I haven’t come across any Caron, old or new, for a while now.
I haven’t come across any Caron, old or new, for a while now.
Neil Chapman : How have you been during these difficult times?
Julianne Oc: Thank you for asking. It’s hard to know sometimes, there’s a lot of survival-mode going on after the plague.
I’m navigating them (the difficult times) and beginning to emerge out of the numbness of the last few years. I went into lockdown riding a wave. Dreams which I had worked very hard for, were coming true. The ensuing isolation then brought significant loss, artistically & socially and on many levels. I think I’m still recovering. Life feels very different. It isn’t easy to dive back into the modes of coping and thriving I was used to before, though I don’t really know why. I’m spending a lot of time adapting and recalibrating. I’m lucky to have music and goals. What about you?
NC : I am ok. Much better than I was, anyway. I think I basically lost it during the pandemic – not that it is over by any means, but that morbid intensity and fear has definitely subsided and I feel as if I am coming back into myself a bit more again.
I was on a bike ride the other day around where we live in Kamakura and I came across a perfect white camellia. I stopped and photographed it. I then suddenly remembered (though I had never forgotten) that we were going to do this, but then as is often the case with an inconsistent person like myself, I got swept away in all the latest news horror, work stress, and personal flotsam and jetsam and it never happened. But here we are again now.
‘White Camellia’ is the title track of your first album – and the whole thing is really lovely. This song in particular reminds me, vaguely of Goldfrapp’s Black Cherry album, the obscure 4AD band His Name Is Alive, as well as reminiscences of Kate Bush’s dark and poignant Lionheart period. But it is its own genus; of right now, but also in a different realm.
JO: Alison Goldfrapp is interesting, isn’t she? Somewhat of an enigma. I particularly liked the 2008 album Seventh Tree. I’d like to know more about her journey. I just looked up her age (56). That’s pretty impressive. I’m willing to bet she has fought hard for her lasting place in the industry. I liked the song Black Cherry the song but I’m not familiar with the rest of the album.
I often feel like a feminist-fan failure when I admit to not knowing a vast amount of Kate Bush’s music. I was definitely influenced by Ariel, which I listened to incessantly when I lived in Devon. I’m not sure there has ever been a time someone hasn’t referenced her to me after a gig. I suspect I was standing on her shoulders unconsciously. I much admire her natural ability to just get on with it and do her thing, be herself, carry on in many aspects of her work. I’m honouring the reference.
When I was layering the harmonies of White Camellia, I think there was a subconscious fixation on the rolling waves of Ghibli’s animated ocean in Ponyo; the scene where Sosuke is on the hill and Ponyo is gleefully running after him on that ominous rising water. Simultaneously unsettling and invigorating, the mix of threat and joy. There’s an all-encompassing, transcendent allure about the feel of that film, it just takes you to another universe; absorbent, colourful escapism. I wanted the music for this album to feel like that.
NC: To my shame I must admit that I have never seen a Ghibli film, even though I know that he is worshipped around the world. Many of my students have seen his films scores of times, even hundreds : he is really venerated.
Would you call yourself a romantic? (for me, there is a purity, a naïvete in your music, even though there is also a slightly poison-tinged, laconic aspect undertingeing everything as well)?
JO : Fascinating.
I used to be a die-hard romantic but after I healed the proverbial daddy-wounds, I’m more pragmatic. That said, this album was written in the wake of an intense, doomed love affair which had me hooked for longer than I care to admit. If there is a tinge of poison, it probably tells of that regret. Chemistry is mysterious. It promises so much and is indefinable. Ultimately though, if there is dysfunction or incompatibility you are not going to succeed in relating happily, which isn’t fair, and it hurts.
Perhaps buried in the naivety, is hope. I don’t want to lose hope, even after surviving being a woman in this world and somehow making it to mid-life not totally defeated. I’d rather hold on to a semblance of innocence than embrace cynicism. It’s a fine balance.
NC: I feel precisely the same about innocence and cynicism. I don’t want to be an idealistic fool but at the same time the true cynic is never happy.
What is the significance (if any) of the camellia as flower for you ? How did you come to write this song?
JO: There is a whole subtext in that song. I used flower folklore to veil my vulnerabilities and because well, flowers.
There are multiple meanings in folklore, but White Camellia tends to represent romantic love, affection and purity. I think you don’t give White Camellias in Japan though (?) Connotations of death. Quite different. But I love the ambiguity. Perhaps more interesting is my locked-up Lobelia! *
This song was written in a life-crossroads moment. I knew had to let some darkness go but I didn’t really know how. I wanted to stop repeating patterns that had served me up to a point but were now getting in my way. It was a difficult process. Someone really good had floated unexpectedly into my life. It gave me a new kind of hope. So I guess it’s about a bridge, an exit from not-so-comfortable comfort zones, about trust, vulnerability, fear and hope.
