Interview with Nina Diaz of Girl in a Coma conducted by Greg Svitil at a Starbucks in Washington, DC on October 7, 2015.
This interview is the source material for this article at WAMU’s Bandwidth.
National Hispanic Heritage Month is in full swing in DC and throughout the US. The National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, which works to advance the presence of Latinos in the media and entertainment industries, recently held its annual gala, welcoming a range of speakers and performers, including musician Nina Diaz.
As guitarist/singer/songwriter for San Antonio-based rock band Girl in a Coma, Diaz, her sister Phanie Diaz (drums) and their longtime friend Jenn Alva (bass) have toured tirelessly and recorded a series of acclaimed albums. The artistic trajectory of the band has reflected a range of aesthetic elements, from traditional rock n roll and rockabilly, to delicate indie pop, to devastating post-punk. As a live act, Girl in a Coma embodies all the power-trio glory and intensity of The Jam. The band’s most recent album, Exits and all the Rest, is widely considered to be their best.
At a creative peak, the band has taken time to pursue other outlets. Phanie Diaz and Alva have a new band, Fea. Nina Diaz’s debut solo album, The Beat is Dead, has reached the mastering stages and is set for a spring 2016 release. Diaz says that the title refers to a lyric in which one character beats another character. The layered meanings of the ‘beat’ in this context seems fitting given the layers of personal growth fueling her music. Diaz is recently clean and sober, and speaks of her recovery openly.
We sat down and talked about her involvement with the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts amid finding her footing as a solo artist, her thoughts on being as a U.S.-born artist of Latin lineage, and her experiences as a musician in San Antonio, which like D.C. is a relatively large city without a major music industry.
Greg: This trip started around the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts gala. How did that come about?
Nina: What I’ve come to realize is that in Hispanic arts, it’s a small world. We’re all connected, which is a good thing because in my culture we’re all like family. ‘What can I do to help you?’ ‘Don’t piss me off.’ It’s very close, and forgiveness, and anger, but we still, bottom line, want to help each other out. How I got hooked up with that, was Felix Sanchez from the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, he’s the one who puts it together, and his nephew actually is a fan of Girl in a Coma, and he went to Brown University with my manager, Faith. So that’s how they are connected. All of this was coming about, and they were talking about ‘Nina Diaz is doing her solo stuff now, let’s have her play.’ It worked out perfectly.
Greg: There was the fundraiser gala on Monday. What was your performance like?
Nina: I loved it, actually. I’ve only done just two galas before. Girl in a Coma did one back in San Antonio, for Judge Wolff. And I did a gala in Austin for gay rights. But that was me by myself, acoustic, and I’m looking at people with ties and fancy dresses and just felt instantly — I’ve been doing this so long, that when you’re up there alone, you start sweating and shaking… you’re human, you know? With this gala though, it was nice to have my band with me, cos I come from being in a band. So I have them on stage. My manager is meeting up with me tonight, so I was in charge, for getting on the airplane, making sure everything’s together, getting here, talking. I’m the type of artist who wants to know what’s going on. I’m not just gonna be like ‘show me to my room.’ I want to know, who do I need to talk to? Who’s doing sound? So when I got there, of course, the person on my projection number to call isn’t there, cos unfortunately for their family something happened. And then, the next person doesn’t know what’s going on. But you just breathe, and by the end of it, you have just enough time to get ready. But let me tell you real quick with that, too. So, I don’t have that much fancy stuff in my closet. I have a lot of tights and little shirts. And I ordered these dresses online. And I thought they were gonna come in three days. But then ‘processing takes this long,’ so by the time it was gonna come to me, and I got mad at them, I got all Hispanic on them, “it takes this long, I’m very disappointed, and you messed up my plans,” and they’re not gonna see my face, so I’m just gonna write to them. So that didn’t work out. So the day before we left, I went shopping with my friend, and got a dress. And then I’m packing up everything, the gang’s all there, going to the airport. I unpack my stuff at the hotel, open up my suitcase — I forgot my dress. It was because I was so frantic, that it was kind of like Home Alone, when you’re trying to get the kids together, and ‘wup, forgot my dress.’ So the next day before the gala, luckily there was a Nordstrom Rack right near, and when I went in there, T. Rex was playing, and Morrissey, and I was like “alright, I’m supposed to be here.” And I found a beautiful dress that night. I’m totally into signs. The number 22 is my favorite number, and I see it everywhere. I started noticing it when I was around 16 or 17. When I was younger, the house I grew up in is 224 Bear Street in San Antonio. So I guess it’s been around me for a long time. But with the gala, the performances, we ended up playing four songs: two songs during dessert, and then two songs at the very end. And everybody loved it. I got so many cards at the end. So then after that night, I’ve been writing to them just to make sure. You never know.
