“What’s up with Nina?” I asked Faith Radle, Girl in a Coma’s manager, looking at the band’s lead singer, Nina Díaz. It was pouring rain that afternoon in late May, but we were safely sheltered at the ballroom of the Omni Hotel, minutes after Judge Nelson Wolff gave his State of the County address and seconds before I lamely asked, “Is she going to the gym, or something?”
Before Radle could answer, the judge asked her a question, so I moved to the side and took another look at Díaz — even though the band had performed only one song in front of an unusual crowd (corporate big wigs, political donors, city authorities), Díaz sang and played as I had never seen her before. In addition to her usual fierceness, this time she was joyful, and her skin was shining with the effulgence someone sports after coming back from a pilgrimage in India.
At one point, Díaz came up to me, smiling.
“Hi! I haven’t seen you at the temple lately.” She meant the little San Antonio Hare Krishna temple, a special place for both of us. I’m passionate about Indian philosophy and became formally initiated into devotional yoga in 1986, but am now what any old-school Hare Krishna would call someone in very poor standard who “blooped,” or “fell down into the material ocean.” But the devotees Díaz met at the temple are the second generation of Hare Krishna followers, who have a much more mellow, tolerant approach than that of their respective gurus who, in the late 1960s and early ’70s turned Hare Krishna into a household name via chanting, book distribution, temple building, and a good deal of embarrassing scandals.
Whatever my reservations about the Hare Krishna movement, the devotees are my brothers and sisters. They literally saved my life in 1998, when I visited India for the first time. It’s a long, boring story, but Díaz’ face and energy reminded me of those days. Still, I wasn’t prepared for what she told me.
“Guess what!” she exclaimed. “I have a spiritual name now!”
What? Nina Díaz, the singer for Girl in a Coma, became a Hare Krishna? Not quite.
Her spiritual name is Neela Megha Shyama; in Sanskrit it means “big blue body resembling a black cloud.” When initiated, devotees take up Krishna names followed by “Dasa” for men and “Dasi” for women, meaning “servant,” as in “servant of God.” But Díaz isn’t formally initiated, a long process that would require her to choose a guru and make vows of chastity, vegetarianism, and refusal to partake in drugs or gambling. Instead, the devotees gave her a name as a sign of affection.
“She was already heading down the spiritual path and I could see her definitely wanting a change,” said Jeff Palacios, guitarist for Sugar Skulls and a regular temple-goer. He’s one of several local artists and musicians who have been attracted to the Hare Krishna life — others include filmmaker Laura Varela, artist Adriana García, and two local musicians who live as celibate monks: electronic recording artist Bryan Hamilton, who became formally initiated, and Karma’s Michael Evans.
Though not initiated, Díaz does, however, carry her bead bag everywhere, which is the life and soul of a devotee. Inside the bag, there is a rosary of 108 beads, and devotees chant the Hare Krishna mantra on each bead. Initiated devotees chant a minimum of 16 rounds (108 mantras being one round) a day; Nina chants two rounds a day. She attributes chanting on the beads as the reason behind her giving up drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes.
“When I got my japa [meditation] beads I was still smoking, and I just told myself, ‘I don’t want to smoke with my bead bag,’” she said. “It’s like having your child in your arms and smoking in its face. So since then, I haven’t been smoking, and I had been smoking a lot, like a pack a day.”
“I took her to get her japa beads and bag as a gift for her birthday,” said Palacios, who along with other devotees visited Díaz and her family for some time to give them prasadam, or vegetarian food that’s cooked by the devotees, offered to Krishna at an altar, and then distributed. Sometimes self-described as “the kitchen religion,” cooking and distributing food is another key component of Krishna consciousness. Strict devotees won’t eat anything unless cooked and “offered” to Krishna by other devotees, then distributed to temple visitors or friends at their homes. Prasadam is a Sanskrit word meaning “the mercy of God,” as if one was eating the remnants from God’s plate.
“I felt she was ready to start chanting and start focusing on bigger things. She knew it too! When we did kirtan,” said Palacios, mentioning congregational chanting integral to the Hare Krishna experience, “[Díaz had] the biggest smile I’ve seen!”
At first, Díaz took a cautious approach. She had been struggling with drugs and alcohol, and Palacios took her to the temple a couple of times, starting in 2011.
“At first I was like, ‘OK’…” Díaz said. “I was going through a lot of different changes as far as substance and alcohol abuse, which I’m not afraid to admit, so early this year I went back and this time it stuck.”
When she went back, she experienced first-hand another key belief of Hare Krishna: that sound, hearing transcendental vibration, is a powerful purifying tool. Díaz was deeply moved.
“Tears came down because I was ready to give in and [tell God] ‘I’m here,’” she said. “I was rock bottom, in a way. There were a lot of things going on in my life, but at that point I said, ‘I’m ready for you to love me, and I’m ready to love you. I’m ready to accept I’m not in control — you’re in control.’”
It sounds like typical 12-step work, but for Díaz the music, vegetarian food, the incense, and philosophy had a special magic she hadn’t found elsewhere. In addition, the basic tenet of Krishna consciousness (the soul, the real self, is eternal, while the body is temporary) took her back to her pre-GIAC days.
