Diamanda Galás: The Politics of Disquiet

Love Songs

EDWARD BATCHELDER: You said in one interview, “In America, they’ll starve you to death for not writing love songs.”

DIAMANDA GALÁS: [laughs]

EDWARD BATCHELDER: But it occurred to me that actually you sing a lot of love songs, that they’re all love songs.

DIAMANDA GALÁS: Yeah.

EDWARD BATCHELDER: And with something like “My World Is Empty Without You,” you take it to such an extreme of almost psychotic breakdown because of the abandonment of love.

DIAMANDA GALÁS: Exactly.

EDWARD BATCHELDER: So, you turn those songs into, in some way, not political statements, but statements of the same sort of isolation?

DIAMANDA GALÁS: Well, there is a line that I’ve used, but many other people have used permutations of it, obviously in their own ways, which is: An artist must learn to embrace his or her own limitations. And I embrace mine, [laughs] being that I’m clearly interested in only one subject, which is isolation, this horrible state of isolation that you get to going through the extremes of any experience. Even if I do a love song, I turn it into a song about bereavement, or an isolating, torturous experience. I like to take something and exhaust it…exhaust it! That’s another thing I had discussed a little bit—perhaps with Gabourel, I’m not sure, I think so, though—choosing the variables that you’re going to work with and then wasting them, just ripping them, using them, permuting them over and over again until you find what the essence is of that. And that’s what I like to do with a song.

Someone will say to me, “What are you doing something like Insekta for, or Schrei 27 for, or Plague Mass, and then you go and do “My World Is Empty Without You Babe,” and blah, blah, blah. “What’s your aesthetic anyway?” I say, what’s your fucking aesthetic! I mean, don’t you understand what I’m doing? You would never tell a filmmaker, you know, “Why did you do a film about the bad boys in New York and then you did a film about this, and then you did a film about this…” But musicians are asked to put themselves in these locked cases. On the other hand, you’d say, why did Xenakis write string quartets, then do computer music, and go back to writing string quartets? It’s the same kind of thing. It’s what you do with a song. It’s not that you do a song, it’s what you do with it. I feel that with all the songs I do—I’m working on Edith Piaf and even Marlene Dietrich, and all these songs—I like them, they become very cathartic, but not in an undisciplined sense at all. They become cathartic because I take them and master what the chord changes are because the chord changes alone tell you the story. You don’t even have to know the words, the chord changes tell you everything. Then I work very carefully with the words and perform it so many times that I understand the essence of the song. It’s the same thing, I think, as composing. I really don’t see any difference.

EDWARD BATCHELDER: In many ways, you rewrite the songs.

DIAMANDA GALÁS: Well, let me just disagree with that because there are people who do rewrite the songs, and I don’t approve of that, actually. I feel that if they want to rewrite the songs, then they should write their own songs. And a lot of people who rewrite songs do it unintentionally because they can’t play the chord changes, let’s say, to a Supremes song, which are very sophisticated chord changes, like the Edith Piaf songs which were written by a lot of classical music composers who really were orchestral writers. She often performed with orchestras, as well. If somebody goes and does something like “Heaven Have Mercy” and then plays it with three chord changes when there are 20 chord changes in it, they’re not telling the right story. They’re not telling the same story. They can say the same words, but they’re not telling the same story. They’re simplifying something, they’re making it into something wrong. So, I don’t rewrite it. I obey every, every instruction of the composer—the person who wrote it—but, in the sense, I interpret it. But through interpretation you learn so much about composition, that’s what I mean.