Greg: Was it exciting to be out of your typical club show environment, at a more formal event, but it also sounds like a very communal event?
Nina: Yeah, definitely. Because it was the Hispanic Foundation, I felt very comfortable, because it’s Hispanic and I’m Latina. Even if there was white people, I would still feel like my own, but even more comfortable to hear Spanish. I’ve grown up with this. I like that, with my solo stuff too, I want to be able to do things that Girl in a Coma hasn’t done, that we haven’t really had the chance to do yet. To be more involved with these types of things like galas, playing TV shows, playing more festivals like Coachella. I want to be able to knock down those doors for Girl in a Coma, so it can be easier. I’m learning a lot, especially with gala type stuff, because I see it as practice for one day I actually get to play, you know as stupid as it is, the MTV music awards, or something like that. So this is like a practice version of the bigger thing.
Greg: I saw that you ran into Esai Morales. Had you been a fan of La Bamba?
Nina: Of course! (pointing to her upper-arm tattoo) I have the flying guitar, my Beatles tribute with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and then also my La Bamba tribute, “Nina and her Flying Guitar.” My first guitar was a Telecaster. I started playing Telecasters because Johnny Marr played Telecasters in The Smiths. Right now, I’m playing a Tele again. I was playing something different for a while. But, yeah, of course. I think there was a time when Girl in a Coma played in L.A., and he (Morales) was supposed to be there, but he didn’t make it. So now I was able to meet him. Jimmy Smits was there, like “I’m a huge fan,” and I’m like “really?”, and he’s like “I follow you guys. I’ve been following your solo stuff.” And at the end, he (Morales) came up to me — and that was the cool part, too — he came up to me, instead of me getting chauffeured over to them, they were looking for me. I said “I have to hug you,” because it’s Bob from La Bamba. I had to hold my tongue not to say any La Bamba quotes, because I would’ve embarrassed myself (laughs). It as on TV actually the night before flying here, and I’m watching it and I’m thinking that I can’t wait to show my kids this movie. The generation now, they’re never going to know these things, because they’re too caught up in Frozen and all this bullshit, Hannah Montana crap, that they’re not paying attention to the classics, like La Bamba, Sweet Dreams: The Patsy Cline Story — all of these really big movies that made a huge impact — no matter what your career’s gonna be, these are definitely movies to see. That’s why I was a little disappointed with the Runaways movie. Did you get to see it?
Greg: I actually haven’t, but I’ve read mixed things about it. What were your thoughts?
Nina: Knowing Joan, because Girl in a Coma released four albums on Blackheart Records, we’re not best friends but we get the vibe of her and the struggle she’s been through, and I just feel like that movie didn’t capture her. Of course Kristen Stewart looked like her, but the storyline, they really could have gone crazy with other things besides… what I got out of that movie was you had to look a certain way to be a rock n roller, to be a woman you have to be this and this. I feel like they could’ve really done better at showing how brave they are, and showing how much they went through, rather than just sex and drugs. Of course that’s a part of it, but there was so much more than that. There was only one scene, I think, where a guy’s being rude to them and Joan jumps on top of him and hits him. But I feel like it could’ve been so much more. It seemed like somebody from an MTV reality show directed it. Because of course, after watching La Bamba, and the Buddy Holly Story, Selena, Lady Sings the Blues; all these movies that really did right by the artists, and unfortunately a lot of them are dead, but they don’t have to be dead for you to make a really good movie about them.
Greg: I wonder if that sort of lineage that you’re speaking to as far as thinking about kids now, or your own future children, or future generations; was there any of that sort of thought when you went to do Adventures in Coverland?
Nina: Definitely. It was actually Blackheart’s idea to do a cover album, because that’s Joan’s formula, she’s been doing a lot of covers.
Greg: I actually heard her version of “Dirty Deeds” before I ever heard AC/DC’s.
Nina: She’s the one that kind of made it cool. You thought they were all her songs, and then you found out ‘oh, it’s a cover.’ She was the one to make that known, really. So of course they’re gonna say ‘why don’t you guys do a covers album?’ just to see what we’ll do. Girl in a Coma never really covered that many songs to begin with. We wanted to really just focus on original material.
