Base notes: bittersweet memories triggered by perfume and music

Both music and smell tap deep into our most powerful memories, so combining the two makes for a heady mix.

Have you ever wondered how your favourite song smells? Of course you haven’t. But bear with me, because it’s not as absurd as it sounds. 

Listening to music we love stirs emotions and unlocks involuntary memory unlike little else – in a heartbeat it can alter a mood or propel us back into our deepest past. Albeit not as vividly as smell can – the most evocative of all of the senses. Primitive and mysterious, olfactory memory is powerful in a way that nobody fully understands. If the sound of a certain song can transport us immediately to a particular time, place or person, then smell takes us deeper into our madeleine moments – the paint on the walls, the detergent in the sheets, the soft skin on the nape of a neck.

Thanks to a creative bit of merchandising, I now literally do know how a song by one of my favourite artists smells. Late last year, cult Swedish indie singer-songwriter Jens Lekman released a limited-edition scent called That Perfume That You Wore, created in collaboration with Stockholm perfumer Tomas Hempel. It’s a manifestation of a fictional scent that Lekman sang about in a song on his 2017 album Life Will See You Now. What’s That Perfume That You Wear? is a euphoric rush of tropical pop built around a steelpan sample from Ralph MacDonald’s The Path. It’s all about bittersweet memory and sense, and the way in which a scent, like lost love, can linger and torment and even be momentarily reinvoked, if never truly relived. 

Like music, perfume is all about notes composed in just the right order. Just as Lekman sings of sandalwood, lavender, lemon, ginger and vetiver in the chorus, so too are all of those fragrances and more arranged in harmony in his perfume – together with added top notes of cardamom, base notes of cedarwood, and more. I bought a bottle for my wife for Christmas; I can’t claim to know a great deal about such fine things, but it smells gorgeous to me. 

Like the song itself, which evolved in different versions over a number of years, That Perfume That You Wore has developed over time. I recall one of Lekman’s early embryonic audio-aromatic experiments (a world first?), at a small festival on the isle of Eigg in the Hebrides in the summer of 2014, when he handed out sachets containing tiny sprigs of lavender, which we were instructed to inhale from at a choice moment in his performance (how he got several hundred packets of herb on to a plane unquestioned by authorities I still can’t figure out). The scent proper was later made and sold at shows in 2ml vials, before the 30ml vaporiser bottles were released and quickly snapped up in a run of just 200 via Lekman’s mailing list in December last year.

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“Scents have always fascinated me, the way they bypass the rational part of your brain and directly evoke memories and emotions,” explains Lekman, riffing on his joy of a whiff. “I like the ‘good’ scents – a fine wine, a freshly sawn-off plank, the heavy jasmine that greets you as you step off a vehicle that’s taken you to a more summery place. I also like the ‘bad’ scents – mosquito-repellent spray, cigarette smoke or the smell of manure in the spring.” He describes how Andy Warhol apparently used to keep what he called a “permanent smell collection” of scents that he could go back to for a reminiscent snort every now and again. “I can relate to that a lot,” says Lekman. “I used to save all my little plastic bottles of shampoo that I got from hotels on tour, place them on a shelf and once in a while sniff them and think ‘ah yes, Ravenna 2008, good times’.”

Olfactory memory itself of course can’t be bottled and sold. It’s a profoundly personal thing – as individual and indescribable as one might imagine the Pacific breeze was to Otis Redding as he first hummed (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, or the dry ice was to Robyn when she dreamed up Dancing on My Own, or the pong of stale booze was off Tom Waits as he wrote pretty much anything he ever wrote in his drinking days. But who knows, maybe Lekman’s scent like his songs will become part of new memories for others in turn, and hopefully happy ones? Ask me once my wife’s worn it a few more times, I guess.