Innocence and a very small fork
Chapter 18: Talking to Courtney Rafuse, perfumer
It’s true: we’re still talking about perfume. This week I had the joy of visiting Courtney Rafuse, the perfumer behind Universal Flowering. You’ve probably smelled her work. We talked about our therapists, our natal charts, eros, and innocence. Here’s our conversation, edited because we talked for three hours. Part two next week. Let me interview you, we’ll have fun, xo.
I love the way a flower falls apart. Last month I bought my first tulips of the season: I kept them in my living room and they lasted for weeks. The vase was low and wide and I loved the way the stems swung out and lifted at the end to become impossible pink cups, staring at the ceiling. As they aged I watched the cups get pried apart, the petals spread wide and vulgar. I loved the vividness of their dying. A friend texted me:
“I love the ones that feel a bit … ragged, if that’s the right word? But tulips unfurl and die in the most beautiful way… like there’s a cleanness to the way they droop and sag that just appeals to me.”
I remember the first time I smelled one of Courtney Rafuse’s perfumes. It was 2017 and I was still in medical school, a time of smells I hated (cat piss on our kitchen floor, reheated lunch trays on the medical ward, chainsmokers in the basement). Before Courtney, I’d never trusted perfume. I assumed that scent would turn sweet or fake or sour on my skin, because it had happened before with other perfumes. I thought scent just didn’t agree with me, that something in my chemistry didn’t mix. Perfume was unavailable. I first smelled Out of Focus, from Courtney’s opening Universal Flowering release, at a little store in my neighbourhood. I sprayed it and wore it all day. I took deep inhales of my wrist as I walked home. There were top notes of cardamom, thyme, and bergamot; a heart of jasmine and neroli; a base of clove incense and sandalwood. I went back to the store a few times before buying it, because I like thinking about things before I have them. I wore Out of Focus over and over.
Over the years I’d collect a small trousseau of Courtney’s releases. I’d meet other people wearing these perfumes made by this mysterious woman in our city. We loved how we smelled, and we loved smelling each other. I had friends in common with Courtney and eventually we met. We’d talk about psychoanalysis, memory, beauty, and smell. Both of us were Tauruses, with our Venus in Pisces, born five days apart. This week I saw her in her studio.
Eleni: Perfume is so intimate. It’s literally on the skin. It’s like you’re making out with everyone who wears your perfume.
Courtney: Yes. It’s wild.
You’ve made out with a lot of people.
I’m doing a lot of kissing. I’m doing none at all, also. Yeah, it’s strange. It’s a very strange thing. All the perfumes feel very vulnerable, but I’m trying to be more vulnerable in the dialogue I can have around them. I think the best part is not over-intellectualizing it. Letting people experience it the way they’re going to experience it, and not telling them how to do it. That’s why I like keeping the writing around it very misty and vague and sort of just evoking whatever it brings for me, or whatever feeling I had going into it. And then letting people create whatever they want around it. I didn’t create the narrative that Holy Hell makes everyone have sex. I didn’t do that.
Okay but it does that.
Yeah it does that now I guess [laughs].
I go to parties now and I meet at least three or four people wearing Holy Hell.
That’s so fun. Oh I love that.
It’s such a Toronto thing to wear. We want to feel hot and we want to see our friends.
I never thought that something that smells like a plastic beach ball and sunscreen would be so horny but I’m glad it is. I guess it could be like a beach condom. Actually that’s so gross. Don’t have sex on the beach with a condom. Sorry. Not to endorse not using protection, but maybe just not on the beach. But I love it when people text me about smelling my perfumes in the wild. My friend texted me the other day, “The girl walking ahead of me on the street is wearing the old Out of Focus.” And I’m just like “Ahhh, that’s cute.”
Wasn’t Out of Focus your first perfume?
That was the first one where I was like, “Oh this feels like a whole perfume, I can put that out into the world.” That was the first finished one.