Greg: And your very first release, with “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want.”
Nina: Yeah. We knew we had to at least learn a handful of Smiths and Morrissey songs. One tour we were booked on, they booked us a gig because they thought we were a Morrissey tribute band. So we learned “First of the Gang to Die,” “Sing Your Life,” and we did about four songs. So that was the extent of our covers apart from Radiohead’s “Creep,” which we did a punk version of. When we decided to go along with doing this covers album, we knew, ‘let’s pick from our influences.’ Selena and Joy Division, Patsy Cline, and Beatles all over the place.
Greg: Just thinking of some of what you were saying about the communal feel of the gala and how you encountered people and they knew you, it seems that the Foundation, part of their mission is furthering the presence of Latino and Hispanic artists in media, in entertainment, and in music. Does that really resonate with you?
Nina: It does, especially now that I’m understanding what I could possibly do. With Girl in a Coma, it just happens to be that Jenn and Phanie are gay. It just happens to be that we’re all women. It just happens to be that we’re all Latinas. We just want to play music. So, with that, we started our thing and without us knowing we were influencing the gay community and Latina communities, so then we took on the responsibility. And now me solo is the same thing. I feel like I’ve learned so much with Girl in a Coma, I’ve been through some crazy situations, and one thing I know that I’ve learned from all of this is to keep a hold of my roots, which is being from San Antonio, and having that family vibe, and being humble and remembering that, and being willing to take the shirt off my back for someone; just to say ‘this person’s amazing,’ not to forget to pay it forward. That’s the number one thing that sometimes some people might do once they’ve made it, they’re like “I don’t need anybody anymore.” That’s not cool, and I feel like I want to show that it’s so forward in my mind that if anything great ever happens to me, to continue for further generations, and that’s what this Foundation is totally about. We have to let them shine, too. It’s not just “me me me me me.” When you do that, you end up putting out crap, because you’re not accepting help from anybody. That’s a great organization that I hope to do more with. I was telling them, too, last night, ‘anything else you’d like me to do, interviews, talking, just let me know. Performing, of course, but anything else that you want me to do.’
Greg: And you have your San Antonio community, and then there’s also broader communities that you connect with through things like the Foundation, and traveling I’m sure?
Nina: Yeah, Joaquin Castro was there and Julian Castro, and they’re doing amazing things, and they’re from San Antonio. Again, it’s a small world. We all need to help each other out. We have this familiar vibe with each other, because we’ve all been there.
Greg: Girl in a Coma is known as being such a tightly-oiled machine, and it seems that with this band (the solo band), you’re pacing things a bit differently?
Nina: Yeah, my manager is noticing what each of us has done in the band in Girl in a Coma, because now we’re split. I’m here, and Phanie and Jenn are in Fea right now. So she’s noticing what each of our roles have been. Mine in Girl in a Coma has always been ‘the writer,’ and the victim in a lot of situations, too and feeling like the weird front singer; and Phanie’s the business, ‘let’s say yes to everything’; and Jenn is the muscle, ‘don’t piss us off.’ So all of us together, that was our format for years. And now I’m learning the business, I’m learning the muscle; I’m learning all of that. And Jenn and Phanie are writing their music for Fea. So they’re learning how to write a song from start to finish. So we’re learning what each of our roles have been. Faith, my manager sees that Phanie’s like booking Fea bam-bam-bam. Phanie’s a big reason why we were constantly on the road, which is not a bad thing. It taught me to be strong on the road. I know all the tricks about how to keep my voice. Some people can’t. Like Carla Morrison, I opened up for her in Austin when I was completely solo. She had just been in the States for a week, I think, and she said “how do you keep your voice up?” She’s not used to the long tours in the States. I said “drink a gallon of water a day, because your voice is the last thing to get hydrated, try to eat good,” and later on in that show she fainted on stage, because she was dehydrated. And I’m like “I told you to drink a gallon of water.” It’s a big part of it.
Greg: There was an occasion where you had no voice on stage, I think in L.A.?
