Rock 'n' roll Cinderella stories, such as those of the trio Girl in a Coma, can emerge from the most unlikely of places--like a subdivision in San Antonio.
Which is where, once upon a time, when Nina Diaz was a little girl, she slept in a bunk bed above her older sister, Phanie, who was 8 years old and in middle school, hanging out with a friend named Jenn Alva.
Jenn and Phanie liked bands such as The Smiths, Nirvana and The Pixies. In their teenage years, the pair started a couple of their own bands that didn't really go anywhere. Nina paid close attention and started writing her own songs and playing guitar.
By the time she was 12, Nina summoned the nerve to play some of her songs for Jenn and Phanie. Jenn remembers the experience as something of a revelation.
"We knew that Nina wrote songs and sort of looked up to us, but we never thought about it that much. Finally, when she got a little older, and we listened to her songs, we found out she had this amazing voice," said Alva a couple of weeks ago on her cell phone during sound check at a gig in Harlingen, Texas.
Girl in a Coma was born six years ago, with Nina on guitar and vocals, Jenn on bass and Phanie on drums.
Their fairy tale has been unfolding ever since, the most recent episode being the release, on May 15, of the band's remarkable debut album, Both Before I'm Gone, which sounds like the work of a band with more years and experience under its belt.
A club tour to promote the album will bring Girl in a Coma back to Tucson for a gig May 30 at Solar Culture Gallery.
An awful lot of dreams have come true for Girl in a Coma. Long enamored with Morrissey's solo work, the girls were delighted to be introduced about three years ago to Boz Boorer, the former Smiths singer's longtime guitarist and musical director. Boorer immediately warmed to their music and flew them to London to record an early demo.
"We call him Tio Boz now," Alva said. "He's one of our main influences. I had just seen him play a year before, and I was watching him in the studio, and then I had to record in front of him. It was nerve wracking. We fell in love with him and his wife, though."
The members of Girl in a Coma also fell hard for another of their idols--veteran rocker Joan Jett, whose independent label, Blackheart Records, released Both Before I'm Gone.
Jett had a string of hits in the 1980s and has been playing for some 30 years. She started playing with The Runaways when she was a teenager as well.
The members of Girl in a Coma consider Jett a mentor, and Alva can't say enough about her.
"Oh, when we heard she wanted to meet us and release our CD, it was amazing. Now she is like a big sister to us, you know what I mean? Every time we hang out with her is a pleasure. We realized how savvy she is when we were doing an interview with her. She was answering all the questions beautifully. She is very cool and educated. You can feel her years of experience in her poise. She's a role model for all generations."
Alva says she listened to Jett when she was a kid. "My parents had a ton of 7-inch singles, and one was an old Joan Jett single that I would always sing along to. I was 5 years old, and my mom says I would be asking her, 'Where's my piggie record?' Now I realize it was a rhino, not a piggie. It was from Rhino Records."
Yes, in case you're wondering, the band's name is borrowed from the Smiths song "Girlfriend in a Coma," In fact, Nina Diaz has been called a female Morrissey, which is just one way to hear her. Actually, because she plays all the guitar parts, she's more like a combination of Morrissey and Boz Boorer (or maybe Johnny Marr, if you have a good memory).
That Morrissey comparison, though, neglects her colorful, acrobatic vocal range, her fresh, inventive phrasing and courageous manner of attacking emotionally vulnerable songs. She brings to mind stylists as diverse as Billie Holiday and Siouxsie Sioux.
And in the band's music, there's a lovely touch of the restrained dada that the Pixies pioneered, the headlong energy of Sleater-Kinney and the playful vintage rock and pop melodies of classic girl groups of the 1960s.
Although Diaz's songs can be heart-wrenching and empowering at the same time, their situations and contexts remain somewhat ambiguous. Alva has noticed this, too.
"One thing about Nina is that, even though she's a great observer, she doesn't like to reveal the exact meanings of songs, or who this one was about or that one was about. She likes to keep it a mystery to the fans. She feels like if you know too much specifically about a song, it goes dead in some ways. She feels like fans can't relate if you tell them, 'This was what that song means.'"
As the band's debut, Both Before I'm Gone will be enjoyed as a blast of fresh attitude to many listeners, but it didn't materialize overnight.
"It's been, like, six years in the making," Alva said.
"We've made a lot demos of those songs over the years. Half those songs are old songs that we've been playing for years. When we finally got into the recording studio and were actually recording the final versions, it was almost like we just wanted to get it over with, you know? There were a lot of other new songs we were waiting to record.
"Then we got signed finally, and we were getting ready for the album to come out, and playing this stuff again on tour. And we just fell in love in love with the songs all overagain."