Throwaway Style is a monthly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, every month on KEXP.org.
In this month’s column, Martin Douglas speaks to Brandi Diaz and the long and winding road which led her to her band Nada Rosa’s stirring debut album.
Over at Lower Queen Anne’s Sal y Limón, Brandi Diaz — musical and visual director of Nada Rosa — and I are getting to know each other over drinks. All the drinks are being had by me; as we wait for lunch, Diaz enjoys a glass of water.
At one point Diaz and I were colleagues, as she (like a lot of artists and musicians in Seattle) once worked for KEXP. But I didn’t really know her then, and we wouldn’t cross paths until a couple of years ago at a mutual friend’s house party.
They say Seattle is the biggest small town. I write about it in this column frequently; if someone in the music community here is not your friend, they are enormously likely to be a friend of a friend. Everybody knows everybody to a degree in this city, and unlike in Seattle’s extremely cliquish good/bad old days, social orbits nowadays are always colliding.
In the five years Diaz has lived in Seattle, it’s safe to say she’s made waves.
Brandi Diaz was born in Miami, Florida to a large family with roots in the Dominican Republic. “It was a pretty joyful upbringing,” Diaz says before adding, “It got a little crazy later.”
When she was 10, her family moved to Plymouth, Massachusetts (yes, where Plymouth Rock is located). Diaz’s parents had a voracious appetite for music; names like Soundgarden, Madonna, Tupac, and Celia Cruz popped up when asked about the music she remembered hearing in the house when she was a child.
Later, she had a pop-punk phase (mixed with a little nu-metal) and started taking guitar lessons, becoming certain she wanted to play in a band when she saw the fictional band Pink Slip in the Lindsay Lohan remake of Freaky Friday. Soon, she learned how to play guitar on her First Act model from Wal-Mart and formed a screamo band called A Violent Society. Ultimately, A Violent Society proved too violent for the world and the teenage band fizzled out after three practices.
Diaz also formed a band called Jonah P4, which she says is close in style to the music she makes currently as the primary songwriter in Nada Rosa. The band, named after a classmate now lost to the sands of fading memories, was described by Diaz the same way you might describe Nada Rosa’s debut EP Personas: “Chill,” good but not carrying pristine audio quality, with more than a twinge of wistful sadness. She played with her then-best friend Nellie, whose dad was “an old punk” and encouraged Spencer P4 to practice in a converted bar space built as an addition to Nellie’s family home (not a “man cave,” but not not a man cave). “And her mom was English,” Diaz added. “She used to make us tea before practice.” She once again praised Nellie’s dad, who pushed them to take their band seriously.
Around this time, she was really into the work of groups like Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes, and Nirvana; having virtually no clue these bands were formed in the region where she now lives; just digging their music at first without knowing anything about them. Her musical tastes were shaped by file sharing and torrenting and the radio and “nerdy friends” and Hot Topic and trips to New York — Diaz was very much a product of her time, where your art and media diet was largely informed by the piecemeal constellation of outlets and vessels and venues and influential friends than conveniently curated on a playlist for minimum effort.
Far be it for me to complain about “the times,” but being as though we’re in the golden age of information (and, yeah, misinformation too), convenience has become a curse for us. We have access to knowledge of every cool thing that has ever happened in the past century (in addition to millennia of uncool things), and yet we can pay for someone to pick out our outfits and ship them in a box; we can pay an app to automatically generate some RIYLs and play harmless dreck with a steep buy-in and paltry payout. And even the good artists are lumped into weird categories for the sake of marketing. (I’m sure Courtney Love would have a lot of colorful things to say about Hole being included on a riot grrrl playlist.)
I’m not trying to say this is a generational thing or “things used to be better,” it’s just the difference between a blood-and-bones artist bearing their soul and AI-generated Drake songs being entirely indistinguishable from the genuine article (I use the word “genuine” very loosely in this case).
Diaz picked up the bass after graduating college. She joined a band that needed a bassist and decided she would learn bass and play it for this band, pretty much on the spot. She not only fell in love with bass but after her post-collegiate band broke up, she fell in love with the idea of writing her own songs. “I was feeling a lot of loss and withdrawal at the time,” Diaz says about the period surrounding the impetus to start her own band. “There’s a lot of change happening. From graduating college, living on my own and feeling this in-between space of, ‘I don’t think I want to stay in Boston, but I’m not sure.’” She was writing songs, but music took a backseat to the churn of life and her burgeoning passion for filmmaking.
