Culture / Music

Karen Elson on her journey back to music and finding hope within it

karen elson Green

"I think it's just part and parcel of the game that I'm in, that you go through periods of self-doubt and wondering if you actually have it in you. And then miraculously, the stars align and you do it. And somehow, it all works out."

Last time RUSSH spoke with our Work of  Art cover girl, Karen Elson, in 2017, it had been seven years since she released her debut album. Now, when the Lancashire native patches through – still living in her adopted hometown of Nashville, Tennessee with her two children – three records and twelve years have passed since The Ghost Who Walks was released into the world. Her third album, entitled Greenwas set free into the ether almost one month ago.

Like many pandemic projects, Green is thoughtful and poignant. It's vulnerable and intimate but steers away from melancholy – at least for the most part – and thematically feels akin to the mental picture of a new leaf unfurling in your hand through smooth sixties folk soundscapes and radio pop melodies. For Elson, whose first love was always music, despite it not being what she is best known for – yet – it's a hopeful departure for her musical journey.

This week, she is due to land in Sydney to speak at design festival Semi Permanent before heading back to New York for a residency at Cafe Carlyle, an opportunity she describes as "a dream come true." Despite being very much made for a residency like the ones that take place in the iconic hotel, Elson admits to being nervous. Here, she explains where those nerves come from, her journey back to music, and her advocacy for the Model Alliance Fashion Workers Act and why it's important to protect the younger generation of models.


What was your upbringing like? Did you grow up in a musical family?

I grew up in Northern England and I grew up during the Thatcher era when there was a lot of discontent within the United Kingdom overall. And from that, a lot of great music and a lot of great art and a lot of great film were born from that discontent. I grew up in the era as a youngster where I was surrounded by great music and great art.

Even though my family were a working class, northern English family, they weren't particularly creative by any measure. It was just in the ether; it was just part of growing up in northern England during that era. It would be impossible to not be influenced to some degree by the music, so I was... I came out creative. I'm a twin and I have my amazing twin sister, we're both creative people. It's a real case of nature versus nurture, because we weren't particularly nurtured to be creative at all, we both just ended up that way.

I was always singing when I was a kid. I was always in choirs, I would start bands with friends, it was just the thing I loved. That was all I wanted to do. I was a member of the Kylie Minogue fan club. FYI, when I was six years old, that was the first gig I ever went to. As I got older and when I was approaching my teens, the love of Kylie then turned into the love of Nick Cave. When I first heard Where The Wild Roses Grow, I was completely transfixed by that song and the darkness of it. The lyrical content was so moving, that it sort of pushed me in a different direction. When I was in my early teens, I became much more enamoured with Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Robert Smith – actually, The Smiths themselves – I became much more into music that talked about melancholy, because I was definitely that as a kid.


Kylie to Nick is such an extreme shift of genre.

Exactly. I remember seeing the music video for Where The Wild Roses Grow on TV when I was 12 or something, and it spoke to me. Back in those days, you couldn't jump on Spotify and find a playlist really quickly, you'd have to go to the local record shop. I wrote the name down, and I would go down the rabbit hole of like-minded artists, and that was how you discovered music.


Did you have a crystallising moment that made you decide to pursue music or did it happen over time?

Music was my first love. You have to picture that, again, the era being in northern England, music and fashion were so uniquely intertwined back then. It really was a rare moment where everything cross pollinated.

So, when I got scouted to be a model, it sort of it made sense in a way. And it also didn't make sense where I lived. I think nobody could believe it. I mean, nobody really thought that much of me. For me, I saw it as an opportunity, it was a way out, it was a vehicle. I would daydream and read all the teen fashion magazines and picture a life that was so fantastical and outside of where I grew up. So the mere idea of that being a possibility was fascinating. I got profoundly lucky. And then I ran with my chance and I knew somewhere down the line, maybe I'll be able to tap into music again. But I also had to ride the wave. And turns out, I'm also a good model. It gave me a lot of confidence. Becoming a model forced me to get out of myself in many ways.


Kind of like getting a foot in the door.

Well, a foot out the door, definitely. But then a foot in the door, because when I moved to New York – I was around so many musicians, actors, models – the primary people I was hanging around were all trying to encourage me to figure it out. It was such an innocent time and nothing ever felt forced or disingenuous. I just sort of started out really slowly, building my confidence, to believe that maybe I can be a model and a successful one, and maybe I can also be a singer.

