Recently, we have described how Anaïs Nin has inspired other artists: there have been numerous paintings, sculptures, films, plays, and other forms of artistic expression that are rooted in Nin’s life and work. Now we can add an entire album of music to the list. Pam Shaffer, a Los Angeles based singer-songwriter, has just released her first full length album based on Nin’s Paris diaries, entitled As We Are (culled from the famous Nin quote, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are”) which includes the songs “Henry,” “Gonzalo,” “Hugh,” “June,” “Nanakepichu,” among others. Upon listening to the album, I immediately felt that Shaffer captured Nin’s aura and has allowed it to inform her songs.
I asked Shaffer to comment on her album; her thoughts follow:
I have played the piano for just about as long as I can recall and wrote my very first song about a baby falling out of a tree (rather derivative in retrospect and an odd commentary on children’s songs). Music was always my favorite mode of expression but I also painted a fair amount as a child and enjoyed writing poetry as an adolescent. For the majority of my time as a teenager I was terrified to sing in public. On occasion, I would play a Tori Amos cover or one of my own songs for friends. Unbeknownst to me, people at my high school actually listened, which came as a great surprise to me when years later, I ran into classmates who asked if I was still playing. I began performing in earnest in college.
There’s a line in a Jewel song that says, “You can be Henry Miller and I’ll be Anaïs Nin/This time it will be even better we’ll stay together in the end.” I remember hearing that line and wondering who those people were. Though my interest was piqued, it took me a few years to actually buy and read Henry and June. By the time I was 18, I had read it through several times and had moved onto her other diaries along with some of her essays. Reading her words was much like seeing my own thoughts committed to paper though they were ideas I had never dared to have before. I read her work consistently through college and wrote my independent honors thesis about how her life and art merged in an ideal state in the 1930s.
Anaïs’s life and work has affected me in a myriad of ways. Artistically, she has shown me that I must persevere and work within my own style whether it is popular or not. She writes in such a particular voice and does not stray from her own intuitive expression. She was not “successful” as a writer for much of her life, but she kept writing regardless. Her style is beautiful and accessible to me, but it might not be to others. She made her life into her art, which inspires me greatly. Though I do not always agree with the choices she made in her life, it is illuminating to read about her successes and failures as she attempted to live her life to its fullest degree. Her work reminds me not to settle for half-measures and to pursue my passions with all my energy. Clearly, her writing greatly influenced my own as I love the fluidity of her prose and the way she lets her stories unfold. I strive to write songs that operate the same way, utilizing the unconscious material and blending it with the conscious content.
A few years ago, the song “Henry” simply popped into my head. I wasn’t setting out to write a song about Anaïs and Henry, but there it was. It stood out quite a bit from the rest of my material, which was mostly drawn from my own life. I started to think that perhaps Henry was “lonely” and that I should write about June. Having written a thesis on Anaïs’s diaries, the source material was fresh in mind. Over the course of two years, I wrote all of the songs for the album. At the time, I was also writing songs about myself and other topics, but the Anaïs songs tended to have a distinct feel to them, a cohesive character that set them apart from my other work. I had an inkling that they were meant to be a concept album, and by the time I was mixing my previous EP, I was talking with my producer about recording the Anaïs songs together as an album. We began recording demos based on my sketches from my laptop recordings in early 2009, and that was the genesis of the album. My source materials span her dairies and unexpurgated works from 1930-1938, though I have also read House of Incest along with Cities of the Interior, so you never know what might have snuck in there.
In a way, her most famous quote was a perfect album title, because each of the songs is a different character. The songs are coming to the listener as “they” are, and each listener will take something different from them, thus fulfilling the concept of the quote. I think that quote is universal and insightful but was far too long for an album title. “As We Are” can be interpreted in many ways, but I hope it accurately depicts the nature of the album.