“So it took a backseat for like four years,” she said. “But when I came back to it, I had a lot to say. [It was a process of] putting it to simmer and then coming back to it when it’s ready to be faced again.”
Given Diaz’s diverse tastes in music and art, it’s probably no surprise she ended up taking an avant-garde, experimental program in film school. This is unless you’re only familiar with the melodic surf-pop she makes as Nada Rosa. She cites Mya Deren, Saul Levine, and Jeff Silva (the latter two were professors of hers) as influences. “I was very influenced by this style of DIY, personal films,” she said. “And documents. I’ve always been a documenter. I got a camera when I was really young and was always documenting my family and what was going on in my life.”
In film school, Diaz gravitated toward non-linear storytelling and the idea of allowing the audience to determine the narrative for themselves. She says she’d like to think she has successfully carried that style into her work in Nada Rosa, and I’m inclined to agree. The band’s debut Nunca te Olvido is marked with long instrumental passages, or the part of the story not speckled with dialogue. Three of the album’s eight tracks are entirely unsupported by vocals; many of the rest don’t feature singing until after the halfway point.
Life is a series of moments, and Nunca te Olvido is delivered as such, much akin to Diaz’s filmmaking style, which she describes as being attached to life’s precious moments, capturing ephemeral snapshots of experience, and “being afraid to let go of things.” Like Nunca te Olvido, Diaz’s films are heavy on nostalgia: There’s Carnivals (which is a mark of the end of childhood made right when she graduated university), there’s Postcards to My Future Selves (a portrait of a failing relationship unbeknownst to her at the time). But it’s the sort of nostalgia that makes your heart ache a little; not because you want to go back to some idyllic time that doesn’t exist anymore, but because it displays the past for exactly what it was. Warts and all.
In our conversation, the notion of processing the past through music and film came up numerous times along with the idea that things weren’t always better “back then.” There were a couple of lines of questioning where Diaz half-jokingly described me as going into therapist mode, and we explored her artistic and life choices. She thinks there might be something to the idea that she was class president in order to have control over one aspect of a somewhat chaotic upbringing. She agrees her documentary work partly stems from processing the things she’s had to go through in her life.
Diaz took a long journey before landing in her new home of Seattle. It’s a quest that largely includes her childhood friend Caitlyn Pozerski. They decided Boston was getting a little stale, so on nearly a whim, they decided to move west. They used their film studies degrees to work the film festival circuit. First to Colorado — where Diaz wasn’t selected for work, so she stayed on a farm with a “hippie art community” for a month and a half instead — and then to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
After seeing a psychic while in the Bay Area (Diaz notes, “It was a really weird experience, she had weird-ass vibes”), the very next day Diaz and Pozerski got into a car accident. The owner of the auto shop, which said the car would take weeks to fix, offered the pair a place to stay on Half Moon Bay, but “it got a little creepy,” and they couch-surfed until an offer for an extra room for rent opened up on Facebook. As they were helping the old tenant, an acquaintance from the film festival scene, move to L.A., Diaz got a call from her mom.
“My niece was about to be born,” Diaz says. “And it actually turned out that my niece got taken into foster care straight out of birth because they found traces of drugs in her system. And so that was basically the end of the road trip.”
As a lot of us who have artistic goals — hell, life goals in general — know, sometimes life gets in the way. Brandi Diaz sold nearly everything she owned to move to the West Coast and was forced to turn right back around and head back to Massachusetts to be there for her family. In that five-month period, there was some very serious discussion as to whether she would assume guardianship of her niece.
She says, “I was not ready to be a parent, I can’t take care of myself, okay? But I also [wouldn’t be able to] live with myself if I watch my niece as a newborn get put [into the system] when I could be her guardian.”
After a drawn-out process involving misrecorded information from the Department of Children and Families, it took months for them to decide where her niece should live. “I wrote a lot of songs,” Diaz tells me. “Some of the songs that ended up on the current record. That was a time in my life where I was really processing a lot and I leaned into [writing] music to process.” She mentioned struggling with herself; looking in the mirror and saying, “I can’t do this.” But then recognizing the duty of what she earlier referred to as “older sister syndrome,” she persevered.
