With a New Album, Karen Elson, Fashion’s Favorite Model-Chanteuse, Comes Into Her Own
In a wide ranging interview with W, Karen Elson talks about everything from her early modeling days—”People raised eyebrows at me”—to her relationship with Jack White—”Jack is my family”—and the making of her triumphant new album, Double Roses.
The night before model and musician Karen Elson caught a flight to Los Angeles to begin recording her new album, she returned home late from a friend’s gallery opening. It was an early evening in the fall of 2015, and thunder crashed outside, a ceiling of humidity shrouding Nashville. Enveloped in a wave of melancholy, Elson picked up her guitar and began to write. An hour later, she had “Distant Shore,” the single that kicks off her sophomore album Double Roses, out April 7.
“I knew I just had one more in me,” Elson tells me, a cup of mint tea close at hand, as we’re perched on a couch on a brisk afternoon in January in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. In the six years since her debut record, 2010’s The Ghost Who Walks, Elson has demo’ed around 70 songs, but with “Distant Shore” the record she was trying to make finally came into focus. “That song just poured out of me,” she says. “I was just like, ‘This is the last puzzle piece of the record.’”
The track—and her introspective mood that muggy Nashville evening—came about from the letdown she felt after a brief, intense crush turned out to be unrequited. “In my head, it was built up to be something and then proved to be nothing,” she says, “and that song came out of the disappointment: ‘Oh, you set yourself up again, Karen.’”
“Distant Shore” offers a kind of thesis statement for Elson right now. Equal parts melancholy and triumphant—“I am alone, I am free; no one to come and conquer me,” she sings, her voice sweetly husky, “Out in the waves, cast out to sea; you slip away from me”—it weaves a tale of a woman taking command of her vessel in the wake of heartbreak, charting her own course at last. There’s a measure of loneliness that comes with that independence, the solitude of captaining your own ship, but it comes with an equal measure of freedom.
Elson, the 38-year-old muse of everyone from Steven Meisel to Miuccia Prada, is standing up for herself at last. While on her debut, The Ghost Who Walks, Elson sang moody murder ballads, writing dark, allegorical lyrics, Double Roses finds her at her most exposed. Sonically, she trades in the earlier record’s low-fi, Jack White-produced southern gothic aesthetic for a lush soundscape straight out of the British highlands. There are swelling strings galore and a Van Morrison-lite flute solo on album opener “Wonderblind”; Elson’s gritty howl on “Why Am I Waiting” recalls Dry-era P.J. Harvey; and title track “Double Roses” channels the mystical inclinations of Kate Bush twirling her way through “Wuthering Heights.”
“Karen’s music is similar to a Mazzy Star album or a Simon & Garfunkel album,” says Sarah Sophie Flicker, the activist and musician with whom Elson performed in Citizens Band, a political cabaret troupe. Several days before we spoke, a blizzard had shut down New York and, at home with her three kids for the snow day, Flicker put on Double Roses in the kitchen. “It’s just one of those things that you can keep on all the time and it’s the right mood for everything.”
Produced by Jonathan Wilson, the mastermind behind Father John Misty’s west coast sound, Double Roses isn’t lacking in Laurel Canyon soundscapes, but it also bears traces of the lush, eclectic Spacebomb Studios sound that is also the domain of musicians like Natalie Prass. The laundry list of collaborators also includes musicians like Misty, Benmont Tench, and Laura Marling, who provides the harmonies on “Distant Shore.” It’s part of the same lineage as The Ghost Who Walks — it’s just more ambitious, a sonic and lyrical leap forward. (Indeed, Double Roses’s “Raven” was a Ghost Who Walks B-side.)
“Having a string section never hurt anyone’s record at all,” Elson tells me, laughing. The record is named for the eponymous Sam Shepard poem from his 1982 collection Motel Chronicles, which Elson first encountered nearly three years ago. She began reading the poem at the end of a track she was writing, and eventually it became an integral part of the song—and of the record. The name stuck.
Double Roses isn’t just a synthesis of the last seven years; rather, it’s the culmination of a 20-year career spanning both music and fashion, a process of self-discovery that she hinted might yield a memoir one day. As a child growing up in Oldham, a village just outside Manchester, England, Elson described herself as “the typical child singing with the hairbrush.” At age 6, she wrote her first song, the Kid ’n Play-inspired “Krazy Kats,” a joint production with her best friend Joanne. (“You can see the cat narrative has been long in my life,” the noted cat aficionado tells me, deadpan.) As a pre-teen, the Manchester punk scene of the early ’90s emerged on her radar. Her elder half-brother John toured with Happy Mondays and befriended Gary Mounfield, “Mani,” of the Stone Roses; Elson still cites the band among her musical references. Her house was filled with vinyl records, and her mother, who worked as a lunch lady and cleaner, would spin David Bowie albums and sing along to “Ashes to Ashes.”
Despite her early inclinations, music didn’t emerge as a viable path until Elson left home at 16 to pursue modeling. After traveling Europe and Japan, she made her way to New York to meet photographer-tastemaker Steven Meisel. On her 18th birthday, he photographed her for Vogue Italia—the shoot that kicked her career into overdrive. She appeared on the cover of the February 1997 issue, peering intently out over the back of a carousel horse, her eyebrows shaved and her hair chopped into a radiant red bob.
