I think I might be a little bit in love with Josh Meyer, the self-taught alchemist behind Imaginary Authors; his scents feel like billets doux, love letters, perfumed epistles made just for my skin and mine alone. For someone who donned no scent at all for years, believing personal olfaction was somewhat conformist, Josh has certainly travelled quite an abstract and fertile road to the point of releasing a library of remarkably quixotic and romantic olfactory tomes.
I first came across Imaginary Authors last year, intrigued by the concept of fragrances inspired by created writers and their imagined literary works. The writers were an eclectic mix, echoing Plath, Salinger, Capote, McCullers, Dickenson, Hemmingway, Kerouac etc. Americana incarnate in fact, filtered through the medium of imagined prose and literary biography. The look of Imaginary Authors is just delightful, a studied mix of whimsy and retro art publications, geometric prints, bright colours, surrealist homage, Dadaism and flashes of Warhol, Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns.
Now this simmering brew of influences and arch references could have gone horribly wrong, coming across as chichi and pretentious, a sly hipster conflagration of twee themes and over-reaching ambition. But Josh has tight control over his motifs and never loses sight of the most important factor – the juices themselves. It is an ambitious collection, some are exceptional and they rise to their literary aspirations with wit, charisma and charm.
For me, Imaginary Authors has a refined vintage quality, the fragrances have resonance and strong personalities, echoing their authors and novels but also in a wider sense paying homage to a love of beauty, sensation, skin, and desire. The sense of lives and loves inhabited is quite potent and heartfelt. Pictures are painted, characters come alive, kiss, fuck and die. I was worried initially that the fictional imposition of ideas might colour my interpretation of the odours in the multifarious scents, but in fact I was enriched by the additional creative marginalia. As I sampled and sniffed, inhaling various pieces of skin, I replayed over in my head Josh’s fictions alongside the development of his strange family of delicious scents.
I ordered the sample pack from the Imaginary Authors website and they arrived promptly with a lovely hand-written note from Josh himself thanking me for taking an interest in his brand. This is the difference with niche and artisanal perfumery, the personal touch. Orders and generous samples from Bloom Perfumery, 4160 Tuesdays, Oriza L. Legrand, Mona di Orio, Viktoria Minya and Vero Perfumo for example have all been sent with personal notes from the perfumers or owners themselves. These little details, a chance to feel just a touch more connected are very important in this rapidly desensitising and impolite world. And while there is grumbling about the ever-increasing growth in the niche sector and the actual definition of niche itself, it is these grounded and connective moments that matter to perfume lovers.
Now Josh is a relative late bloomer in terms of perfumery, really only starting his conversion to the scented arts in 2010, launching his lines in 2102. Quite impressive considering the quality of the fragrances he has imagined. After a peripatetic youth he settled in Portland and wondered how to channel his intense creative spirit. Everyone toys with music, art, words and performance in their lives and in a very charming interview with Olfactif, Josh reveals that his preoccupation with straight razors and interacting with the obsessive Badger and Blade community put him in contact with a guy who started including scent samples from brands like Knize Ten, Parfumerie Générale and Annick Goutal that slowly began to re-shape Josh’s senses regarding the world of fragrance, a world until then he had dismissed as conformist and somewhat suffocating.
When that moment of niche or artisanal revelation happens to us, the fall is vertiginous. I have never quite lost my tethering to high street and mainstream scent, they can be so glorious and nostalgic, still occasionally stopping me in my tracks and truly surprising me. I expect niche to be different and experimental. When mainstream scent plays with convention and form, the results can still be dazzling and brave. Niche by definition must work a little harder.
Imaginary Authors is about experiencing scent on a different level, turning pages and being seduced by a voice, that of an author or this case a perfumer masquerading as an author. Josh is the olfactive writer, using assorted noms de plume to create alternative literary scentscapes where we can lose ourselves. He started from scratch, experimenting with ideas, form, mood and materials. These tentative scented steps are always wobbly and fraught with danger. Overwrought and loose, things can fall apart so easily. Repetition, luck and exposure to as much scent as possible slowly build confidence and repertoire. This self-taught cuisine approach is a rich and interesting one; House of Kerosene, D.S. & Durga, 4160 Tuesdays, Vero Profumo, Sonoma Scent Studios, Slumberhouse to name a few wonderfully aromatic examples are small artisanal houses creating atmospheric and idiosyncratic work that stands out from the scented morass. You can almost taste the trials and tribulations, the fretting and eureka moments of breakthrough and joy. So while there are those who grumble about the glamourisation and hipterisation of niche (and I will admit to being one of them from time to time…) it is this sensation of discovery and private frisson that keeps me coming back.
