Photography: Heidi Ross
Karen Elson is surprisingly grounded for being not just a supermodel, but also a famous musician. When we talk, she’s unapologetically open and vulnerable, speaking candidly about her career and the perils of being an aging model. But that just comes with the territory—her new album, Double Roses is a raw and unabashed take on love, loss and heartbreak through sweetly melancholic folk songs and a Nashville by way of Manchester Southern draw. The music is Loretta Lynn meets Fleetwood Mac, but Elson’s emotion is the real standout. Her sharply honest lyrics create not only a set of catchy songs, but a visceral experience that transports the listener deep inside Elson’s brain—a place I don’t think anyone would mind staying. With Double Roses, the singer proves she’s far more than just a pretty face. Though, let’s be honest, she’s got that, too.
BULLETT caught up with the model-turned-musician to talk beauty, botox and being herself.
Tell me about Double Roses.
Double Roses has been a long time coming for me. It’s been years since I made a record, and the plan was to make one many years before—but life got in the way. […] I had so many moments where my faith in myself was being challenged, and it wasn’t that I didn’t believe in myself—I certainly did—I just had to get in a position where I had the puzzle pieces down, so I could just get back to doing what I love—writing songs.
What inspired the record?
Double Roses is really a labor of love, and it’s also a very personal record. I decided to sort of lift the veil on my own thoughts and feelings, and try to be a lot more candid and a lot more vulnerable than I was in The Ghost Who Walks.
The Ghost Who Walks has a very Southern Gothic, Americana vibe.
That’s the world I was living in at the time—I was this ghostly, pale, English, yet living in Nashville, Southern Gothic character. The evolution of where I was then to where I am now—I feel a lot more present in my own skin, and I feel a lot more confident as a woman, a lot stronger. So I think it reflected in the songs—there was an immediacy, where I knew instantly if it came from the heart, or if it was just a plain old story. And I didn’t want any stories.
Did you consciously decide to change your sound?
Someone like PJ Harvey—she’s always challenging herself, she never makes the same album twice. She’s always expanding who she is as a musician, and as a songwriter, and you could even say that about my ex-husband, Jack. I’ve always admired people who create a mold for themselves only to break it down the next second and create a new one. So I felt the need to not repeat myself. And during the writing process, there was a lot going on in my life—a lot of self-reflection, a lot of emotional upheaval and trying to reconfigure who the hell I am—and it poured out into the songs. While I was anxious about revealing so much, there was also such truth in it that I had to just submit in the end, and be like, ‘Well I can hide this, and I can write another record of murder ballads that conceal my experience, or I can just stand up to the vulnerability that I’m feeling, and just be fearless.’
Was that difficult?
You get into habits of how you write music, and it’s hard to not attach your personality to these things—and your ego, as well. But in order to evolve as a person, you have to constantly reflect, and re-reflect, and analyze things—it can be really frustrating. This record was a grand exercise in me reflecting upon myself.
Were there any specific artists that influenced your songwriting on this record?
I’m a massive Cat Stevens fan, and I think he really has his own way of finding a pop sensibility within a folk sensibility, and he’s just an amazing writer—I was really inspired by the fact that, out of the darkest corners, he’s always able to find a ray of light. Obviously, there’s heavy Fleetwood Mac leanings on this record. I listened to “Storms” over and over, and kept trying to figure out what it is about that song that hurts me so much in such a beautiful way. It’s because you feel her—you feel her pain, and you feel the torment of what she’s going through. Because I was also going through things in my life that were causing me anguish, I realized those emotions were things I wanted to tap into for this record. It wasn’t a conscious thing like, ‘I’m going to write an emotionally deep, heartbreaking song’—It’s just the stuff that came out. And in my heart, I’ve always wanted to be a Mazzy Star cover band.
What do you want people to take away from the record?
I always used to think fearlessness was being tough. Then it dawned on me that toughness isn’t vulnerability or fearlessness—fearlessness is opening yourself up to feel. And I think that’s the take-away with this record.
Do you think your modeling career colors the way people view your music?
Oh yeah—I really struggled with that on the first record. I was so hyper, so overly self-conscious about how people viewed me and that I would never be taken seriously because I’m a model. But I care a lot less this time around. Also, I’m 38-years-old—even as a model, things are changing. I’m not working as much as I used to, and I’m hitting the point where I’m like, ‘Oh, I get it. Now that I’m getting older, I’m not as vital to you guys anymore.’
Aging in the fashion industry is such a taboo subject.
In just the past year, I’ve had a few conflicts in regards to the way I look. A couple of fashion designers critiqued me for the shape of my body, and it became a real a wake-up call to me. I’m too old—I’m too old to let this shit bother me. And I also don’t care anymore. I’ve always been me. I’ve always had the body I’ve had. I look the way I look, and I’m not scared of getting older, because so far, getting older has been the most positive thing.
It’s really refreshing to hear someone—especially someone who grew up in fashion—not be so terrified of getting older.
I succumb to that shit, of course. But what I’ve learned—and this is just my own observations of women in my life—is as soon as you start fucking with your face, as soon as you start injecting things and fighting age, all of a sudden, there’s this look of sadness. I can’t explain it, it’s just—when a woman has had too much botox, you can see her eyes, but you don’t see her soul. I’ve just started to become more aware of this, from my own insecurities, and thinking, ‘Should I do this? Should I try this?’ But coming out the other side and thinking, ‘I want to look like me’—that’s the biggest freedom for me, because I spent 23 years working in fashion and hope to continue to do so.
But hasn’t growing older changed the way you view the industry?
The idea of being this woman on a pedestal, making other women feel inferior about themselves—it’s just not for me anymore—I do feel disconnected from that. Also, in the last year and a half, I’ve been confronted with my age, where people say, ‘You look good for your age,’ and I want to slap them in the face. Just the idea that I look good for my age recognizes that age is viewed as something that makes you not as vital anymore. Whereas I view my age as vital, and I think about someone like Patti Smith—70-years-old and she’s on stage stomping, and spitting, and moving me to tears with the things she says—that’s beauty right there. We need more women like that—we need more women setting that standard and fighting for that. We need people to be the antithesis, to grow old, to own it, to have wrinkles, to not filler everything up and to not even out the lines.
Do you ever worry about being taken seriously as a musician?
Fashion has afforded me a lot—it probably opened more doors than if I was in Manchester. But I do think it’s just a credibility thing—people taking you seriously, and people realizing that it’s not just a thing where I’m this model who wants to give singing a try. It’s actually something I value that’s really important to me and is an integral part of who I am. But I don’t care—I really don’t. The funny thing is, with age also comes this acceptance. When I turned 35 things started changing—I put on 10 pounds, none of my clothes that I’d collected from fashion over the years fit me anymore, my hair started getting thinner, I’d had two kids, my boobs started sagging, you know, the shit that happens started happening. But I was just like, ‘Fuck it.’ I can’t control that—I’m not going to. And as far as being taken seriously, I can’t control that either. All I can do is keep working and plugging away at what I’m doing and hope that in the end, the narrative isn’t that I’m just some ditzy lady trying to sing. But even then, I wouldn’t give a shit.