As a supermodel, chanteuse, and muse, Karen Elson has lived many public lives. But it’s the chanteuse role that she’s excited about now, having just released her acclaimed Double Roses sophomore album, which earned her a four-star review in influential U.K. music magazine MOJO.
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When we speak by phone while she is at home in Nashville, Elson cannot contain her well-deserved excitement at the positive feedback. “The music fan in me was like, ‘I’ve been reading MOJO since I was 17 years old,’ so I was jumping for joy,” she says. “I’m really gonna enjoy it; it’s been a long time coming this record, and I am proud of it and I do feel like I poured my heart and soul into something. But also not just poured my heart and soul into something — I told my truth.”
For Elson, it’s particularly rewarding, because she wasn’t sure Doubles Roses would ever make it to fans. “I’ve had, in the past, deep moments of doubting myself and questioning. Before this record, there were many moments where I questioned if the record would ever get made,” she says. “I had a moment where I didn’t have a label, I didn’t have a manager, and I didn’t have a producer, and I was just like every other kid in their bedroom writing their lovesick songs, hoping that maybe someday someone would listen to them.”
However, Elson is aware that her prominence in popular culture — not just as a fashion icon, but as the ex-wife of rock star Jack White (who produced and released her debut album, 2010’s The Ghost Who Walks) — has given her a distinct advantage over other artists in similar situations. “I know I’m in much more of a privileged position where, because I’m a model, I have a lot more people willing and able to give me a second look, so to speak, or give me a chance,” she acknowledges.
Whatever doubts she may have had, Elson was in a better position to handle those concerns. “Honestly, as I think I get older — I’m 38 years old, and I’m getting to a point of much more deep acceptance of myself and of the state that I’m currently in. With this record, I feel a lot more confident, a lot less inclined to worry about my own insecurities.”
Part of that she attributes to age and part to having greater priorities in life. In the middle of the interview her son with White, Henry Lee, walks into the room, and Elson does exactly what she should, putting the interview on hold to embrace him.
“Sorry, my son just walked in the room and showed me all the great work stickers he got the last few days. I’m very proud of him, so I had to give him a hug,” she says. “I welcome my kids coming in and interrupting interviews; it makes it more human. Being a parent your life takes on this whole other comedy.”
Between parenthood and getting older, Elson is getting more and more comfortable to open up, both as a songwriter and public figure. The latter has been just as difficult for her as sharing her vulnerabilities in music.
“Maybe that just comes from having people really scrutinize your life. I was talking to Father John Misty before you called, and I was sort of saying it’s sometimes so natural for me to play down my own contribution to the record — where I wrote all the songs, I wrote all the melodies, I wrote the songs, I wrote the music — and he was trying to give me a little bit of a pep talk, like, ‘You have to stand up for this. You have to stand up for your voice.’” she says. “And sometimes it’s been second nature to me, maybe because I’ve been this sort of silent figure in the eye of the public. I’ve either been a model, where it’s just a photograph, or I’ve been the wife of a very famous person, and it’s been interesting to sort of find own my voice, particularly with this record, to really own my voice and stand up for it. I have to constantly break through my own sort of tendencies to not be forthright and not give myself credit even for the stuff I’ve done. I still struggle with that.”
For Elson the singer-songwriter, positive feedback for Double Roses validates her efforts to put herself out there as an artist. “To write a song that feels it’s connected to your heart, you have to dissect your life, every element of your life, and that can be tumultuous when you start walking down that line,” she says. “When you start pulling apart the fabric of what you see your life is, it can create interesting problems. I’ve been really finding the balance, because it was the nature of this record I had to be fearless. I had to be fearless and vulnerable at the same time. I had to allow myself to be honest and vulnerable.”
Still, Elson admits it can be tough being a female artist in a male-dominated industry. “Particularly what I’m realizing about being a woman in music is that everyone seems to focus on the men who work on your record,” she says. “And they really don’t focus on the fact I wrote my songs, and I sing my songs, and I had a voice within the role of the process, and the men who worked on my record were ultimately beautiful collaborators. But [my male collaborators] definitely honored my songs and my voice.”