The Resurrection of Nina Diaz
The nice thing about being 28 years old is that there’s always more time.
Don’t tell that to Nina Diaz, the Girl in a Coma frontwoman who felt stuck in a holding pattern as she waited to hear the magical words “release date” for her first solo album, The Beat is Dead, which finally hits the universe on October 28.
“Last year was very up and down for me emotionally because I just didn’t know where the album was going to go,” the San Antonio native said. “I didn’t know where it was going to release because I decided to not stay with Blackheart (Records). There was nothing bad there, I just wanted to do something different, and with doing something different, there’s not an option right away, so it gets shopped around and everything, and it was kind of up and down last year, and there were many, many nights questioning things.”
Eventually, Cosmica Artists stepped in and stepped up, so now when Diaz is with her GIAC bandmates Phanie Diaz and Jenn Alva, who have started their own project, Fea, she can join in the new release conversation with pride.
“My sisters, Jenn and Phanie, they have their album by Fea, and it got released in July and I was like, ‘Enjoy it; you have a release date, you don’t know how lucky you are,’” Diaz laughs. “I was happy for them, of course, but it sucks when you don’t know when it’s going to come out. Now that I have a release date, they’re so proud of me as well, and I honestly do feel that I’m mentally ready for whatever’s going to come, and I’m physically getting myself ready little by little.”
Diaz and her new band will be in New York City on Wednesday night, playing Rockwood Music Hall. To the uninitiated, this is just another story of another artist putting out another album and beginning another tour.
That doesn’t even scratch the surface of what it took Nina Diaz to get here.
To say Nina Diaz grew up in the music business is an understatement.
At 13, she had impressed her older sister Phanie and good friend Jenn enough with a song she had written to be invited to join the drummer and bassist in their band. The trio, eventually named Girl in a Coma, was raw, fresh, and a jolt to anyone who heard them. Diaz, as singer and guitarist, was the focal point, and as she embraced the role, the world embraced the trio right back. Signing with Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records gave them street cred, and if there were any doubters, a listen to any of their four albums or a visit to a live show silenced those skeptics.
That doesn’t mean it was easy, especially for three women.
“Being a female artist, there are so many things that get thrown to you, especially appearance, and it’s a very male-oriented world,” she said. “And that’s in any occupation, but especially in the arts, and yeah, a lot of doors have been opened for women who are musicians, but there’s still a bit of a climb to do, so there was some pressure on all three of us — on me, Jenn and Phanie — and I just took it a different way.”
So as Diaz grew as a songwriter, vocalist and guitarist, she also found her way into the less savory areas of the music business to find her way to cope.
“I started really young with the girls, and we did grow together, even though there is a bit of a gap age wise between us,” Diaz said. “We all went through the same things mentally, and even though I started really young, my mentality was much older, and I went through things much faster. So along with that, I went through a very dark time, and I guess that kind of comes hand in hand within the music industry, whether it’s a small scene or even on the bigger spectrum, that people who don’t have such strong mentalities can get drawn to the dark side.”
That dark side saw Diaz fall into the grip of alcohol and drugs, a progression that began when she was a teenager and just got worse.
“I’ve been in and out of my addictions since I was 13,” she said. “I would be good for two months, then relapse very badly and it was a lot easier to be in it when all of us were drinking. Of course, I alone went into the drug world more, and the girls had their times when they were younger, but as a band, they were more drinking, and I was drinking as well, but then I would go off the trail into ‘Oh, what’s this drug, what’s this drug?’”
As it usually does in situations like this, the machine kept rolling on, albums and tours following each other in succession, and as long as Diaz would be able to make it to the stage, all was well. And when she had her guitar and the lights were on, Diaz always delivered. But cracks began to show in the foundation during the recording of their most recent album, 2011’s Exits & All The Rest, and its subsequent tour.
“Musically, it was always there,” she said. “We could always get into a room together and create, but personally, there were just a lot of changes happening, and towards the end of our last tour three years ago, you can tell on that album that there’s a lot going on with us. During that album, Jenn lost her mom, and Phanie was going through some things and I was going through my addiction, so we were all kind of pushed up against the wall emotionally, physically, everything. And with me, I knew I had to be the one to say something because there wasn’t a moment, even when I was ill, where everyone said, ‘Let’s stop so Nina can get help.’ It was just go, go, go, go. It was like, ‘Well, maybe if we don’t talk about it, it will go away.’ And I’ve forgiven them and they’ve forgiven me, but there was that moment of resentment and fear and I knew I had to be the one to say, ‘I need a break.’ And not just a break from music, but a break from the band, from Girl in a Coma, from the touring and from that music because there was something brewing inside of me. Not just the need for sobriety, but the need for something creatively different.”
Nina Diaz needed help. She knew it. And she tried. And tried. But nothing stuck. Then she hit bottom.
“I had tried to go to AA before I had completely got sober, and then I got into this relationship that was very toxic,” she recalls. “It was kind of a very Sid and Nancy kind of vibe and very destructive. And it wasn’t all my ex’ fault; I did it myself as well, but it definitely added to it. And I ended that relationship but I didn’t quite end the drug use and what finally ended it was that I was to the point where I was very ill. I lost a lot of weight, I was very paranoid, I was just losing my mind. I was literally losing my mind because of the drugs and the lack of sleep and the constant working.”
