Become Intoxicated | Meet Perfumer Sanae Barber
Smoking Rose, Burning Ocean, Meadow Slumber, Innocence – at first mention, they sound like hit singles from your favorite band. Though music is one of the things that inspire perfumer and creator Sanae Barber, these names are actually popular fragrances you can experience from her line Sanae Intoxicants. She’s a new generation perfumer who hand blends full-bodied intoxicants (for men and women) inspired by music, lovers, and dreams. In case you’re wondering, an intoxicant is a “substance that produces feelings of pleasure or happiness in a person”, and Sanae’s creations certainly live up to their name.
Sanae was born in Japan, raised around the globe, and finally settled in Los Angeles. She brings an innate sense of openness and adventure to her perfume alchemy. Sourcing rare and exotic natural oils from lands as far off as Morocco, India and Egypt, she subsequently mixes them with a very Californian sense of freedom.
Sanae and I spoke on a bright, warm Sunday afternoon and I found her views on life, creating, and inspiration something powerful and unique, just like the intoxicants she creates. Below are snippets from our conversation.
How did you come up with these groundbreaking re-imaginations of fragrances and the way they affect our lives?
I never initially intended to become a professional perfumer. I became obsessed with buying oils, blending them together, and wearing them. Certain things made me feel really good. They made me have, kind of, an obsession with myself. The right perfume is good at doing that. It can also be a fashion accessory. Some people will say, “I need a new scent,” like they need a new handbag. But it’s not something you should wear to just allure another person. Intoxicants are a link to a deeper relationship with yourself.
What goes into making your intoxicants? It seems you’re inspired by essential oils.
Every time you go to the health food store, they always have a generic set of essential oils, like lavender or rosemary. But somewhere along the way I got turned on to these rare things – scents I had never smelled before. I couldn’t believe what I was smelling and how it was making me feel. I knew a bit about aromatherapy and that scents could be really healing. At some point, rare oils became accessible to me. I remember smelling vetiver and being overtaken by it. Or attars, like night blooming jasmine and sandalwood, distilled together and aged. When I make a perfume, often times there is one note I’m obsessed with. Then, I build around it. Like if you wanted your bedroom all white you would have accent pieces, like a dramatic green plant or an orange couch. These dramatic pieces add more dimension. Something like that.
You have an extensive background in bodywork, energy health, and holistic wellbeing. How does this unique lens affect what you create?
At a young age I got into holistic health and wanted to be a part of that world — be a healer or work in the healing arts. That’s always stayed with me. I love that my perfumes are natural. I love that I’m not using anything toxic. I love being able to share that. They lend themselves to creating a more holistic experience, which can be healing – because the essential oils themselves are healing and part of the natural world. Healing arts is in everything I do and part of every choice I make in life. Everything I try to share deeply with the world is going to come from that place. It’s part of who I am.
Music seems to be a key contributor and an inspiration not only for you but for your scents and the people who wear them. You’ve collaborated with Father John Misty and folk hero Bonnie Prince Billie, among others. How does music inspire what do you and why do you think they go together so well?
I think the approach to making a perfume is similar to writing a song. You have your top, middle, and base notes. You have the chorus and rhythm, something that’s adding an accent. For example, if you’re making a perfume inspired by roses — that’s the chorus and lyric of your perfume. You want to add cinnamon or pink pepper on the top and you have to have something on the bottom, like a resinous dark base note. I’ve dabbled in songwriting, guitar, and writing lyrics. When I first started making perfumes that people wanted to buy or try, I thought, this must be what it’s like for a musician when somebody says “encore”, or when they want to buy your record, or when someone wants you to play a song again. I’ve been doing this since 2009 — I’ve taken courses in natural perfumery and I’ve studied a lot, so the process is much deeper. But it’s still a lot like writing a song.
How do you discover a new sacred scent or ingredients for your intoxicants?
I’m constantly buying new, raw materials or samples I’ve never smelled before. I play with them and become inspired by them. I try to make something that I’m obsessed with and form a deep connection with it. I love getting lost in a scent.