I remember when you first started releasing perfumes, they were at Likely General. I think we all remember where we were when we first bought our first UF perfume.
That’s so nice.
Because you’ve been doing this for how long? Seven years? Longer?
Six or seven years I guess? Yeah that’s crazy. Is it that long?
I was in another life when I first bought Out of Focus.
I’m scrolling all the way back right now. Okay. July 2017.
For me, the most interesting thing is process. What’s your process, how do you start to make a perfume?
It’s all very impulsive. I’ll get really exhausted in times of high volume where there are so many orders, and I’m coming here every day and I’m just responding to emails, shipping, shipping. And it makes me feel dead inside. And it’s been so long since I’ve been able to just fuck around. And then I’ll have the opportunity to fuck around. So it really just kind of happens. It’s usually some emotional thing that’s happening inside of me… There’s always an idea or thought or some material that I’m excited to try to work into something. There’s always that seed that’s planted, but the execution doesn’t happen until I need to channel something. So it’s all very random.
It’s funny, the way you talk about perfume resonates so much with the way I feel about making music. I don’t do it professionally so it’s in no way the same scale or thing. But with music I’ll have months where I won’t even play music. And then all of a sudden in a week I’ll have three songs. It’s crazy. It’s like, I’m going through a rough time and I’ll take a shower, and after the shower there’s a song in my head. Or I’ll wake up from a dream and there’s a song in my head.
Exactly. Exactly. Exact same way. Dreams. Showers, all of that. I’m actually moving my studio back to my apartment in May. I feel like I’m not making and experimenting as much as I want because of the separation. Because a lot of things come to me when it’s too early in the morning, or in the middle of the night, or coming out of the shower. All these times when I really miss popping in and throwing a few things together and coming back to it in the morning. I miss doing that. Having the separate space has been really nice for actual functioning working hours. But for that part of it, it’s kind of sucked because I’ll lose that feeling that you get when you’re like “I’m ready to do this right now.” Because now I don’t feel like coming here when it’s too late, or too early. So I’m excited to have it back home.
A few weeks ago I was literally five minutes away from going to the airport to France when a new song popped in my head. The cab was about to get there, and I was like fuck. So I did it on the voice recorder on my phone, I figured out the chords really quickly on the piano so I could just remember the vocal melody and the chords underneath. And then on the plane I just played with it, I was writing different parts. It was good.
That’s really good. Do you find those moments, if you were in a different circumstance and you were with all of your things, you could have made something different from what you made with the bones later?
Yeah… it will definitely change it. It’ll change the instrument choices, it’ll change what the song is about. Because I don’t know what these songs are about when I start. It’s the process of writing them and recording them that you figure out what they’re about. Because you’re going into memory, you’re going into desire and you’re excavating.
I love your process, the immediacy of it is what’s striking. There’s a sincerity to it too that feels very personal, very intimate.
I’m glad that that translates. I very much want that. Even just releasing stuff, I have so many formulas of stuff that just sit around forever. And then I’ll come back to it, and be like “ohhh, right”. And it’ll resonate with me a lot better, and I’ll be able to do something with it then. It’s all very immediate.
Perfume is so interesting because in my mind it’s closer to music than it is to writing, for me. They’re notes, they’re sounds. It’s synesthetically there. How do you imagine it visually? Do you have a visual picture of what a perfume is?
Sometimes I do. Sometimes they are different colours or things that don’t exist, or just shapes or sounds. That does happen. And sometimes they’re very literal. Poems One Through Twelve felt very much like a full exercise in just trying to tap into every sense that I have. Like, trying to understand what colour things were, trying to meld notes together based on the comfort, the warmth of them, versus actually what they smelled like. But at the end of the day they did actually make a lot of sense together. That was probably the most I’ve used all of my senses to put something together in a very visceral way. So for that one, I was just leaning into the themes I’ve been leaning into a lot in the last few months. It’s a lot of very sweet, but not saccharine sweet — just like a perfectly sweetened Italian dessert or something. Something that’s barely sweet but just enough to qualify as dessert.
