Diamanda Galás: Her Favorites (And Non-Favorites)

The good, the bad and the life-changing music in her life

Diamanda Galás’ reputation as a singer of rather ungodly power and prodigious technical prowess is (fittingly) writ large. Yet it often tends to eclipse her abilities as an equally phenomenal and utterly original piano player. Galás was most likely born with these visionary virtuosities embedded in her genes, but her extensive talents aren’t solely bred from natural ability. She’s also a scholar, sourcing her inspiration from a surprising panoply of relatively undersung musicians from the jazz, pop, country and Eastern/Western classical realms, with a fair amount of far-flung singers and players residing somewhere in between. No wonder her own sound resounds as something both of this world and beyond it.

Here, the opinionated Galás credits a few of these artists for teaching her how the human voice and the acoustic piano offer endless possibilities for reinvention, as well as pinpointing music she’d gladly hurl off the nearest sea cliff given the chance.

Doris Day - Fly Me to the Moon

Doris Day is an underrated singer on “Fly Me to the Moon,” no doubt on account of her squeaky-clean image.

But you know what, who underrated her? Because, let’s face it, in Hollywood, she was number one. So among whom is she underrated? The jazz community? Well, who gives a fuck, man. They wouldn’t have given her a buck anyway. They don’t have a buck to give. So, really, if you think about it, who underrates her? I’m probably one of the only singers who actually discusses her, because most singers don’t want to be associated with that kind of, you know, daisy vibe. I don’t care about whether she’s smiling obscenely while she’s singing, I’m just listening to the voice, you know? She was also a stupendous dancer. And to imagine that a singer can sing like that while dancing is pretty incredible.

Doris Day sings with a kind of Bach tone – restrained. She sings this pure legato, the pure melody. And how many singers actually sing the melody of a fucking song before they do their shtick to it? Very few, and it’s because they can’t hit the notes, or they can’t hear the notes. We have a lot of jazz musicians who obviously do the same thing. It’s like they can’t hear the changes, so they never play the melody right, ever!

Renée Fleming - The Star Spangled Banner

Did you see opera soprano Renée Fleming singing “The Star Spangled Banner” at the 2014 Super Bowl? The crowd booed.

When she entered. But not when she finished. I mean, it’s not a version of the song I would do, but that’s irrelevant. The fact is that she didn’t lip-sync it, and she was doing it with fucking ice temperature around her. It’s like she was singing into a wall of ice, not only acoustically and not only in a sense that she’s destroying her throat, which she is by singing in that environment. And the audience was so mean, so cold-blooded, but here she is, and she gave them a sneer and then a smile and then she sang.

She sang really well under those circumstances. It’s very hard to do that and she just went and did it. That’s a brave woman, I’m telling you. But like Doris Day would have done, Renée Fleming sang the “Star Spangled” melody as it was written. And I’ve heard so many singers sing it the way Whitney Houston sang it, or permutations thereof. They never, ever sing.

Whitney Houston - The Star Spangled Banner

What about Whitney Houston’s “Star Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl in 1991?

Whitney Houston sang the melody first before she did anything to it. But most of these broads, they can’t sing the fucking melody. They can’t hear the melody, so they just do their little shtick. People don’t understand that sustaining a high note is very hard, and sustaining a low note is hard. Sustaining any note is hard. So, instead of sustaining, what happens is that [many current pop singers] break it into little pieces, like [sputters a fractured short melody]. You know, that kind of crap. They do that instead of hitting the note straight. [Sings a note] You know? Just straight note. They don’t want to do that because they can’t do it, because they’ll run out of breath. But when you [sings a longer melody], breathing is easy because you can relax, because the notes are moving around the range. But when you have to hit one note, you have to make sure you have the power to do it, and relax enough not to make it too strident, to not make it ugly. And they don’t know how to do that, so they don’t do it.

Amy Winehouse - Back to Black

How about Amy Winehouse on “Back to Black” – is she singing or just grabbing a bunch of R&B vocal shtick from her trick bag?

Well, I felt that her very early singing, when she was different – she looked different – was quite promising, and really good. Then later on she sang a lot of things like a series of vocal pastiches; she went to one of those schools in England where they teach them American-style black singing, more or less, or like a Dusty Springfield thing. I heard the pastiche in Amy’s singing, but I loved the sound of her vocal instrument; I liked the sound of it so much that I didn’t care that she did her vaudeville shtick or whatever. A lot of vaudevillians did their shtick too, but I’m very addicted to the sound of an instrument.

I love Julie London’s sound. Oh God, Julie London. Jesus Christ. Someone wrote me recently that my singing reminded them more of Sonny Rollins than it did Dinah Washington or any other singer per se. I thought that was a very interesting comment because the sound is, for me, the first thing. If I don’t like the sound of a voice, I immediately turn it off.

Patty Waters - Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair

You’ve talked a lot about Patty Waters’ “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” Was it an influence on your singing style, technique, attitude?

The song was so incredible, I was crazy about it in the ‘70s. [Bassist] Mark Dresser played it for me and I was knocked out. I thought, this is really unfair that nobody knows who she is. I wanted people to know that I had heard her in the ‘70s, so I said, “She must be one of my influences.” But I didn’t mean it literally, I meant it’s that you have your ears and you hear things all day and somehow there’s a thing that happens, lots of choices that you make throughout the day about what you’re going to keep in your ears and what you’re not. So I cannot imagine that I wouldn’t have kept something in my ears of hers. I don’t sound anything like Patty Waters, my work has not been inspired by her at all, but I have to praise her for having preceded me.

Annette Peacock - I’m the One

What about Annette Peacock, especially on “I’m the One”?

There’s another singer that I love. Annette Peacock.

