“It was brilliant, brilliant,” enthuses Karen Elson. It’s January’s penultimate Monday and we’re on the second floor of Soho’s Dean Street Townhouse; having moved on from the shameful state of our respective outfits - there’s a large rip in my right sleeve while the seams of her vintage frock are similarly deteriorating - notes are swapped on the London leg of the Women’s March. “I thought it was amazing, I thought it was necessary and I think,” she considers, “fingers crossed that man in America’s listening. All I can hope for is that the next four years won’t… I hope, because he has daughters, that there will be compassion towards women, towards equality.”
Born in Oldham, Greater Manchester, the beginning of a prolific modelling career (or, as she affectionately refers to it, “the day job”) moved her to New York in the mid-’90s, and today she calls Nashville home; the state of America’s politics then, or perhaps more specifically the objectives of its gatekeepers, is a very real situation for Elson. “Somebody asked me the other day, ‘What is a feminist?’ And for me it’s simply that women are equal, we’re no different. It’s as simple as that; just to have our rights respected as a man’s rights would be. It’s a funny situation, actually; last year I was getting an award for… oh God, I’m going to sound like such a twat.”
She doesn’t, actually, relaying an anecdote of an event held in the name of championing equality - and at which she was recognised for her work with Save The Children (she’s an ambassador) - where women, exclusively, were auctioned off for dinner in scenes that presumably mirrored something from a dodgy corporate event circa last century. “I started seething. I’m like, ‘How is that empowering? Why are there no men for sale?’ I just have little tolerance these days for a woman being exploited in any way, shape or form. I mean, it’s rich coming from me - I’m in a business that is about that. But actually it’s not, the side that I work in; it’s a lot more progressive.”
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It’s seven years since she was last in this position, on the campaign trail in support of a new release, for 2010’s ‘The Ghost Who Walks’, an album that broke the UK Indie Chart’s top 20, securing praise both from the music press, for whom she was previously most recognisable as a famous wife, and those in the fashion industry, who had long been familiar with the Steven Meisel muse who shaved off her eyebrows and covered Vogue on her 18th birthday. Since then a lot has changed, as she volunteers throughout our interview, most significantly her divorce from the album’s producer - the man whom she attributes her initial confidence to record - and the father of her two children, Jack White.
“Well, I was always making music and I was on other people’s projects,” she clarifies of her time away from the industry’s gaze. Indeed, a quick YouTube trawl throws up a video of her singing alongside Michael Stipe as part of a David Bowie tribute concert that took place in New York last year; elsewhere, in 2014 she contributed a cover of Lyle Lovett’s ‘If I Had A Boat’ to the soundtrack for Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s feature film, Still Alice.
“The main reason I hadn’t made a record is because I’ve got two young kids, you know, kids to raise. I recorded demos and it just felt like ‘The Ghost Who Walks 2’; I kept thinking, ‘I don’t want to do the same thing twice.’ I can, but I’m not just a singer songwriter of murder ballads; there’s more than that. And I just had to dig deeper, and it took a minute. And maybe again, because of all the other things, my other career, the fact I am connected to such a prolific musician, sort of held me under the gun a little bit. I felt like if I’m going to do it, there’s no room to be half-arsed.”
The result is ‘Double Roses’, a record comprised of 10 tracks written sporadically in the interim, recorded in Los Angeles with producer Jonathan Wilson: “Years ago I’d made six or seven demos - none of them are on the record, oh one: ‘Come Hell And High Water’ - but it just didn’t feel right. But then I just kept on writing and writing. I mean, I was writing up until the day I went into the studio, like one o’clock, two o’clock in the morning - I’m leaving for LA at eight - and I wrote ‘Distant Shore’ at two o’clock in the morning before I left to go meet Jonathan. Nothing like being held under the gun a little bit for stuff to start coming out,” she describes of the process.
“There’s a good back catalogue (now), I just have to choose the right time and I’m quite neurotic about those things. I want to make sure - even with this record - it all fits together in the mood. I like records like Beck’s ‘Sea Change’, how it’s got such a mournful spirit to that racket, even Nick Cave’s ‘The Boatman’s Call’, it’s such a deep sorrowful record. For this record I had to step it up a notch, try harder, be more honest - not try and disguise things in a clever story.”