Josh Meyer’s olfactory library contains seven volumes - imaginary works of fictionalised memoirs, travel, post-modern confessionals and stories. Each fragrance or publication has an author and detailed synopsis. The images of the writers seem perfect, (culled apparently from old high school yearbooks and vintage nudist mags!) and the cut&paste découpage design technique courtesy of Josh’s friend Ashod Simonian adds a oddness reminiscent of 50s pulp sci-fi book art. This oddity and apartness laid down over conventionality reflects the beauty and lure of the fragrances themselves. While wearing an Imaginary Author scent you are aware of themes within themes, voices within voices, a sense of olfactory ventriloquism. It is both erotically disconcerting and immensely charming.
The Imaginary Authors collection portfolio consists of Falling into the Sea (Nica Galas 1950-2007), Violet Disguise (Lenora Blumberg 1909-1983), Bull’s Blood (Devante Val Reo 19325 -????), The Soft Lawn (Claude LeCoq 1893- 1956), L’Orchidée Terrible (Audrey Blavot 1919-1999), The Cobra & The Canary (James Spund 1933-2001) and Memoirs of a Trespasser and Cape Heartache, both by Philip Sava (1867-1923). There is also a collaborative scent called Mosaic in association with Spruce Apothecary in Portland which has a very strange and compelling ‘limestone’ note. I admired elements in all of the perfumes, each one has presence and eccentricity. The more I lived in them, the more I noticed in the blending, atmospherics and spaces between the notes.
I had a few misgivings, I found the powder of L’Orchidée Terrible a tad piercing in the drydown, a pity as a marriage of orchid, musks and honey embraced in satin sounded fabulously camp and inviting. But somehow my skin rejected the boudoir slink and I could only smell chalky crumbled loveheart sweets. Mosaic wasn’t for me either, only because I don’t do cirtussy aromatics, but as I mentioned earlier, the crumbled limestone effect is well worth sampling, wet and fresco-like, executed with brio and charm. The Soft Lawn enraptured a friend (he plays tennis…) but it’s dry linden note amplified a hundredfold on my flesh, causing the blood vessels in my head to dilate and trigger the pre-shocks of migraine. It does smell quite remarkable on the right skin though, metallic, feutrée, as the French might say (felted…), with a whiff of cue chalk and lemon barley water.
So each of these singular fragrances has a very distinctive persona, crafted by Josh to reflect his authors and their writings. It is quite an undertaking, the melding of olfactory thematics to imagination and erudite weirdness. I love it, the concept of leading our skin and minds through a kind of fragranced sci-fi landscape. I did initially worry about the scene-setting, the sourced authors’ images, the arch synopses but everything comes together like an immersive multi-sensory exhibition to stimulate not just the emotional limbic mother lode facet of the brain but the heart and soul too.
Wearing them for the first time felt a little like stumbling across a cache of forgotten books left on a shelf in a still, silent house, touches of Van de Rohe, Adirondacks retreats and Lloyd Wright’s playful severity. The rooms are haunted by dust and laid back Super 8 memories. Walls have bleached squares and sun spots. The books have toppled over and catch a roaming eye, unknown names, zippy covers, and the promise of an unusual read in this age of digital eyeballing. There is a frisson, a skin rush of pleasure, opening the cover, breathing in the contents. The initial words lead you down a scented path. Imaginary Authors…discovered pleasures.
In many ways, one of the key components of great perfumery has always been storytelling, a seductive tale to lure and hook the wearer. We are aware of the fiction and artifice, but told well enough we will immerse ourselves in the olfactory fantasy. It’s a tough gig to pull off, but the intensity of emotions conjured up by Josh and his stylish tomes are weirdly compulsive and all you can do is follow and indulge one’s senses.