Burning Bush is a most fascinating anomaly of wonder, btw. Are you writing songs? I want to hear more. The video of your singing touched my heart. Its voice is really quite exquisitely beautiful. If such expression is bestowed upon a thing, is it not an unarguable duty to share it prolifically far and wide?
* Lobelia – arrogance, malevolence
Puke weed, gag root, vomit wort, bladderpod – all of these are colloquial names for the controversial Lobelia. https://floraldictionary.tumblr.com/post/161475001496/lobelia-arrogance-malevolence-puke-weed-gag
NC: Burning Bush is a strange one. I am still not entirely surely what it represents for me deep down: for now it is dormant ( the volcano analogy is apt; I have a lot to get out) , although I did a big performance recently – in October in Tokyo – and it was hugely enjoyable and cathartic.
D brought the entity to life, almost ten years ago now, and I have to admit that once that happened, I felt like I was exploding into the stars, vastly more realized somehow.
When it comes to music, obviously it goes without saying that I have nowhere near as much musical talent as you, not remotely, so we are not comparable in that regard ( fantastic to get your approval though; there will be more! ). I can improvise and make up the odd bit of music, but have never actually written a song : it’s like fiction somehow: I know that for me it would be impossible. Life is already so intense and overwhelming in its beauty and terribleness that I feel that there is more than enough material for me to work with. I like writing words : about perfume, my life and the people in it; cinema, culture, the world; it must be hugely satisfying to be able to deal with similar issues embodied musically, though, in a song: a hermetically engineered, sealed but porous world that lives forever on its own terms. I envy you that.
Should I refer to you as singer songwriter’, incidentally ?Or do you prefer ‘performer’ (a bit Cirque Du Soleil) or, ‘musician’ (a bit studio session bassist) : you write your own songs and sing them, but don’t you think there is almost something limiting about that label, ‘a singer songwriter’ : a tad older-Carole King-stuck-at-the piano churning out hits for other people, or even a bit Barry Manilow? ( Do you remember I was always playing the dramatic opening chords of his Could It Be Magic on the piano as a kid? Or was it my ridiculous Moonlight Sonata classical musician piss-take that used to have you and David and Owen in stitches : I can’t remember)
JO: Ha! Isn’t it weird, the singer songwriter label thing. I have settled on music artist at the moment. Nothing really quite cuts it though does it.
It was your ridiculous Moonlight Sonata classical musician pisstake. There was no singular event more hilarious in my childhood.
NC: I can see myself now; always something of a class clown.
But back to the music…
Part of me really loves the intimate, in-the-room-with-you production in White Camellia (was this intentional on your part?) Another part, I must admit, is yearning for a more epic, sweeping mix.
JO: My producer Paul suggested an intimate feel for the first part of the song, and cutting the reverb was part of that decision. Yeh I think it would be nice to do more mixes, I know what you mean – an emotive chillout beats type thing could work well. Is that the kind of thing you mean? I’d like to experiment with a moody face-melting bassline for it.
NC: Would you do a Bond song?.
NC : ( Julianne’s music is already being used as the theme song in several international TV shows : she would nail a 007).
Your song ‘GiftFrom Elle’ is vaguely terrifying. What was the genesis of that one? I love it. It’s like Belle And Sebastian listening to Air inside a sepulchral tomb in the interior of Brazil – (do you know Os Mutantes btw ? Crazy psychedelica from the 60’s? I am reminded of that green shadowness; the moisture that lies beyond. I think my ultimate aesthetic in this life is lushness ). Your harmonies are eerily out of body here, as well as in the exquisite ‘Traces’, possibly my favourite of these tracks: otherworldly (I won’t say ‘ethereal’ – I am sure you are sick of being called that now!) . How did you learn to do this, by the way? To harmonize and multilayer the voice? Is it instinctive? I am incapable.
JO: Vaguely terrifying. It’s wonderful that you get that. I think being vaguely terrified describes much of my existence quite well. But it’s weird because I also recognise the side of me that is utterly fearless and always has been. Do you think it’s possible to be both terrified and fearless at the same time?
NC: I do think so. I am a bit like that myself.
JO : You do have to be brave to write songs, and as I am discovering, braver still to release them publicly. There is so much scrutiny about the many different details. I have learned to grow an elephant hide which protects me from critical voices, but my own is probably the worst. It’s an extraordinary process.