She’s from San Diego, just like you. Must be something in the water.

She what? Wait a minute, you’re kidding me. Holy shit, man, I love Annette Peacock. When I heard her, I said, “This bitch is so on it.” I wanted to write her and just say how great she is, you know? But, unfortunately, in the world of music, whenever you say you like someone, a lazy critic will pick it up and say that that person has influenced you. It’s amazing. And you know what? Big deal, so you give someone some nice words and so maybe it comes out of your hide a little bit because then people think you’re ripping somebody off. And I’m thinking, well, it’s kind of a dumbass appropriation of what I said, but on the other hand, there’s a certain nicety about mentioning people you like. And if it’s misconstrued, then it’s misconstrued.

Xenakis - Akanthos

You performed Xenakis’ “Akanthos” in Paris in 1980 with Ensemble Intercontemporain.

Very few people like Xenakis’ computer music, but I just loved it. But when I went to sing his piece, I was not that excited, because it was this kind of piece that was written in a lot of microtones and glissandi that were going up and down to other microtones. And I thought there was something a bit needlessly academic about it, in the sense that, “Why do you need to write microtones here when the distance between the note before the accelerando to the other note is probably a semi-tone?” Why don’t you write it in semi-tones and it’ll sound the same? In fact, you’re providing a needlessly difficult score. I thought it was something that was clearly generated from a computer and then the performer was expected to spend hundreds of hours learning it, and I don’t like spending my time like that.

But I love, love, love Xenakis, my God! It’s a very proud, heroic music. There’s a lot of violence in his music, and I can relate to it. It’s very Greek music, in that regard. You know, half his face was shredded by shrapnel and he had been through a lot of stuff. He called his music “Greek Music,” even though it was new music. He said, “It’s all Greek music. You only define my work as being Greek music.” And I love that about him, it was huge for me.

Diamanda Galás and John Paul Jones - Tony

Let’s talk about your 1994 album with John Paul Jones, The Sporting Life.

What I like about John Paul Jones so much is reflected by the evening in which he and I sat and went through a songbook of the Supremes. We were working on our record. I was shocked that he knew and had done the arrangements for all these Motown acts coming through London, and that he had done those arrangements for a lot of singers. I was shocked, because I love that music so deeply and because for so many years I just despised the Beatles. Jesus! I respect the production stuff very much, but the idea of the Beatles and the whole Beatles thing just made me sick because, for me, the [harmonic/melodic] changes of the Supremes were so sophisticated. A lot of these songs’ writers were originally from Eastern Europe, and came here to make a living in Hollywood. And those beautiful standards that we all have, the chords to all those songs, well, the songs of the Supremes come straight out of those chord changes that Bartok, Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, all those people played. Straight up.

Why talk about Thelonious Monk when you’ve got Billy Strayhorn to talk about? What the fuck?

Miles Davis played those changes, too. Of course Davis didn’t know that. He was making all sorts of ridiculous conclusions/statements about “The Music.” Bill Evans hipped him to that. I know about this because I played all those musics, too, so of course I recognized the chord changes. So when I see something like the Beatles, I’m like, “what?” With the Stones, I get it, but that’s just because then it comes more straight up to the blues. Then with Zeppelin, you’ve got the obvious blues thing, in the beginning, at least, which I loved.

That stuff is why I wanted to work with John Paul Jones, because of the rhythm section. And then, in the ‘90s, I heard that he admired my music, and someone brought us together and there we were. And it was unbelievable, because for me to sing the way I sing and to have a bass player who plays from underneath the earth, that sound, you know, that’s great. We got along very well when I worked with John. We had differences of opinion on music, like I love Arthur Brown and he had his other opinions about Arthur Brown. And I would occasionally bring up Black Sabbath just to piss him off, as a joke.

The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown - Fire

What about the Crazy World of Arthur Brown? Specifically “Fire.” Now, here’s a singer who’s not just a great vocal stylist, but he’s got a fantastic tone.

God, a monster! A tone that is unbelievable. And he’s English, so rare. I just don’t hear that many singers coming out of England as compared to here, like Scott Walker – what a voice. American straight up. But Arthur Brown has got that reedy [makes reedy sounds] thing, and I’m just like, “Wow, man!” That guy is so twisted. I do want to do my own version of “Fire,” an homage to him. But he already did it better than anybody’s ever going to do it.

On Elvin Jones and Steve Lacy’s “Evidence,” from the tribute album to Thelonious Monk, it’s just a series of short phrases that go up, up and up and then they kind of scatter around, and then he repeats it, and that’s the end. A bizarre little tune. It’s like watching a spider crawl up a wall. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense – or makes its own kind of sense.

Well, I can respect that. But you know, I love these books that are written by true aficionados of the piano, where in the interview all these famous jazz pianists, 90 out of 100 of them studied Bach, Chopin and Beethoven, rigorously. Like Bud Powell. These aficionados are saying bebop piano playing would not have been the same had these jazz pianists not studied the classical composers, and that that’s why Thelonious Monk didn’t play the way Bud Powell did, because he hadn’t studied these composers.

But in fact, it’s because he couldn’t! With all due respect to Thelonious fucking Monk, man, I don’t know where he got his rep, but Jesus Christ, there were millions of piano players better than him, and composers. Why talk about Thelonious Monk when you’ve got Billy Strayhorn to talk about? What the fuck? What a waste of time that is. That’s some political propaganda, as far as I’m concerned. The thing is, one has to look at how much hype has been associated with whatever Monk wrote. And if that amount had been associated with Billy Strayhorn, people would know his name as well. And that guy was a complete genius. With all due respect to Thelonious Monk, I don’t think he was.

By John Payne on May 9, 2016

On a different note