“I just loved her look because there was a quirkiness…a more eccentric feeling,” says Anna Sui. The designer cast Elson to open her Fall 1997 show on Meisel’s recommendation. “Music was changing—everything was changing at that point,” she adds. Sui launched her eponymous collection in 1981, envisioning her clients as rock stars and the women who attended rock concerts—she cites Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithfull—and music was a strong underpinning of her brand. “Karen had that kind of indie, alternative look, and it just embodied what was going on at that moment.”
It was Elson’s first season as a runway model in New York; her alien look—translucent skin, short-cropped fringe, and intense red hair, a vestige of the Meisel shoot that contrasted with the lithe, confident Naomis and Christys of the previous generation—captivated many designers. Famously, Karl Lagerfeld, naming her the face of Chanel in 1998, described her as “a mixture of something from the Middle Ages and a mutant from another planet,” and Sui now calls her the “ultimate muse,” able to channel whatever energy a designer desired. Elson remembers her first season as a period in flux for fashion: “People raised eyebrows at me,” she says. She recalls met the previous generation’s supermodels backstage—while some greeted her with warmth, others were frosty and reserved. “It was a changing of the guard, so to speak, and it was uncomfortable,” she adds. But she became and remains a favorite of Miuccia Prada, the late Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs, and Lagerfeld.
Everyone knew Elson could sing. In New York, as her star was rising in fashion, she fell in with the arts community of the late-’90s and early-’00s, collaborating with former Hole member Melissa Auf der Maur, James Iha of the Smashing Pumpkins, Robert Plant, and Cat Power, with whom she teamed up to sing a gender-swapped version of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s “Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus.” Elson and Sui became personal friends as well as professional collaborators, united by a love for British psychedelic bands and vintage shopping (Elson briefly ran a vintage boutique in Nashville). At the 1997 VH1 Fashion Awards, Elson was named Model of the Year—and, more importantly, she met Sarah Sophie Flicker, with whom she developed Citizens Band, a political cabaret troupe that also features makeup artist Jorjee Douglas and actresses Rain Phoenix and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Their eyes met across the room. Flicker still recalls the glimmer of recognition she felt at that moment: “Oh, there’s one of my people.”
In 2005, Elson appeared in the video for the White Stripes’s “Blue Orchid”—and married White Stripes frontman Jack White in Brazil that summer.
Elson had been working solo material all the while, writing in the closet of her new Nashville home and concealing lyrics in diaries. She refused to play her songs, even for White. Though Elson was used to performing for the camera or the runway, she describes modeling as “like armor.” There were costumes, stage directions, elaborate sets to play with, and designers and photographers running the show.
Playing her own songs, on the other hand, felt like opening herself up—“Performing them is equally transformative and terrifying at the same time,” she says. Citizens Band, for which Elson often performed covers of other musicians’ songs in elaborate costumes and choreography, offered a bridge between the two worlds, blending both worlds and seaming them with a political thread.
“I wrote the songs on the first record, and Jack, being his brilliant self, just pushed me off a cliff in a sense,” she says, sitting cross-legged on the studio couch in New York, “and was like, ‘We’re going to make this record.’”
She feared her first record might dismissed as a vanity project: “I was feeling that model-slash-anything, I might not be taken seriously,” she tells me later. Yet the fashion enjoys indulging its own: Sui has twice used tracks from The Ghost Who Walks on her runway, while Prada Fall 2016 featured “Stolen Roses,” a dark, “Scarborough Fair”-tinged track from Elson’s first album, alongside Nico (the model-slash-musician) and P.J. Harvey’s “To Bring You My Love.” During New York Fashion Week: Men’s, Elson went on to play a live soundtrack for Billy Reid’s Fall 2017 show. Still, for the most part Elson’s fashion and music careers have been discrete: “You’d never know that she’s also a supermodel,” says Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, who produced “Call Your Name” on Double Roses and first met Elson when he moved to Nashville in 2010. “She’s very unpretentious.”
The Ghost Who Walks, on which White also played drums, confirmed Elson’s musical chops, but in her songwriting she hid behind baroque plotlines and scenes. (On the title track, she envisions an entire cinematic backstory for a childhood nickname.) On Double Roses, Elson pushes herself off the cliff, to borrow her metaphor: She and White split in 2011; famously, they held a party to fête the end of their marriage, but the already highly public divorce soon turned acrimonious. It was finalized in 2013; Elson and White now share custody of their two children.
Now, they’re fine, Elson assures me: “We’ve got our unit, and we’ve definitely got that stuff figured out,” she says. And when she says that she and White are okay, you have to believe her: She’s playing her release show for Double Roses, for example, at the Nashville outpost of Third Man Records, the label White founded.