Like, you would eat it with a very small fork.
Exactly. I was thinking about ginger, and how ginger to me feels like deep blue velvet, and then I started thinking about textures. And then bringing in different textures. Going through all of my notes, and feeling whatever felt really enveloping. And basically creating a palette out of those things, and then putting them together.
* * *
Things I felt and saw this week: Flurries on the last weekend of winter. Then sudden sun, which everyone talked about. I walked around my neighbourhood looking into windows. A man fell asleep at a café in the sun. I watched the tilted number at the crosswalk counting down, my favourite corner with the best flowers. Wanting things, after a long time. The collecting of pleasure. I bought a dress made of navy silk. I saw a girl in a turtleneck writing in the window of my café, like me but left-handed. The friend who’d texted me about the tulips also sent me Georges Bataille’s 1929 essay, The Language of Flowers. I read it again: “What the configuration and colour of the corona reveal, what the dirty traces of pollen or the freshness of the pistil betray doubtless cannot be adequately expressed by language.”
* * *
Eleni: When you’re starting to blend things what do you actually do?
Courtney: When I started, with every addition I was trying to understand what was happening. But at this point I understand my materials really well. I learned pretty early on that getting to know your materials in and out is the best way to do it. It’s also the least wasteful way to do it, because you don’t end up throwing a bunch of shit in the garbage constantly. But knowing and understanding how they interact with each other, and doing the other side of it, which is understanding the chemistry of them a bit more, and knowing how things are going to react. At the end of the day you’re not going to know how it’s gonna react until you try it. At this point I can write a perfume out in my head and then kind of know what’s going to happen. There’s usually a few drafts after that to try out a few different things, if something isn’t sitting right.
Is it an idea or a sensation that starts it?
Usually a sensation. Yeah. Sometimes it’s very hot-blooded and just kind of erratic. There’s just so much happening. I’m altering almost every aspect of every material with another material that’s similar to it, just to modify it a bit. And any time I’m like “We’re just going to see what happens if I just stop,” I can’t. And I’ll be like “Ok, ten materials max,” and it’ll still end up being like thirty. That’s something I can’t do. But it’s fun to try. But there’s a madness that happens when I get into it. I’m just reaching and grabbing, now it needs this, now it needs that. It’s a bunch of different spices going into something.
That’s beautiful. Like, it works. Have you ever gone in and written an entire perfume before you smelled the thing?
No, I’ve never gone in with every note. All of the small details, no. When I start a formula I do it by hand, I don’t put it into my computer or anything yet. So I just write things down because it’s faster. And I’ll just have a big piece of paper, I’ll write ten materials with lots of space between them, and that’s the skeleton. And then everything else comes between. As soon as I start, everything kind of floods forward. And having my stuff set up in the way that it is, just like a wall of things in front of me, I can just look and be like “this is what it needs, it needs this and it needs this.” Obviously it gets whittled down and edited heavily, but the first draft is usually pretty fun.
Can we free associate about your perfumes?
I feel like I know your entire roster. Let’s do Heliotrope Milkbath.
Baby. Pink blanket. Marshmallow. Mother’s breath. Not baby’s breath, mother’s breath. Touching a cotton ball but it doesn’t feel bad. It feels good. It feels nice. Steamed whole milk.
Oh god, that’s a texture. Holy shit.
That’s a sexual thick. Like, steamed milk is not sexual. Steamed whole milk —
[Sighs] You’re making pudding.
There’s a slap to it.
It’s gonna leave an imprint.
Okay. I’m thinking of my favourite one. Purple Afternoon.