Nina: This was a year ago, in July of last year. It was around the time that I’d quit smoking. I’d been smoking since I was 16, really. So it was years of junk coming out of me. It had already been two months of not smoking, so I figured “I’m okay now.” And then as soon as I hit the road, something acted up in me, stuff was coming out, I was taking everything I could take, anything I could do I was doing it. I was like “it’s gonna be like a movie, I’m gonna get up there and my voice is just gonna be there.” And I go up there, and nothing comes out. And it just hurt my heart more than anything. But that just shows that I’m gonna try my best to perform, no matter what. If I ever cancel something, it’s because I really need to. I would never cancel anything just because I don’t feel like playing. That’s something that’s instilled in my mind. That was a moment, if they ever do make a movie about my life, it’s definitely going to be a part in the movie. It was traumatizing without me realizing it until after that.
Greg: You’re known as having this work ethic. It sounds like it was a shock in a way to be in a moment and not be able to do what you wanted to do.
Nina: Definitely. I wasn’t angry. I’m a very spiritual person. I’m majority Catholic, which I’ve realized after jumping around different religions. I wasn’t angry at my guardian angel, I was just like “okay.” Of course it hurt. I cried and I talked to my mom, and my manager. It was a show of how much everything means to everyone, how not to take things for granted. Now I know that I’m not gonna quit smoking unless I have two years off. You would’ve thought that I would’ve never smoked again after that, but a couple months later, I’m back to it. I know better now.
Greg: You wouldn’t just stop a medication all at once, without a plan.
Nina: Exactly. Amy Winehouse, she tried to sober up cold turkey, and that’s what got her. This body is so up and down. It’s like we’re babies. We have to be careful with what we do, and not pissing our bodies off.
Greg: Bodies are so complicated. There’s things that they come to expect, or that they get used to, or that they want and we don’t give them. I think life is a lot of navigating what our bodies and brains and hearts want and need.
Greg: You were talking about, for being so long with Girl in a Coma, in a lot of ways from the time you were born, just having your roles and understanding one another, and navigating that with a new band with a shorter period of time — I think I heard you say once that a lot of what benefits Girl in a Coma is that you were your bandmates as your sister and your friend first, and your bandmates second. Does that sort of approach come into play with your band now, at all?
Nina: When we first started to form, I knew right away that I wanted Jorge to play drums. He plays in a band called Pop Pistol. I knew when forming my band that I wanted them all to be San Antonio-based musicians. I wanted to give people a chance to make their way up, rather than well-known musicians already, and saying ‘come over here’ and paying them $200 a show or something ridiculous which I can’t afford right now. I wanted to give other San Antonio musicians a chance; maybe after playing with me, who knows where this could take them? So, I knew I wanted Jorge to play drums for me cos he knew how to use sample pads and I use sample pads in my set now. He suggested Travis Fela who plays guitar in a lot of bands at home as well. I met him; he’s super cool; he said yes. And then his roommate Kenya, used to be my keyboard player; he’s taking a break now to do teaching. Austin came along, he plays bass. And then Priscilla came along. All of them were word-of-mouth, meeting them. Except for Jorge, who I’ve known since I was fifteen. So when we started, it was all new for me to be a boss. The only person I knew was Jorge. He was more of an acquaintance, and now he was becoming a friend. Everybody else was brand-new to me. I looked at it as a job at first: here are your parts, everything as OCD as possible, sending them this, this, this. First that’s out of the way: the music. Then we get to know each other. Right away, you can tell if you’re gonna hit it off or not. You can tell, ‘can I joke around with you? Are you this way, or what way?’ And right away with all of them, I felt good, so it’s ‘let’s move on to the music. And now let’s move on to getting to know each other.’ Right now, we’re still in the middle of getting to know each other. But of course, with Jorge, it happened by accident, that we ended up becoming a relationship. It’s funny, they say ‘don’t eat where you shit,’ but a lot of people do it, like No Doubt and Selena; it’s been done. So, we definitely have that relationship, but then balancing it with, I’m his boss. But it’s good that he’s the drummer, so he doesn’t really get in my way too much. He’s not another guitar player; he’s just having fun, playing the drums, and just jamming out. So now, it’s like I have more of a motherly vibe to everybody. I feel very nurturing. I want to make sure everybody’s okay. That’s my responsibility as being Nina Diaz. This is my band, you all are my kids, in a way. It’s like brother-sister, mom, bandmate, all these different things, and I just want to make sure they’re as comfortable as possible. As time goes on, we’ll see how close we all yet. I was even talking to Travis of him helping out with Girl in a Coma stuff; we’ve always thought about having a Pat Smear type of person, to be in the background, still being us three but just having that other person to fill out the gaps. So, you never know. A lot of things can come from this.