While all this was happening, Diaz’s grandmother passed away and Diaz herself had a paranormal experience. (Though this is entirely normal; loved ones saying goodbye as they pass into the afterlife is a pretty common experience.) That’s where she decided to combine her grandmother’s name, Rosa, with Buddhist concept of non-attachment and how nothingness has unlimited potential to be anything, coming up with the name Nada Rosa. “And that’s when I started moving forward with music in a more intentional way.”
Diaz had made a promise to herself: that if she made it through this ordeal and her niece was in safe custody with anyone other than her, she would fully dedicate her life to pursuing music. And that’s what ended up happening.
From there, it felt like fate was working its magic.
Nunca te Olvido is an album partly about the quiet moments before you realize you are worthy of love. A twinge of melancholy exists in Diaz’s songwriting, the band’s instrumental prowess, Brandicita’s abuelito on voicemail. Even when we offer love, there is still a sadness there. Love and sadness walk with their hands clasped, gliding over the border.
As if by divine design (or Diaz backing up just how personal her music is to her), Nada Rosa’s debut album begins with chimes, crashing waves, and the sound of her grandfather’s voice, grainy from being on the other end of a phone line. “I got that call during the [early stages of the] pandemic,” Diaz says. “It’s when he started to call me a lot more, pretty regularly. And his phone calls would last about 30 seconds to a minute. They’re very short, but they’re always heartfelt. And that was something he would always say, nunca te olvido. ‘I’ll never forget you. You’re always in my heart.’ This whole project is me learning how to love myself and the power of love between friends, between family.”
“Birth of Spring” unfolds as a beachy, lithe instrumental, evoking images of a nostalgic trip to the shore from a long time ago — or fifteen years ago, when indie surf music was all the rage. Between Diaz (on bass, guitar, and vocals), drummer Pozerski, and guitarists Jesse Kendrick Eaves and Jonathan Evergreen, a wealth of feeling is communicated on “Birth of Spring” as well as the subsequent instrumental track “Dream Lover Underwater.” That ever-present feeling of sadness is swaddled in the leisure; a dreamlike aura in a thin layer running through the pensive guitar solos and the rhythm section’s pulse.
The moods are distinctive: “Dream Lover Underwater” and “Birth of Spring” feel self-explanatory in regards to tone and “Rainbow Room” carries a flavor seemingly brought in from her origin of heritage, as well as all of the salsa and cumbia music she grew up listening to. Each song tells its own story through the emotions of the music, and it is up to you, dear listener, to decipher those moods for yourself.
Continuing the slow proliferation of Olympia rock scene lifers putting out some of the best music the Pacific Northwest has seen in the early years of the 2020s, Morgan and the Organ Donors have finally released their debut album — after, according to the Bandcamp page for the album, “playing almost exclusively at one lone Olympia bar every December for the last decade.” There’s a corresponding (even dueling?) sense of wit and melancholy to M.O.D.s, which extends from its sometimes-jangly, sometimes-twangy first side, extending to its (occasionally) punkier Side 2. Their cover of Dead Moon’s “Clouds of Dawn” alone is worth the price of admission.
After a respectable run in the major label system, Travis Thompson officially resumes his career as an independent artist by hitting the ground running. Enlisting Jake One, the veritable Seattle rap legend who could probably spend the rest of his life blowing through John Cena money, Thompson continues the momentum he’s been building with sheer confidence and a level of technical ability I personally feel he doesn’t get enough credit for. Jake’s beats are as varied as his most celebrated works (the 2008 compilation White Van Music and the full-length Freeway collaboration The Stimulus Package); spinning around funk-ish bounce (“Spin the Bottle”), soul (album highlight “Happiness,” featuring a great verse from Jay Worthy), and clever sample chops (“What If?”) — while Travis sharpens his pen with misadventures and ruminations of a talented up-and-coming rap star from around the Puget Sound.
Bonus points for the voicemail from Paul Wall telling Travis to lose the Justin Beiber haircut.
For me, one of the breakout Seattle albums of 2021 was Linda from Work’s debut LP Burnout. And what did the quartet do with all that promise? Well, they topped themselves. The Night is Short is full of clever and affecting meditations on patriarchal dread (“Father, May I?”), ego (um, “Ego”), and insatiable ambition (“The World”). “Jealous” is easily one of the best rock songs to come out of Seattle this year, and frontwoman Hillary Tusick remains virtually unchallenged as one of the city’s best rock singers.
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