The Ghost Talks
Karen Elson - self-described 'model-slash-anything' - is happy to talk about her new album, the transition from runway to recording studio, and her marriage to Jack White, one of modern music's most enigmatic performers - just don't ask her to slow down any time soon.
Karen Elson may have graced the runways of New York and Paris, she may have appeared in campaigns for the likes of Versace, Chanel, YSL and Burberry, but her face is now popping up in record stores worldwide.
Citing Nick Cave and PJ Harvey as influences for her debut solo album The Ghost Who Walks, the siren is in good company. She's married to Jack White of The Dead Weather and The White Stripes, and has collaborated with the likes of Cat Power and Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant.
The Ghost Who Walks is the culmination of Elson's long-time desire to produce a solo record; a desire sparked by her involvement in politically-charged New York cabaret group The Citizens Band, and re-kindled by her relocation to Nashville, USA.
"I've been making music for 10 years with The Citizens Band; that was the biggest catalyst," she explains. "People encouraged me to make a record years ago, but I didn't feel ready. When I moved, I had time to sit back and reflect. It was more peaceful in Nashville; it's not a big buzzing city. I made my life around that."
Elson now joins a short list of models, most notably including Grace Jones but also Milla Jovovich and Carla Bruni, that have found success in the recording industry, but she didn't ever see her modeling career as an impediment to her musical aspirations.
"People are going to criticise anything. Everybody in the world is subject to criticism. You put anything out there, it's going to happen," she tells Oyster. "Maybe if I'm known as a model, that can make people listen to my music, even if cynically in an - alright pretty girl, can you do this?' kind of way. All I can hope is that I raise the bar of what a model-slash-anything can do."
Taking its name from Elson's own high school nickname - "I was tall, pale and a little bit haunted," - The Ghost Who Walks was recorded in a studio in the backyard of Elson and White's Nashville home. Settling in America's mid-west induced "a kind of culture shock" for the Manchester-born chanteuse, but she says the influence of 'Music City, USA' was an indelible component of the writing and recording process, and of the record itself.
"I think the album reflects that it didn't come from a big bustling city... being in Nashville and having more time to reflect, it helps the creative process. Distractions take you away from yourself."
But despite being in this quiet town, Elson needed to remove herself from domestic life to pen the twelve-track album. "I wrote it in the only place I could get peace and quiet - my bedroom closet," she explains.
After admitting to initial reservations about working together, Elson admits that her husband was the only producer she could have worked with - even if the thought of hearing his opinion kept her singing in the closet for a while.
"He's so supportive and completely genuine," she explains. "No harm could come from him producing my record. I had to get over my own insecurities... He helped me to believe in myself."
She adds that "Jack's fun to be in studio with - he encourages me to take risks, to not second guess myself, to be more creative and imaginative; musically as well as lyrically. He sets the standards."
Between musical commitments, Elson is still making serious waves in the modeling arena; she's currently the face of YSL Opium Perfume, and recently replaced Angelina Jolie as the face of American brand St. John. Between juggling her professional life, and her home life with husband White and their two children - Scarlett, four, and Henry, two - how does Elson manage to find time for herself?
"There are moments where I say to myself - I really need a good night's sleep, or a few hours to myself' - but truthfully, I'm a strong woman and I make time for important things; my children, down time for myself. I set strict boundaries for life; when I want time to spend time with the kids, I do it."
She attributes her ability to juggle a hectic lifestyle to her early career in modeling, and the problems she faced.
"When I started modeling, I was working non-stop, not taking care of myself. I remember being so stressed out and not having a life. It's important to have things in life that make you happy, you have to make ample time for that. I feel lucky to be in a position where I can do that."
Models have to have their wits about them, Elson explains, adding that they above all must learn to balance work, rest and play. For the critics that don't think she can do it, she has one thing to say: "Just watch me."
"I know a lot of incredibly talented people who are models. Just because you're pretty, doesn't mean you can't have talent or intelligence," she tells Oyster. "I personally believe the women I have surrounded myself with are incredibly talented. If it means I have to work that little bit harder, so be it."
Written by Josh Butler
Interview courtesy of Seema Duggal