Karen Elson Has Found the Shoreline
Six years after her split from Jack White—and the tabloid frenzy it fed—Elson has made her own land on 'Double Roses.'
Photo by Heidi Ross
One and half minutes into meeting Karen Elson and she says: "I've found myself speechless a lot today, which is so unlike me." She's tired from a day of promo in the wake of a late night, thanks to a storm-delayed flight. Perhaps she has a cumulative hangover from her performance at Third Man Records in Nashville, three nights previously. Maybe she's feeling fatigued, she suggests with a smile, because it's just about that time of the month. All very valid reasons for feeling depleted, feeling less than forthcoming. Thing is, from the moment we meet—in the bowels of one of Williamsburg's many new bougie hotels—till the moment we part ways an hour and 15 minutes later, Elson doesn't stop talking. We clink 5 PM gin and tonics, and she dives straight in: a little intimate, a little confessional, surprisingly candid. "I just did an interview where there were just so many questions, yet again, about my ex-husband," she says, lightly exasperated. "And while he's my friend, it's getting exhausting to defend my creative process in comparison to another person. I've been finding that a lot with this record—almost like people can't believe that my record can be just about me and my life and process and the stuff that goes through my head, and not be about another man, or about the collaborators; some are male, but not all. I'm getting to the point where I'm a bit drained."
The ex in question would be one Jack White, who Elson wed in 2005, and together they have two kids. At certain points between the pair's split in 2011 and the finalization of their divorce in 2013—and as is sadly the case with everyone in the public eye—their personal issues were splashily relayed in the tabloids. It was White who produced Elson's first record, 2010's The Ghost Who Walks, a glowering, gorgeous swirl: American gothic with a dash of forlorn country. She might have spent considerable time penning songs sequestered away in the privacy of her closet, hiding her music from experienced ears, but Elson's been singing for a good deal longer—since way back in 2003 when she was part of politico cabaret crew The Citizens Band, which boasted a revolving cast of guest appearances by glamorous pals including The Cardigans' Nina Persson, Zoe Kravitz, and Zooey Deschanel. Back then, she was living in the East Village, and back then New York was a different world: "This was when the meatpacking district wasn't fancy and I used to go to this night club Jackie 60 and get up to all sorts of things, have a really good time and then stumble home," she recalls. "It was seedy and still had its grit. New York City was my playground. I had a blast!"
With her elegant limbs, pre-Raphaelite coloring (flaming locks, pearly skin, eyes the rich blue of a post-storm sky), Elson has been an instantly recognizable vision ever since Steven Meisel shot her for the cover of Italian Vogue on her 18th birthday, propelling an outsider from Oldham, just outside Manchester, to a life looping the world, strutting the catwalk, bleaching her brows, and shapeshifting into whatever photogenic creature the fashion world dictated. Now 38, Elson is still a successful model, but first and foremost she's really just like any other mother, a mistress of multi-task, raising her 11-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son in Nashville, in house with a creek in the backyard. Seven years have elapsed between her debut and her second album, and during that period parenting has been her priority. "They're big enough to hold me accountable and I want to be accountable to my children," she explains, with a slight transatlantic inflection to her Northern English brogue. "I had a very difficult upbringing so being a mother for me is very cathartic—it's been very important in my life, so I feel a very big responsibility. I never thought I'd say this, but I get off the plane in Nashville with my kids and my cat and I love it. There's no chaos outside my house or beeping horns, it's quiet, peaceful."
Double Roses is Elson's second record, named after a Sam Shepard poem and featuring a few guest contributions from Laura Marling, Father John Misty, and Patrick Carney of The Black Keys. Sonically, her compositions are laced with the occasional string and harp accompaniment, but there's a porch-side intimacy here—she shed the story-telling artifice A Ghost…, turning her gaze inwards, each chamber of her heart flayed, her lyrics questioning, adrift, but arriving at a place of peace. This collection is also vital for Elson because its twinned with her moment of autonomy, creatively and beyond. "Father John Misty interviewed me for something the other day and he berated me saying, 'Karen, you've got to stop playing it so cool and humble—you've got to stand up and own it,'" she says. "I realized I often fall into a very passive role. It's part of my own hang-ups about not being good enough, and then maybe it's because I'm a model and a lot of times I'm objectified, so it comes very naturally. As I'm coming out the other side, I'm now realizing if someone asks me a question that's uncomfortable, I don't have to answer it. As a woman, I'm learning a lot—even learning how to be assertive with this record has been a monumental thing in my life."