Greg: Speaking of Selena, you’ve been doing “Techno Cumbia” in your solo sets. Of course, you did “Si una Vez” in “Adventures in Coverland.” You’ve also done “Come on Let’s Go” from Ritchie Valens. As far as U.S.-born artists of Latino background, do you feel a connection in that sense with those artists?
Nina: I do. I definitely do. Especially not being fluent in Spanish. Ritchie Valens, Selena: their first language was English. Learning from their family, or singing, then it became Spanish. They felt more comfortable speaking English than speaking Spanish. I feel the same way, I’m not fluent at all in Spanish. I can sing it, but I’m still learning how to speak it. And watching Ritchie Valens, the connection I have with him now is being that, cos when he started playing was when he got signed, he was sixteen, and when we got signed I was seventeen. There are those similarities of ‘me and my guitar.’ Beyond that, I had a necklace, and one time Phanie and I got in a fight and my necklace broke, and I’m like “this is *not* gonna be like La Bamba! We better fix this necklace right now!” We’ve been in so many different situations where we’re like “aw shit,” you know what I mean? With Selena; I’m the youngest, Selena was the youngest; I have a brother as well, so it’s two-girls-a-boy / two-girls-a-boy, so that was a similarity, there. Of course, the family life, too. So, I can’t help but feel connected with them, and to feel some similarities. But I’m also me. A lot of times I’d get so caught up in trying to be like someone else, to do an impression, that you forget who you are, and you end up being like a poser, you know? So, of course taking in their similarities, but now at the point where I’m at, especially with my solo music, I find myself thinking for me, and knowing I’m Nina Diaz, these are my struggles, and this is what I’m going through right now. Of course, looking at them, if I need help, I know that I can always look back at their stories and listen to their music.
Greg: You’ve said that growing up, not understanding Spanish, you’ve felt a little bit on the outside, hearing Spanish from grandparents and family. You’ve had this process of learning more Spanish from playing this music, the Selena songs and stuff like that. Is music a sort of helpful bridge for connecting with the language you grew up with but weren’t totally fluent with?
Nina: Yeah, it is. They say that when they teach you your ABC’s when you’re a kid, they give you a melody. Melody helps you remember things better. When you’re trying to remember anything, you put a song to it. So it’s always in your mind: “I can’t get this song out of my head.” It’s because of a melody. It’s the same thing with Spanish. IT’s all a sound, a melody, that’s much easier for me to connect with it and rememeber it than to speak it out. It’s me just not being lazy anymore, and taking the time to do my Rosetta Stone, which I have on my computer and I’m always looking at my computer like “I’m just gonna watch some Forensic Files first, and then get back to it.” Yesterday, actually at the gala, the presenter had a question on how to pronounce someone’s name and came up to me with “como estas?,” and me, “bien, y tu?,” and I said “that’s where my Spanish stops,” and then he asked me, in Spanish, he kept talking, and I said “I’m sorry, I don’t know” and that was a moment when I wish I could’ve been all bad-ass and just said “this is how you say it.” It takes some time.
Greg: You recorded your solo record in El Paso. Is that a place where you’ve spent a lot of time? What brought you there to record?
Nina: We recorded actually in Tornillo, which is a little but outside of El Paso. There’s a studio called Sonic Ranch. Girl in a Coma went there to record Trio BC, and I don’t know how we ended up finding out about it, but I’m glad that we did, because Tony who’s the owner is an amazing, amazing man. Girl in a Coma had been there, so I was familiar with the place, and then whenever we’d play in El Paso, we would always crash there. So then when it came time to do my album, I’d met with different producers, but I just didn’t find anybody I could click with, again like finding my bandmates, within the first ten minutes ‘are we gonna get along?’. and I couldn’t find anybody, and then I remembered Many Calderon who was one of the engineers on Trio BC, that he was starting to produce, and then Davíd Garza who’s an Austin-based musician is really good friends with him as well, and Davíd kind of helped me through this process as well, and was like ‘why don’t we just get Many to produce it?’ So then Many said “alright, let’s set the dates,” still working at Tornillo, so that’s how I ended up going back to Sonic Ranch.
Greg: I think that sometimes on the east coast we have this sense that a state is a state, but is El Paso quite different from San Antonio, culturally or even just the landscape, along the border?
