Josh Meyer is the mind behind Portland-based Imaginary Authors. His first line launched in 2012 and features seven innovative scents based on imaginary books by imaginary authors. Here we feature Part I of our Q&A with Meyer on how he went from perfume-averse to perfume-obsessed to full-time perfumer.
Q: Tell us about where you were born and where you grew up.
Josh Meyer: I was born in Hermosa Beach, California, and I lived there until I was six, and then I moved to Colorado and grew up there. I then moved back to California for a couple of years before I moved up to Portland again.
Q: What took you to Portland?
JM: It was really a young and creative city, so I was considering either Portland or Austin. Some friends and I wanted to start a band or do something creative, and we wanted to do it in a new, fun city. Portland was a hub of just fantastic energy and interest for young people.
Q: What happened with the band?
JM: I started selling real estate. And the band and the real estate just don’t mix very well. If we wanted to go on tour, it would not be an option for me because I started getting really busy with work. But after five years of selling real estate, my heart just wasn’t in it anymore. And then I got this interest in perfume.
Q: How did that happen?
JM: I was interested in straight razors and how to use them. So I started buying all these straight razors on Badger & Blade from a guy who was a member there. He is an amazing guy. We’d talk about straight razors and then he started including these perfume samples in my packages. I thought, “If this guy is sending me perfume samples, it’s got to be at least worth looking into.” I had boycotted perfume before that. I was adamantly against anything fragrance-related.
Q: Why? Didn’t you wear any kind of fragrance in high school at all?
JM: Oh, no. Absolutely not.
Q: Because it was not masculine? Or it was not cool? Or it was too conformist? What was going through your high-schooler brain?
JM: It seemed like very conformist. In my teenage years, I had really bad connotations of fragrance. In college, a lot of people were wearing Le Male, and it seemed just heinously horrible. Of course, I have an appreciation for it now—I don’t know how Francis Kurkdjian makes a lavender so creamy and smooth and with such sillage and projection.
My straight razor friend was sending me things like Montale and Parfumerie Generale—all of these interesting perfumes that I have never experienced. I found that was really into Knize Ten and these huge leather fragrances. Sables from Annick Goutal, which is this really smoky, maple syrupy, curry scent. All of which were vastly different from something like CK One or Cool Water. So that was really exciting and that’s what got me interested. I fell down this rabbit hole, trying to experience everything I could possibly find that wasn’t sold at Sephora. That was in 2006.
Q: How did you go from niche fanatic to experimenter?
JM: A lot of my friends thought it was strange that I was into this pretty esoteric hobby, so I liked to show them why it was so fascinating. After a little dinner party and drinks, I would bring out four or five bottles of perfume on the table and folks would get so excited it. Then four or five bottles would turn into, “Oh, let me bring out another four or five.”
And then, you’ve got this lineup of maybe a citrus along with few big 80’s scents and people are gravitating towards one or two, and then they would go buy them. So they started getting into this niche world of stuff that’s really different. And I realized that’s what is so much fun: having a lineup of scents that’s pretty distinctly unique. So that’s what I set out to do.
Q: And you came out with a big line. Seven great perfumes to put on the dinner table.
JM: I wanted to make more than one so that people would have a context, like tasting wine side by side. If you have one glass of wine, it might just taste like a glass of wine. But if you have three or four, then you can kind of pick out which one is big and fruity and which one is dry and earthy. And that’s what’s really exciting about perfume—people finding out for themselves what works best, what they most enjoy.
Q: It works best after people have smelled a lot of things and have reference points in their scent memories.
JM: Absolutely. But I think these reference points are even harder to figure out with the sense of smell. Even something as simple as strawberry, I don’t think people can conjure what strawberries smell like. They can conjure what they look like and the texture and even sometimes the taste, but sometimes the smell is harder. That’s what I like about Olfactif—if you think you like grapefruit scents, as you learn about a scent, you might discover that what you actually like about the grapefruit is the wood notes around it, not so much the brightness of the citrus.
Q: How did you start?
JM: I quit my job and then got to work. I wanted to see if I could do it. I started buying materials just to see what I could make. I love working, so as soon as I quit my job, I was really grateful to be able to just spend time in the basement working. I would just pace back and forth, take notes and come up with different ideas. I had tons and tons of ideas, and figuring out how to do it was a whole other procedure.
Every day I would go upstairs and show my girlfriend what I was working on. It would never work for her. Because it’s just really tough, even if you have all of the right ingredients, making them work together is very difficult.
In the beginning, I was making fairly weird stuff and then I kind of dialed it back. That’s what I did with every single concept. I tried to make up something that was drastically different from anything I had ever smelled before. Some of the first things I made were really heavy, smoky—it just wasn’t that much fun for people to smell. And so with my line, I wanted to make something that was more accessible but still very interesting.
Q: It’s not just figuring out what to put in; it’s how much of what and how it reacts to this, and where did you get this raw material, and is there a better form of it from another supplier... It seems an immensely complicated thing to figure out on your own.
JM: That’s what it is, exactly. So for instance, one of the best examples is lemon and lime. You can use a hundred drops of lemon and add just ten drops of lime, all you smell is lime. So figuring that out is really hard. Figuring out what that ratio is to get that bitter citrus note in a lemon scent from just a drop of lime is really hard, but it’s also really fun too. So after you figure out that you can mix the two and create this really bitter acidic accord, and the discovery is really fun. It’s not work when you are really enjoying it this much.
Q: What do people say when you tell them what you do?
JM: I usually tell people I’m working on a perfume line. People will say things like, “Are you a scientist or are you a chemist?” None of those feels right. It doesn’t feel like I am creating science. I’m just creating scents.
Q: You mentioned Pierre Guillaume as someone you look up to. Who else?
JM: Francois Coty is my first, and I also really appreciate the guys from Le Labo, particularly Fabrice Penot. And of course Frederic Malle as a creative director. I also like the idea of thinking outside of the box, and so a lot of the postmodern fiction writers like David Foster Wallace and William Gaddis and John Barth and even Jonathan Franzen. David Foster Wallace really gave me the idea of what art can be as entertainment. That was unbelievably valuable for me to understand—how art can be infinitely entertaining.
Q: How did you pull that idea into your perfume line? Are you creating entertainment?
JM: I think I am. I wanted to create something that bled fun—as opposed to the business world, which simply wasn’t fun to me anymore. I want the folks experiencing Imaginary Authors to be able to see the fun in every single aspect that comes out of the line.
In Part II of our interview with Josh Meyer, he shares the origins of the Imaginary Authors concept, the inspiration for The Soft Lawn, thoughts on the role of beauty in art—and even where he found the real photos of his invented writers.