September 1 2014

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Karen Elson, The Ghost Who (Cat)Walks


Many of Karen Elson’s fans are more used to seeing than hearing the redheaded stunner: in countless editorials and campaigns, and on runways all over the world. But that changes tomorrow, when the multitalented English beauty (don’t call her a “model-slash”) releases her first album, The Ghost Who Walks. Her countrified ballads—recorded in her adopted city of Nashville and produced by her husband, Jack White—should earn her a whole new set of devoted admirers. Below, Elson spoke to about mournful music, onstage fashion, and her vote for the most heartbreaking sound there is. And click here to check out her acoustic video performance of “Cruel Summer” and hear her sound for yourself.

Your first album, The Ghost Who Walks, is out tomorrow. What sound were you going for with it?
I have a real love for melancholy songs that express the everyday—what’s the word? What’s the right one without sounding too depressing? Honestly, I like songs that are mournful and express heartache and longing. They just feel right to me. It feeds me in a very strange way. I’ve always had a long love of Hank Williams and Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline, and even Nick Cave and PJ Harvey and Mazzy Star. They all—in varying degrees of mournful—they all represent that. It just moves me, that’s all. When I started writing the record, it came out. I think every woman in the span of her life, even me in my thirties, I’ve experienced a lot. I’ve experienced all sides of life. I feel like I’m putting all of those experiences out in my songs, as a way of purging myself of things that maybe I’ve held on to for too long.

You mention country legends like Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, and the record has a very country feel. You and your family live in Nashville, one of the great country-music capitals—how did your surroundings contribute to that sound?
Naturally, being in Nashville, it’s hard not to have a somewhat country-esque vibe. Carl Broemel from My Morning Jacket played the pedal steel on the record, and when he came into the studio and started playing, I was just in love. Pedal steel with reverb is just the most heartbreaking sound to me—it’s just so gorgeous, I wanted it on every song. There’s definite country leanings, and that’s definitely a byproduct of living in Nashville. But at the same time, I liked those songs even before I moved to Nashville; I had a love for Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris. It just feels good to me.

You’re part of a musical family, and this record is something of a family affair—your husband Jack White [also of the White Stripes and the Dead Weather] convinced you to record, your brother-in-law plays in the band. Did working with them introduce any complications?
It was just what it was. Everybody in our life, we all just sort of contribute any way we can. I’ve been in the studio with Jack before, contributing some backing vocals on a song. Or Jackson [Smith], Meg’s husband, has come into town to play guitar on other projects Jack’s working on. Friends of ours just pop in and do that—it was really quite natural. It wasn’t this thing where it was all of a sudden, Shit, it’s my turn! Damn, better bring the family in. That’s just life down here. We all just chip in and make music and occasionally pat each other on the back and help each other out.

But Jack was incredibly supportive and is incredibly supportive of my record. I feel really lucky to have his support. It was essential to get me over myself—I had to get over myself big time—and have confidence. I was nervous about putting my music out there. “Model-slash-anything”—I cared too much about that. Once I stopped caring, I could get out there and sing my songs, but it took a lot.

There seem to be a lot of model-slash girls out there now—slash designer, slash musician, slash artist. Have you seen a lot of models with hidden talents throughout your runway career?
Actually, plenty. I think it’s such a shame that model-slash-whatever it is has become such a coined phrase for a pathetic thing. The models I know—and I’m probably speaking about a small percentage of the model population, so to speak—but the models I’ve worked with, they’re all interesting girls. Most of them have so many other things going on in their life, and modeling’s just a moment in time for them, it’s not the be-all and end-all. I think most people think that models are these sort of dim women who, all they have ever wanted to do in life is be pretty. What I found is the exact opposite: Most of the models have come into being models completely by surprise. They’re just taking it as a chance to travel the world and figure out more about themselves and use it as an opportunity in life. So, yeah, I know so many talented women who are models. But of course, there are a few who give [it] a bad name.

You’ve got a long history in fashion. Have you given a lot of thought to how you’re going to dress onstage?
I definitely am very much aware of how style is very effective, and how a visual element in any live performance—it’s not the be-all and end-all; obviously the music has to stand up on its own two feet, it absolutely has to—but there is something to be said about a haunting visual element that complements the music.

What are you planning to wear in particular? I feel like I’ve seen you in a lot of orange dresses.
All of my stage clothes are vintage. They’re all Southern gothic sort of gowns and little country-esque outfits. I have been wearing peach dresses, cotton dresses that’ve been dyed a dusty shade of peach, with black lace embellishments here and there. I don’t know, it just feels right. I remember PJ Harvey, years ago, when she did To Bring You My Love, she had a really strong visual element. She looked like a semi-possessed, sort of forlorn and forsaken woman of the desert. I think it’s very powerful. I want to evoke not a similar image, but I want to use that idea of creating a character and having that character have clothes to wear.

The color orange is one that I tend to identify with you, thanks to your red hair.
I guess so—it really happened the way it happened; it wasn’t overly conscious.

We recently did a roundup of our favorite rocker redheads. There are a ton of them. Do you think there’s a connection—maybe a redhead rocker gene?
I wonder—I would love to know, to be honest! Melissa Auf der Mar is an old friend, and Jenny Lewis and Neko Case are two absolutely brilliant songwriters. I’m doing the red justice, I hope!

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