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.