LA-based perfumer Sanae Barber has made a name for herself as the “go-to” fragrance lady for some of the hippest names in the indie music scene. She’s created custom blends for folk hero Bonnie Prince Billie, as well concocted a spray perfume called “Innocence by Misty” for Josh Tillman, aka Father John Misty of Grammy-nominated Fleet Foxes fame. We visited Sanae at her Los Feliz “scent laboratory,” filled with countless bottles and vials of some of the rarest oils and essences in the world. That’s where she created her namesake line of Sanae Intoxicants, a range of high-end botanic perfume blends with artwork designed by LA underground art queen Alia Penner. She walked us through her intuitive creative process (some fragrances have taken nearly two years to develop), and explained how she cultivates a unique relationship with each and every fragrance.
How would you describe your perfumes to someone who has never smelled them before?
Sanae Intoxicants are about altering mood, excitement, stimulation, that’s why they are called intoxicants. They create something new, they take you to a new place, they make you feel different. They are transporting you to some new experience, or making you nostalgic for something in your past. The Source Family scent I am working on with Isis Aquarian, for instance, has a copal in it which creates a such a high feeling. You really do feel altered and transported, and it takes you right up into the core of your being, up through your scalp. It’s illuminating. My scents don’t smell “perfumery”, I might add. I am not trying to make anything that resembles something I have smelled before. I’m interested in my own experiences and I try to keep my palate clear by focusing on the raw materials. If anything, more so than other perfumes, I am inspired by people, and places and of course, music.
Music inspires you deeply as a perfumer, and in the past you’ve referenced musicians like Mark Lanegan and Jonathan Wilson as touchstones. What music is inspiring you now?
Musically, I have been hooked on Connan Mockasin for the past year. Connan gives me that sense of something that’s flowery and fresh and modern. I’m also into some of this old Greek psychedelic music, and I am always coming back to Pakistani garage music that was reissued by Finders Keepers out of Manchester. PJ Harvey is always an inspiration to me, because almost every album she comes out with is something totally new. She has no sense of obligation to what’s popular, even though she’s making popular music. She’s not afraid to just be herself and do what she is into and inspired by. And as an artist, that is the way I want to be. I am not looking to be influenced as much as just trying to somehow express where I am at in my life right now and putting it out there.
Talk us through, step by step, how you create a fragrance.
For me, the creative process starts with one particular scent or idea I become obsessed by. I start blending that scent with two or three others, resulting in a few different accords. Then I started blending those with other things until I end up with five of different versions of the original idea. From those five or six, I will pick one, but the selection process can take weeks. That’s because I like to live with the scent, and form a relationship with it, a relationship that extends beyond my workspace and into my social life.
I start wearing the variations all the time, just to see how people respond to it. When I am at that part of the process, I don’t even say anything. I observe how people respond to me as I am sort of enveloped in this new fragrance, and gauge what the energy of that response is. It’s at that point that I start to know if this is going to develop into a lasting relationship between me and this fragrance. I have to fall in love with it. Once that happens there’s a story that naturally evolves about how the perfume relates to me and the world at large. Usually, that’s what the poem revolves around. (Each Sanae Intoxicant has its own poem.) When we reach that point, it gets very exciting, and a name starts to evolve.
Also, with each fragrance, there is usually a secret ingredient. Something that is driving the whole narrative of the scent.
Can you tell us what the secret ingredient was in the Father John Misty fragrance, “Innocence by Misty”?
The secret ingredient in the Innocence by Misty perfume was Nigella damascena (also known as love-in-a-mist), an annual garden flowering plant, belonging to the buttercup family. It’s an absolute that comes from the seed of this very beautiful flower, with a floral, honey-like fragrance. From the beginning, Josh (Tillman, aka Father John Misty) and I knew that we wanted his perfume to be based around orange blossom and violet leaf, but there was this one missing ingredient that I couldn’t find. I knew it was some kind of honey scent so I tried honey absolute, elderflower, bees wax, looking for that sweet, nectar kind of flavor, but I couldn’t find it. Then I stumbled upon this rare oil, the nigella damascene, and we found the honey we needed.
What about the Bonnie Prince Billie fragrance?
It was a similar experience with the Bonnie Billie fragrance—I wasn’t able to fall in love with the different versions of it until I found the assam oud and incorporated that. Then I fell deeply in love with it. That was very exciting, because I had been working on that formula for two years.
What fragrances are you developing now?
Right now I have around five different ideas I am working with. I’m really interested in black tea absolute, and in making a perfume around oak moss. I would really love to do a Sanae Intoxicant floral, maybe centered around a pink lotus or cassie absolute. And there’s another one I want to release, that is pretty much fully developed, except I haven’t been able to find a name for it. That fragrance is leathery, spicy and vanilla, almost like a sweet, smoky bourbon. I wanted to maybe go with a cowboy thing, like “Canyon Star”. It’s an evocative name, because you could be camping, you could be high, riding horse back in the night, you could be on an evening hike. I keep coming back to those words, because they do work with the vibe of Sanae Intoxicants. But we’ll see—it’s always a process. And the process can never be rushed.