Not that you would ever have occasion to look it up, but there are no direct flights from Manchester to Nashville, which might explain why it took model Karen Elson nearly a decade to trek from her birthplace to Music City, where she now lives with her rock-star husband, Jack White, and their two children. But the journey—the grit of her hometown and the country flavor of her adopted one—all make themselves felt on her raspy, lo-fi debut album, next month’s The Ghost Who Walks. “In fashion,” Elson says from inside midtown Manhattan’s Ace Hotel, “I can’t ever truly be myself. What music brought out in me is gigantic. The first time I played Jack one of my songs, I just cried.”
In casual conversation, Elson lights up when talking about Nick Cave, ’80s pop group This Mortal Coil and the surrealism of 1930s Paris, an endearing surprise coming from the onetime face of Yves Saint Laurent, Prada and Chanel. Similarly, The Ghost Who Walks plunges right into the heady stuff, opening with the sinister title track (it’s also the nickname given to her by bullies when she was a child), a graphic murder ballad strongly reminiscent of Cave’s “Where the Wild Roses Grow.” Then there is “Last Laugh,” a love letter to her two children—framed within the context of the apocalypse. From the haunting “The Birds They Circle” to the down-and-out desperation of “Mouths to Feed,” Elson takes listeners through a litany of sorrows, cruelties and savage injustices. Of all this despair, she shakes her head and says, “We’re all such fools, human beings.”
Elson is well aware of the stigma associated with her professional detour and fully expects that indie nerds may receive her album with disdain. (Though perhaps they aren’t aware of her other outfit, The Citizens Band, a subversive theater troupe that took on Wall Street profligacy last October with the musical The Debt Rattle.) That White, the founder of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather, whom Elson met in 2005 on the set of the music video for the Stripes’ “Blue Orchid,” produced her album won’t do much to endear her to this crowd. But—nepotism be damned—it does give the record a convincing, hardscrabble sound.
Also adding to the record’s authenticity is Nashville—a city that, like Manchester, she reckons “can never be fully explained except through music”—where she has lived for the past five years. “If I had written these songs in New York, they probably would have been much more cynical,” she says. “In New York, people are motivated by success and money. It’s not about being good at what you do. It’s about being good at hustling. Instead, this is a very honest record.”
Top Image: Robe by Agent Provocateur, Shoes by Salvatore Ferragamo. Second Image: Dress by 3.1 Phillip Lim, Shoes by Salvatore Ferragamo.Third Image: T-shirt by Alternative Apparel, Jeans by Levi’s. Sittings Editor: Christopher Campbell, Hair: Cali Devaney, Makeup: Jami Harris, Photography By Mark Squires Location: Third Man Records, Nashville, TN.
KAREN LIKES: Cafe Gitane.