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Shortly after the coronavirus pandemic struck, Nina Diaz, one of the greatest singers in San Antonio, got a job frightening birds out of the city’s downtown area. “Like a human scarecrow,” she told me. She shone laser beams into grackles’ eyes and pounded a wooden stick on tree trunks to disperse raucous flocks, insisting they move along and make their mess elsewhere. Few passersby could have identified her. She wore the requisite city worker’s yellow vest, a long-sleeve shirt that covered her arm tattoos, a face mask, and a beanie over her long black hair. But had the then-32-year-old Diaz broken out into song, more than a few people wandering by would have turned on their heels. They would have recognized her distinctive voice: an elastic alto with a telltale vibrato—like that of a modern Lydia Mendoza—that had been pouring out of speakers in local clubs, living rooms, and cars since she was fourteen.
When I met Diaz at her parents’ house, in northwest San Antonio, this past January, she wasn’t startling birds—not intentionally. She was on the porch, and after smoking a cigarette and petting a stray black cat she’d named Binx, she led me through the house to an attached apartment that she had moved into with her husband, Jorge Gonzalez, a San Antonio drummer, at the beginning of the pandemic. The shamrock-green space was divided into living and bedroom areas and lined with photographs, paintings, and a tapestry from India. Diaz pointed out a small recording studio in a separate room. She invited me to sit on a couch, where she told me how months of work during lockdown were leading to what she hoped would be a pivotal stage of her career.
The bird-scaring side hustle was short-lived, she explained; she’d only made it three days before an unhinged wanderer pursued her, insisting she touch his head wound. Police intervened, and she quit. But she’d needed money, and the clubs where she normally played were closed, including one venue, the Limelight San Antonio, that featured a huge portrait of Diaz painted on a wall inside. “So I got this idea,” she said. She posted an offer on her Instagram and Facebook pages: she would record any song a fan wanted to hear and deliver it in an email for a sliding-scale fee of $50 to $230, depending on the song’s difficulty. It would be like busking online.
Requests filled her inbox. Some were natural fits. Depeche Mode’s “Sweetest Perfection.” Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “So in Love.” Others were as much a departure as Tuvan throat singing. Hank Williams’s “Long Gone Lonesome Blues”; Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”; Diana Ross’s “Theme From Mahogany.” “The chord changes in that one? I was like, ‘S—t, this is like music school,’ ” she said. Over the past two years, she has recorded around 150 such covers. “It really expanded the way that I write and take in other artists, even Taylor Swift or Selena Gomez—artists I don’t listen to on the regular.”
By mid-2021, Diaz had scraped together enough money—from those commissions, a San Antonio artist grant, unemployment checks, and a gig composing for a musical play, Adobe Punk, that will run in Los Angeles from March 19 to April 3—to begin building her recording studio. She called producer friends for equipment advice and went deep-diving on YouTube for how-to videos. She soundproofed the room, outfitted it with all the gear she’d need, and started recording her new solo studio album, the self-produced I Could Be You, You Could Be Me, available for streaming in April.
Just as important to her has been renting her studio space to other musicians, hanging out a shingle as a producer for an outfit she’s calling Beat Girl Productions. She especially hopes to act as a mentor to new acts. “She has a lot to impart by her mere presence,” said the singer-songwriter and Texan David Garza, who produced Diaz’s first solo record. “As you get older, you realize how valuable simple presence is.”
“I don’t want to hold their hand—I want to hold the lantern so they can see the path,” Diaz said. “If I could do that for any artist in San Antonio, that would be badass.”
Not that long ago, Diaz couldn’t have imagined a life outside the band that brought her notoriety. From 2001 to 2016, she toured North America and Europe as the lead singer and guitarist for the rock trio Girl in a Coma, cofounded in San Antonio with her older sister, drummer Phanie Diaz, and bassist Jenn Alva. The group opened for Morrissey, the Smashing Pumpkins, Tegan and Sara, and Joan Jett, the latter of whom signed the group to Blackheart Records in 2007. Jett advised the three young musicians to brace themselves for fame. “It’s going to happen, and it’s going to happen fast,” she told them.