How do you keep your creativity brewing?
It changes. Sometimes it can be as simple as I’ve smelled something new and I want to build something around that scent. Oftentimes, it comes from the people I’m working with. I have my line, but a lot of the work I do is in collaborations. I’m always fascinated and inspired by what somebody else is drawn to and where we can meet. When you’re not inspired, you have to think of a way to keep going. I think staying inspired sometimes is just diving in and doing the work. Getting started. If you feel like you’re forcing it after that, step away. But usually inspiration comes after just getting started.
One of your specialties is creating custom intoxicants. When you’re crafting a custom scent, how do you know when you’re on the right track?
As I’m working, I’m constantly putting the scents on me. Experimenting. I know I’m on track when I keep smelling it — when I keep wanting to play that song again. Sometimes it happens over the course of time. Have you ever listened to a song and thought you weren’t into it, and after the third time it’s your favorite new song? That happened with Smoking Rose. I stuck it in a corner for eight weeks, and then I went back to see what it was like. I put it on and that was it. I was hooked. Everyone who smelled me was hooked. It’s one of my best selling perfumes.
What’s currently lighting your inspiration fire? Where is Sanae Intoxicants heading?
There’s a few things driving me right now. I want to branch out, and I’ve done years of research and experimenting for this. I want to extend my brand to include face serums, face spray toners, a natural deodorant, and soap. I have all these different things I’ve been working with. Candles, too. I like the idea of a face spray toner one that’s more daytime or more nighttime. One that’s moody and melancholic or one that’s fresh and inspired. People could wear them anytime of the day they want, but they’re for different feelings or experiences. Packaging becomes the next challenge. What form will they come in? What kind of bottle? What kind of label? I’ve always spent a lot of time in nature, and there’s a river by me now. I’m inspired by that river — the water rushing by and the peace I get from that. There’s something new happening, and it’s coming from the natural surrounding I’m in right now.
This may be akin to picking a favorite child, but do you have a favorite intoxicant?
They are all my favorites. They wouldn’t get a bottle, a name, and put out to the world if I didn’t fall madly, deeply in love with them. But I would compare them to a lover, not a child. They are something I’ve had a deep romantic relationship with. It’s hard to pick a favorite lover or boyfriend. Everyone you have a relationship with brings something new to your life and a new experience when there’s love involved.
The way you’ve set out and forged your own path as an indie fragrance company is inspiring. What advice would you give to someone looking to create something?
Be deeply in love with what you’re doing. Don’t share it with anyone until you’ve completely fallen in love with it and you’re ready to share it. Then, you’ll have the opportunity to share something that is a true extension of yourself. Then you’ll know that anyone attracted to it and gravitating towards it is seeing something that is a real, deep part of yourself. Make it personal and fall deeply in love.
What is next for Sanae Intoxicants?
I just finished collaborating with two companies on a line of scents for candles. Those are coming out soon. You can see my work at Retablo Apothecary. I have two new scents I’ve created, that I hope will come out this year. I have a new collaboration with a store in Los Feliz, called Elements of Grey, which will be out soon. Also, I am working on creating a new website dedicated to my collaborations with people and brands. I create a lot of scents for other brands and I love doing that kind of work.
What is the best way for people to try Sanae Intoxicants?
The best way is to find me at a pop up shop or schedule an appointment with me. I present the intoxicants in a way that you get a more holistic experience of the scent. You can order the sampler of my signature scents (Meadow Slumber, Burning Ocean, and Smoking Rose) or even just one to see what you think.
Is there a special way to wear your intoxicants?
Do what’s natural to you. Wear them how you’re inspired to wear them. But I do tell people to put them into your hairline, behind the ears or trying pulling them through your hair. It will last longer. Natural perfumes have a tendency to not last as long as synthetic perfumes. If you are wearing pure oils and you put it in your hair or root and pull it through, you could go for a swim in the pool and it would probably stay with you.