perfumer Stephen Nilsen

perfumer Stephen Nilsen

Stephen Nilsen, the Givaudan perfumer responsible for Madonna’s new Truth Or Dare toilette, lists a range of other notable spritzes on his resume, from Tom Ford concoctions to scents for Tommy Hilfiger and Sarah Jessica Parker. He sat down recently with Deborah Fulsang to talk perfume.

QUESTION: What was it like working with Madonna?
NILSEN: My first thought was ‘okay, this makes sense. She’s so iconic, this is the perfect time for a fragrance.’ It’s almost surprising that she didn’t have one already. The second feeling was, ‘what are we going to do for a Madonna fragrance? How do you do a Madonna fragrance?’ She was involved with the whole process so she really guided us and made it her own and really helped us create a signature scent that really does embody everything about her.

Q: How do you think it embodies everything about her?
It’s very feminine, and certainly she is very feminine. It makes a statement and she does make a statement: She’s very bold and iconic. It also has this very seductive part to the fragrance; she’s also very seductive. I think the sensuality of her music and everything she’s done plays together. The name too, “Truth Or Dare”, really embodies the pieces of the fragrance. She really wanted this floral truth that reminded her of her mother, and then she wanted this daring, addictive, yummy gourmand woodiness in the back. I think it does embody all the different facets that she is.

Q: Was it surprising that tuberose and gardenia was the starting point?
I knew she would want something iconic. I knew that she does appreciate quality and does have a designer sensibility and would want to use the finer scents of perfumery. So when she said ‘I want a big floral statement,’ I thought okay, this does make sense. It’s all about femininity and [with] the tuberose and gardenia, there’s almost nothing more upscale, luxurious, or feminine.

Q: There’s such history behind every scent. What are the ancestors to this scent?
I just think that white florals have been iconic throughout the history of fine perfumery. But I think this is more recreating a memory: When developing the floralcy accord, Madonna wanted something that would evoke the scent memory of her mother.

Q: Now, I don’t go to church, but I’m wondering if Madonna-related white florals play a part in Truth or Dare?
Very much. We do have a lily note in here. [During the development], we would send formulas and send samples and Madonna would get back to us saying it’s too sweet, or too powdery, I want more floral. The real breakthrough came in the summer of last year. We actually broke the fragrance into accords.
We pulled out the freshness and pulled out the floralcy, and pulled out the woodiness, and pulled out the musk and put it into a bottle so she could smell each of the pieces. And these are the pieces that she gravitated to.
We have the floral truth. We showed it to her and she said this is what I want: There is the creamy tuberose, the opulent gardenia, a bit of a dewy neroli to give freshness, and the lily note that is spicy, a little religious; and a little bit of innocent lily of the valley, just for dewiness and to keep it open.
And there was another piece that she said she really loved: This is the daring addiction—vanilla absolute, the caramelized amber.

Q: It smells a bit tobacco-y?
NILSEN: [There’s a] bit of tobacco-y woody note in there. Then there’s a sweetness, but not overly sticky-sweet. I never want something sticky-sweet. But when [Madonna] saw these two pieces, she said this is where I want this fragrance to go, I want these two pieces together. As we worked the fragrance, we found—like a builder who’s finishing a building—you need to smooth out the walls and the nails. To do that, we have a musk accord.

Q: I love the analogy of smoothing out plaster.
It’s really not a note that screams out in the fragrance, but it kind of puts everything together, smoothes it out and adds a sheer, sensual veil to the fragrance. It also helps make the fragrance last longer. Some people describe musks as a hug in a bottle. It’s very cashmere-like.

Q: Very skin.
Yes, very skin. Wow, you have a good nose.
So you really see the three parts, and these are the three parts that make up the finished fragrance [the floralcy, the vanilla-amber, the musk]. I don’t know if you’ve smelled the fragrance yet.

Q: I like it very much, actually. And I’m generally a chypre or oriental kind of person. I quite love the gardenia.
 It’s a funny story about chypre, that you use that term. In one of the modifications [for Truth Or Dare], I had played with a chypre note to get a little more richness in the background. So I had the mods on someone, and [Madonna] smelled it and said she smelled moss. And I thought, holy mackerel, this Madonna has a great nose. For somebody to be able to see a chypre note and say that she smells moss, to me means that she knows the notes. It’s not even easy for a perfumer to come in and pick those notes up. And that says something about her creativity, her level of attention to detail.

Q: What does Madonna smell like?
She actually wasn’t wearing anything. She came really prepared for the first meeting. She came in and I said ‘would you like a tour of the lab?’ and she said ‘no, let’s get down to work.’ I think she’s seen a lab before, and it wasn’t anything that was going to be a surprise to her.
It was an important meeting, the first meeting: People say ‘what was she wearing?’, and to this day, I’m really not sure. She was very focused. She is very beautiful: Has very pure skin, very blonde hair. Very much just like a blank canvas ready to put fragrance on.
When we started putting samples out, she was putting them on her skin and wanted to see how it wore. She didn’t do much smelling on blotter. She was very much hands-on throughout the whole process.

Q: How would you compare making a fragrance to making music? Your bio says you enjoy music. I don’t know if you create your own…
I have a very eclectic taste, everything from pop to avant-garde to jazz to nightclub music. And when I say nightclub, I mean piano players, lounge-y kind of stuff. And I do think that the best music is the music that has a reason to be, and has passion. And I’ve said before that working with Madonna has made me a better perfumer.
I think in terms of her vision, she helped say ‘it’s okay to take out the extra stuff.’ It’s a creative process. Music is a creative process, just as perfumery. What you put in is just as important as what you leave out.

Q: That’s impressive: to have the opinion and confidence to remove elements.
The guts. She’s been in this industry and has been wildly successful for how many years? And over that time she’s learned to trust her own creative intuition. And I really do think that came into the scent; trusting her intuition. And people love the scent. She said ‘If I believe in the scent, other people will also.’

Madonna Truth Or Dare EDT, $65CAD (50 ml),

Read more about Madonna’s Truth Or Dare here at The Whale & The Rose in our news pages and in our Perfume-o-Pedia.


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Deborah Fulsang has spent the last two decades as a journalist covering news and trends in the worlds of style—in fashion and beauty, design and décor, food and entertaining. Her long-held love of fragrance led her to launch The Whale & The Rose, a destination for all things perfume-related. Now, when she indulges in a crazy-expensive bottle of fragrance, she can do so guilt-free. Well almost. It’s all in the name of research after all.