PHOTOS BY KRISTOFER BUCKLE
The Diva, as she is often known to both her admirers and her detractors, is a complex woman possessive of one of the most singular voices of the age. Known for her amazing compositions/productions such as the Plague Mass and Defixiones, her phenomenal gift has existed in her life as a sort of Sisyphean force, in that the perceptions of the listening audience are so easily inflamed by the strong persona behind this voice that myth often obscures the truth, about Galas as woman, Galas as artist. This interview was done in 1999. A 30 minute telephone conversation revealed a lively personality, one who laughed often, and who expressed joy concerning the stage in life that she was in at that time. Topics ranged from her dealings in the music business, to her great admiration for the turn of the century African American Renaissance man Paul Robeson, to some very curious anecdotes about some significant figures in the world of Jazz. The Diva at her, to use her own words, cantankerous best.
Percy: I’m very interested in the new album, Malediction and Prayer, you have a new arrangement with Asphodel, how did this come about? You are still with Mute, correct?
Diamanda: I still have Mute for the world, but I have Asphodel for America, saying America I mean the United States. Naut Humon (owner of Asphodel) has been a friend of mine for many years, since 85, and I met Mitzi several years later, he and I used to do some music together. He was one of the only people that was supportive to me when I was working on Plague Mass. He was very supportive when most people were very discouraging. They didn’t understand, people kept saying “What is any artist doing any musical work that has anything to do with AIDS?” Of course the whole thing has changed since then. He was sincerely interested and he helped me a lot, in terms of just being there when I was trying to work, helping me with certain electronics and so on. That’s how I met him. Just recently they expressed that they would like to have the voice and piano stuff out on their label. As I’m looking at the CD now it’s beautiful, they have done a magnificent job on it. I’m a very happy woman!
Percy: One of my interests now is in discussing with artists how they function within the context of a musical industry which may have very little to do with supporting them as an artist. The situation with Asphodel may be somewhat different, due to the personal and relational context of your relationship with Naut, but …
Diamanda: Well, curiously enough, Mute is headed by Daniel Miller, who used to be an experimental film maker. He also became interested in electronic music at an early time, so in a sense, his main money makers are Depeche and Erasure, and things like that, but he has this kind of other interesting “more out” music. I mean clearly he must be, to be putting Boyd Rice out you know, I mean, let’s face it! But of course he has to deal with the realities of people telling him at least that the weird shit can’t sell. So then of course you know what happens: the deal is that for all of the Depeche Modes, etc., that get stocked in the record store, they will stock one half of a copy of a fringe artist. I’ve had to deal with that reality.
Percy: Well, you have been fortunate from that standpoint
Diamanda: Fortunate! That is a marvelous word to hear
Percy: You have been fortunate that you’ve been able to carve out a significant career as a performer, and not just a recording artist.
Diamanda: Tell me all about it. I really need to hear the positive aspect of this now!
Percy: A lot of artists are in the situation that they don’t really perform. What they do is support a record, but the actual aspect of performance, of translating the spiritual effect of their work across to an audience in a real time environment, paying very close attention to the nuances of that translation such as you do, is a neglected vocation. So these types of artists become very dependent on record sales.
Diamanda: Someone heard at my record company years ago that I had ‘private money’, which of course is totally untrue. At Mute in London they heard that I had private money,
Percy: What is ‘private money?’ It’s an oxymoron!
Diamanda: So that they didn’t have to worry about me. I somehow had this stash of private money on the side. This is fascinating! Let me tell you something, if I had a fucking stash of money on the side I’d charge them more! I’d be really fucking cheap man! You know that I don’t have any money. You know because of the way that I act I don’t have any money. My idea is that I will always make money performing. If I don’t sell any records, that will be unfortunate, but I will never have to survive on that basis. So I told them, if you want to sell the records, OK, if you don’t, OK, but I don’t depend on you for fucking money.
Percy: So you don’t believe in fostering dependence upon somebody else’s decision making process?
Diamanda: There it is! It really does work when you tell people that you can live without them, it really is a general rule that I am now discovering in my dotage (laughs)!
Percy: Concerning your persona, there are the ongoing issues around this, as far as the way you are presented in the media, what I’ve read in interviews, etc. You seem to be often portrayed as this gigantic, Wagnerian female Vampire Bat…
Diamanda: That weighs 700 pounds? I know! I always disappoint people when they see I’m not fat. You know who called me a Satanist the other day?
