Composer, vocal powerhouse, contemporary avant-garde icon, Diamanda Galás – hero to modern jazz musicians and extreme metal bands alike – is returning with two albums, her first in nearly 10 years.
The first, All the Way, interprets jazz, blues and folk standards in her inimitable way, powerfully reframing melodies made famous by artists like Frank Sinatra and Johnny Paycheck through virtuosic fireworks, free-jazz distention, apocalyptic emotion and a peerless range of vocal techniques. At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem gathers a series of nine "death songs" culled from a recent sold-out, three-night stand in New York for the Red Bull Music Academy. Both LPs will be released on March 24th, on her own Intravenal Sound Operations label, her first since 2008's Guilty Guilty Guilty.
The maelstrom that is All the Way's "O Death," recorded at the 2005 All Tomorrow's Parties festival curated by the Mars Volta, displays the singer's emotional bloodletting, explosive improvisational shrapnel and radical deployment of chops in its full glory. While "All the Way," a cover of the standard popularized by Sinatra, showcased her new love of long-held crystalline notes that pierce the sky in gorgeous arcs. You can hear both tracks below.
Rolling Stone caught up with the always vocal vocalist, and attempted to gain some insight into her new albums and distinctive techniques.
Did these records start with you moving back to New York a few years ago?
No. I started the records years and years before, and several others that just aren't being released yet, but they will be. ... Since 2003, I had been going back and forth and back and forth to my parents' house because they were both ill at the same time. My father died and, within six months, I heard that my mother had two years left to live. I moved to San Diego with 360 boxes, moved in with her. I said, 'No gigs. I'm not leaving my mother.' I did maybe four gigs in five years. And I had a big thing going on in Poland to create this new work with the Polski Theatre. But I wouldn't leave, because I felt that any time I would leave, the risk of her dying would be there.
And that's the Greek background. It was incumbent on me to work with the caregiver to change those odds, and we did, with my mother's participation. I basically split here for five years because that's my mother. Can I just say something? Fuck the music business! [Laughs.] My mother is the only one I'll ever have. Helping my mother save her own life was far more important than whether I did a gig for a bunch of fuckin' strangers in Paris.
Did you know that the Greeks' biggest fear is the fear of death of a mother? That's ingrained in us since we're very young. Mάνα ["mana"] which means mother. A-"mana"-s is actually the beginning of my interpretation of "O Death." I do a long, long amanes. It's an improvisation that comes from the Middle East. ... A lot of the people that were put on those forced deportations [from 1915 to 1923], which were basically genocides, would sing amanes. Their whole culture would sing amanes. The whole culture around this understanding that, at any moment, we can be moved. At any moment we can be annihilated.
Rolling Stone is going to have the first music from the new record …
May I suggest something? "O Death" would be the one. It's the richest track. In that track, you will hear jazz, bebop, the blues, the New Orleans influences – you will hear practically all of my musical influences in one track.
So, let's talk about your "O Death" performance.
I'm gonna show you what my performance really is. Because anything else is gonna be academic. What's the point? This is what it is. [Galás puts her hands on the table, closes her eyes, and is quiet for 15 seconds]. Suddenly, it's all laid down right behind my skull and it comes forth. Bam! And then the keyboard and the voice, they just do what they're told. I'm not doing anything. I'm not doing a fucking thing. I'm not trying anything. Say I'm up here, I'm starting with the amanes, then I'm going through these things – people call it "microtonal inflections" – what the fuck do they know from microtonal inflections? It's not microtones, it's complicated melodies, that's what amanes are. It's microtonal, but we don't use that word there. So I'm doing this thing [starts singing], that builds to something else.
Suddenly there's a high note. Why? Because I feel that emotion. Then there's a trill, then there's another high note ... then maybe you decide to go into a semi-tonal relationship so you're doing two trills at the same time, going into multiphonics. Now its pitches that generate octaves beneath it, and you sustain that shit while you've got this ostanato figure in the bass. That's fine, you go back to the amanes, in a low voice. Start the text, interrupt the text, go back to the amanes. Going back, continuing a long legato melody. It's not broken by the need to breathe because you know how to sing. So, the technique informs the road. You don't interrupt it because you don't have to interrupt it, because you know how to sing. You just keep going! And then you break it. You keep breaking it and breaking it and breaking it and desiccating it and putting it back together until it becomes a new life form. And then you rip it apart again. And then it gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and more massive, and then you rip it and then it's just a shred of sound. See what I mean?
