THIS WAS FOR SUBBA-CULTCHA.
Karen Elson is determined to prove that she is being herself. Having released her brilliant debut album ‘The Ghost Who Walks’ in May this year, she is having the time of her life. But this does not come without its anxieties. With strong ties and allegations linked to her previous career and her husband, she seems to have a lot to prove. Is Karen Elson a copycat? A Jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none? A user? An attention seeker? Just before letting her hurry off to perform a live radio show, I spoke to her (nicely), and questioned her (nicely), but darn well tried to find out who Karen Elson really is!
SC: Hi Karen, love the new album, were you as pleased as we were with how it turned out!?
KE: I’m really pleased with how it turned out. I was just saying that even playing it live I feel like it’s a decades worth of things haunting me that finally I’m getting off my chest. It feels really fulfilling to finally be singing and be writing songs and performing them. Actually I played a festival in Brooklyn in New York. I had the time of my life – it’s funny I’ve never played to so many people. I mean, I was the opening act for Grizzly Bear and Band Of Horses, and the crowd was SO nice. It was like playing in the most beautiful environment, I was playing looking across the view of Manhattan and sort of 7,000 people and there was a moment when I was singing and I had to pinch myself and think, “Is this really happening!?”. It was a really profound moment, but I really feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing over the past 10 years. I’m really enjoying it.
SC: How do the audiences compare in music to your previous careers?
KE: As far as fashion….I’m still a model by the way, I’ve definitely not given that up…It’s very different because one: the audience in fashion are not really looking at you, they’re looking at the clothes. It’s a very big difference. I mean, when you’re playing to a live audience, there’s so many things that are going on. I played a show in Montreal in Canada and we were playing in this venue, but there was a street festival going on outside, and after the show, this girl comes up to me and she was like, “Hey! what’s your name? I liked you and your band! I just came walking by, and only saw 4 or 5 songs, but I really liked you guys!” And that to me is the biggest difference, is playing to people who don’t care that I’m a model, or don’t care that I’m Jack’s wife. Those are the people I’m interested in playing to.
SC: To people who don’t care?
KE: Not people who don’t care, just people who don’t know. Because that’s the challenge, do you know what I mean? If I can please, or at least be intriguing enough to them, I trust that opinion.
I was doing an interview with MTV or someone in Canada and they were honest with me, and after the interview the lady said, “You’ve got a real uphill battle”. And I do because people are not going to give you an easy time for being a model and being Jack’s wife. I’ve got a lot of things shadowing my music. There’s a part of me that maybe wants to put out another record under a completely different name!
SC: I can imagine it being quite being frustrating to always be associated with these things in your life?
KE: Well, the most frustrating thing is if people write you off before they’ve even given you a chance. That’s what winds me up the most. People may have preconceived ideas that I’m somehow using Jack, shamelessly using him to further myself, or that I’m just a dimwit model trying to get more attention. The interview I did just before you, it was amazing, this lady was like “Why did you choose to make music, why did you choose to be more in the spotlight!?”, and I was like, “Listen lady, I’m not doing this to be in the spotlight!” And I’m not doing it for attention. I’m doing it because I love it. I think people think that, that I want more attention or something…God no!
SC: I think the album definitely warrants attention in it’s own right…
KE: Well, yeah, on the flipside, as I’m moaning, some people are interested because of Jack and because of me being model, and some people will write it off. I think it’s a 50/50 split. Luckily there are maybe some people out there who are really eager. The funny thing is, at a lot of shows, there’s a lot of fans of Jack’s, like regular fans that you can notice at White Stripes shows or Dead Weather shows, and they’re coming to my shows, and it’s really sweet that they’re coming in essence to support their favourite bands wife, and I really appreciate that.
SC: Do you find that status demeaning though!?
KE: No, I think as a music fan myself, I think if my favourite musician produced his wife’s record, I’d want to give it a listen. And I would probably be a fan. As far as me as a music listener goes, if somebody I like collaborates with someone else, I wanna hear that collaboration. And when somebody is a part of that you want to listen to it and give it your best shot. I think the fan aspect of it is only natural.
SC: Ok, well I was going to try and stay away from Jack White in this interview because it all gets a bit tedious. So I will move on! Nashville makes a big impression on the album. What’s so special about Nashville!??