She was right. Fans tattooed themselves with images of the three musicians’ faces, song lyrics, and song titles. The band’s debut album, 2007’s Both Before I’m Gone, made the charts and hit number 21 on iTunes, and the three albums that followed are still adored by devotees. But behind the scenes, Diaz’s contentment was curdling. Though she wrote nearly all of the band’s songs, she felt that Phanie and Alva, who were eight years her senior, controlled her life. “Not necessarily their language, but their actions, gave me the impression this band was the be-all and end-all,” she said. “There’s nothing else. This is forever.” Partly out of a desire to conjure a sense of independence, she started doing cocaine at 16, then methamphetamine when she was 22, in addition to drinking heavily. “Many, many times Phanie and Jenn had to grab me from places and be like, ‘Get the f— home,’ you know? I was a mess,” she said. Even her dealer thought she had a problem, she said. “I didn’t know how to get my s—t together. I didn’t like the way I was, and I looked up the number for Alcoholics Anonymous.”
She got sober in the spring of 2013, and in 2016, she released her first solo album, The Beat Is Dead, a guitar-heavy rock record that references her battles with addiction. She liked the taste of autonomy, and in 2018 she abruptly broke up Girl in a Coma. Her bandmates were shocked. “It pulled the rug out from under us,” Phanie told me. “We were tripping. We didn’t know what to do.”
Disoriented fans repeatedly pestered the younger Diaz to get the band back together. So, looking for a fresh start in a new city, she packed her things and moved to Los Angeles that year with Gonzalez. When music gigs proved elusive, she made other plans. She got a day job—though, Nina being Nina, she looked past more obvious service work and instead chose to work as a “gatekeeper” (sales associate) in a New Age store called the House of Intuition.
Still, L.A. offered opportunities and chance meetings she never would have found in her hometown. She met the Grammy-winning producer Sebastian Krys, who was recording Spanish Model, a Spanish-language cover of Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ 1978 album This Year’s Model. He hadn’t yet selected a singer for the lead song “No Action,” he told her. “[It] was probably one of the hardest songs to ‘cast,’ as it were,” Krys emailed me. “We needed a real powerful singer who would capture the emotion of the song. There aren’t many really great rock and roll singers anymore, and when I heard Nina at an event in Los Angeles, I knew she would nail it. There are very few performers that are as raw and honest as her. She’s pure emotion.”
In the spring of 2019, she sang and played guitar in the musical play Evangeline, the Queen of Make Believe, based on the songs of Los Lobos. At the time, that play’s cocreator and director, Theresa Chavez, was developing a new one, Adobe Punk, about three misfits coming of age in eighties L.A., and figured that Nina’s background would make her the perfect composer for the project. It wasn’t a stretch for Nina. “I kind of went back to my fourteen-year-old brain,” she said.
By early 2020, however, Diaz and Gonzalez were finding it difficult to live in L.A. Their car had broken down, they were chronically short of cash, and when Gonzalez learned that his mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer, he decided he was ready to return to San Antonio. Diaz was hesitant, worrying that she was giving up too easily. “There was this thought, ‘I’ve got to be out here; I’ve got to do it,’ ” she said. “But there was a moment when Jorge and I were lying down, and I was like, ‘I guess our time is done here, huh?’ ”
After a few hours on her couch talking about new songs, Diaz was fully primed to play, and she led me into her studio. A chart tracking her progress on Adobe Punk with little stars was taped to one wall; another marked progress on her album. Gonzalez, who has played with local bands such as alternative rock group Pop Pistol and instrumental Latin fusion act Pochos Chidos, turned on a green spotlight to add atmosphere and sat down behind his kit. “I can’t afford to hire musicians right now, and my husband is cheap,” Diaz said dryly as she plugged in her guitar. “I’m so grateful I married a drummer. Drummers are hard to find. So I said, ‘Why don’t we stay a two-piece for a while—a reverse–White Stripes sort of thing?’ ”
She hit a chord and asked me to put on headphones, where the duo’s playing would mix with prerecorded multitracks. Then she began playing an anthemic rock song, “Holy Mary Mother in Me,” which will appear on the new record, followed by a country tune, “This Crazy Feeling.”
She admitted that running a recording studio still felt new. “I never want it to seem like I know everything,” she said. She hopes her modesty will appeal to artists who, like her, chafe at being told how to sing and play. There are three lessons she wants to impart to newer bands: (1) don’t psych yourself out by overthinking a song, (2) don’t be afraid to ask questions, and (3) know that you’re in control.
Local acts have already started showing interest. And who knows? If they listen to Diaz’s advice, maybe one of them will turn out to be the next Girl in a Coma. There must be plenty of young San Antonians ready to tattoo a new band’s name on their biceps.
This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Rocking From Home.” Subscribe today.