EDWARD BATCHELDER: The other thing I wanted to talk more about is your choice of texts. We touched on it a little bit earlier with Defixiones. The first music I heard when I became aware of your work was Malediction and Prayer. As I looked through all of your other work I noticed you draw extremely freely from a wide range of styles. I’m wondering if you see any political importance in that alone? Is there a political repercussion in doing Ornette Coleman next to a rembetika song, next to a gospel song, next to a Pasolini song?
DIAMANDA GALÁS: I don’t know about that. I just know that for me not to do that music would be lying. For me that would be saying, okay, I can relate to Johnny Cash but I can’t relate to Ornette Coleman, or saying that I can relate to Ornette Coleman but I can’t relate to whatever. Rembetika, you know, I’ve heard it all of my life without always knowing what it meant when I was very young. People have to tell the truth. I have to tell the truth. That’s what I mean by being invisible in this culture. Not only the dead are invisible, the living are invisible, no matter what we do. “What do you mean you’re singing Ornette Coleman?” Or “What are you singing the blues for?”
Let me tell you something, if you don’t change or refresh the blues, then the blues is going to be a dead coffee table tradition. If you tell people, “You’re the one to do the blues, you’re not doing the blues, you’re not doing this, you’re not doing rembetika, and you’re not singing country music,” what’s going to happen to the music? It’s going to die. I sat with, I guess it might have been the Golden Jubilee Singers—some gospel singers—on a plane once and they said, “You know, people think that all we do is study gospel music and listen to other gospel records. We listen to country all the time and we get inspiration for our next songs through country. We listen to classical music, we listen to ads on the television, and we listen to this.” It’s the same thing, you know.
For me the Middle Eastern musical influence—the scales from the Middle East which are so different and so ornate next to the pentatonic scale—which is the West African legacy of the blues—is something that can be a great addition to the blues scales. You can’t just hammer down a fuckin’ scale for the rest of your life. That’s what you have in this country with all these rhythm & blues singers singing the same blues scales. I don’t care how many singers rip off Whitney Houston, she ended the line and they just keep ripping her off and ripping her off. It’s because they’re exploiting the same scales. They’re not going outside the culture. They’re not interested in the Middle Eastern culture except to sample it on a record because it’s tokenistic music—”They’re just a bunch of Arabs and Greeks” and whatever. That’s a mistake. So what I do is take these musics, and I don’t combine them to be interesting or to create a fusion, I just tell the truth about what I hear, and in that form make the music new. That’s why I’m capable of singing “Lonely Woman” by Ornette, because you gotta be a great singer to sing “Lonely Woman.” If you’re not you shouldn’t touch it. I’ve heard people touch that song before. I’ve heard hysterical versions of it—man, they should just be hippie anthems because they’re so ridiculous.
EDWARD BATCHELDER: Do you have some sort of consciousness about what text and what music you select to illuminate a particular work? For example, it seemed to me as I listened to Plague Mass that you draw on a lot of gospel work, whereas in Defixiones you draw on Byzantine music.
DIAMANDA GALÁS: Yes, that’s true. The Roy Acuff song “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” was the central song for There Are No More Tickets to the Funeral [a section of Plague Mass] and that’s one of the particular gospel areas that you’re talking about. That song was handed to me directly by my father because he had this gospel choir that came to the house. For many years he was a gospel director. They sang all these songs, all these songs. “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “There’s a Balm in Gilead,” and a lot of the songs I recorded. So I grew up with gospel, Byzantine, and flamenco music all at the same time.