Noisey: This record is very raw and vulnerable…
Karen Elson: Everyone seems to think this record is some form of therapy for me. Yeah, I'm getting stuff off my chest, but it's just a creative expression. I feel like I'm complaining, but that moment where I feel like I'm complaining is me just now owning it. There's been a lot of confrontation with press with people trying to crack the code with me, and I'm like, please, go ahead.
In a way that wasn't the case before?
Yes, because this is a much more vulnerable record, people want to get to the root of my vulnerability, but the truth is I made a conscious choice to be vulnerable because I felt that was a fearless way to go. You're revealing your soul in songs to people who've never met you and as soon as I owned that, I felt pretty ferocious, because as women, we're supposed to be so many archetypes. Particularly as I get into my late 30s, it's interesting how people view you. A lot of people tell me I look good for my age and it's so derogatory, like, "You're past your sell-by date, but you look good, so don't worry about it." The older I get the more comfortable I feel, in my skin, in my body, in my presence. It's almost like a big role reversal—as I become more confident in myself as a woman and an artist, there comes the comments about your looks: Less viable, less attractive, less fuckable.
The late 30s is complicated and conflictual, but also a really beautiful period to be a woman. You're personally at an age where you're not yet bracketed as an older supermodel booking big campaigns. I'm thankful there seems to be an increase in them.
I really hope so too. Being in fashion and working with 15-year-old girls sometimes and thinking about my own experience within it and my power as well… there's been times of deep insecurity, but when I'm in my day-to-day life and I look in the mirror, I feel fine. Get me on a shoot and the dress isn't fitting, and it starts this chain reaction of, "Oh my God, why am I doing this, am I good enough?" Bringing that back to Double Roses, I felt this is a record about me getting older—when you're a little girl and the fairytale dream turns out not to be real. All my life all I've ever wanted was the stuff that people force-fed me: have a good husband, have children, things that a lot of people aspire to, but they're drummed into us from a young age, and then you have to dig deep and realize, maybe it isn't a dream after all. Life is so much more complicated than fairytales.
What's life like down in Nashville for you?
The city has been so good to me. My friends down there are amazing and I've got such a strong group of women down in Nashville. We're all championing each other, but we're from very different walks of life: we've got a stay-at-home mother, an ER doctor, a girl who works at a record label, my gals in Nashville—we're all there for each other. There's [also been] plenty of moments alone, where I've put the kids to bed, it's 10 PM, and there's no one to reach out to. I have many moments of my own lonesomeness, but through that, came deep clarity. I go to New York and get asked on dates all the time; I go to Nashville and it was crickets. I remember I lived in this college neighborhood for a minute and one night around midnight I was drinking a gin and tonic and licking my wounds thinking, "God, am I going to be a spinster?" All of a sudden my doorbell rings and a very handsome college student who lived a few doors down asked me out on a date. Because I was so blindsided by it, and thought he was joking, I said no and shut the door. I was like, is this a frat joke? Have I become that person? I don't think I was, but it took a lot of time to get into my swing of things.
I've learned a lot. I realized I didn't have a lot of male friends when I was married, for whatever reason. Jack was my life. And then post-divorce, some of my best friends in my life are guys. I almost had to demystify the man and make it so I could just platonically be friends. That's actually been one of the biggest things for me the past few years: I've got really good men in my life. There's never been anything romantic, but I've got their back and they've got mine. I'm seeing someone right now and he's a wonderful man but I've got a lot less hang-ups about the fantasy of forever, which is a shame because sometimes I do want to have those fantasies, but life has showed me you never know what to expect.
Absolutely. I call myself a romantic realist.
I'm definitely a romantic realist. Definitely! The fantasy is always way back in there, but these days I'm able to get real and that's what a lot of this record is about. Without naming names, it's been a very interesting five years. The realms of the heart have been really complicated and turbulent. I've dated people where I was absolutely atrocious because I wasn't ready for anything deep or meaningful, and then other times you fall in love with someone and it's just not going to work out. Double Roses definitely represents a lot of those tumultuous times, but making this record has also been a game-changer. I finally made a record that feels like me.
