Diamanda Galás has earned her large-looming legend. The Greek-American singer-pianist is — so we're told — a black-hearted, snake-tongued devil diva of ultra-wicked countenance who is to be regarded with shock and horror. Her solo recording debut in 1982, for example, was The Litanies of Satan, a bloodcurdling blast of screaming, sneering sonority based on texts by poet Charles Baudelaire. Recorded in a freezing basement studio in London after Galás had been awake for 24 hours, Litanies is a sonic cyclone further perverted by insane floods of electronic signal processing and overdubbing. Its release established Galás as a troublesome yet virtuosic artist with a multi-octave voice of unparalleled power and piano chops equal to the storied prowess of the best modern jazzbos.
Classically trained, the San Diego–born Galás is a musical scholar who makes her melodic and lyrical points within a wide variety of “genre” frameworks, from blues and country to jazz, pop, ethnic-folk traditions and far-flung avant-music realms. She’s the bearer of intriguing taste in subject matters, too, with provocative ideas about the connection between multiphonic vocal techniques and sadomasochism, and how both Vlad the Impaler and serial killer Aileen Wuornos were political heroes.
Today, Galás’ startlingly individual path is as deeply felt and timely as ever, as heard on two new albums released in March on the Intravenal Sound Operations label. All the Way collects her radical transmogrifications of revered standards from the jazz, pop and country spheres, including “Pardon Me I’ve Got Someone to Kill,” “The Thrill Is Gone” and “O Death.” At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem documents Galás’ heralded 2016 performances at the titular former church in New York. Comprising entirely what Galás calls “death songs,” the concert-exorcisms at Saint Thomas were sung in Italian, German, French and Greek, and include chillingly moving renderings of poems by Cesare Pavese and Ferdinand Freiligrath, along with songs by Jacques Brel (“Fernand,” “Amsterdam”) and Albert Ayler (“Angels”).
Via phone from her home in New York, Galás details the whys and wherefores of these songs, some of which she’ll perform on her current U.S. concert tour. As she puts it, they’ve taken her years to understand well enough in order to make them her own. The music and words, she says, are inextricably bound.
“Understand that chord changes mean things. Chord changes are the secret passage through the narrative, the passage to knowledge, and if you know the chord changes then you know what the song is about. Singers should never, never sing a song unless it means something to them. That means the music, the melody, the chords and the lyrics.”
Her instrumental version of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” on All the Way seems to understand the song’s original intent only too well. While this tune is likely the most recorded and performed song ever composed by a jazz musician, odds are no one yet has stabbed it quite the way Galás does. She’s feverishly willful in her obliteration of the hallowed tune, which she approaches circuitously, as if it’s already been shattered. “O Death,” an old Scottish tune that became a gospel song and then a “cowboy” song made famous by Ralph Stanley, also appears on All the Way and is a mainstay of Galás’ performances, one she absorbs differently every time she plays it, to the point where each word has become an atom.
“Everyone thinks it’s about death, but for me, it’s about a person who’s trying to fight the desire to kill himself, because everything has become too much. And it’s just like, 'Can’t you give me a fucking break?' And the answer is: 'No.' And then you’re screaming and pounding at the wall, screaming at your fucking dinner, and everything is thrown on the floor, and you’re smashing things that are very fragile. You don’t work anymore! Please just stop, stop not working!”
Galás is intense, and her fans –– an interesting new breed that ranges from L.A.’s Latino goth kids to serious music geeks to grateful LGBT loyalists and various combinations of all of the above –– love her for that hot-bloodedness. Above this, though, they recognize her empathy for anyone who can’t seem to get a foot in the door but who feels passion strongly nevertheless. Passion begets both ecstasy and atrocity; Galás’ favored “death songs” are thrillingly life-affirming, for reasons her fans understand. Such is the case with her melody for “Verra al Morte,” one of the seven suicide poems written by Cesare Pavese, written directly before his self-inflicted death, catalyzed by a failed relationship with actress Constance Dowling.
“Of course they’re death songs,” she says, “but I want to include the struggle in life not to kill yourself. There’s a lot of people committing suicide because they can’t stand it anymore. I’m just telling them that I understand it. Because life is composed of this frightening decision that presents itself too often to many of us, this frightening decision to stay alive. It’s a courageous decision, especially now, because we’re attacked so much by so many negative things.”
For her L.A. performances, Galás will sing Jacques Brel and Gérard Jouannest’s “Fernand” (“A man's dear friend dies late at night and he knows that none of his acquaintances will care, not even his wife, so he commandeers four horses and goes to bury him”); “She,” composed by the great cornetist Bobby Bradford, with whom Galás worked and studied during her L.A. residence in the ’70s; and a beauty called “The Hour Will Come,” her title for a poem by Ferdinand Freiligrath that is just Diamanda Galás all over.
“The song asks that you try to be kind and say no cruel words to one who only loves you and whose spirit depends upon your words. It says that one day you will look down upon the grave and ask forgiveness for the mean-spirited utterances that came from your mouth, although you were forgiven long ago.”
Diamanda Galás performs at the Cathedral of Saint Vibiana, Monday, April 3, and Wednesday, April 5.