“My real father is a mortician, so I grew up thinking this body is temporary,” said Díaz, who was mostly raised by her mother and stepfather. “He would literally pick us up sometimes and there would be a dead body in a bag [in the car].”
In spite of her early awareness of the fleeting nature of the body, the fact that she grew up under the spotlight took a heavy toll on her mind.
“I was a preteen thrown into adult situations,” she said. “The [SA] scene has seen me grow up from 13 to 25. You can tell by my music how much I’ve progressed, how I’ve changed. But I had demons, everybody has demons. And the only reason why these demons would keep coming back is because I never asked for help. I never said, ‘I’m tired.’ I never said I couldn’t understand this. I never communicated with anyone. It’s the whole concept of, ‘nobody can help you unless you’re willing to help yourself.’”
Opening herself up to a spiritual way out of chaos was “reality’s slap in the face,” Díaz said, and she now strongly believes she has no need for drugs and alcohol in order to be creative. While she’s telling me this, I remember what Steve Earle wrote in the liner notes of his recent box set The Warner Bros. Years: “I made four records before Train a Comin’ and I’m putting out my 15th as I write this,” wrote Earle. “I’ve been nominated for 14 Grammys and I’ve won three. I’ve done way more shit sober than I did fucked up.”
“Exactly!” Díaz said enthusiastically. “But you know what? Not drinking, not doing drugs, not smoking, isn’t because I want to say, ‘Look at me, I’m this much sober or look how many days I’ve been sober,’ or ‘look at what I’m doing.’ It’s because I want to live to see you tomorrow, because I want to sing to you … It’s not because I want to show that I’m better than you.”
Regardless of motivations, a fellow musician approves of whatever is going through Díaz’ head and heart right now.
“I have my fucking best friend back,” said singer-songwriter Carly Garza, who’s known Díaz since high school. “I really don’t know a lot about all of that [Krishna philosophy], but it has changed her in a really good way … I’m just happy that she is healthy and doing positive stuff, because it helps me become a better person too. It makes me want to be healthy and productive.”
While devoted to Krishna, Díaz’ approach to spirituality is non-sectarian and open-minded, not easy to do whenever you join any religious organization.
“It’s OK to be an atheist, I think it’s totally fine,” she said. “I will not judge you. It’s not going to be like, ‘Oh, I can’t talk to you because you don’t believe in Krishna.’ I want to hear your views and I want to understand why. I want to understand everything. The transition that I’ve been through is wonderful. And if I could share that with anyone, I will. If you want to share your opinions with me, I’ll listen. I’m not going to disregard you or say that you’re wrong because nobody is fully wrong and nobody is fully right.”
Is Díaz just going through a phase and, sooner or later, will she either go back to her former habits or simply snap out of it and put Krishna in a drawer? She doesn’t think so.
“It’s not a phase,” she said, calmly. “Why would you go back to a bad place after figuring something out?”
But even if it was a phase, Hare Krishna scripture tells her that would be an irrelevant fact.
“In this endeavor there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear,” says Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita, the main book followed by Hindus and Vaishnavas (devotees of Vishnu or Krishna).
“Yeah, that’s very nice,” she said, “but I’ve spent too many years going back to those drugs, that alcohol, or that guy… I would be a fool to do that again.”
No matter what happens on Neela’s spiritual path, Nina, the rock singer, is not going anywhere, and her big test post-Krishna took place in May, when Girl in a Coma opened for Smashing Pumpkins in Houston, Dallas, and Corpus Cristi. In a normal situation, she would’ve been thrilled to be there.
Instead, at first she was hesitant and nervous. Then, it clicked.
“I realized [that] I’m doing this for [God] right now, I’m doing what [God] gave me,” she said. “And when I played, my heart opened up in a way I never felt before. It was like when you’re a child and you finally learn how to whistle or how to snap your fingers, and you’re like, ‘Oh this is what it sounds like.’”
Her newly sober life has influenced the way she writes too.
“There is a new Girl in a Coma song that’s like a [mantra],” she said, “and I’m anxious to see where it goes from now on. My newfound creativity is like a door that has always been there but I’ve been too afraid to actually open and walk into.”
Their S.A. show Saturday at Josabi’s comes after a successful mini-tour on the West Coast with Piñata Protest and a solo gig by Díaz in L.A. But wait… Did I say “successful?”
“Some people may think I’m successful because of the things I’ve done and the places I’ve been to,” Díaz told me. “I know what I’ve done and I’m real happy that I’ve done it and I’m really grateful. But the things I’m doing now and the things I’m doing today… Waking up, talking to you, being able to say the things I really feel and really mean them, that, to me, is more successful than playing any big stadium, doing any tour, or any dollar bill. And when it comes to music, the songs I’m writing and the way I feel when I perform now, it is the happiest I have been in my whole career. That, to me, is real success.”
5th Annual Rocklobster Festival feat. Mutemath and Girl in a Coma
Doors at 2pm Sat, June 22
17200 HWY 16 N (Helotes)