I said this the other day, that I had a situation where a dear friend of mine passed away, and it sort of woke me up to realising the finite nature of our lives. I realised I had to essentially live with purpose and do the things that I feel called to do in life, instead of sitting and being insecure about everything. In a way, that terrible moment became a gift. I know when I'm older, I want to feel like it made the most out of my life.


On Green, can you tell us about the narratives and inspiration?

To be blunt, this record was born during the pandemic. So Green was born during the height of it, and I was in lockdown in my house where I am right now in Nashville with the kids and feeling really, like the first time in my life, a little purposeless. When I became reacquainted with music, it became this thing again like it was when I was young, where it became a comfort. I think because I've made a couple of records and I toured really extensively with my last one and I was feeling burnt out then, I was feeling a bit disenchanted with the music industry overall. I got reacquainted with music, just listening to music, learning how to play a song on my guitar became the relief every day, it gave me purpose in a really unmoored time. I felt like I had a purpose, that every day I'd help the kids in the morning with school, then I'd learn how to play a song, then I'd record it or do an Instagram video and put it out into the world. It became this mode of communication with people who I wasn't connected with physically: friends who are locked down, even strangers who were locked down. It reminded me again of the power of performance and the power of music. So that inspired me to make another record.


So many masterpieces have emerged out of the fog of COVID…

Yes, not to sound pretentious, but that's the power of art. It’s supposed to invoke feeling. I think during that time, I just remembered certain aspects of myself that are so deeply connected to music, and I think it's music in particularly speaks to people in these ways that it's so deeply personal. It's the way a song reminds you of your childhood or your first heartbreak or something beautiful in your life, or it's the thing when you're sad.


How are you feeling about your Café Carlyle residency? I read you were quite nervous.

I’m still nervous! But that's my way. I'll be nervous until after the first night, and then I'll feel better. Part of my own creative process is to be terrified and think that I'm going to suck and everyone's going to hate me, but that makes me do it even better. I think it's just part and parcel of the game that I'm in, that you go through periods of self-doubt and wondering if you actually have it in you. And then miraculously, the stars align and you do it. And somehow, it all works out.

You’ve been an amazing advocate for the Model Alliance Fashion Workers Act – what about this work feels important to you?

I've been a model for a very, very long time, and I see how alone models are in this business. We don't have any legal protections, labor force protections, and I think the great misunderstanding about models is because you're dealing with “beautiful people,” they can't have real life problems or applicable labor issues. It's just so easy to think the illusion is the reality, but the reality is very different. From my own experience of being a model, I've experienced at times some pretty difficult things. It’s in the sense of just being relentlessly bullied and not treated like you're a person. My time and my body, thoughts and opinions aren't recognised in any way.

Then on the more egregious, there's the things of models not getting paid for a long time, or even model apartments, how you can have up to eight, often young immigrant women staying in bunk beds in an apartment together that they're all being charged far too much money for. There's just this line between indentured servitude and modelling that is a little too close for comfort.

There are a lot of young models who have to send money home to feed their family, and then all of a sudden, they're put into these positions where they're flying all over the world, staying in model apartments and are getting more and more and more in debt. And then they eventually leave the industry worse off than when they entered it. So this whole thing with the fashion workers act, what it's trying to do his close up legal loopholes in New York State. A lot of model management companies can have models sign in these terrible contracts, where they're just signing their career away. So this will just close that up and create a framework which will change the industry for the better.


It’s so great to see someone like yourself stand up for this legislation and act as a role model for younger models.

It's not easy, because by standing up for people, you're going to upset others.


What kind of effect do you hope that your advocacy for the cause will have?

I just hope it brings order to the business. A scaffolding where if something goes awry, there's a legal framework of recourse. I don't just want to say it's models, because it's all creatives in fashion, will finally have a mechanism in place where you can report to the Department of Labor if you're not paid, if they haven't given you a copy of the contract stating what you're getting, what the agent is getting, and every single piece of the puzzle is written out before you go to the job. I think having models understand that they are in a business, therefore they deserve to be treated like they are a labor force.


Are you excited for Semi Permanent?

I feel like it's definitely going to be an adventure. Using my voice and my platform and being able to do talks and speak at events is something I really enjoy because it's a different wheelhouse, and it's showing a different side not just to me, but just the myriad of things that I do. And these things always seem really thought provoking.


What do you hope that people will take away from Green?

What I hope people take away from the record is that it's a growth and an evolution for me as an artist. I am not necessarily content staying treading the same path I've walked down before, and this is a departure in the sense that it's a lot more lighter It's got more hope in it. And I think it really is indicative of where I am, honestly, I feel like I am so in that.


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