And that's the only truth I can tell you about how I sing. That piece in particular because it's so complex. It's like static. All this shit on the street, all the fuckin' insults from any motherfucker pale in comparison to the great moment of equality that you wring from their fucking necks. Like [Henri] Michaux, the Belgian writer, he wrote curses. He wrote hexes that were designed to be hammered. He says, "I'm not writing this to write poetry. These are written to exact. And it may not be revenge, it may be an action." And that's what he lived for.
When I finished that performance, there was blood all over the keyboard. I couldn't imagine why. What I had done is I had broken my nails, all of them, when I was playing. And I never enjoyed a performance so much in my life.
You have an "O Death" on the disc of performances from the Harlem shows as well. Why release two versions?
When you got two motherfuckers, keep them both; don't throw one away. Those versions of "O Death"? They are diamonds. I love them both. They're my babies. It is a blues tradition and a jazz tradition to fly different takes of a song on the same or different records. This is not a rock & roll thing. That is about counting the money. This is about counting the music.
What do you remember about the Harlem gigs?
I don't remember a damn thing. I never do. Two days after a show, it is finished for me. Very sad, really. I was sent the material from two shows because I committed to Red Bull the rights along with my own, to broadcast the show if I chose. I dislike listening to performances because there's no rewind. However, when I heard these, I was knocked out. I immediately said, "Let's release these along with the other recording." The other recording is more inverted and introverted. And that was the truth of that time and my interpretation of those songs. The "Thrill Is Gone" [from All the Way] is a broken spine. A cord broken into pebbles. Unpleasant, like the act of being forsaken. I am speaking pleasantly.
You're well-known for a more chaotic style of singing, but you're holding long tones more on these records. Is this an advancement of your style? Is there a logic or a consciousness behind it?
You do it 'cause you can. Because when I was younger, I couldn't sustain those phrases as long as I could. Now I can just go on and on.
Why can you do that now?
If you keep your stamina and you learn how to sing right, you should get better rather than worse. ... How did you get in start writing about music?
Well, I grew up in the suburbs and all I had was MTV and Spin magazine.
You're lucky because you had the two bad choices right in front of you. You had the two models of the Disney empire right in front of you. In '84, I came here and did a performance with the fuckin' New York Philharmonic, they asked me to do my own work. I get up there with the finest composers in the world, and right after that, MTV hits it big time. Suddenly I realize, I said, My god, this is the end of the music world as anyone knows it. After all the work that any of have done in music, basically, it's going be performed by models and dancers. And that's what we have now. I'm not suggesting that some of them don't have great voices. I'm not trying to suggest that. I don't actually know what constitutes their voices because there's so many processing units available. But it's not like when ... do you know who Miki Howard is? "[This] Bitter Earth" is a great song. That was when we had real singers. Like Gladys Knight. That's a real singer.
Have you heard Adele?
Actually, I have heard Adele and I think she has a great voice. She takes the mix pretty high and she does it really successfully. She's a great singer. That's it. Period. I like her personality. I like the fact that she steps and says, "No, no." It's not the same as Twiggy, what's her name, the country singer that can't sing?
[Gagging noises] I hear that voice and I'm just like, 'Look honey, there's a lot of things you can do with that. You can open your mouth [coughs] in the pursuit of other activities, but please don't sing. Why are you singing?' I adored Amy Winehouse. Ugh. That made me cry. I could get it. I could understand it from my own unique corner of the world, being quite different than hers, I can still understand it.
You have a reputation for being a little hermetic.
A little? Ha!
What do you do for fun?
Actually, what I do at the end of the day, my favorite thing, I do a lot of drawing. I like to use a lot of unorthodox kinds of liquids and stuff like that and do art stuff. Then I'll just have some trash on, some trash television, some shit in the background. That's my way of really relaxing and I love that so much. I'm not social person at all. I can be social right after the gig up to a point, and then that's it. I haven't really learned the social graces of [haughty voice] going to a party and sitting there. It's more or less the girl looking at the book collection. Either that or it's me with the ex-con somewhere in a cheap motel. I'm not putting down the ex-con, they have great stories.
I actually think that spending a lot of time alone is one of the great luxuries we have left. There's so many countries, they're expected to share everything with everyone at every moment. And I ... am not one of those kinds of people. I don't even live with anyone. I don't see the point. Why would I want to get married and have children? It's been done! I'm not saying it’s a bad thing for those who feel committed to it, it's just not my lust for life.
Your work has a lot of themes of death and sadness. Is there any media you enjoy that someone would be surprised that you liked something so … happy.
Don Rickles. My hero.