I recall telling my friend Karin Tatoyan about my idea for an Anaïs Nin concept album while sitting outside the Echo Curio on the curb of Sunset Blvd in Echo Park. She herself is an astonishingly talented musician, and she looked at me with wide eyes and said my idea was brilliant. I laughed and recounted how hard it was to find a thesis advisor because none of my professors were versed in the works of Anaïs Nin and that I couldn’t have possibly found a more obscure topic about which to write. She told me that very few people would have a clue what I was doing, but those who did would be thrilled, and those who did not would at the very least be intrigued by such a mysterious subject. Writing an album about Anaïs Nin matches the general theme of my life, which continuously reveals that I am quite good at accomplishing unusual, eccentric tasks but mediocre at best when it comes to easy and practical ones. I was always the kid who could do a one-handed cartwheel but might stub my toe while walking in my own room. I could solve an algebraic equation in my head but I might not count our change correctly. I am aware that I likely should have written or released a more general album first, one that was perhaps more easily relatable and accessible to draw people in before I delved into the unknown. However, I’ve never done things the easy way, and at least now my listeners will be those who will hopefully follow me down dark paths as well as well-lit ones.
To hear songs from, or to purchase the album, click here.
Fact: Beginning in 1914, when Anaïs Nin and her family departed Spain for New York, after having lived temporarily with her estranged father’s parents, she began recording daily events in a notebook given to her by her mother. Nin would later famously say that her intention was to write her father an extended “letter” that she hoped would entice him back.
The diary became the centerpiece of the young Anaïs’s life, and she continued the practice of recording her innermost thoughts and impressions in bound notebooks for a good portion of her adult life. Of course, the diaries she kept during her tumultuous years in Paris with Henry Miller became the basis for her fame as a writer when they were finally released in the mid-1960s. What most did not know then was that Nin had given up the daily practice of diary writing some twenty years previous.
After war forced Nin, her husband Hugh Guiler, and many of her circle, including Miller and Gonzalo Moré, to New York around 1940, she became desperately depressed for years, yearning for the “ideal” lover, success in her art of writing, and eventually descended into a downward spiral of failed love affairs and failed books. She began to express a desire to be free from the diary.
On September 25, 1943, she recorded in her unpublished diary: “I wish I could write the END to the Diary and turn to the outside story,” meaning that she felt her creativity was being sucked dry, which was a theme that had been pounded into her head by the likes of Miller, psychoanalyst Otto Rank, and Gore Vidal.
On September 25, 1943, she wrote: “What a potent awakener the Diary is. As I get ready to leave it, I pay it a slight tribute. This should be the last volume [it turned out she would write one more]. At forty I enter a new maturity, stripped of my mirages, dreams and miracles, of my delusions and illusions and my heavy romantic sorrows. What awaits me is the expression of this strength, in action. I am about to lay down my magician’s wand, my healer’s paraphernalia…and to confront the act, in writing as well as in living. Without the diary…the tortoise shell, houseboat and escargot cover. No red velvet panoply over my head, no red carpet under my feet, no Japanese umbrellas growing on the hair, no stage settings, tricks, enchantments…”
On March 13, 1946, she wrote: “This Diary will end when I find the [ideal] lover.”
On April 1, 1946: “I may perhaps attain freedom from the diary itself, from watching myself live, from having to make stories to make it more marvelous. Freedom from my idealized self, the idealization of others.”
Indeed, by the time Nin made her cross-country trip with her “ideal” lover, Rupert Pole, in 1947, she had abandoned the idea of bound diaries altogether, opting to write occasional descriptions of events on loose paper and keep them in folders along with correspondence and articles. After she became famous in the 1960s and into the early 1970s, her diary became what she called the “diary of others,” since she had no time to write new material. She essentially stopped writing in the 1970s, including fiction.
However, as death approached and she came to grips with it, she kept two hardbound diaries in which she handwrote her thoughts on life and death. One volume was the “Book of Music,” the other the “Book of Pain,” presenting both sides of her final years—the joy of living and the struggle with the cancer that would kill her.