After the release of The Ghost Who Walks, Elson plunged back into the studio. “I never wasn’t writing,” she says. She first recorded “Hell and High Water,” which appears on Double Roses, in White’s studio. After their split, she recorded several more overt breakup songs—also in her ex-husband’s studio—but she declined to release them: “It was too private and it was too personal, and I do feel a great responsibility towards my family. Jack is my family,” she says. But the broader sentiment lingers on Double Roses: “Those sort of feelings of loss are universal.”
She developed a routine: Drop the kids at school, return home to her office-turned-studio, “plug away at songs,” she says. “I was always aware that I had to make another record,” she says. With age, Elson confesses, she’s suppressed her concern that she might be be taken seriously. (“Karen’s always had that strength,” Sui tells me. “I think it took a while for the confidence to catch up with her strength.”)
While in Paris shooting a Cartier commercial in 2015, she began listening to the Fleetwood Mac track “Storms” to lull her to sleep when she returned to her hotel in the early morning. Listening to Stevie Nicks’ soul-baring lyrics, Elson realized she had a wellspring of self-reflection she could tap for her new record: “You don’t have to get into the nitty-gritty details at all. It’s the vulnerability that people can relate to,” she explains. When she went into the studio, Wilson asked her if she had any notes. Her simple reply: “Haunted and lonely.”
“This is a record of me trying to make sense of it all,” she says.
She’s had a lot to consider in the course of the last seven years. New relationships have forced her to re-evaluate what she looks for in a partner—“There’s no time for torture and there’s no time for games,” she says. “It’s taken me years to understand that.” While raising two children, she has maintained a professional modeling career that has survived several industry changes and continued to thrive amid the new class of supermodels like Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid. (In the past year alone, Elson opened the Atelier Versace Fall 2016 show, landed a gig as one of the faces of Miu Miu’s Spring 2017 campaign and as the newest Jo Malone ambassador, and appeared in Jamie Hawksworth’s shoot for W’s March 2017 issue alongside Amber Valletta, Natalie Westling, Julia Nobis, and Lexi Boling.)
Still, the industry remains trying even for a veteran like Elson: “I have not fit in the samples for at least the past five years,” she says. Early in her career, she suffered an eating disorder, and she has remained vocal about the pressures placed on women in the industry, supporting efforts to ensure models are aware of the expectations that will be placed on them when they arrive on set.
“It’s not okay that you get treated literally like a commodity or a puppet, that you’re just a prop on set,” she adds. “I’m definitely being a lot more feisty these days in terms of standing up for myself on shoots.” By necessity, she has also had to push for her voice to be taken seriously. “As a woman, when you stand up and speak your truth, people are still looking for the men who helped you speak your truth,” she says with a brittle laugh. (For example, Carney, who produced “Call Your Name,” had a brief but highly public feud with White in 2015, and some early coverage of Double Roses focused on their dispute.) “I’m like, ‘It’s just my voice.’”
When Elson arrives on set in January, she’s a total pro, playful and decisive. She sets her guitar down in a corner and immediately gravitates towards the first look, a red Valentino gown with wide, pleated sleeves and adorned with tiny swallows, followed by a delicate Chloé dress with knotted shoulders. The whole process of promoting her record has allowed her ample opportunity to better bridge the divide between her fashion and music careers. Theo Wenner, son of Rolling Stone founder Jann, photographed the album cover, while renowned art director Fabien Baron designed the sleeve. Elson has approached promotional shoots as herself, rather than a character.
As the shoot nears its end, a song is requested. Elson pulls up a stool, gives her guitar a quick tune, and begins to play the opening bars of “Distant Shore.” Of the dozens of songs she demo’ed while writing Double Roses, 50 were sent on to Wilson; in Los Angeles, they recorded 23, and just 10 found their way onto the record. Though Elson had just played her first few shows in support of Double Roses, breathing new life into seven years’ work, the stage nerves still haven’t been entirely exorcised
“It’s quite terrifying,” she says. “But again, I’ve learned that that fear is actually something to work through and give to the performance.”
Just as she starts to play, she stops and apologizes. Too many eyes, she explains, asking if a few of us might look away for a moment. I turn away, towards the window, as she starts to play again.
“I watched you slip through my fingers; I saw the ship change course,” she sings, the song’s opening lines. “And out in the waves your spirit lingers as the ghosts rise up from the sea.”
Quiet at first, her voice builds insistently towards the chorus of the song that brings it all together. I peer over my shoulder. She is in her element, so I turn around.
Why Karen Elson, Model and Musician, Is Fashion’s “Ultimate Muse”
Karen Elson in “Transformers,” September 2011
Karen Elson in “Inside Out,” October 2005
Karen Elson in “Come On Down to Nawlins,” April 2008
Karen Elson in “First Places,” April 2004
Karen Elson in “Come On Down to Nawlins,” April 2008
Karen Elson in “The Dreamers,” March 2017
Karen Elson in “Tantrum Intimates,” November 2011
Karen Elson in “Cult Classics,” August 2016
Karen Elson in “Model Mania,” November 2012
Karen Elson in “Come As You Are,” September 2013
Karen Elson in “Man with a Mission,” February 2011
Karen Elson in “Sharp Suiters,” August 2011
Karen Elson in “Hot House,” March 2007