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Nina Diaz’ Long Journey To a New Sound

Girl in a Coma frontwoman discusses the 3-year struggle to get clean behind her debut solo release, 'The Beat Is Dead'

/ October 26, 2016

Nina Diaz first joined her bandmates in San Antonio rock trio Girl in a Coma when she was only 13 years old. The group signed a deal with Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records a few years later in 2006 and went on to extraordinary success – they released four critically acclaimed albums, toured the world, performed alongside Cyndi Lauper and Morrissey and shot a video with acclaimed director Robert Rodriguez. But while Diaz was gripping the rock and roll universe, its excesses were taking a heavy toll on her. Her alcohol and drug use began to pose a bigger and bigger problem, both personally and professionally, and in 2013 she put Girl in a Coma on hold to get sober while writing solo music.

Her upcoming solo debut album The Beat is Dead – out on October 28 via Cosmica Records – is a chronicle of her struggle to get clean over the past three years. Like any addiction story, there is no clear trajectory to redemption. The record moves from feelings of anger to clarity, from guilt to victory, and back around again. “It expresses that transition,” she said in an interview, “from when you’re lost in something to when you find yourself and you get help and when you’re finally on that road to clarity, and you don’t know what’s going to happen next. And even when I arranged the track listing, I wanted to have that kind of rollercoaster ride.” Some tracks were written while using, some while getting clean, and some look back on the process with the distance of a few months.

The music itself is a turn away from Girl in a Coma’s more traditional guitar-heavy sound. On the first single, “Trick Candle,” an electronic drum track plays as synthesizers blend with guitars to carry the chord changes. “With the solo stuff, that’s the point of all of this,” she says, “trying something new and getting outside of my comfort zone.” It’s not totally uncharted territory, as Diaz collaborated with EDM superstar Tiesto in 2009 on techno track “In Your Mind,” but The Beat is Dead shows her more confidently blending genres while still firmly within her own sound. Standout track “Queen Beats King,” for instance, uses stately keyboards to drive home a triumphant send-off to an ex-partner from Diaz’ darker period. She cites INXS and Garbage as main influences on the album, and that 80s and early 90s electro rock sound shines throughout.

Diaz has always had one of the best voices in indie rock, and she’s more powerful than ever on the record’s proclamations of her powerful new self, such as her repeated cry “I’m back from the dead” on “Rebirth.” In live performances, she often sings the new material without also playing a guitar, a first for her. Trusting herself and those around her enough to put down her trademark instrument has been emblematic of the healing process. “It’s about letting go of control,” she says, “like, alright I’m going to trust you to be my guitar player and I’m going to go off and figure this out. So it was very liberating, and has had a lot to do with my psyche of kind of blossoming into a new kind of performer.” Diaz still plays guitar during some of her performances, of course; but these days she’s more emboldened to grab the mic, dance across the stage, and even pick up a guiro from time to time.

It’s about letting go of control, like, alright I’m going to trust you to be my guitar player and I’m going to go off and figure this out. So it was very liberating, and has had a lot to do with my psyche of kind of blossoming into a new kind of performer.

Girl in a Coma have every intention of making music again as a group. Nina’s “Trick Candle” was in fact first fleshed out with bandmates Phannie Diaz and Jenn Alva, and she hopes her new solo sound will draw in new fans for future Girl in a Coma releases. Jenn and Phannie have also been busy with their own excellent work in punk project FEA. Phannie is Nina’s older sister, and was one of the first to sound the alarm for Nina to get healthy. “I was a functioning addict,” says Nina, but once her sister found out about the extent of her drug use, “it exploded into this big thing,” driving Nina to take her using seriously.

Confronting family becomes one of the main themes throughout The Beat is Dead, as Nina seeks to reconcile with, or push away, figures from her past. On “January 9,” she sings, “I don’t want to be the bad one, I don’t want to be the sad one.” It’s a message to her late grandmother, who passed away on January 9, 1998. “When I was using, I was treating myself horribly, and I did feel her presence around me toward the end of my addiction. The song is kind of me apologizing, and saying I don’t wanna be that person anymore, to myself.”

The album’s closing song, “Mortician’s Musician,” is directed toward her birth father, who worked as a mortician and left Diaz and the family when she was young. “It was kind of my goodbye, my ‘fuck you’ in a way,” she says. Diaz emphatically notes that her mother and her step-father were the ones who raised her and filled her home with love, but that, like everyone, she’s always struggled to better understand where she’s comes from. “I wanted to face it, and the best way I could face it was to write about it. And when you write about something you end up singing it over and over sometimes, but it’s therapy in a way.”

Joan Jett signed Girl in a Coma to her label Blackheart Records the very night she first saw them perform at the Knitting Factory in New York City. Diaz says Blackheart “did an amazing job” with the band and has only the highest praise for the label, but she wanted to enter new territory with her solo material. She chose LA’s Cosmica Records – named after the Jose Vasconcelos’ essay La Raza Cosmica. Cosmica was founded by Diaz’ friend Gil Gastelum, with the intent to highlight Latin artists while pushing the definition of what the term “Latin artist” means. “I wanted to be in a situation where I was given complete, complete attention. I wanted to be selfish, and you’re allowed to do that when you’re putting yourself completely into something,” she says. Cosmica gives her that individualized attention, not to mention more control over her work than she’s ever had.

The industry has changed enormously since Girl in a Coma began in the early 2000s, and Diaz is having to navigate that new reality. “In the beginning of my career, I wasn’t really there, I wasn’t really present, because I was lost in my own world, and I was being a typical teenager… Now, especially sober, I understand the business more and I’m more involved and I make decisions.”

Nina Diaz album cover for The Beat is Dead

She’s still grappling with some aspects of the new industry, including the endless work of constant self-promotion on social media. “It’s funny my manager calls me Joan sometimes because Joan [Jett] hates using Facebook. I personally just wanna do my thing and tour.” The financial stress on musicians in 2016 is such that the new mediums can’t be ignored, though. She’s launched a Pledge Music campaign to help pay for her tour, which includes a funding category where fans can get a private house party from Nina and her band. “I’m not gonna say ‘I don’t do this for the money’ because I like to be able to live and survive with what I do,” she says. Diaz and her manager invested their own funds in making the record happen, and like most independent musicians, she’s looking for capital where she can.

“Who knows what’s going to come next? But now I know I’m ready for it.” The Beat is Dead is a deeply personal story of recovery, a document of three hard years of confronting herself and the negative influences around her, but it’s also a universally relatable story of hard-won transformation. “And that’s why I tell people I want this to be an album you can listen to when you’re going through any kind of transition. The Beat is Dead – that’s the title and that’s one of the lyrics and it means that the story’s over. As far as that dark time in your life, it’s done and you don’t need to punish yourself anymore. The beat is dead, and you can move on.”

Order the album now and see Nina on tour throughout the US this month.