Growing up I thought everyone could harmonise. My brother can do it too so perhaps it’s something in the genes. I spent countless lost hours harmonising with hoovers, hairdryers, lawn mowers, whistling taps etc., experimenting with different voices, singing obscure complimentary scales and find that very fascinating indeed. It was only when I joined my first professional band at 18 that I realised everyone can’t harmonise. I found that quite shocking actually.
But I digress. Gift From Elle was written from the perspective of the opposite gender. Do I know how it feels like for a boy? Probably not, but I had a go. The silence of men can be crippling for women. Silence is violence. Sins of the fathers. It’s some way attempting to express these issues. For example, I suspect one ex of mine was wildly jealous of my complete freedom to put on a dress and waft about, smelling of citrus and red lipstick flaunting my tender birthright of femininity. Imagine the secrets we would uncover if we all told the truth. Imagine the potential intensities of healing if sexual shame were defunct. I don’t know if my suspicions were founded in any truth, but if they were, imagine if he’d just told me. Maybe we could have made it.
NC: We met through music.
(A little context : Julianne and I were childhood friends. In the Midlands, going to the same school, though she was two years below me. We lived round the corner from each other and spent a lot of time together as well as with the other kids who lived on that block: we bonded over our record collections; lost contact and drifted apart for many years before getting back in touch out of the blue with each other a decade or so ago – when over big G + T’s in some Birmingham bar or other we realized that we still get on like a house on fire (there is something ‘extra’ about Julianne I can’t quite describe).
Julianne and I occasionally meet up when I go back to England now : she also came down to my book opening in London for Perfume, a fantastic gathering of people important to me which I was very touched by. In many ways J and I are kindred spirits – both on the ‘wild child’ tip growing up in respectable suburbia with volatile families and never quite fitting in; although of the two I was the boring goody two shoes)
NC: At the end of the day, I think I do probably consider myself something of an outsider. Do you see yourself that way?
JO: I do. And I have explored this notion many times and in different circumstances throughout my life. There have been times I have felt at home, but they are often transient. Perhaps that’s simply the nature of life but I think it has something more to do with growing up in a family who shall we say, had very different interests. If you feel like an outsider in your home as a child that sentiment is probably going to stay with you throughout your life. Cognitive development shit is hard to shake.
It was my hairdresser who first called me a wild child, midst spiral-perm. I adored him, he was an affirming tonic on a Solihull Saturday. It just felt like he got me. I remember feeling instantly elevated, like I had a sudden status. “You’re the wonderful wild child” or something like that he’d say, and I was like, fuck yeh I’ll have that. Funny how we can pin our identities on these little moments.
His overt gayness was intoxicating to me. So refreshing and wonderful to be around male energy without that underlying subtext of the ‘gaze’, the complexity of which I of course didn’t understand at the time (13ish). I just knew I felt very comfortable in his presence. I sometimes wonder whether I had similar feelings towards you – but actually I think it was more that you had a gift of encouraging creativity. The emotional safety that inspired was invigorating. I remember being blown away when you said I could call you any time to read you my poems down the phone. Literally no one but you in my sphere was remotely interested in hearing my little-girl scrawlings. I fucking loved you for that. With all your razor-sharp wit, intimidating physical beauty, talent and intelligence, the thing that impacted me most about you was that you were kind.
NC: Wow thanks. I actually hadn’t realized I had had such an impact…… I was struggling myself too despite all the natural exuberance, but you always stood out. I have a so many great memories of coming over to your house to listen to you and your brother’s latest vinyl acquisitions and then dance our asses off to the disco lights that David had proudly installed. He had a massive, big show off stereo system I was in awe of that put everyone else on the block’s to shame : and I was basically in heaven every time we could have our own little club nights: I can still see those strobe lights flashing..
For a troubled and ultrasensitive child like me coming into himself, just letting it all go to Madonna’s ‘Into The Groove’ at top volume was just incredible : like I was finally coming fully alive.
JO : Ha! Yes David did like the best stuff. His wife Karen says he is still the same and his family joke about how everything he buys must be the big version, like a Dave go-large nickname or something. He makes truly excellent cocktails I discovered recently, which didn’t surprise me at all. He has many talents.
Ah those discos, the music, the lights. It was enthralling. I never wanted you to leave, you carried fun around with you. Why do you describe yourself as ‘ultrasensitive’? Do you still feel that way? The word makes me twitch just a little, like it could be used critically. Maybe you don’t see it like that at all and if so I’m sorry. But I prefer ultrasensory. I mean, heightened sensory awareness, that’s a superpower.