Nina: Oh yeah. Tornillo is right there, right by the border. If you were to walk, there you are, you’re over the border. It’s very beautiful. Mountains, and right there in Tornillo is a pecan farm. So there’s all these trees, and it’s the best place to record because it’s so isolated, your phone doesn’t work too well, but focus on the music, and it’s really scary at night; beautiful in the day, scary at night. You’re spending all your time in the studio, anyway.
Greg: It strikes me that there are perhaps parallels between a place like San Antonio and place like D.C., where they’re these relatively large cities with significant Latino populations. Also, no real music industry in the city. Do you think that not growing up in L.A. or Nashville, did that help in a way to develop your music more organically?
Nina: I think that, yeah. If I had been from L.A. or Austin even, I don’t think I would’ve had the grasp over my music that I do, with such emotion and passion. In San Antonio, I’m still a part of the older generation and my generation, because I’m 27 but I always hung out with people 35 and up, people that were eight or more years older than me, so I was a part of that generation, and I’m here in my generation, and then there’s the other generation coming along, so I’ve seen the different styles that have come in and out of San Antonio. Unfortunately, not a lot of bands stick together because they don’t realize you need to go out and tour. You need to get out. You can’t just stay here. It’s not gonna come to you. You need to go. This isn’t L.A., this isn’t New York with the big record producer guys walking around, seeing what’s the next big thing. You gotta go out there. I feel like growing up, hearing all these different kinds of music — tejano, 60’s, Beatles — all of this together is this weird melting pot of sounds that definitely influenced me as a writer. Even with my solo stuff. A lot of the women in tejano that sing songs in Spanish with very heartfelt emotions, so sad but beautiful, I feel like I can capture that, and being from where I’m at helps me so much more than being from L.A. or Austin or New York and getting lost, just a dime a dozen. I’m able to show what my city has to offer.
Greg: There felt like a very regional element to something like “Rebirth.” It does seem like you’re doing more percussion in your band now. Does that feel very natural with these songs?
Nina: It does, definitely. With the stuff I have for my solo stuff, I started off on guitar, playing “Corner” just letting the Girl in a Coma fans know that I still have my guitar, but then I go into “Rebirth” and then I put the guitar down right away, to show them “now here I am, letting go.” My guitar to me has always been my protection. I can hide behind my guitar, I can put my hair in my face, and I can just do my thing. Now, with my solo stuff, Nina Diaz, it’s my name. I need to be able to show my face, and connect as much as possible with people that are watching, make them feel uncomfortable. Cos when I’m onstage, I feel like I can flirt with people, and when I get off, I’m like “oh yeah, I was looking at you during the show, but it was the show.” It’s my time to really grab them. I do feel like my hands always have to be doing something, so naturally picking up a güiro or picking up the tambourine, I’ve gotten more involved in belly dancing just to get more familiar with my hands and my body.
Greg: You’re so known as a guitarist. To step away from the guitar, or hiding behind it as you say, is it freeing in a way?
Nina: Yeah. It is. Like I told Travis, this is a big deal for me, to put my guitar down. It’s symbolic of me letting go, of me asking for help, ‘can you carry this, or I can do this?’ It’s a symbolic thing for me, and to be able to do this shows how much I’ve grown. I’ve been through so many different phases: diva, quiet, all these different things. And the person I’m becoming now, I’m actually liking. I feel like I’m easier to get along with, I’m not so stubborn. I told Travis, ‘when I’m not playing the guitar, you’re my hands. You’re in your own identity as well, but you’re playing the songs, you gotta feel it, you gotta be in it.’ I feel like he’s really progressed well. So, it is freeing. After a while, the guitar can hurt your shoulders, so it’s nice to have a break from it. With Girl in a Coma, it’s the whole hour. With Nina Diaz, for half of the hour I’m able to stretch and walk around.
Greg: I think your song “Trick Candle” has to do with Michael Hutchence. You’ve been open about your recovery from addiction. Has music of your own, as well as music of others, had a central role in your own recovery?
