Karen Elson Biography
Until now, the British-born Elson has been better known as a model, the face of ad campaigns for, among others, Armani, Prada, Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent's Opium. With her pale white skin and shocking red hair, she seems an almost otherworldly presence on any given glossy page. While she assiduously worked as the face of various brands, she conducted an altogether different life behind the scenes as a singer and songwriter, honing what has proven to be her considerable skills. In part, she learned by doing: in 2003 she provided additional vocals for a version of Robert Plant's "Last Time I Saw Her," in 2006 she recorded an English language version of "Je T'Aime..Moi Non Plus" ("I Love You… Me Neither") with Cat Power for a Serge Gainsbourg tribute album, and for the last five years, she's been a member, alongside Garniez, in the Weimar-style cabaret of New York City-based art and music collective The Citizens Band. Two of her more theatrical tracks, "100 Years From Now" and "Mouths To Feed" – the latter of which was inspired in part by author Tim Egan's dust bowl saga, The Worst Hard Time – were originally penned for her troupe, which combines bawdy entertainment with barbed political commentary.
The Ghost Who Walks may not be drawn literally from Elson's life, but it does represent an aspect of her psyche she's been brave enough to explore: "I'm very much interested in the dark side of things. In my life, truthfully, I've had a lot of bizarre and dark experiences that have definitely colored the way I think about a lot of personal things. The music I have always listened to as well has had a sorrowful, mournful, if not murderous, quality to it." She pauses to laugh. "I'm not saying I would ever want to kill anybody, but sometimes love can drag you to the very depths of yourself and – my God – make you so desperate and forlorn. I really respond to songs that write about that. Hank Williams, for crying out loud, speaking of being forlorn and forsaken -- there's a song I just heard of his, an early demo, that really resonated with me. Those songs move me in a way that happy go lucky songs don't."
Elson's obsessions can perhaps be traced back to one fateful night in 1995 in her hometown of Oldham, outside of Manchester, England. The teenage Elson was watching a rock video show on TV's Channel Four when, like many of us on this side of pond who were fans of MTV's 120 Minutes, she was startled by the sight of Polly Harvey in Maria Monchnacz's sexy/spooky video for "Down By the Water." Recalls Elson, "Up until I heard her, my taste in music was very typical teenage music. She was doing all these amazing movements, I remember everything, her make-up and her voice –it was like tunnel vision. I'm watching her and thinking, I have to go and get her record. Who is this woman? It changed my view on music. It just took me away from the typical teenage stuff into another realm. I remember going into HMV the next day and getting two things on a whim --the PJ Harvey album and a Mazzy Star record. I didn't know who Mazzy Star was but I remember seeing the cover of So Tonight That I Might I See. I loved the name of the band and I loved the cover, so I decided I would just take a risk and spend the money I'd been saving up in my piggy bank. I went home and put them on that night, listening on a Walkman in my bed with the covers over my head. It was really just the beginning for me of hearing music in a whole other way. When you're a teenager you hear songs that you think are all about your life; it was exactly that experience. Being at that weird teenage crossroads, really unsure of where I was going in life -- those two albums made me feel okay."
That same year, Elson was spotted by a Boss modeling scout and within 12 months she had appeared on the cover of French Vogue and found herself jetting alone to the far corners of the globe: "I knew nothing of the world, but at age 16 I was going to Tokyo by myself. My biggest trip before that was taking the train to Manchester." Her peripatetic lifestyle helped to accelerate her musical education:, "Every step of the way there has been a musical moment attached, and that has been the theme of my life. I would go to a certain city and meet different people and get musical influences from them, then luckily go to another place and get more. By the time I got to New York, I was beginning to understand what I liked and what moves me."
Living in Manhattan's East Village, she'd practice guitar and lay down tunes on a four-track: "I've dairies and diaries of bad songs, but I knew in my heart I could do this. I just had to be patient and learn. Not force it, but just keep at it." Though she'd been encouraged to make a record well before now, Elson was wary of putting herself out there too soon. In 2005 she married Jack White, whom she'd met on The White Stripes' "Blue Orchid" video shoot, and she moved with him to Nashville, where they are now raising two children. This new life, balancing career and family, triggered a greater sense of urgency about her music and allowed her to ultimately cast aside the burden of self-doubt.
Elson worked behind closed doors, even keeping her songs from White. But one day he heard her singing and asked Elson to play what she'd been doing for him. Says Elson, "One of the ways Jack is brilliant is he is so open and dynamic with music. He doesn't waste time. When he hears a song he really likes, he wants to go in and record it that day. He's like that with anybody and it was the same with me. We went in, recorded it and it turned out to be the most liberating and fulfilling experience." White urged Elson to follow her instincts: "He was beyond supportive about it. He produced the record and obviously encouraged me profusely, but he never changed anything or said ‘you need to do this.' If anything, it was like, ‘you need to believe in yourself, have some faith.'"
The bewitching "Stolen Roses" and "The Birds They Circle" arrived well after the rest of Elson's disc had been cut, but only then did Elson realize she was able to let the album go. By then, it had, she concludes, become "a true reflection of me."
These mysterious and beautiful songs, more than any picture, speak volumes.