NC: I had never properly thought about that before, that ‘ultrasensitive’ can be turned against you. Actually I do much prefer ‘ultrasensory’, though it feels a bit exceptionalist.
JO Everyone thinks the music they grew up with was the best era, but we were very lucky to have the diversity of the 80s. Madonna – where would we all have been without her soundtracking our youthful awakenings? Borderline, Everybody, Crazy for You, La Isla Bonita: pure gold.
NC: I specifically remember lots of Madonna 12”s from the Like A Virgin period being on the turntable; Frankie Goes To Hollywood; the Miami Vice theme extended mix (!) – but specifically of course, our mutual adoration of Scritti Politti. I was (and still am) obsessed to the core with them, blasting out my Absolute, Wood Beez and Hypnotize 12”s at top volume when the time is right – usually sunny spring and summer days and just standing and staring at the beauty of the sleeves and the perfection of the pop. I haven’t changed one iota in that regard. Does that make me a sad case of arrested development?
JO: I think we should all take artistic sustenance however it comes, and if that’s staring at the same art for decades, why would you not? I am fascinated by our reasons for being attracted to certain music or art. The way it makes us feel, why it might be touching our complicated psyches. I have often found myself digging around in there. When I was a kid I was obsessed with Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus. I read some of the Greek mythology which inspired it and discovered the fateful story of Echo, which I decided to adopt as an important lesson in the detriments of gossip. Very helpful. Once I felt I had received my important message from that artwork (Echo was not the only one), my obsession with it waned. But that’s just a little story.
I found becoming a mother almost fourteen years ago interrupted the luxuries of spending hours on art appreciation. Music has always scaffolded my days, but I miss visual art. I like to paint too and fantasise about a time where I’ll set up the easel again and get lost in colour.
This conversation is to be continued.
A couple of years ago I was working in a city called Atsugi. With its air of yakuza-tinged macho-hood and its main thoroughfare full of meat restaurants, there was a swagger to the place that I personally found refreshing. It was simultaneously, under neon, both amusing and disturbing to come out of the main school building at night to see guys in slim moustaches and double breasted suits; sunglassed older toughs looking menacing in limousines if you walked to the station down a particular side street (the students were instructed to go the other way); but as a foreigner, as an alien, you could just glide through, watching like a goldfish bowl.
At the Atsugi station, there was a lily, alive for months and months that was very persistent and seemingly indestructible. I would drink my after work can of beer at the far end of the platform where I could be alone and look out into the underside of the traintracks and bid it hello; wondering how it could still be going even as we got into the colder weather in mid December. At that point, it was admittedly starting to falter a bit, a little ragged but clinging on; but where it was situated, somewhere beneath the white stone stairs of the stationmaster’s office and the concrete step before the train entry, must have given it a strange form of unique microclimate that enabled it to thrive for so long, refusing to quite give up to the ghost. Prior to this one lonely stalwart, there had been whole fields of lilies seeded on the ashpalt railtracks straggling with weeds from the summer onwards; in Japan lilies grow everywhere, wild, glorious, and I always find the scene, and the smell – which either permeates or nauseates the air, depending on your standpoint – incredibly thrilling. There are lilies of every variety that bloom in seasonal waves , overlapping each other in their debutante stages; stargazer, candidums, longliflorums, calla, tiger lilies easter lilies ; when they are all out in bloom I ride round my neighbourhood in ecstacy, stopping to smell, and sometimes pick, them, though the sickliness inherent in lilies – a ripeness always threatening to orgasm, a seminal lume that can be gagging – leaves them better on the stalk.
Natalie Feisthauer’s lily scent for Maison Crivelli, Lys Sølaberg, is inspired by the sight of lilies flourishing in an unexpected place, the fjords of Norway:
“The lily that made the biggest impression on me, was one that I came across after several hours spent walking through damp marshes strewn with tall grasses and scattered flowers. That day, as usual in the region, the weather was highly unpredictable…..Along the way, we caught sight of numerous waterfalls flowing down dark granite walls. Our final destination was a village on the cliff edge, facing the sea. We reached it around midnight. And yet, although it was the middle of summer, the sun still hadn’t set. In the distance, we could see rays of sun illuminating the waves, creating an iridescent shimmer. I remember taking shelter for a moment between two wooden houses with thatched roofs. And right there, at that very spot, I was surprised to see some lilies.”