Diamanda: Cecil Taylor! That motherfucker! I said you’re the biggest pederast in New York and you are calling me a fucking Satanist? You pig! What happened is that I was in this gay restaurant the other day with my friends, and I said to myself, I have had tremendous respect for this man’s music for 20 years, so I thought, I’m going to buy him a drink. So I bought him a drink. The next thing I know, he’s sitting at my table, and he’s looking at me, and he’s talking to his friends and he’s saying (in a low croaky voice) “She’s a Satanist”.
Percy: This leads me to a question that I have been wanting to ask you for a long time, and that is …
Diamanda: Am I a Satanist?
Percy: Nah, I don’t ask stupid questions like that.
Diamanda: I know, I’m just giving you a hard time!
Percy: The thing that is intriguing to me is that you have appropriated many of the very strong themes of Christendom into your art, into your ongoing illumination through your music of the plight of the suffering. The Mass, The Liturgy, certain paradigms of community that seem to have to do with Christianity, the whole issue of transcendence and dealing with the body, what is the role of the body vs. the role of the spirit, if you destroy my body my spirit still exists … all of these things. But there is this perception, á là Cecil Taylor, that you exist in this spiritual space that is decidedly antithetical to Christianity.
Diamanda: Isn’t that incredible?
Percy: What do you say to that?
Diamanda: Let’s see, what do I say to that? At first I just you to say “Oh, you are absolutely right, no spirituality here, none whatsoever!” I always thought “I’m not going to have an argument with a fucking idiot”, so I’d just let them think what they wanted to. So I used to laugh about it, but as of recently I’ve been fortunate to talk with some people that have some brains, so I’d talk about the issue more forthrightly. People tend to read into art what they see as perceived through the mirror of the values of the mainstream society. So somebody who supports the rights of homosexuals, and very aggressively the rights of women, is not going to be one who is interested in communicating to the mainstream. Take breeding for example. This is something that I wasn’t put on this planet to do. People who have these attitudes, towards for instance homosexuals, often think things like “Those people have all this money, and they spend it on trips to the Bahamas, they don’t have to raise children like we do, and buy them diapers, and send them to school”, and all this stuff … the things that these people present as blasphemous are things that they are jealous of. I think that there is a jealousy of certain cultures that makes people hate them. This seems to be the case in cultures that exterminate other cultures. The culture that I know a lot of, the Turkish-Greek, the Turks exterminated the Turkish Greeks and the Armenians, they were jealous of them because they saw them as independently wealthy, and they became scapegoats. I think that there are a lot of parallels here. I talk of breeding as being a sacrilege in my religion. I really believe that. In my particular religion. Nobody has to be in it.
Percy: When you say your particular religion, what is that?
Diamanda: If I talk about Ancient Greek mythology, you must recognize Artemis. I see her as she was seen then, as the goddess of the hunt, she had primary functions in the culture, and they did not have to do with breeding, they had to do with fighting, with fighting for something on a 24 hour basis, so not having time to provide a domestic function which, fair enough, can belong to other people. And I have no feeling against this at all. It’s just not my particular job.
Percy: So, it would seem here that many of the more over the top responses that I have read from you in interviews in the past concerning this area of inquiry would stem from an exasperation on your part due to people attempting to encapsulate your spiritual experience and beliefs into easily digestible assumptions that can be related to on a general level?
Diamanda: I figure if they come to me with that shit, it can only get worse, so I just figure they can take that home, and I will go do something else. Why should I argue with an idiot?
Percy: I don’t want to rehash the topic of how you came to your extreme vocal technique, the history of your evolution as an extreme artist. You have been over and over that in the past. But there are manifestations in your voice that often bring to mind two or three singers. Not that you sound like these people per se – your voice is too individualistic for that – but they seem to be points of reference, so to speak. These are Maria Callas, whom you have often been compared to, Billie Holiday, and Paul Robeson.
Percy: I’m serious! I hear Paul Robeson.
Diamanda: That is amazing! There is a reason for that. I hear people say, “You are doing Gloomy Sunday, you must be doing Billie Holiday”, and I say no, the influence is Paul Robeson.
Percy: Absolutely Robeson. The first time I heard your version of ‘Gloomy Sunday’, I commented to some friends that this was a point of reference for you, and they said “You’re an idiot”!
Diamanda: They can’t fucking hear, they’re tone deaf! You know what, there have only been two people in the world who understand it when I say Paul Robeson, one of them is Hal Willner, who played me Paul Robeson, and you. This is excluding the people that invented the Theramin, who were good friends of Paul Robeson. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing them. I performed in Moscow, and I did ‘Gloomy Sunday’, and it was incredible, because of his relationship with those people.