At this point, she finally decided that she was going to talk to her Girl in a Coma bandmates, her team, family and friends, and tell them that she was going to get off the music business hamster wheel and get better.
“I was going to sit everyone down and say, ‘I’m sick,’” Diaz said. “But before I could do that, I got caught, and by getting caught, I got told on. Jenn and Phanie are my sisters, and you always want to hide things from your older siblings, especially something like that. And somebody just nonchalantly said that I was using, and it just blew up in a very, very chaotic way.
“I wanted to do it in a calmer way, but the universe is going to give you what it’s gonna give you,” she continues. “And within that, I denied it at first, because no one ever wants to get caught. So I denied it, but then, within my denial, I slowly started to open up, and I went through detox by myself at my house, and finally when I went back into AA and I was going through my steps, you come to the point where you make your amends, and within my amends, that’s when I honestly opened up and said, ‘Yes, I was using. This is me trying to apologize.’ And when you make your amends, you never expect something back. You just have to say your piece and hope that they at least listen. And luckily they all listened — my family, the girls, my friends — and that began this sober transition. I got caught and finally faced up to the music instead of continuing to hide behind my denial and my addiction.”
Let the comeback begin.
When The Beat is Dead is released next month, fans will be familiar with several of the songs, as Diaz has been playing them on the road for the last couple years, and the first two singles, “January 9th” and “Trick Candle” have met with critical and popular praise. But it’s “For You” which may end up being the centerpiece of the album.
Haunting, intense, and with Diaz pushing her vocals as far as she can take them and then pushing some more, listeners will be hooked from the first line of “Here I am, eyes blushing red.” Yet even though she said during a recent NPR Tiny Desk session that, “I like to hopefully one day have it in the background while somebody’s losing their virginity,” the song’s origin is far from what you would expect it to be.
“This was when I was freshly sober, maybe four months into my sobriety, and I really got into Krishnaism a lot,” she explains. “I had a friend that introduced me to Krishna and I would go to temple, and it was a big part of sobriety in the beginning. I wasn’t smoking then, I was completely straight-edge, and I was playing around with this song and I was thinking about Krishna. I know the lyrics might sound almost sexual, and I want people to take it however they want to take it, and how it will affect them the most, but for me, when I say, ‘For you I’ll go all the way,’ I’m speaking to Krishna, and saying, ‘For you I will give everything up and I will be pure and I feel you inside of me, making me feel whole again.’ So that was my love song to Krishna in a way.
“I remember I was writing it, I was in my band room and I was playing with my acoustic, strumming different melodies, and it took a couple days of messing around with it, and I finally wrote the song as it is,” Diaz continues. “So it almost began as a religious song, but now that I play it, I’m not into Krishnaism so much anymore. It happens as you evolve. You try different spiritualities and different religions and the main thing I keep is my sobriety, and I have my higher power, but I still feel like it is a song of giving everything up for something, but in a pure way, not a forceful way.”
The early days of sobriety are always hectic and confusing, pulling someone’s mind in a dozen different directions. Try breaking away from the one constant you’ve had since you were a teenager and going in a completely different direction. And do it alone, to boot.
That was the task for Nina Diaz in the days and months after she got sober and took a hiatus from Girl in a Coma, the band she had been with from the age of 13. At least musically, going solo was the easy part for the singer and guitarist, who had already started experimenting with ideas outside of the guitar-bass-drums concept of the band.
“Girl in a Coma’s free range — we can play any style of music and we have played all types of music,” Diaz said. “But as I was writing some new material, I was incorporating more keys and more drum samples, and I always want Girl in a Coma to stay a bass, guitar, drums rock band. I want us to keep that alternative punk vibe. We did try though. In the beginning I did show them ‘Trick Candle,’ I showed them ‘Queen Beats King,’ and we jammed it out, but it just wasn’t what I was looking for.”
GIAC isn’t finished though, good news for the band’s loyal fanbase, and beyond that, the trio aren’t standing at the proverbial ten paces, guns drawn on each other. This isn’t one of those breaks. As Diaz has pointed out, this isn’t business, this is family. And in the process of Diaz going out on her own and her sister and Alva doing their own thing with Fea, all parties have found a greater appreciation for each other.
“I’m learning to be more of a businesswoman and be a leader and to get the payouts at the end of the day and get the advances and learn percentages and all this business stuff I never really understood,” Diaz said. “I was more like, ‘Take me to the gig, let me play and let me go do my thing.’ (Laughs) Phanie would really take care of a lot of that. So I’m understanding that part and there’s a newfound respect for each other. So I think it was a mental need, a creative need, and now, three years into this, both sides are understanding why this had to happen and I think a lot of Girl in a Coma fans are understanding why this had to happen as well. And it’s not the end of Girl in a Coma, because within my solo project I’ve met some amazing musicians, and Travis Vela, who plays guitar for me, we’re actually starting to ease him into Girl in a Coma, so there’s some really great things ahead for Girl in a Coma as well because of this break.”
So could we be hearing Girl and Guy in a Coma?
“Maybe,” she laughs. “Three girls plus one guy.”
After the last three years, maybe laughter is the best medicine.
Nina Diaz plays Stage 2 at Rockwood Music Hall on Wednesday, October 12. For tickets, click here