“Working on this fragrance, I was lucky enough to be given total freedom to express my interpretation of the memory Thibaud (Crivelli’s founder) and I had shared. What struck me most, was this very original aesthetic vision of nature. I wanted to transcribe the remarkable beauty of the fjords, with the sun shimmering on the sea, the sweet smoky aspect of the lilies, the power of the wind, the mineral stone, and the darker, more humid aspect of the peat. I wanted to convey the idea of Mankind faced with rugged nature. And so there is a real duality in this creation. It opens with a beautiful pearlescent light to begin with, then evolves towards a note that evokes the power of the elements, which is almost telluric, and not at all fragile. The creation expresses itself and evolves in contrasts between the smoky, spicy lily facet, the radiant, slightly alcoholised quince, and a peaty/woody facet provided by the amber woods and an overdose of ambroxan, as well as an absolute of roasted oak shavings, which adds a remarkable, strong and incredibly sensual patina to the accord.” – Nathalie Feisthauer.
With its central and base notes of dried fruits, ambroxan, cedar, guaiac, ‘smoke’, tobacco gilded to wine lees, quince and carrot seeds welded to oakmoss and oak, you can probably guess what I am going to say next about Lys Sølaberg: : : …………………….
There is no lily.
There are no flowers.
Where is the lily?
The complete and utter lack of perceptible florality I smell here is quite troubling to me as a perfume writer as it makes me doubt my own apparatus (Has anyone else tried this and if so, do you detect a lonely lily struggling along the railtracks?) As a standard, familiar, 2020’s-ish sweetish, androgynous ambroxan wood spice this works quite nicely, in a style that dates back to snuggly winter perfumes such as Lutens’ Fille En Aiguille: peaty, smoky, whiskeyish perfumes abound in the niche world : you could line your shelves with boozy winter woods like one of those specialist, fetishistic Tokyo collectible whiskey bars ; but it is difficult for a trembling white flower to survive when cloaked in so much oak. I was imagining, from reading the notes before smelling, that somehow the lily would prevail and be visible, exhaling its breathing liliness somewhere among the dry but boggy quagmire. Alas, my sensitivity to synthetic wood notes and some form of olfactory blindness (probably because of the sheer sumptuousness of my bi-annual extravagant exposure to real lilies which must have overpermeated my smell brain) – prevent me from taking – at all – to this particular Norwegian Wood.
Le Magnolia De Rosine, unlike Lys Sølaberg, does what it says on the tin. Very much so (too much so? Some bastards will never be satisfied). This rather impressive soliflore, co-authored by frequent Rosine creator Delphine Lebeau and the legendary Pierre Bourdon – according to Fragrantica, he created Creed’s Fleurs De Bulgarie in 1845 – smells as vividly laundered white as it looks; a gleaming bright hyperfloral that indeed does conjure up the realness of a heaving magnolia bloom on the bough. Quite cleverly so : real magnolia essence is used in the composition, along with lily of the valley, notes of freesia, citrus, and a variety of roses to replicate the petallic freshness that the perfumers were after.
“After having offered a subtle and modern lily of the valley with LE MUGUET DE ROSINE, Marie-Hélène and Louis Rogeon wanted to introduce a new soliflore in the collection, and they choose the magnolia. Even if magnolia tree does not come in their garden in Picardie – situated too much in the north of France – Marie-Hélène and Louis both have a strong relationship with this flower. Marie-Hélène as a child spent some holidays in Britany, and she remembers the huge, strong and dark magnolia trees, exploding in August with velvety, creamy flowers, surrounding the atmosphere with their fresh citrussy smell, covering the fragrance of the rose bushes. A memory of a solar perfume, synonymous of joy, with the delicacy of the roses as a background. For Louis, the story is more unusual. Very near to our boutique in Jardin du Palais Royal, in a street named rue Notre Dame des Victoires, one magnolia tree has been planted. And every summer, this part of the city, when you close your eyes, becomes a garden. As an enchantment, the powerful of the fragrance is such that it covers all the other urban smells.”
Perhaps this is the key problem with this perfume (covering up something; an unrealistically beatific concealment; flowers, themselves so much more fleshy and easily corrupted on the stem). Not that there necessarily is a problem as such with Le Magnolia De Rosine, and we know already that I have some sensitivity to this flower for whatever reason, perhaps partly from the eeriness of an experience I once had with a woman here who was once obsessed with me and who gifted me a magnolia perfume she bought especially for me in Florence, but there I possibly digress. I do think that Les Parfums De Rosine’s Magnolia is one of the best and most realistic magnolia soliflores I have smelled: I can imagine using it in an art performance: it would be amazing at a wedding. There is a luminescent creaminess, a dreaminess, that is extremely attractive in many ways; holistically photorealistic for a while, without any jagged edges (that is, before the inevitable L’Occitane-ish/ Roses De Chloe peony/citrus/rose ending, when the illusion starts to rather fade and it all feels a little bit cheaper; still pretty, in an office photocopier, prosaic coffee in plastic cup kind of way – yet even the segue to this stage is effortless…..).
