karen elson on stevie nicks, songwriting, and standing on her own
As she prepares to release 'Double Roses,' her first album in seven years, the Nashville musician tells i-D how listening to Fleetwood Mac's 'Storms' guided her through turbulent times.
photography olivia bee
"It's been seven goddamn years," singer-songwriter Karen Elson says about the length of time that's passed since her debut album, The Ghost Who Walks, was released. Produced by her ex-husband Jack White, the LP was full of country roots rock and Americana-inflected songs, but this time, Elson wanted to take her sound in a different direction. "I did feel that these songs had to be a departure from [my first record]," the model and musician explains. "I just don't want to do the same thing again. A lot of the musicians I admire are always pushing the envelope and going beyond what their own self-imposed limitations are." She managed to do just that on her sophomore record Double Roses, which she will release in April. The title, borrowed from a Sam Shepard poem, called to Elson's dual personalities as a mother in Nashville and, in her own words, as a "wild woman." The songs Elson created on Double Roses are heartfelt, folk-driven tracks with a much cleaner production than her debut, and she had help from a few of her talented friends, including Patrick Carney of The Black Keys, Josh Tillman (a.k.a. Father John Misty), and Laura Marling.
While she didn't listen to much music other than her own while making the record, she was inspired by Fleetwood Mac's "Storms." But it was more than the song itself: it was the feeling the lyrics evoked. Elson wanted her record to speak to listeners the same way that song had spoken to her. Instead of a theme driving the album, it was Elson's own vulnerable experiences that shaped it. As a mother of two young children, Elson was consumed with parenting and took her time in writing this record. She wanted everything about it to be right. And it was definitely worth the wait.
Premiering below is one of Karen's B-sides from Double Roses — a nostalgic folk cover of Roy Harper's "Another Day." We also spoke to Elson about the story behind her sophomore album, how love and breakups played into her music, and what she'd do if she ever had to choose between modeling and music.
How is Double Roses a departure from your 2010 album?
Obviously, the biggest thing is that now I've got two young children (who are not so young anymore), but when I put The Ghost Who Walks out they weren't in school. I had the freedom to travel, but I think as most mothers can attest, you have less freedom because you can't just take your kids out of school really quickly. I can tell you that Scarlett and Henry's teachers weren't impressed when their dad and I would say we had to go away for two weeks and had to take them.
I've been a model for over 20 years, too -- I've had another job. It took a lot of time for me to feel like I could make another record. I was writing the entire time from making The Ghost Who Walks up until the day I went into the studio, but the stars weren't aligning the way I wanted them to. I finished the record over a year and a half ago, but I was looking for the right label and right home for the record. There's been a lot of waiting with this one. To finally have people listening to it is a huge weight off my shoulders. The biggest difference between the pair of [albums]...seven years is a long time. It's ultimately a long time of me writing songs in private and developing a different way of writing. I thought it would be a disservice to put out The Ghost Who Walks 2 and not at least try to make a record that seems like it has evolved since that point in time. So I've really taken my time in writing songs and rewriting them. I tried to dig into myself and write songs that were less stories and more vulnerable.
Did you work with your ex-husband Jack White on this album?
No, I didn't work with Jack on this one. I recorded some earlier songs at his studio, but when it came to producing, Jonathan Wilson and I recorded the LP in L.A. I also felt like I had to get out of Nashville to record the album. My kids are definitely not distractions, but I realized I needed to be focused when I wrote the record, so I needed to be far away to do it.
How did you come up with the title Double Roses?
Well, there's a Sam Shepard poem that I read in his book Motel Chronicles. It's the last poem in the book. I used to have an apartment in New York until a couple of years ago. During the past five years, there have been a lot of changes in my life. I always identified, even though I lived in Nashville, as a New Yorker. I finally just gave up that notion a few years ago. It was around that moment that I realized my life was in Nashville and that's the place I needed to focus my life on. I'd come to New York when I was working and I'd have these wild times that were so disconnected to my life in Nashville. That poem "Double Roses" symbolizes the dual roles I had as a well-behaved mother in Tennessee and the wild woman in New York City who was figuring her life out again. It was this moment of truth for me where I had to find a balance again because there wasn't any. That poem really became the spirit guide for the record.
You've said that the song "Storms" by Fleetwood Mac also informed the record.
Yeah, I love that song! I was in Paris, and I was listening to it because I was doing night shoots for 10 days. I was really discombobulated, and going through yet another breakup in Paris. The lyric, "But never have I been a blue calm sea, I have always been a storm" — I just identified with it. I was going through a turbulent time myself and not feeling grounded at all. I thought to myself, that's the kind of song I want to write. That's the spirit I want to get towards. I don't know Stevie Nicks, though I've read about her life experience. But as I know well, reading about someone's life experience and experiencing it are two very different things. I felt more from her emotional experience from that song than any biography you could read about Fleetwood Mac. And I realized, that's the power of song: anybody who has lived and experienced emotions can relate to songs that linger in the heart and make you feel. It was just a turning point.
What were you listening to when you made this record?
When I was making the record in California, there wasn't time to listen to anything but the music I was making. While there are songs I've been listening to for decades on repeat, this record was much more inspired by Motel Chronicles and my own emotional hills and valleys. Those were the guiding points for making this record. It's much more abstract this time. It's hard to pinpoint the influences. That whole record Tusk from Fleetwood Mac is amazing because you feel the turmoil, so it's inspirational for me, but there wasn't one thing that I listened to where I was like, "this is how the music should sound." I've been listening to the same shit for years.
You had a lot of friends on this record — Patrick Carney, Josh Tillman, and Laura Marling. Was that planned or coincidence?
It was all coincidence, honestly, all of it. With Jonathan Wilson as the producer, Laura would just come by and hang out. She literally sang for less than an hour. Pat was in the studio for three or four hours. Josh came by and played drums on it. It definitely wasn't a planned thing. You're in Los Angeles: people are just going to stop by and say, "hello." Then we'd rope them into doing something. It was very relaxed.
What do you think a future record would look like for you?
Who knows. I'm gonna make another one — without a shadow of a doubt — but it's too soon for me to imagine that. I'm already writing stuff when I have time at home. Again, it's hard to say until you're even deep in the trenches. Maybe it'll be a different thing altogether. I kind of have to let this one go out and live and breathe for a moment before I start thinking about another one. And maybe have some emotional trauma to color it for good measure.
Have you ever felt like you needed to choose between between your modeling and singing careers?
I've spent so fucking long making this record that I had to pay the rent somehow, so I had to model to fund everything that I've been doing. In a way, they've worked very well together. As I get older, it would be nice for things to evolve a little differently. I'm not a youngster anymore. The idea of flying all over the world to do photo shoots isn't as fun to me as flying all over the world to sing my heart out. That just sounds way more fun to me. I've always been pretty opinionated in fashion, and I've had my strong ideas about things that it would be nice moving forward to have a more creative role in fashion. Let's see how it all goes. I'm 38, and I'm approaching 40. I don't envision myself in the next five or six years modeling. I'm not dissing that side of my life — I've just done it. I've overdone it.
Text Ilana Kaplan
Photography Olivia Bee