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Consequently ‘Double Roses’, which lifts its name from a poem found in Sam Shephard’s 1982 journal, Motel Chronicles - a work Elson claims a strong affinity for, describing it as “the spirit of the record. I was lucky enough to get his permission (to use it) too, so it felt solidified” - acts like an aural navigation tool, exploring and attempting to unpack the last two decades of the musician’s life, most notably her relationship with the country she left behind, as per Shephard’s poem:
Like in England
Like back in England
And she leans way back
Inside of England
Her nose flares
And her eyes close
The Rose sails her home
“That was the difference between this and ‘The Ghost Who Walks’, and I’m not trying to diminish ‘The Ghost…’” she continues. “Jack and I had a blast making it and he gave me the biggest chance anyone ever gave me by simply believing in me, that even taking a cue from his way of making music, my prerogative was to be vulnerable; I’m going to open the complexities of me. Not necessarily about my relationships with others but more a reflection of my relationship with myself, the times you sabotage yourself, the times when you don’t come through for yourself, the times when you do. There’s a real mirror up to see the ugly truth.”
With an impressive line-up of collaborators, from The Black Keys’ Pat Carney and Father John Misty to Wilco’s Pat Sansome and Laura Marling, predominantly pulled from Wilson and Elson’s extended friends list - Marling’s cameo, for example, on the delicate closing track ‘Distant Shore’, came about off the back of Marling delivering a book - the album mirrors in part the singer’s earlier musical inclinations as a founding member of the New York-based cabaret troupe, The Citizens Band.
“Yes! Another part of my musical education,” she says, a fond nostalgia arriving at mention of the group’s moniker. “Brilliant people. My dear, dear friend Sarah Flicker, who was the director of it, and all the people who were in it, they kind of validated me. It was brilliant, such a good laugh, and there was such camaraderie and so many of us. Oh my god, they were just a travelling circus; nothing but a good experience, and it was sort of a nice way to dip my toes in starting out.”
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Formed in 2004 with a loose open-door policy that saw the likes of Zooey Deschanel, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Nina Persson play guest, the musical collective dropped lone LP ‘Grab A Root And Growl’ in September 2012 - a protest against voter apathy ahead of the 2012 presidential election - bowing out with a final show two and a half years ago. Can she imagine ever regrouping? “Again, my friend Sarah, she’s now working for various women’s organisations - she helped organise the March on Washington. She’s incredibly busy and I’m doing my own thing - most of us have kids. We started it 12 years ago, just trying to do it when you’ve got so many real life responsibilities, it’s not so easy to jump in a plane and play with the best travelling circus there is.”
She makes a valid argument, which brings us to where she is right now, when she’s not camouflaged against the burnt orange sofa we’re sharing (her coat, dropped to the side, is the exact same shade, her bag not far off).
Announced via the album’s cover art - shot in the ocean in Long Island by her friend Theo Wenner, Elson is pictured escaping the Internet’s noise, make-up free and conveying serenity - her mind today is swayed towards one of the longest reigning symbols of freedom: water.
“There’s so much water imagery within the record that I didn’t even realise until afterward,” she acknowledges. “I got the album cover image and I’m like, ‘Well, I guess this is the theme of the record,’ but it was quite unconscious honestly.” While perhaps subconscious to begin with, feeding into lyrics that traverse life experience anyway, water has since informed much of her recent output, filling her Instagram stream and acting as the core subject for the accompanying video for single ‘Call Your Name’ (four minutes and 35 seconds of pure waves). Even projects for her “day job”, like Miu Miu’s SS17 campaign, have added to the narrative, lensed by Alasdair McLellan beside Malibu’s Point Dume.
Thirty hours later and Elson’s chat returns to American politics with a casual quip about tanning booths in the White House, only we’re no longer talking one-on-one in Soho; rather, she’s addressing the busy crowd gathered downstairs in Dalston’s Servant Jazz Quarters, the venue picked to debut ‘Double Roses’. It’s one of many wonderfully candid moments that arrive throughout the show, an hour-long affair that, as one punter describes to friends over a post-gig cigarette, was lush; so lush.
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Words: Zoe Whitfield
Photo Credit: Chad Moore