Sex. [We both laugh.] Cashmere. Again, I’m thinking about steamed milk. But I’m thinking about it in a kind of fake food way. Like a really perfectly staged… what’s that protein that’s bright blue? I’ve never had it before but I’ve seen people on the internet with these blue lattes. Just like a food that’s not real. A fake food. But it’s so beautiful and exciting and you’re like that looks delicious even though it’s not real. Cigar box. The feeling when you’re having a really nice time by the fire but you’re on your last log and it’s going out so you know it’s going to end soon. Powdered sugar.
There’s such a beautiful mix of softness, this very dreamy sweetness in it, with this deep, earthen sadness.
There’s a stark heaviness in there.
I think that’s why it’s my favourite.
Melancholy is the best emotion there is. It’s just such a peaceful way to feel, in a way. I think there’s both sides in it. There’s a lot of gloom, and there’s a lot of really nice energy inside of it. There’s a lot of darkness around everything. Nothing can be perfect. It’s just shimmering. It has to have a bit of a cloak over it.
If it was all bright it would be awful. A flower doesn’t just have nice smells. There’s the green weird part.
And then it dies.
And it smells awful.
Or it smells like nothing at all. So Purple Afternoon smells very melancholic in a very comforting way. Like when you’re in the mood to just not do anything. And you’re in the most beautiful place. And you can just be comfortable being a bit sad and taking care of yourself.
This makes me love Purple Afternoon even more. Okay, I’m going to go through all the ones I’m wearing lately. Summer Sauna.
I want to be that teen.
We all want to be. You can be. Teen boy.
Is he a bad teen boy?
Nooo, he’s a good dude. He’s a solid dude. Humble beginnings.
Is he the love interest in a romantic movie made for Netflix? Or is he not that hot?
No he’s not that hot. He’s understanding. You have to find him.
Does he approach you or do you approach him?
He approaches you. He’s not pathetic in any way. He’s confident and it comes from a good place. It’s not bloated.
What’s his relationship with his mother?
Not solid, he wishes it was stronger, but she’s not present enough. He wishes she would be more present with him, but she’s just not there yet.
Fuck. He wasn’t seen. He’s just looking for someone to see him.
I think he’s a Cancer.
Oof, my moon. Okay, Holy Hell.
I mean, I’ve been trying to surpass the impulse to just say the things that I already say about it. But I want to say those things. That one’s harder, because I feel like I’ve described this one to the ground.
It’s probably the one I see the most.
I almost know it too well. [Sprays it on her arm and inhales.] Awww. I still love it so much. Oh my god, it literally smells like innocence. There’s so much like … it’s just innocent.
Is it the Coppertone girl? The little girl who’s not wearing a bathing suit top with her bikini getting pulled off by a dog.
It’s so intense.
It’s so intense and so innocent.
They’re both innocence. Just to describe it. You know, the little girl who’s not wearing a top and her pink frilly underwear is getting pulled off. It’s so innocent to me. It’s just so playful.
It’s bouncy for me. I guess there’s the beach ball.
[Inhales] Yeah. It’s very bouncy. It’s like, golden. I’ve just described it too many times, it’s hard to think outside the box. It just feels like taking a midday nap right after you’ve had a really busy day. Or a really nice day and you don’t mean to fall asleep and you fall asleep.
Oh that’s beautiful. Like you’re overcome with slumber.
Like, “I’m just gonna sit down for a minute,” and then you close your eyes and you’re just out for the perfect length of time, and you wake up feeling refreshed and good. And you realize you could have napped the whole time. You didn’t need to do anything. Yeah.
That is very innocent. The lack of requirement.
It’s like a sage green linen blanket, on the beach. That’s not covered in sand.
It’s so interesting that for you it’s innocence, and yet everyone calls it the sex perfume of Toronto.
Well what’s the horniest thing in the world? Innocence.
Yeah. Innocence is horny.
Innocence is so horny. It doesn’t know what it wants yet. It’s pure desire without even knowing what’s on the other side.
Playful energy. It’s down to clown. And doesn’t even know it yet.
Love (see you next week),
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