INTERVIEW: Karen Elson on Emotional Upheaval, the Mindf*ck of Modeling and Music as Salvation

If the term “supermodel” still has any cultural capital, Karen Elson surely would be counted amongst that extremely elite group – with her striking countenance gracing so many magazine covers and advertising campaigns these last two decades as to make her instantly recognizable. But in truth, she’s just a kid from Manchester with a big heart, a remarkably disarming outward warmth, and a great deal of music in her soul that needs to get out.

You know the big public story. She married rock god Jack White in 2005, they had two children together, and then divorced in 2013. In between, she launched a music career with the gorgeously stylized 2010 album The Ghost Who Walks – and with hubbie Jack at the production controls.

But the tumult of the split had left her at once unable to summon her creative muse, yet also determined to tell the new story of Karen Elson. That story has at last arrived in the form of the stunningly visceral new album Double Roses, out April 17.

For the job, she gathered an incredible collection of accomplices (Laura Marling, Pat Sansone of Wilco, Benmont Tench of The Heartbreakers, producer Jonathan Wilson), and the result is a record that is as musically accomplished – “Call Your Name” recalls Fleetwood Mac at their best – as it is courageously and movingly soul-baring. One need only to listen to stirring lead single “Distant Shore” to understand what a deeply cathartic experience it must have been for her.

We caught up with her for a remarkably honest and revealing conversation.



The last record was a bit more “storytelling.” This is a much more personal album?

Yeah, I think so. I mean, it’s been seven years since I made a record. The elephant in the room is that I got a divorce. That obviously shifts your perspective.

Well, you’re suddenly split in two…

It’s something very personal; and when you’re in the worlds that Jack and I are in…you’re thrust into the public spotlight. And I felt very protective of myself, I didn’t want people asking me questions. Now all that is somewhat in the distance.

And sometimes you just need time ponder things. 

There’s absolute truth in that. But not just regarding my divorce – there were so many things in a state of turmoil in my life. So I had to step back to be able to reflect upon myself and upon my choices.

That brought you to making this record?

I knew I needed to crack into the vulnerability. During the writing, on any given day, I didn’t know if I was going to be “wild and stormy oceans” or a “calm sea.” When I tried to mask my feelings of insecurity, the songs would kind of suck. When I embraced the vulnerability within the writing process, there was something that was way more connected. I got real with myself, and dug into that deep, intricate part of myself.

Some of the lyrics are very honest and vulnerable…and melancholy. You write, “Hey love, it’s the end of an era” – but also, “I am alone / I am free.” Did writing and recording these songs help bring you to a new sense of emotional freedom?

Well, the songs were written over a long period of time, there’s a sort of arc of these turbulent times in my life. A lot of people focus on this being a breakup record; yet there are a lot of other life experiences that color it. But those are not the ones mentioned in the tabloids.

The public wants...

Well, I don’t think I know anybody who’s been through a divorce and said, “That was so fun!” Me and Jack are friends and he’s a wonderful father. But it doesn’t negate that there is real pain and emotional upheaval.

Did you find that you’ve discovered who is Karen Elson is now?

Yeah, definitely! Well, first, I’m a complete and utter daydreamer…

Gee, who would have guessed that about you?

But I do feel a lot more stable than I did a decade ago.

The music seems less stylized on this album, more complex.

I worked really hard on the songs – on the lyrics and on the music. With my first record I was still figuring it out. At that time I was married to such a formidable musician, and always in the back of my head I felt people were thinking that Jack actually wrote all the songs.

But you’ve noticeably moved on from his particular influence.

With this one, I wanted to show myself, I was tired of hiding behind this veneer, being so many women but myself – even as a model. I was also going through an identity crisis, reconfiguring who I am. What I needed in my life to feel vital was to strip myself of all the things that have been put upon me.


Karen Elson 2017 cropped 2


Well, modeling is about hiding behind a façade, of course.

And as a model, the fun of it is that I get to go to work, dress up, and become this character for a day – and have my photograph taken. Yet slowly but surely it sinks into your psyche. I started wondering, “Who the hell am I?” I’m not this person in the magazine, but I’m also not the illusion that I was painting on stage. I had this intense desire to simply just be myself. And maybe because of my unique circumstances, weirdly, just being myself was very difficult to accomplish.

The album artwork sort of reflects that. Like you’re trying to emerge from a dark place…

That was me and a friend swimming in the ocean. I was really going through a dark time, it felt sort of hopeless. She just snapped the picture; and I look at it now and I can see all of that in my face. That’s the accurate description of this record, cast out to the stormy sea and trying to find my way back to the calm shore. But I’m no damsel in distress!

How do you balance the worlds of music and fashion?

It’s a strange world, the music business. But then I’ve never even sussed out the fashion business really. As a model, you can have a million people telling you how to look, how to act, how to be. But I’ve not had a normal career at all. I don’t go to fashion parties, I don’t hang out on the scene. I don’t even follow fashion – I don’t look in fashion magazines to follow trends. I have always been a bit of an outsider. I don’t want to be front and center, I want to be on the periphery.

Is that partly due to coming from Manchester?

I have no idea! I think it’s just my personality, at once an extrovert and an introvert. I’ve always been a little bit of a mystery to myself. Duality is a lot my life, I’m a twin. And my twin sister is my best friend.

You’re much more vulnerable making music, of course.

I have worked with amazing photographers, who have this uncanny way of seeing into your soul with a picture. But standing up on stage is so much more vulnerable, yes. Whereas a photograph is just an image of you.

One profession is about holding back emotion, and the other is about diving down into the depths of your emotions.

There’s been so much emphasis on the way I look. But I don’t really like that. I don’t look in the mirror and go, “Oh, look at me, I’m a model!” It’s not to dis the fashion industry, I love the people that I work with. But it is a mindfuck to be put on a pedestal for how you look. Especially when how you looked was what made you miserable as a kid, because everyone fucking tortured you for it. And it also isn’t a real reflection of who you are fundamentally.

But this record certainly is.

Yes, and I’ve come out of it a lot stronger and more hopeful. This record is about being who I am, and standing up for who I am.



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