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Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Calm After the Storm: Back home from LA, Nina Díaz Talks About Making Peace with Girl in a Coma and Songwriting in the Age of COVID-19

Posted By on Thu, Mar 26, 2020 at 9:00 AM

click to enlarge GUILLERMINA ZABALA
  • Guillermina Zabala
I wasn’t going to write about Nina Díaz’s solo show on March 22 at Limelight and the April 4 one-time-only concert by her former band Girl in a Coma at Taco Fest — both now canceled in the wake of the pandemic. Been there, done that. Many times.

Then my wife, local artist Guillermina Zabala, asked me a question: “Do you still have Nina’s phone number? I need to interview her for a school project.”
The two connected in early March and, days later, my wife allowed me to hear a brief audio piece she did about their encounter. Just like that, I was hooked on Nina again.



“You can try to run, but you’ll never get away,” Nina sings on the recording as she performs “Get Away,” one of just four songs the former Girl in a Coma frontwoman wrote after she moved from San Antonio to Los Angeles. The track features only Nina’s voice and knife-like guitar strums.


The audio switches back and forth between the song and Nina’s take on her 16 months in LA, the difficulties of married life, her daily struggle with her seven years of sobriety and her complex, love me-leave me alone relationship with Girl in a Coma, the band she fronted since she was 13. She just turned 32.
The story of her abrupt move to the City of Angels and her equally abrupt return to San Antonio is one of confusion, liberation, impulsiveness, homesickness and self-discovery.

“I just threw myself into LA with nothing planned — just me, my guitar and a couple of pedals,” Nina said in an interview.

Her solo album and a self-titled debut by Fea, the group formed by Girl in a Coma’s other two members, were both released in 2016. At that point, things were calm in the GIAC camp. But two years later, it all fell apart. Unbeknownst at the time to bassist Jenn Alva and drummer Phanie Díaz — Nina’s sister — the band would dissolve after its performance at Taco Fest 2018.

“I knew it was going to be the last time I played with them,” Nina said. “That was unfair to them, but I just needed to heal and pay attention to myself instead of having one foot here and one foot there.”

To this day, she regrets not telling her bandmates the truth — GIAC was over, as far as Nina was concerned. That’s why she’d hoped the now-canceled April 4 GIAC show at Taco Fest 2020 could be a “closure” concert to amend her past mistake. Her former bandmates called it a “one-time only” show on their Facebook page.

“Make no mistake: I take complete responsibility for being the one who ended [GIAC],” Nina said. “I said, ‘I no longer want to be in this band.’ Even at the meeting I had with them, my hands were shaking, feeling like an explosion was about to happen.”

Phanie also vividly remembers the moment Nina broke the bad news.
“Jenn and I were like, ‘oh, shit,’” she said. “Initially, there was panic, GIAC was all we knew, all we’d ever done. We went through every emotion. At first, we were mad, but then we understood and gave each other the space that we needed. And that space made us all grow.”

The fact that both Fea and Nina had released their respective debut albums in 2016, two years before the Taco Fest debacle, kept them all busy and helped ease the transition. But the tension remained and, to make matters worse, in the summer of 2018 — less than a year after marrying Jorge González, the drummer of San Antonio band Pop Pistol — Nina filed for divorce and, that October, decided to move to Los Angeles.

“Everything came to a crash at the same time, like Shiva, like Kali — total chaos,” Nina said, mentioning Hindu deities associated with destruction. “From the outside, it must’ve looked as if I was going crazy, but each of those things were a long time coming.”

She was no stranger to LA, having toured the West Coast several times with GIAC. But this was different: no band, no prospects. In the year and four months she spent there, she wrote four songs and had a one-month residency at The Hotel Cafe on Cahuenga Boulevard.

“Coming to LA saved my marriage,” Nina said of the relocation.

Pop Pistol’s González visited her in California, and she visited him in SA and, once they realized they were back on track as a couple, she asked her hubby to be her drummer in her most notable Los Angeles project. She did eight East LA performances as guitarist and vocalist for a band in Theresa Chávez’s musical play Evangeline, Queen of Make-Believe, playing music by Los Lobos. The ensemble included on González on drums and Thee Commons’ José Rojas on bass.

“A taut, rocking, psychedelic evocation of an incomparably fertile era, seen through the eyes of a teenage Latina,” the Los Angeles Times wrote of the play.

Even though her music career featured interesting engagements, it was too sporadic to depend on for survival, so Nina activated Plan B.

She took a job at House of Intuition, a multi-branch “metaphysical store” in L.A. The longest non-music job she ever had surrounded her with candles, crystals and oils, a perfect match for her more esoteric side.

“I was so close to working at a fast food place, so I felt so lucky when this shop called me.”

At HOI, Nina thrived.

“She was very fun to work with, cool to have around, and we miss her,” Karla Quisquinay, a “gatekeeper” at HOI, told the Current. “I’m not at all surprised she was promoted to lead and event coordinator in such a short time. She was skillful, trustworthy, very organized and a team player. She was also very wise and a good listener, and we were thrilled to have her in the family.”

The gig increased her interest in spiritual matters. But new songs just weren’t happening, so she felt ready to come back home and resume her music career in SA. She submitted her two-week notice and, on January 2, parted ways with HOI and launched Operation Return. But there was still a stone in her shoe.

“All throughout this time, I hadn’t talked again with Jenn and Phanie,” she said. “In 2018, Thanksgiving came, Christmas came, and nothing. … When I was ready to talk, I wanted it to be real, not just because it was the ‘season to talk.’”

The opportunity to reopen communication came in November 2019, when Nina’s and Phanie’s mother asked for Girl in a Coma to play at her 60th birthday.

“I couldn’t say no to my mom,” Nina said, so days later she began talking to Jenn and Phanie “to soften things up a little so the reunion wouldn’t be so awkward.”

The trio met on January 3, the day before the party, to rehearse “Vino,” Ritchie Valens’ “C’mon, Let’s Go” and “One-Eyed Fool,” the songs her mom had requested. As usual, the band sounded great.

“It was all so natural, as if nothing had happened,” said Phanie of rehearsal. “We just went through the songs and we were happy. It felt good, and we didn’t have to say anything.”

Nina still had to go back to Los Angeles for a February 1 farewell show at Pasadena’s Old Towne Pub, but she had to cancel after a relapse into smoking cigarettes after a year without them and lost her voice. (Don’t worry, she’s off the cigs.)

She took the incident as a sign to come back to SA, which she did on February 3.

“I’m now spending my days almost like I did before: taking time to search and create,” said Nina, who is recording some of the songs she wrote during her time away. She’s staying busy while social distancing. “It’s a very uneasy time, but it does force us all to go inward and reflect.”

She’s considered performing an online solo concert, but she’s still “taking it a day at a time.”

“We’re happy Nina is back,” said Jenn. “We’re looking forward for all this madness to pass so that, once they reopen the gates, it’s on! We’ll play all over town!”

As GIAC?

“No!” Jenn said, laughing. “As Fea and as Nina Díaz!”

But don’t be so sure.

“We never had any rules, and we’re not going to start now,” Phanie said. “If we ever feel like playing again [as GIAC], fuck it, we will!”

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