Yes. It’s good. It’s just that
Cherry Oud is a perfect example of a perfume I think is done extremely well but detest. I love cherry – anything cherry; I really love it badly and actually thought that the unjarring segue from delicious, dripping cherry to rich, perfectly decent quality oud and leather in a perfectly Guerlain modern manner was very impressive in this perfume when I tried it excitedly for the first time ; for a few seconds, as I crossed the busy boulevard in Shinjuku outside Isetan last Saturday, ‘I lived’.
Yet I really regret having sprayed this ridiculously expensive, horrible thing and inserting it into the top pocket of my coat: it has bothered me – intensely – all week; I can’t have that end accord anywhere near me, and am now going to have to put several items that this scent has been contaminated with directly into the washing machine several times for a long cycle.
The concept of what constitutes ‘affordable’ is all relative. Those milling around the Guerlain counters at Isetan the other day willing to spend over 60,000 yen, on, say, on a full bottle of the middling carnation and benzoin perfume Oeillet Pourpre from the Art Et Matiere collection, objectively have much more money than the regular Joes on the street here in Japan where that amount of cash would make up more than a quarter of the average person’s monthly starting salary (the poverty rate is slowly rising in Japan at present, currently estimated to be around 16% of the population). In dollars that is 427, still not peanuts for the vast majority for people, myself definitely included – I simply don’t have that kind of disposable income and never will – but 60,000 yen feels more akin to 600 dollars in real terms here: unimaginable as a daily perfume. The yen has been sliding precipitously recently – like the pound – and such a price, for a perfume that is exactly the same formula as Guerlain’s semi-mainstream release of a few years ago, Lui, merely in a new and rather medicore bottle but tripled in cost, strikes me as something akin to outrageous.
In global terms, obviously, all of this luxury we spend our time feasting on is beyond unfeasible for most of the world’s population. We are living in a bubble. I have just been reading about the misery of climate catastrophes in Madagascar, where the population seems to be living in very dire circumstances scrabbling to make a living from day to day, and where even the production of vanilla, the country’s most important export, and which will of course find its way into the delicious elixirs of Guerlain, has been imperiled by a poor flowering and harvesting this year. Hypocritically, I don’t suppose I will try to do anything practical to try and rectify this situation ( I once met a Japanese man working in the field of vanilla bean trade and production who invited me to go out to Madagascar with him ; we lost touch), but it also doesn’t necessarily hurt to sometimes be aware.
Walking along the upmarket, if slightly twee and old fashioned – all ribboned teddy bears, sparkling jewellery, and porcelain knick knacks alongside bakeries and tea shops and specialists selling honey and coffee ; the dearly beloved shopping district of Motomachi on Saturday, dinky and chichi as ever and gearing up for Christmas, we passed by the youthful emporium United Arrows, always popular with the voluminously cream coloured baggy ungendered twenty year olds of today. While D had a look at the clothes (nothing ever fits me there so I don’t even try) , I had a quick browse through the perfumes and scented novelties, the imported French and Portuguese soaps, and of particular interest, the set of fragrances created by Jean Claude Ellena for Cologne Of The Cloisters meisters, Le Couvent Des Minimes.
Le Couvent Des Minimes is one of those mid-range perfumeries that offer appealing products which please all the senses – their Cologne Of Love , a really lovely orange blossom, nasturtium and vanilla perfume is divine and helped preserve my soul when I was in hospital and rehabilation five and a half years ago. I like the bottles and packaging of this brand very much personally – though with their themology and animal characters there may be a whiff of nicking from Zoologist. Still, they are good: and very reasonable. The above colognes are 55 pounds in the UK for a 50ml. The current equivalent, 7,500 yen here in Japan, feels a little more pricey, but still, given that they are all made by a perfumer like Jean Claude Ellena, who certainly needs no introduction, in trying one of these you know you are in capable hands.
We don’t do oud or ‘amber wood’, but I am liking the hibiscus wolf and the spike leaved kestrel
These two were quite pretty : the butterfly on the bottle!
