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Style Idols: Joan Jett and Girl in a Coma
The legend plays ‘rock mother’ to up-and-coming bands
By Lisa Hix
Published: March 13th, 2008 | 3:05pm

In 2006, Girl in a Coma already had a cult following in their hometown of San Antonio, Texas, thanks to Nina Diaz’s powerful, passionate voice and the group’s catchy Smiths-inspired rock tunes.

By that November, SíTV recruited the band for its new “life of a Latino rock band” series, Jammin. For the finale, the Girl in a Coma members — 20-year-old singer-guitarist Diaz, her 28-year-old sister and drummer Phanie, and 28-year-old bassist Jenn Alva — were sent to New York to play a club. While rehearsing, in strolled Joan Jett, one of their heroes. “We were like, ‘What the hell? What is she doing here?’” says Nina Diaz.

Jett watched the band for a few songs, decided to pop by the show later, and before the end of the night, had signed the band to Blackheart Records. “I thought they’d be great to have on Blackheart, because we really want Blackheart to be a place where girls feel comfortable to come play their music, because it was so hard for me,” Jett says.

The group’s working on its follow-up to its Blackheart debut, 2007’s Both Before I’m Gone, and Diaz says, Jett has become “a rocknroll mother figure. We know if we’re ever in a bind or if we need any advice, we can ask her.”

When it comes to her onstage look, Diaz, a bandmember since she was 12, says she’s inspired by Gwen Stefani, burlesque, and ’50s and ’60s vintage. “When I’m offstage, I’m in jeans and a T-shirt,” she says. “When I’m going onstage, I like to put on crazy makeup and fix my hair however, to have somebody do a double-take, like ‘What the hell is she wearing?’”

Jett, too, came up with an in-your-face style at a young age, inspired by ’70s British glitter rock, Suzi Quatro’s leather, and her local bondage store. “It was partly glitter, partly punk, and partly street wear.” These days, Jett still rocks the latex and leather but offstage, “I pretty much bum around in jeans and a T-shirt.”

JOAN JETT

What inspired you to start Blackheart Records?
Really, the whole label thing was out of necessity — the fact that I couldn’t get signed by any of the majors or the minors at the time. Nobody wanted anything to do with me. Some of the best ideas and best-laid plans aren't really plans at all; you do it just to survive and just to try to do what you love. I was lucky enough to have a friend, Kenny Laguna, who was my songwriting partner, my producer, and actually had connections in the music business. To have somebody who believes in you helps a lot. It gives you strength and a belief that there are other people like you that care about the same things, and you're able to get momentum. Blackheart Records was an absolute necessity, and that's what it sprung from, in the trunk of a car.

What made you decide to sign Girl in a Coma?
Girl in a Coma was involved in a TV show and was going to have a rehearsal, and one of the people they looked up to was supposed to show up at the rehearsal as a surprise — I was that person. I was just supposed to meet them, watch them rehearse, say hi, and all that stuff, but I thought they sounded great, and I wanted to see the gig. So I went down to the show and was very impressed with them. I thought they'd be great to have on Blackheart, because we'll sign anybody, but we really want Blackheart to be a place where girls feel comfortable to come play their music, because it was so hard for me.

Why aren't there more girls playing rock?
I can’t really quite put my finger on why there aren't more girls playing rocknroll. They are out there. There are girl bands in every city, but I'm not really sure why there aren't a higher percentage of bands having some form of success. I don't know if it boils down to people just don't care enough.

I'm trying to figure out why people have such issues with girls in rock bands. You see girls singing pop music all over the place, in the press — you're saturated with that image of women in music. That’s what you think of when you think of women in music; it’s pretty much a girl with a microphone singing some pop songs.

Rocknroll is very sexual. To me, the whole "roll" thing implies the sexuality, so a girl playing guitar and drums — certainly playing aggressive guitar and drums or sweaty rocknroll — is out of the norm and what girls are expected to do in the role that they play. Initially, they're looked at as kind of cute — "Wow, isn't that different?" Then after that initial thing wears off, then it's like, "What are you really going to do with your life? You can't be serious." When you are serious, it can threaten some people, and it can annoy other people. I can't really quite put my finger on it.

I can't figure out why there would be such resistance to girls playing rocknroll all these years later. It's just surprising to me that it's not more of a mainstream thing of girls playing instruments. It doesn't seem like that big of a deal.

Do the young women in Girl in a Coma remind you of yourself when you were a teenager in the Runaways?
I say this in the best way, because I wish I had some of those aspects — the newness and the naiveté of it all, of knowing that you have the world at your feet, thinking that you can change things, thinking you can have an impact. I'm not saying that's an illusion. I'm saying there's a great beauty in that, before all the realities of the business start hitting you upside the head over and over again. "It's us against the world and we can change things." It's a beautiful optimism that I see in them, and they have every reason to have it, too. I believe that they're really talented and they could really do something.