Nina: Definitely. With “Trick Candle,” that was the first song that I wrote where I wrote everything. I wrote the bass, I wrote the drums. Part of it wrote when I was still using, and then I finished it when I got clean. I made better sense of it when I got clean. Within it, I talk about that person I want to be, that charismatic frontperson, and that’s why I say “say to me, I am Michael. Say to me, I am like him.’ That’s my inner voice of being a solo artist saying ‘tell me I’m this good.’ And it’s also me telling it to Michael in a way, too. You know how trick candles never burn out? That’s symbolic of ‘he’ll never burn out.’ That’s the kind of power I want to have on stage. That I’ll never burn out. You keep blowing and blowing, and I’m just going to come back bigger and bigger. That’s the perfect example of when you become sober. Things are going to come at you and come at you, but you’re just going to fight back more and more and more.
Greg: I would imagine there could be unexpected challenges doing what you do, suddenly sober.
Nina: Oh yeah. The biggest challenge is me. I’m the biggest challenge to myself. It’s not so much other people. It’s funny, when I’m at a show and someone will come up to me and say ‘do you want a beer?,’ and then someone next to them will go ‘she doesn’t drink.’ It’s nice to know that people have my back. You will never see a drink in my hand, nor will you ever see a straw up my nose ever again. People see me as their friend, as their daughter, as their sister, as that person they never got to help. They’re able to help now, and say “don’t, don’t, don’t give her that drink.” In a way, though, I’m the biggest person who can cause conflict for myself, if I just tell myself “you’re not good enough,” or if those voices start coming in my head, of “why is it taking so long? What are you doing wrong?,” that’s when I can drive myself crazy, or when a trigger can come at any moment. Being that I’ve been through so much, and I’ve put my family through so much, I know that I would never ever have a drop of alcohol or ever go back to doing hard drugs again, because of all the pain. But talking about it is the way that I let it out, and getting other people to tell me their stories. I love that. My favorite thing is when I check my Facebook messages, and somebody’s asking me ‘what did you do to stop drinking? Because I want to stop,’ and I say ‘this is where I went, this is what I did, find the perfect thing next to you.’
Greg: And when you’re on the road, I imagine you can find support even from strangers, who know your story and will look out?
Nina: Yeah, actually when I was just touring with Anthony Raneri, I did a real quick run to Chicago playing completely solo acoustic, and in one of the gigs a fan came up who saw me put up my Big Book from A.A., and he came out and hooked us up with some food; it’s almost like a bat signal, like “here I am, are there any friends out there?” And then they’ll come. It’s the same thing as if anyone were to put a signal out for me, then I come. “You’re on the sixth step?” You just know, like ‘alright, I see what you’re going through.’
Greg: I was curious about the story of “Rebirth” and where it came from.
Nina: I wrote “Rebirth” using my loop pedal. That’s why it sounds so repetitive. The melody came naturally. “Back from the dead, like I told you, friend,” those were the first lyrics that came out of my mouth. It’s this cute, quirky little poem. A lot of these songs have to do with me talking to me. Or me talking to that enemy, of them trying to put me down. With this one, it’s “you thought you had me, but you didn’t. You thought that I was gone, but I’m not. You were ashamed of me, but look at me now.” When I was playing a solo show in San Antonio, I was asking people “what do you think I should call this song?” and someone said “Rebirth!,” and I was like “okay.”
Greg: A communal contribution to the writing process.
Greg: Are you always happy when you get back to San Antonio?
Nina: Oh yeah. I’m excited for them to see how I’ve grown. They saw my first show, about a year ago. They were just watching. It kind of stunned me at first, because I’m used to them moving because they know Girl in a Coma. Here, they don’t know any of the songs, so I had to keep that in mind. And I keep that in mind now, when I perform this music. “They can’t read your mind, Nina. They don’t know the songs yet. Introduce them to it.”
Greg: You’re working at a bar?
Nina: Yeah, I’m bar-backing at a bar called Limelight back in San Antonio, but it’s kind of slow. I’m doing open-mic’s there on Mondays, and that’s a lot of fun. I used to do open-mic’s at this bar called Martini Ranch about four years ago. It was a good time. But then that’s also when I was in my dark times as well. But now, being clean and sober, some of the acts that come through it’s like “ah, that’s why I did drugs.” For real! But then, God bless them. They’re having fun. Now I can look at the bar and not feel anything. I can literally be behind the bar and be like “I want a Red Bull,” or something else instead. Nina at sixteen years old, if she had been at that job she would have been drunk in the first five minutes of working there.
National Hispanic Heritage Month continues through October 15. For more information, visit http://www.hispanicheritagemonth.gov/
For more information on the the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, visit http://www.hispanicarts.org/
For more on Nina Diaz, visit http://www.ninadiazmusic.com/about.html