Theria – the zebra – is a workaday iris, but then saying that is a contradiction in terms. Iris butter is expensive, and this is pure orris at the beginning, with a galvanizing cardamom and narcissus heart and vanillic cedar in the base that went a bit sweet on me but which struck me as a very good ‘off to the shops’ in-expensive-cotton-wear type of spritz (rich people need such things in our daily lives). Nubica, the lion, is also a nice amber patchouli that would be the perfect Christmas present for someone who likes the more exotic vanilla bean in their lives without it being too overcaloried; I like this one and would like to explore it further as a possible option for myself, even if in truth, I haven’t been in gourmand mode for quite a while now, finding the tonka and vanilla bean as a genre rather suffocating (wearing something like, say, the very overpriced and molar-melting Dior Feve Delicieuse now, in my current state of head, would be a gluttonous castigation, like the greedy boy in Roald Dahl’s Matilda being force-fed Mrs Trunchbull’s chocolate ‘gateau’.).
No. Instead, I think I would invest in the new Agapi – by far the most experimental, and indeed, singulier of this range which was the one I decided to wear for the afternoon as we walked away from the restricting shopping area and up to the hillside and trees of the Yamate Bluff with its addictive oddness (a quite original combination of cloves and ambroxan in the base over a heart of ylang and a piercing top accord of very realistic passionfruit melded with an orange cultivated in Cyprus, the mandora). This is one of those scents you are never quite sure of – in the shop it took me back for a few fleeting moments to when I bought my first ever bottle of perfume, Xeryus by Givenchy, down a rabbit hole back to my teenage self – a spray of forest freshness, the initial effect almost coniferous, definitely androgynous, engrossingly sniffable, and an unusual attention getter I would imagine – (a head turner for someone jogging by in a tracksuit, through the woods and past a outdoor swimming pool lido, closed and barbed wired off for the winter, and next to it, a Japanese archery practice – Kyodo – area, where archers in traditional uniforms and still poses, shot their arrows in comfortable silence).
‘Agapi’ – which means love in Greek, is, according to Le Couvent Des Minimes, an ode to this perfumed, ornithological scenario :
“High up in the branches of a tree, a pair of birds sing and dance with boundless tenderness. Sparkling citrus notes mingle with sun-drenched exotic fruit: a colourful, joyful and carefree fragrance……………..like the inseparable lovebirds.”
I am very late to the party with this one. But if there were one scent I was the most eager to try when I finally got back to Isetan department store in Shinjuku yesterday (the first time in almost three years…) it was Synthetic Jungle. Having read all about it, I needed to know for myself.
Based on the idea of a homage to the ‘cult green perfumes of the 70’s’, Frederic Malle hired Anne Flipo of IFF to create a modern super-green in the vein of Chanel No19 and Lauder’s magnificent Private Collection. Smelling it from the bottle briefly before I sprayed it I knew I would like it immediately – for me, this is happily familiar; more vintage Lauren parfum meets Sisley Eau De Campagne than the aforementioned classics – only less basilic; clarified and pretty, shiny, an intense burst of blinding verdurance in the initial blast that in the first minute or so is very sharp; disharmonious; almost radish-like.
In his review of the new Frederic Malle perfume Uncut Gem I read on Persolaise that Synthetic Jungle, while praised critically, has not been too commercially successful. It is not difficult to understand why. When the first impressions of a scent are this provocative and uncompromising – a fact that draws me in, but which for those who recoil from things this green as they would from a snake, you know you are in potentially no go territory.I am the opposite. I am dying to go there. Though ‘difficult’, there is a botanical ecstacy and clarity here that does indeed evoke the sap of the vaporous jungle morning; a luminous lily of the valley and hyacinth, which fades to what smells like living magnolia on the stem (a subtle patchouli and oakmoss underleaf does nothing to bring back the dark forested guilt and inveterate snobbery of 19 and Private Collection; those are far woodier; pinched); Synthetic Jungle instead quickly coalesces to a beautiful modern nostalgia trip with the sheening marigold uplift of the aforementioned Ralph Lauren, Cardin de Pierre Cardin and other greenhouse florals from the seventies: it refreshes the senses: : I think I want it.
The North sends international continental ballistic missiles over Japan quite frequently at the .moment but you never hear anyone ever talking about it. The weapons, which could wipe out whole cities, and populations, are met with shrugs ( why is this ? Can you imagine if, say, Denmark were doing the same over the UK? (“Oh well, it looks like Copenhagen is being ridiculous again… WHATEVER)
It’s a strange state of affairs. Maybe everyone in Japan is more concerned with managing daily life than fretting about wanton and very badly styled megalomaniacs ( someone get Kim Jong a personal stylist RIGHT THIS INSTANT)
or maybe the bigger neighbours – China and Russia – seem to pose more of a palpable existential threat.