KE: You know, it’s funny what Nashville is. I think fro me, what Nashville has been is this sort of almost like, shedding my skin and starting again, and starting again as who I wanna be. As a model, I’d lived in New York for 8 years, and I love New York so much, and I have so much affection for New York, it’s one of my favourite cities in the whole world. But the big thing for me was that in New York it was always just around the fashion industry constantly and there was never any room for me to escape and just be myself. And being in Nashville, no-body gives a damn about what I do. There’s so much other stuff going on down there. It’s such a gentle way of life. It’s really wholesome. I hate to say that word, because it might sound a bit corny. But it’s really nice down there, and I’ve just managed to sort of start again, but as ‘me as a grown-up’. That’s what has influenced the record more than anything else, is that I’ve finally started writing songs for me. I think a lot of the songs that I’d written before when I was in New York, I was too aware of other things. Finally living in Nashville, I’ve managed to understand my own narrative and my own voice lyrically which gave me a clear sense of which direction I wanted to go in, whereas in New York, I actually didn’t have a clue.
SC: I think you can hear that in the album – it’s quite insular and personal. It’s also quite dark. Would you say that you have got a dark side to you?
KE: You know the funny thing is that I think I’m quite a happy, hopeful person to be honest, but with that there is….it’s not a dark side…when people meet I don’t think anyone thinks that I’m a morbid, depressed person, far from it! But when I start writing songs, and when I’m isolated and in that space, all that stuff comes out. So maybe I’m just pushing it and pushing it and pushing it back, and when I finally get completely alone and start expressing myself essentially, it all spills out. So I’m sure it’s in there, but it’s not in my day to day life. There’s obviously darkness in me, but luckily I can save it. It doesn’t effect me, but I can save until I need to express it and then it all comes pouring out.
SC: Contemplating that darkness, I can hear a big Nick Cave influence – are you a fan?
KE: I’m a big Nick Cave fan! But the funny thing is, so many people have said that about the record, but I kid you not, when I was writing the record, there was never a moment where I thought ‘I want to write a song that sounds like Nick Cave’. Not once did I think that. When I went into the studio, I never said, “”Hey Jack, let’s make this sound like a Murder Ballad, or Red Right Hand or whatever” Everyone keeps saying that Stolen Roses sounds like the Nick Cave song he did with Kylie Minogue, and I love that song, don’t get me wrong, but maybe on a subconscious level, maybe somewhere I wasn’t aware that I was doing that. But I honestly never purposely said I wanted to sound like anything. I just wanted to get into the studio and just make music and not think about it in the sense of what it sounds like. But I guess when I listen back to the record there are a lot of dark places that can be comparable, and I’m obviously very happy for the comparison. But I never did in the recording process or the writing, ever think, ‘I want this to sound like Nick Cave, or I want this to sound like a Loretta Lynn song’. Never. Because I think that would be a disaster. I want to be myself, I really do. That’s the biggest thing I’m striving for, and I only hope the next record I can be more fine tuned, and focus more on what my voice is. This is record is me just getting all this stuff off my chest. And some of it’s all over the place to be honest! Maybe that’s the charm. But I’m striving to get more clear, the more I go along.
SC: Well we look forward to hearing that record! You became a mother in 2006, which you have said influenced your music, did that come into play in the album at all?
KE: I think emotionally when you have kids, at least my experience of it is that you just feel so much more. When you have children there is just a sense that every moment is precious. You want to bottle every adorable thing that they do, because you think that that also distils into your own life . I’ve been able to express so much more clearly since I’ve had children, it’s just helped me maybe be more emotional, which is a good thing.
SC: Do you think it’s important or beneficial to be multi-faceted in your creativity and have all these different ways of expressing yourself, so that when you come to one area you can be informed by others?
KE: I think, but I do also think there is something to be said about being a Jack of all trades and master of none. I definitely think that if I’m serious about making more music and making more albums then I’ve got to focus on that, and I’ve got to really put the time in and the effort that it needs. So to be honest, I think for me personally, the more I have on my plate, or the more things I have going on in my life, actually the less creative I am. When I’ve got very minimal things on, that’s when I write the best. That’s when I’m more clear. If I’ve got too many things going on in my life I feel like I don’t have time to think for me and to get into the headspace for writing and making music. I need to have almost a ridiculous amount of peace and quiet that doesn’t necessarily go well with my lifestyle, but I’m trying more and more to try and create that life for myself.
SC: Ok, well thanks for talking to me, go play some songs!
KE: Thanks, take care, bye.
Thanks to Richard at XL Records.