Percy: There was a basis for their hearing. They could make a certain attachment to his singing of that song, and it’s now coming through you, that sadly enough we are not able to make due to one of the artistic giants of our culture being all but forgotten.
Diamanda: He is one of the most unusual singers ever. When I hear the resonance in that man’s voice, Paul Robeson is my definition of a man. All these fucking guys talking about pussy and bitches, I don’t want to hear it.
Percy: He was truly a renaissance man also: actor, singer, athlete, scholar, and with the added burden of being African-American.
Diamanda: I was talking with Stanley Crouch the other day, I had a very interesting conversation with him, although we have been at war for 20 years. He is a wonderful writer, and a hilarious and brilliant person, although he cannot give up certain attachments which are totally ludicrous.
Percy: He is pedantic, but you have to admire that he has a singular genius when it comes to the history and criticism of jazz
Diamanda: Isn’t it true? What’s so funny is, while we were talking, out of the blue after talking to him, I got a record from Wynton Marsalis! It was the last thing in the world I ever thought I’d get in the mail, because I am just completely anti-Wynton Marsalis.
Percy: He sent you a Wynton Marsalis record?
Diamanda: Wynton Marsalis sent me a Wynton record. Isn’t that amazing?
Percy: I find that totally amazing! What was his reason for doing this?
Diamanda: Because of the talk that I had with Stanley. I mean he’s worked with him (Marsalis) for many years, this is a very poor way of putting it, but Wynton’s career is very, very supported by Stanley Crouch. I’ve talked about it with Butch Morris and other friends of mine, and his attitude is “Well now, that’s Stanley’s new boy”. You know how he (Crouch) is, he did it with Cecil too, and he’s always sleeping with these guys, I can’t believe it! I said to him, “Stanley, you are really the most cantankerous, problematic person that I know”. But I love him.
Percy: There is always going to be the difficult issue of how we judge artists and their perceptions, and you will always fall in the category of being a difficult artist. Sort of like the dilemma that was the life of Ezra Pound.
D: I love Ezra Pound!
Percy: But he was often accused of anti-Semitism. The only way to approach an extreme artist is with grace, and a global understanding of their intent. There is an amazing story about Ginsberg’s meeting with Pound in which he affirmed to him that he knew there was no anti-Semitism present in his work, and that a lot of the verbiage was his ‘cosmic fuck up’ as it were, with no bearing on the true expression.
Diamanda: Oh my God, that’s beautiful!
Percy: I think that a lot of your work falls prey to people looking for a type of cursory sensationalism versus the true intent and motivation behind the work.
Diamanda: That is certainly true, or they are looking for some type of soap opera performance art. When I first began my work with Plague Mass, this person that used to be a friend of mine said “I don’t think that a lot of people at ACT-UP are going to understand your work because it’s not clear enough, we need to understand every word, because we are trying to support this.” I said “Stop! You think that by denying my liberty you are going to communicate? If you are going to steal from me, then I don’t give a fuck about the rest of the world”. Let’s be honest here, when I decide to be a Social Worker first, I’ll let you know.
Percy: On the flip side of this issue, one thing that I see in your hardcore fans, it seems that many of them are somewhat lost souls that have a tendency to glom on to any image or personality that is strong.
Diamanda: They do.
Percy: It is not necessarily your issue, but how do you deal with this type of fawning adoration?
Diamanda: I would assume that this is what people do with everyone that they see on stage, don’t they?
Percy: It manifests itself to varying degrees. I mean you have people that are really into John Zorn, but they do their “fawning” in their bedrooms.
Diamanda: I sorry, I thought you were talking about sex. I somehow just could not imagine fucking to John Zorn!
Percy: No, no, that’s not what I meant! That would be dangerous, shit would be getting broken, things would be falling apart, and neighbors would be picketing in the street …
Diamanda: (Loud laughter) Guys would be pulling their pliers out and saying “Turn over Bitch!”
Percy: You see what I mean though. Your fans seem to be really intense about expressing their affection for you. What is your response to this?
Diamanda: Well, sometimes it’s funny. I was in Amsterdam a while ago, and we were all trying to get some sleep after a show, and suddenly there was a voice outside my door saying (creepy accent) “Diamanda, Diamanda”, and I thought “Oh no, I’m about to be pillaged”! In any case, it turned out to be the guy at the front desk of the hotel. He was saying to his boss, “You don’t know, maybe she gets tired of being all alone”. Completely inappropriate. Every time I need a little humility about this situation, I just think what it must be like to be Cher, but overall it’s a small price to pay for being able to do what you love.