Whatever the case, on our way to Tokyo just now it was fascinating to drop in at a photography exhibition at a municipal citizens’ centre in Yokohama called the “People Of Pyongyang.”
North Korea is so secretive, so closed off that you rarely get a glimpse into the daily lives of the people living there. It was very interesting to just see some snapshots (of course, we don’t know the precise stories behind all of these pictures, how much was staged, but even so): I found it rather heartening to see some actual people behind the dehumanized facade.
It looks like they might even use perfume.
We are having a day in the Yamate area of Yokohama; passing by the Foreigner’s Cemetery. I just took this picture of a glass container being lit by the afternoon sun : it almost feels like it could be a perfume advert.
On the one hand, Mandarine Basilic Forte is quite a nice perfume. In fact, if you had a time machine and catapulted this scent back to me in my youth, I would have been besotted. Zesty, warm, balanced, lovely, this mandarin and orange blossom-infused vanilla with a touch of basil would probably have ticked all the right boxes. I can feel my retro-fitted elation. Back then, we had Obsession, we had Roma, but we didn’t have this later genre of cute, hermetically smooth neo-vanillic gourmandarie that has monopolized the global nasosphere since the 2000’s. Now, this kind of base accord is utterly commonplace. Before that, had I come across a sparkling citrus like this with floral, balsamic tones, I would probably have been wide-eyed and gleeful in the shock of the new.
From this perspective, Acqua Allegoria Mandarine Basilic Forte would definitely make an excellent first perfume (if you can afford it to give as a stocking filler for a teenager, that is; with extra concentration of ingredients comes a higher price – the 100ml bottle retails for around $165 – much more expensive in Japan).
It is cute, enveloping, coquettish – ‘adorable’.
Looked at from a more negative angle, Guerlain co-perfumer Delphine Jelk’s composition, with its woozy Bourbon vanilla and sandalwood, and a spritely touch of blackcurrant up top, is just so intensely familiar as an archetypal current female fragrance that I yawned just seconds after the initial spritz ; walk through any duty free or department store in the world and you will know what I mean. Rectified vanilla is the thing – it is a sillage that is devastatingly commonplace, even if in Mandarine’s case it does, I must say, throb with a certain specificity.
The original Mandarine Basilic is, also, for me, problematic. I have a bottle – I liked its gleaming new, citric hair sheen quality – but there was also always something overly astringent and acidic that pierced and pinched the cranial trigeminal nerve, inducing migraine-like headaches (continuing our brain conversation from the other day, I have something like a ‘phantom’ condition where if I even just remember perfumes of this type; definite headache triggerers that usually involve very sharp, ‘clean’ notes in their ingredients in perfumes such as Clinique Happy, Floret by Antonia’s Flowers and anything else with a strongly synthetic, dry cleaning edge, I can get an actual headache as a result, as though the memory itself stimulates something in the head. Has anyone else had this experience, or do you at least have some scents that make you feel chemically ill?). My sister also used to wear the original Mandarine Basilic – I sent her a couple of bottles as Christmas presents over the years, and it was a real compliment getter (as, bizarrely, was Clinique’s Happy For Women for me, probably the most commented on perfume I have ever worn, ironically, even though I had a quietly searing pain in my skull each time as a result and it was eventually no longer worth it; this scent, also, is probably the only scent that has ever led to me, in a round about way, being literally slapped across the face – feel free to relive my unbelievable experience here; for the sheer horror that is ‘Happy For Men’, you might also have a laugh if you read this;) Deborah did like it, going off on an (unusual for her) citrus tangent and referring to it as her beloved ‘sexy orange’, until it started to make her feel physically sick; all of this meaning that when I tried the Forte version yesterday, I did so with a certain trepidation.
My final query here of course would be as to why there would be a forte version of a cologne in the first place. Obviously, I see that there is a business incentive in creating new flankers of the most popular AA’s – amazing to still see Pamplelune and Herba Fresca doing well, next to Rosa Rossa and Neroli Vetiver etc after all these years – giving more gourmand twists to well known staples for a newer generation. At the same time, an eau de parfum of a cologne does seem like something of a self-cancellation. The entire point of the original set of Acqua Allegorias was to distance these fresher, lighter, more capricious creations from the classic, powdery odalisques from the Guerlain vaults. In collapsing the olfactory interspace that separated these compositions, there is novelty – but also a paradoxical confusion.