Composer and San Diego State University (SDSU) professor of music composition and computer music Joseph Martin Waters, also founder of the acclaimed rock/classical/electronic music ensemble SWARMIUS and San Diego’s annual NWEAMO (New West Evolving Arts and Music Organism) Festival, has hastily compiled a loving memorial tribute album to his longtime vocal collaborator Nina Leilani Deering.
The album, To Nina with Love, comprises 10 recordings that Waters and Swarmius recorded with her, starting in 2014. It has just been made available on Apple Music and Spotify, with other streaming platforms to follow. There will also be a limited CD release later this month.
Deering died June 11 in a car accident.
“She recorded virtually all of my vocal work over a period of eight years, starting when she was my student,” says Waters, who pulled himself away from completing his opera The Magic Hummingbird (El Colibrí Mágico)--A California Story in order to honor Deering.
“She had perfect pitch, the most accurate I’ve ever heard,” he continues. “My music, as you know, is highly chromatic and challenging. She would come over, take a look at the sheet music, listen to my MIDI demo once, then go out to the studio and record the lead vocals--and all of the backing tracks. She had a three-octave range, so she could sing four-part harmony--soprano, alto, tenor and even baritone. So as soon as I wrote a piece, I would enthusiastically contact her and she would come over and bring it to life.”
These recordings were meant to be demos for SWARMIUS, notes Waters.
“She was a guest of ours many times, but was never actually in the band. [Saxophonist] Saximus didn’t like her because of her unorganized lifestyle, but I always loved her. She and I communicated in a sensitive and deep way: She understood my music and knew what to do with it, and I never had to tell her what to do with lyrics. She knew where I was coming from. So, I had well over an album of material going back to [YouTube single] ‘Things,’ which was recorded in 2014. Some of my pieces take five or six years before they’re ready to release!”
Joseph Martin Waters' "Things," featuring Nina Leilani Deering
Indeed, Deering was gifted, but troubled.
“She was a complex person, from a deeply conservative religious background, finding her way in an ultra-liberal world of artists,” says Waters. “It was something she struggled to reconcile.”
Making her story more tragic, “she had been kicked out of all of her bands--including my opera--and recently had been kicked out of her communal living space at an artist collective for not paying rent and for not social distancing.”
“She’d even lost her church gig where she rehearsed kids,” says Waters. “Her new boyfriend kicked her out at 8 a.m. the morning of her death, and she sent me a text saying, ‘No matter how crazy life seems to get, it just seems to get crazier.’ She had been slowly spiraling downhill for several years. But she was radiant on stage, with a flowing mane of blonde hair, and stole the show. She was gorgeous to watch performing. She was comfortable with the music, and it flowed through her with a power and grace that is rare and exquisite, and she was always compassionate, always forgiving, always had room in her thoughts and her heart for the people around her.”
Waters saw Deering as his “go-to vocalist.”
“Whenever I had a new song, I couldn’t wait to share it with her. She would always make time to come in and sing it. She would listen to it once through, then go into the studio and lay down a perfect track, and then proceed to lay down all the backing tracks. My music is melodically and harmonically complex, full of slippery chromatic turns. She had perfect pitch, but more important than that, she understood better than anybody, the emotional nuance behind my lyrics and behind my notes. She said to me once, ‘My goal is always to listen to what the words are saying and get that right.’”
Three songs from To Nina with Love ( “Shouldn’t,” “Lullaby” and “Children of the Gods”) come from Waters’ The Magic Hummingbird opera. Others (“Kiss,” “Lonely Like a Spider,” “Ride Ride Ride”) were written for it but not used.
“The tunes range from rock pieces to pieces from the opera to jazz-inflected ballads,” says Waters. “‘When’ was the last piece she recorded, last December. I thought it was about me when I wrote it, but in retrospect I think it was about her: She said it made her cry, and wanted to come back and do a version where she played the piano and sang. But when she came in she stunk of alcohol--but she sang beautifully. She is singing eight vocal parts on it, and the piano was recorded by a SWARMIUS pianist, Geoffrey Burleson, in quarantine from Queens a couple days after her death.”
“Things” is the last song on the album, and is called “a meditation on our impermanence” on its YouTube video, which features animation by Russian animator Marta Vorontskova. It was also the first track recorded, and was played at Deering’s funeral.
“I had just released a different version recorded by a previous SWARMIUS vocalist, that is currently available on Spotify,” says Waters. “But when Nina passed, I went back and found this early version, which frankly, I’d forgotten she had recorded. It’s so much better than the one I released, and now belongs to her!”
In April, he asked Deering to lip-synch a video to The Magic Hummingbird’s “Shouldn’t,” which she recorded last summer.
“It’s the last thing she did, and it’s on YouTube—and I included the tune on the album. It’s about compassion and the homeless.”
And it’s a fitting addition to To Nina with Love.
“I loved Nina, with the deeply passionate love that artists can share when they feel their way together toward a vision of something which is sacred, personal and meaningful to them,” says Waters. “Our connection was through music, our physical relationship was a fleeting hug here and there--barely there, like a touch of a branch. But our musical connection was deep and powerful.”
And Waters wasn’t alone.
“Nina touched hundreds of lives in the musical community in San Diego,” he says. “She was a generous spirit, never angry, never resentful. Had no tears about her, treated everybody as an equal. She started a choir for the homeless a couple years ago, which just performed on America’s Got Talent a couple weeks ago. She got kicked out of that after she got it going!”
Her three-hour memorial featured musical tributes by all of the bands that she played with.
“She was deeply loved by everybody,” says Waters. “But she was a big mess, a victim of these crazy times, a genius--like Janis Joplin or Amy Winehouse or Billie Holiday. Just too big for life. I will miss her deeply, and this afternoon, while it’s still fresh, I keep going in and out of fits of crying and calling out to her, stupidly swearing at her for being so stupid as to get herself killed!”
“She was 34 years old,” concludes Waters.
Meanwhile, Natasha Kozaily, leader of the stellar eight-woman Kate Bush tribute group Baby Bushka--for whom Deering sang and played keyboards--is putting together a tribute site for her, www.ninaleilanideering.com, which should be operating shortly.