I have added Cape Heartache and The Cobra & The Canary to my collection, while my friend Murray treated himself to Bull’s Blood and Memoirs of a Trespasser. A delightful note and a set of bookmark blotters accompanied my original sample set from Josh, with info on the scents, authors and notes. It is this studied and singular attention to detail that makes me love niche. These little details are a reflection of Josh and his perfumed vision and therefore matter. It is not just mere collateral or PR padding.
I set aside time for sniffing and absorbing, jotting down ideas and words as I did so. I have been sampling a lot of beautiful American artisanal scent-making recently, most notably Slumberhouse and D.S.& Durga/HYLNDS, both of which electrified me. (Added Norne, Mississippi Medicine and Spirit of the Glen to my collection). I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Josh’s work, the writing and authors’ biogs are rich and evocative, so there is a sense of true anticipation as you approach each scent. It a little like picking up a book and reading the back cover or the inside flyleaf and deciding there and then to read, seduced by the opening sentence.
The fragrances have tremendous presence on the skin, because of the literary build up; they have heft and emotional weight as the molecules diffuse into the air. They smell at once familiar and very strange, disconcerting even, flowing across the senses like scented cinema.
Cape Heartache is the purported other work by author Philip Sava sitting in the Imaginary Authors collection alongside Memoirs of a Trespasser, Josh’s sensual essay in tumbling vanilla with myrrh, animalic ambrette seed and a echoing oak barrel effect which seems to amplify the vanilla to enormous tidal levels. The novel is described as a hallucinogenic work of internal and external travel with Sava spending much of his life isolated on a ranch in Madagascar… hence the essay in massive weird vanilla.
Cape Heartache is very different, almost repellent in comparison, soaked, moist, licheny, bitter and aggressively confrontational. There is a sense of absence and haunting, spaces in forested expanses where no light shines. And yet into this blend of foggy darkness and obfuscation comes sweetness and light, hope, I suppose, a discovery of edges, the forest having a haven, despite the penumbra. The inspiration is Sava’s imagined story of a 1880s homesteader and his love for a woman who was a descendent of the local Nehelam Indian tribe.
The scent has elements of pine resin, Douglas fir, western hemlock, old growth, mountain fog and then a stranger smeared note of, to my mind, wild alpine strawberry, which transforms the perfume into something otherworldly and urgent. The listed notes are of course simplified, even romaticised reflections of both the raw and synthetic materials Josh assembled to create the vibrant scentscape unfolding in Cape Heartache. He has been careful to list the notes and accords that will speak to us, draw us in, much like the blurb on book covers.
I would imagine we all think we know what strawberries taste like. It’s a fruit I adore, I can eat punnets of the damn things, literally until I might die of them. But the odour of them, the very essence and soul of them? This is a little more esoteric and fractured. We can probably recognise a strawberry-type scent, pinkish, sweet, candied in tone, a little sticky, a touch of jam perhaps? There is none of this in Cape Heartache, the incredible strawberry effect; undeniably the star attraction of this compelling scent is dirty and crushed, rain-spattered and lost under leaves in the woods. One of the most unique partners to strawberries in cooking is freshly ground black pepper, it seems to exert an almost magical power over the fruit, drawing out the juices and lacing them with aromatic, smoky spice. This too rolls through the foggy interiors of Cape Heartache, wrapping around mossy, speckled trees and hanging debris.
It is undoubtedly a strapping scent, seguing from rugged pioneer topography to a more reserved ambiguous state of quietude. I love the unusual bayou timbre, damp and foggy green with a persistent and resilient drydown.
It took me a while to place something. I kept smelling an echo of something, edible, sweet and flambéed. Then the other day as I walked home in early onset darkness, my scarf reeking of Cape Heartache I remembered. Many years ago for my sins I worked tortuous split shifts at the Sheraton Hotel in Edinburgh. One of the evening specialist desserts was crêpes served flambéed with Galliano liqueur, strawberries and black pepper. Galliano is very weird herbal liqueur, a vanilla topped blend of spirits, ginger, yarrow, star anise, juniper and lavender. This mix of flavours, sweet, fired, golden, fruity and smoky was fascinating and one I loved knocking back when I had the chance. It was this juxtaposition of flavours and gustatory odours that flooded my memory.