Do you see yourself as a mentor to the bands on your label?
As far as laying down perimeters and rules, I'm not so good at that. But if in the flow of the day, something comes up, yeah, absolutely. I'll talk about something that happened to me, and I'll certainly talk to any of the bands we're working with and discuss whatever it is.

Where does your sense of style come from?
My style? It's probably a mixture of a lot of different things. But when I was a kid — when I was starting in the Runaways or just before the Runaways — I used to go to a club in Los Angeles called Rodney's English Disco. You're talking mid-'70s, and most of the songs on the radio at the time were disco, and this was a club for teenagers. If you were over 18, you were already too old; no booze, no alcohol, there was none of that.

It was strictly a dance club. They played all the British glitter singles that were coming out of England that, at the time, American kids never got to hear. Things like T. Rex or "Rebel Rebel" by David Bowie and Gary Glitter, Suzi Quatro, the Sweet, a lot of bands American kids never heard and still aren't really familiar with. It's a lot of heavy drums, handclaps, big choruses, that sort of three-minute very catchy rocknroll stuff. The music really turned me on; I would listen to the records and learn how to play guitar to these singles. But the style also turned me on, lots of big platform boots and flashy clothes, lots of satin — really actually kind of horrible, when I think back on it.

Then I was a big fan of Suzi Quatro, and she was a bass player and played rocknroll, so I was thinking, "She's having hits in England, so girls are playing rocknroll over there. If she can do it, then I can do it, and there's got to be other girls here in Hollywood that want to do it." Suzi wore a bit of leather, so I started wearing a bit of leather — it kind of evolved out of that.

And there was this store I would hang out at in Hollywood called the Pleasure Chest. It was a sex- equipment store, lots of latex and dirty T-shirts and bondage belts and lace slips. I would get a lot of my clothes from that place — T-shirts and belts and things. My style evolved out of all that stuff — it was partly glitter, partly punk, and partly streetwear.

Is your style different now?
I've got my high-priced leather look and my street leather look, and I don't know if you can tell the difference. I pretty much bum around in jeans and a T-shirt most of the time, and onstage, leather pants and latex tops mostly, just clean, simple lines. I like to be hot onstage, so the latex helps keep me a little warm.

NINA DIAZ OF GIRL IN A COMA

Were you a big fan of Joan Jett before you met her?
My mother loved her, and I grew up listening to her. She's a huge inspiration to any girl who picks up a guitar.

How did you feel when Jett and Kenny Laguna asked you to be on Blackheart Records?
I felt very relieved. I mean, there are bands that are out for 10 or 20 years before they get any kind of recognition from any label, so I was grateful that it happened now. I'm constantly writing, and there are these songs I wanted to put out right away, so people can hear them, and I can grow and show them, "This is what I have to offer next on the new album." It was fate. It happened at the right time.

Do you have a hard time being in a "girl" band in the male-dominated rock world?
Luckily it's a lot easier with people like Joan Jett opening doors for future female musicians, musicians of any type of music. And you do get those guy musicians who — when we're playing a venue and we're the only girls there — ask, "Where's your boyfriend?" "Oh no, we're the ones onstage." And it's funny to look out into the crowd and see nothing but guys. We hold our own, though, you know? And we get those guys who say, "Oh, I expected you to just whine and not know how to play your instruments, but I was very surprised." And I say, "Thank you, but that's not why we're out there. That's not why we're onstage to impress you guys. We're out there to play. We're out there to be musicians as well." If anything like that comes across us, we'll handle it. We can handle anything. We're strong girls.

I'm sure right now there's probably a girl out there playing guitar in her garage and she has big dreams. Its just [that] some people are afraid to take a chance, not wanting to face the negativity. You can do anything if you push the negativity aside. There's no need to waste time.

How do you describe your look?
I'm a very simple girl — I wear jeans and T-shirts. Every once and a while, I'll put on my silver boots and my silver Marilyn Monroe dress and my makeup all crazy. But usually when I'm off stage, I'm in jeans and a shirt and have my glasses on. When I get onstage, you're putting on a show and you're expressing yourself in ways not in your everyday normal life.

Usually the most outrageous thing I have is this silver dress with this Marilyn Monroe print on it and silver boots that I bought at a thrift store, and I wear my makeup with red on my eyes. Sometimes I like to wear dresses onstage, sometimes I go for the '50s look with rolled-up jeans and white muscle shirt. It changes, depending on the environment and how I feel. But no banana suit yet. I am hoping one day to have banana suits.