A lot of people have been asking me why it took so long, and it just did. I was dealing with so much while I was writing, I didn't feel safe enough to say what I needed to say. I wanted to be sensitive to those in my life. Even from doing this record and doing promo, the fact that stuff is so focused on Jack can really open old wounds and I'm trying to be mindful because we've work so hard to work beyond that stuff. I don't even want to revisit it half the time. Yes, I wrote that song, it's a painful one, but let's just listen to it. But that's the amazing thing about having to sell your record—I want to do that, this record is the fruits of my labor, and I want to be able to stand by it and I do.
There's a lot of water imagery and obviously you have embraced that given the album cover is a photo of in the ocean with your face half-submerged.
I was with a friend in Long Island and my personal life had taken a nosedive. It was very difficult a couple of years ago, when stuff got leaked out into the media and a lot of nasty stuff being said about Jack, about me, about The Black Keys drama. Jack and I had spent so much time not going down a nasty route, and there was a dark week and a dark week that somebody leaked. And your personal struggles are then TMZ headlines. I remember feeling embarrassed, like my darkest struggles and Jack's played out in a way that feels so sad.
Diminishing to the pair of us! And The Black Keys, it became so dirty. It was another moment where it was like, we're grown-ups, let's take the other drama queens out of the equation and figure things out our way. I felt like I lost a life at that point. I lost my best friend—Jack was that for a long time. All of a sudden, everything you've held onto is gone, and friends are getting caught in the middle, because this one thing that got leaked out into the press that was blown out of proportion. It's the just the bullshit drama that people go through in divorce that you get through… [and] eventually you come through the other side. We started off with such good intentions, we ended with good intentions, but the middle was difficult. That picture [for the album cover] was taken during that time. I had been crying my eyes out for a couple of days, I was at my friend's… and he took that picture and that one photograph symbolized it all. Who am I? What am I? Where am I going? Am I drowning or am I swimming away? There were days when I felt like I was drowning, then some days there was a beautiful calmness. Again, it's not all just Jack. It was like the rug was pulled from under me and I had to see what was underneath. It was like, oh God I've ignored things for so many years and they're all coming to bite me in the ass and if I don't deal with this now, it's going to overwhelm me. With that one image, I look in my eyes and I see all of that.
How do you feel now compared to when you started this record?
I feel like a different person. "Wonder Blind" was written in such a fragile stage in my life, everything was happening and I felt sad and really confused. "Distant Shore" was where I'd come to terms with, not just my divorce—and maybe you can relate to this—when traumatic things happen in life, it almost lifts the lid off everything else in your life that you're kind of ignoring. When I was 21, my first love passed away. He was a brilliant, smart, amazing man who had the whole world at his fingertips. When that happened, for three years afterwards, it was a deep introspective time in my life. It made me realize I wanted to sing and write songs, and saw how precious life was, and how easy it can go. In a way, his memory was that thing—I have to honor what my heart is telling me to do. In a similar way, a divorce can feel like a death but the person is still alive.
Oh sure, it's the death of the relationship, but also what you imagined your future to be…
Expectations, your illusions, and how you've let yourself down in certain situations too. With the first record I didn't feel like a bona fide songwriter, that I hadn't tapped deep enough, that I was still playing behind an image: the southern gothic belle who's singing murder ballads, there was still a lot of smoke and mirrors. With Double Roses I wanted to lift the veil completely, because the veil is a thing that frustrates me with women—you have to be beautiful, you have to be mysterious, you have to be young. I woke up one day and said enough of trying to be someone you're not. I'm held on a pedestal as a model only to be knocked down every so often. Even as a musician I was creating this persona that wasn't authentic and I was sick of it. I was sick of always being objectified, even objectifying myself. I wrote from the perspective of my life, not anybody else's.
Karen Elson Tour Dates
September 23: Pilgrimage Music and Culture Festival — Franklin, TN
October 14: Austin City Limits — Austin, TX
Double Roses is out now via H.O.T Recordings.
Kim Taylor Bennett only just found out that the alcoholic content of gin is anywhere between 40 to 50 percent. Oops. Follow her on Twitter.