I can read Sava’s imagined story in the portrayal of forested isolation and a sense of redemption by sweet strawberry-tinted love. It’s clever and cute. But the real beauty of Cape Heartache is Josh Meyer’s decision to explore darkness and shadowed textures with abstract olfactive suggestions. His dry, twisted mucky fruit note is a revelation, adding resonance and poignancy to an already complex perfume. I have been wearing it so much recently; I swear I can smell strawberries everywhere. Cape Heartache is delicious sprayed liberally onto clothes and especially scarves. The fibres seem to crave the molecules and transform them into history.
In my early twenties I devoured American literature - Hawthorn, Melville, Cather, Dickinson, James, the Beats - Kerouac, Cassady, Ginsberg, Burroughs – Baldwin, Crane, Lee, McCullers and Capote up to Walker and Delillo. Josh’s The Cobra & The Canary is in its own way part of this timeline, an imagined novel by James Spundt (1933-1969) about 23 year old Neal Orris (Cassady + root/iris) who heads for freedom on the open road with his best friend to experience life, love, transformation and ultimately destruction.
There is a motif of the outsider that carries through so much great American writing, the struggle with oneness played out against complex psychological backdrops be they Boston Brahmin social gatherings, whaling ships or Harlem jazz bars. Suffering, aloneness, quietude and redemption.
I’m not sure what drew me to this scent actually; on first sniff, it reminded me a lot of Comme des Garcons’ Tar fragrance, twisted and plastic with a whiff of hot weather, sun-dried car seats. It’s the asphalt accord that really excites my skin, despite lying down low in the base. Mixed with tobacco flower, orris, leather and a heady pollen-swirling hay field effect, The Cobra & The Canary packs quite an olfactory punch. After wearing it for a couple of days I became quite obsessed with the kink of it, the alien effects and sense of seclusion it provoked in me. I was wearing a liberal amount one night after a dreadful day at work, streets ragged with persistent shoppers, the rain picking at the skin like insults. I realised this was a scent of desolation, of ennui. The Cobra & The Canary is the fragrance I would wear as I walked out of my life into obscurity to start again as something muted and second hand.
There are whiffs of concrete in the drydown, dirty concrete, worn and tired by weather and time. I love the oddball asphalt vibe; it is genuinely expansive, dusty, sunbaked and littered with dreams. The tobacco flower, sweeter and greener than I expected is the joyful thrill of smoking in cars, top down, music streaming into the atmosphere. The lemon is cold drinks, snatched on route, slugged back as the wheels burn and hands trail incandescent roll ups from the windows. The grassy, floral smear of passing fields filters through the blend, adding a delicate counterbalance to the harder, bleaker elements.
This fragrance moves me. I admire the technical skill; the arrangement of naturals and aromachemicals that has been assembled to represent Josh Meyer’s carefully cultivated aesthetic. But underneath, this is intelligent and emotive perfumery, witty, stylish and human. I always imagined it would be quite tricky to give these fragrances life away from their novels and arranged influences, whereas in fact these literary portraits merely serve as suggestion to one’s fevered and sensual imagination. I found elements of myself in both extraordinary scents, Cape Heartache and The Cobra & The Canary, an awareness of introspection and inner darkness lit through with humour, desire and a willingness to explore new worlds, new sensations. I know I will need more of these scented works, Bulls Blood is so damn porny and obsessive, I almost can’t bear smelling it, it drives me crazy. And Violet Disguise… this has grown on me so much. Rum, dried fruits, violet, amber and wait for it… evening air and The Month of May. How could I possibly resist? It’s a sumptuous aromatic fruity thing with a whimsical chypré feel to the central section. The violet is plush and leathery, with a hint of night. Beautifully constructed, it fades away into a mauve dawn with grace and discretion, never outstaying its welcome. This will be my next Imaginary Author and I cannot wait to see that other titles and stories Josh will be adding to the library in the coming months.
Writing the final words to this piece, tweaking and editing, I am wearing Cape Heartache, sensing the dry crackling heat of summer sun searching for leverage among the pine trees. Insects chatter, leaves flicker. The crushed odour of strawberries is bright and mellow. I feel soothed by the familiarity of the notes and yet at the same time there is a pause, a moment where the fog rolls in, dew coats everything, shapes lose form and for a moment I feel disconcerted, lost. My fingers are stained red, syrupy. But wait, I know where I am. All is good with the world, an imaginary world.
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