“I’ve got to say this year is starting out to be a good one. I feel pretty damn positive ... and I’ve got to say, that’s a long time coming.”
When I connect with Karen Elson via an afternoon phone call to her adopted hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, the British-born model, singer and songwriter is in an optimistic state of mind. “Look, there’s a lot of crazy things happening in the world right now,” she clarifies. “But I guess I’m just speaking literally from my own life. Being able to release this record and finally getting all this stuff off my chest has been a long time coming, and I’m really proud of this record.”
The album in question – and the catalyst for our conversation – is her second full-length, Double Roses: an honest and emancipatory collection of guitar ballads, simultaneously soft and strong, fresh and nostalgic. “It’s music for lonely hearts,” says Elson. “Particularly women trying to find their way through the darkness to feel empowered on the other side.”
Elson calls the record – released April 7 seven years after her first album, the murder-ballad filled The Ghost Who Walks – a “grand self-reflection”, drawing from the junctures between her teenage years in Northern England, her former marriage with musician Jack White and her life with her two children in Nashville.
“I’m trying to choose my words wisely because ... every life is unique. But my life has been strange. From where I grew up, the fortunate chance to become a model and then on top of that chance that somehow I actually became successful, and then getting married to an incredible person, Jack, and then moving to Nashville and having this whole life experience and getting a divorce and then starting your life all over again. There’s so much to draw from.”
“Between [Double Roses and] The Ghost Who Walks ... Obviously my divorce is the thing that was documented more, but there were a lot of things going on in my life. I had to write these songs to help me, basically. I think at the end when I realised I had enough songs for a record … I felt like I’d healed myself.”
Conversely, Elson reflects on recording the album as a time of happiness and freedom. “It felt natural and easy and fun,” she says. Contributions from the likes of Laura Marling, who sings backing vocals on the track, Distant Shore, and Father John Misty, who plays drums on A Million Stars, were similarly spontaneous, the result of “hanging out in the studio with a glass of wine,” Elson explains. “It wasn’t like we had these grand epic discussions, they just popped by to say hi, played for like and hour and then had another glass of wine and left.”
"I’ve lived a full life, I’ve lived a strange life, I’ve lived many different lives and it’s good to reflect."
“I love Josh Tillman [Misty’s alter ego] ... he’s a really kind person and he obviously brilliantly intelligent and wickedly funny ... and he’s been really supportive, and I just value that. And Laura Marling is fantastic. She’s a very profoundly interesting person and ... she’s talent that is of a whole other level.”
Elson describes herself as a “massive music fan”. “I still listen to music like I did when I was a teenager,” she explains, and in listing her ultimate icons points to Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, and Stevie Nicks – whom she also counts as the “spirit guide” for Double Roses. “She just had this incredible way of finding these very personal things and creating these sort of timeless songs that relate forever. Long story short, the Fleetwood Mac record, Tusk, was a very big inspiration. The song from Stevie Nicks, Storm, moved me so much.”
“Never ever been a blue calm sea,” Nicks sings in Storm and, similarly, Double Roses is filled with imagery of faraway shores and deep oceans. According to Elson, these reflect a writing process spent exploring her own depths. “What I realised is that even in … psychology, water is indicative of your subconscious,” she explains. Tellingly, the record cover depicts Elson submerged in a dark, infinite sea, with blue skies above. “My friend Theo took the picture. The album cover was done before I even made the record, but it just spoke to me,” she says. “In my job as a model, I’m sort of the painted lady ... I’ve seen many pictures of myself where I don’t even recognise myself. In a way, for this record, I wanted to strip myself of all that, not just physically, but also emotionally ... And see who I am. And when I look at that picture I see me ... and I think this whole record feels like me.”