath a black leather mask. I didn’t know her work. I didn’t know she was Greek—she looked and sounded like she was from another galaxy, let alone this planet. Her voice worked like a death ray, annihilating all that was inconsequential and tacky. All I know is that my life is inescapably and forever improved for the fact that that voice exists and has continually challenged me almost 25 years later. She has two new albums out—All The Way, a collection of her interpretations of jazz and standards, and At Saint Thomas The Apostle Harlem, a recording of her May 2016 live action at the shuttered St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Harlem. “Death songs,” she calls them. So I called her. She performs tonight, Apr. 3, and Wed., Apr. 5, at Vibiana. This interview by David Cotner.
How are you?
Diamanda Galás: Well, I’ve been doing what I do so often —which is get into fights with different members of the artistic community; the business community of the arts that I have to deal with, and that’s not very pleasant. At all. There’s a lot more of that than people would ever imagine. They think about the art world as a pleasurable part of the world, and they could not be further from the truth.
But you have to stand up for what you believe in.
Diamanda Galás: Correct—but that price is higher than most people would ever believe. It’s extremely high! Because what you believe in is also capable of making you very ill. If you cannot do that what you believe, you can become deathly ill. I’m not kidding when I say that. I’m really not kidding.
I trust that the questions I ask won’t make you sick.
Diamanda Galás: If they make me nauseous, I’ll let you know.
Very good! How important is quiet and silence to you and your art?
Diamanda Galás: Oh, what a beautiful question! Absolutely the most important. More than anything except for my mother. I don’t really like sound. I don’t like to hear sound very much unless I’m creating it myself. I don’t really like to hear it. I like to be alone. I don’t like to be around people very much. I like to be … I have so many thoughts. Too many thoughts! I’m not pushing that on anyone. You know what? I’m so not alone in this—there are so many people I know who have the same … well, they don’t have the same issues, but they have enough thoughts that they need to be alone for some time during the day. In my case, I need to be alone most of the day—practically all of it. These days, we have computers, so we already have this gigantic obligation of getting back to everyone. People used to write letters. At least when you wrote a letter, you thought, ‘Well, great! I don’t have to talk to that person for two weeks!’ And when they write me back, they’re going to give it a little thought. They’re going to think about what they write me. But now, we have cellphones—so people write stupid fucking shit on a cellphone instantly as it occurs to them, and then they expect a response. That kind of nonsense, I won’t tolerate that nonsense at all. I will not tolerate it. The people that I do business with on the cellphone—it’s all business, really. It’s not for pleasure.
Can you tell what kind of a singer someone is just by looking at them?
Diamanda Galás: No. No, you can’t. I’m sure there are people that tell you that they can, but I would never say such a thing.
Not even you, with all your years of expertise?
Diamanda Galás: Not at all. There are certain faces, or certain bone structures, you would think the person has no voice at all—and suddenly there’s this huge instrument. And then you see somebody else and that person you would think would make a gigantic sound, and can’t make a sound at all. Those things are completely impossible. There may be some magician who’s figured out a way to make those discernments, but I don’t know anyone who has.
Some people are leg people, or arm people. Are you a larynx person?
Diamanda Galás: [laughs] Why don’t you ask me if I’m a deep-throat person!
No, it’s a different thing! Maybe you would look at a person’s voice-box and think they’ve got something going on. Maybe they’ve got a graceful neck—
Diamanda Galás: —why would I ever want to look down somebody’s bloody throat!
No, I mean you look at someone and admire that they’ve got a very interesting voice-box—
Diamanda Galás: You mean you look down their throat?
I mean like if you look at someone’s neck—
Diamanda Galás: —the neck is not their voice-box, darling! [laughs] You know what? You were meant for me today. Today has been such a bloody pain in the ass. You were meant for me today. So continue talking.
Diamanda Galás: Yes, you are!
There’s a saying—some credit Aristotle, some say it was St. Francis Xavier of the Jesuits who said it—‘Show me the boy until he is 7 and I will show you the man.’ How does that apply to you, person-wise? Do you think you were fully-formed by the age of 7?
Diamanda Galás: I should hope not. I’ve read interviews that I did in my 30s, and I find some of them to be so appalling and so imbecilic that I would hope to have learned something in the meantime. I do find it a very amusing question, though!
What did you love most about the San Diego years?
Diamanda Galás: San Diego! Well, where I was raised was closer to Baja California. I like to say ‘Baja California’ more than ‘San Diego’ because it’s ten minutes from TJ, you know? In San Diego, at least when I was there, it was not a marketplace at all for the arts or music. It is not a marketplace for any of that. So I didn’t grow up with any sense of wanting to please anyone with what I did. I only grew up with a sense of wanting to please myself with what I did. I did a lot of that, as far as music is concerned, and as far as any type of research I did. I wouldn’t say I like to think that—I don’t like to think that—but I am continuing, no matter what city I’m in, to behave as if I’m from a small town. It’s a big Navy town. If you look at San Diego, what is it? It’s a bunch of beaches. It’s the Navy. It’s the military home—the place where all these guys come back from the wars and they have no place to stay and they’re sleeping on the street, or they’re sleeping in people’s garages. It’s a pretty diverse town —you can’t describe New York like that, either, and you can’t describe San Diego as just one kind of town. It’s very diverse; if you go downtown, you can see … it’s much more decentralized and frightening, for me, to be downtown in San Diego than it is in New York. What is downtown New York, for chrissake? There are a lot of very rich people out here, and depending on where you are it’s a different vibe. When you live in downtown San Diego, you see some of the horror show because you see so many of the military guys who have no place to go at all. You see a lot of that, and it’s very scary. That’s what I see now, when I go down there.
Do you think people get in trouble like that because they have nothing going on in their lives?
Diamanda Galás: Are you talking military?
No, just in general.
Diamanda Galás: If you’re talking to the military, no. If you’re talking to the military, you’re talking to a bunch of people who were promised, lied to, given a lot of false expectations, and gone over to a place where they were forced to remain for many, many years—and then came back and were given nothing, and saw and experienced things that no one can even discuss … I will discuss them, but most people won’t. I will discuss them because I’ve heard about them, and because military men have discussed them with me. I don’t know what you’re talking about if you’re not talking about them. Who are you talking about?
The human experience of people casting about not having anything going on in their lives, and having no focus, no mountains to climb. Things like that.
Diamanda Galás: I don’t think we can make these generalizations because if you look about, you’re going to see a lot of people that include mental patients that have no place to stay since we’ve taken mental patients and thrown them out in the street. They have no place where they can be invisible anymore. You’ll see them on the street and say, ‘What’s that guy doing, sitting on that fire hydrant?’ He’s doing nothing—just having a drink and looking about, as if he has nothing to do. Well, he has nothing to do because he can’t even think. He can’t think. All he wants to do is kill himself. If you look at a man who wants to kill himself … well, it takes many years, over one’s life, to know what that feels like. You don’t know when you’re young. You just look, and you say, ‘Oh, it’s a bum.’ When you get older, and you’ve experienced enough things, then you say, ‘Poor soul. There but for the grace of whomever go I. How lucky I am!’
When was the last time your voice surprised you?