THE VELVET VIXEN Foxy lady Karen Elson on music, motherhood and making her own way in life
Karen Elson has always defied customary convention, both as a model and a singer, with her freedom of spirit and flaming individuality. Her latest album, Double Roses – the first she has released since the end of her marriage to the musician Jack White – explores love, loss and liberation. As natural a mother as she is a performer, she talks to Lydia Slater about finding peace and her place in the world
It is unseasonably blustery on the day of our shoot at Goodnestone Park, a delightful Palladian mansion in Kent. Today, the lawns on which Jane Austen once strolled are adorned with several chestnut-coloured Belgian hares, a pair of ginger foxes and Karen Elson. The supermodel turned singer tosses back her curls and smiles at the camera, apparently heedless of the wind ruffling the gauzy folds of her Dior gown, and the damp striking up from the grass beneath her feet. Snuggled in her arms, Oscar the fox lifts his muzzle and very gently nibbles her chin, one peerless redhead saluting another.
‘Oh, Oscar was so adorable,’ Elson enthuses, when we meet a few days later, back in the urban jungle; she is a keen animal-lover whose four cats are the stars of her Instagram feed. Today, too, she is looking the epitome of the wild English rose, with her copper curls and milky skin enhanced by a vintage Ossie Clark sprigged frock. ‘I really enjoyed the day,’ she says; the shoot may have left her with a nasty sore throat, which she is attempting to soothe with pots of mint tea laced with honey prior to performing on the radio this afternoon, but she apparently relishes any opportunity to spend time in the British countryside, whatever the weather. ‘I might just buy a house or tiny cottage in Northumberland,’ she muses. ‘It’s the ruggedness. But a few years ago, I rented a house in the Cotswolds for a summer with the kids, and that was equally gorgeous… You know, there is nothing like the English summer,’ she continues, lyrically. ‘I am so attached to those memories of childhood: playing outside until 9.30 at night, with the sun still up, the long shadows – I want my kids to have that experience.’
I am surprised to hear this. When Elson has previously discussed her working-class upbringing in Lancashire’s industrial heartland (despite years living in America, her accent is still recognisably Northern), it has always seemed to be a source of some unhappiness. Her parents separated when she was seven; her height, pallor and hair colour made her a target for classroom bullies, and at 16, after she was spotted by a model scout, she left Oldham, never to return. Her 2010 debut album, The Ghost Who Walks, was both a paean to her new home of Nashville and a rejection of her past, its title the cruel nickname she was given at school, mocking her pale skin. But it seems that after more than a decade in the US, Elson has finally come to terms with her Englishness. Her new album, Double Roses, breathes a real nostalgia for the country she left behind, taking its title from Sam Shepard’s poem of the same name:
Like in England
And she leans way back
Inside of England
Her nose flares
And her eyes close
The rose sails her home.
‘It just had this mythical hold on me that I can’t quite explain,’ she says. ‘I think it’s very powerful.’ So she sent Shepard a letter via his friend Patti Smith, the legendary musician and poet who also happens to be the mother of her bandmate Jackson Smith, asking for permission to use the poem in the song.
Listening to the album before we meet, I am moved, not just by the sensuous purity of Elson’s voice and the vivid imagery of her songs, but by their unflinching honesty. ‘Distant Shore’ describes her emotions – part regret, part defiance – on splitting up with a lover. ‘I just had a break-up with somebody who I dated very briefly, a flash in the pan. I was very steadfast: this isn’t working, this isn’t for me, I have to go. And the song was about that. “I watched you slip through my fingers, I saw the ship change course,”’ she quotes. ‘But that’s what I wanted. I am the protagonist steering the ship. It’s a very vulnerable record but I also feel quite fearless within it.’
She calls Double Roses her ‘post-divorce album’, for it is the first she has released since ending her six-year marriage to the rock star Jack White, the co-founder of the White Stripes. They met in 2005 when she filmed the video for their hit ‘Blue Orchid’, and it was evidently a coup de foudre, since they got married in a canoe in Brazil mere weeks later, with White’s first wife (and bandmate) Meg as matron of honour.
It was White who encouraged Elson to sing, and produced The Ghost Who Walks; what does he think of this album? ‘I don’t know, you’ll have to ask him,’ she says briskly. ‘He’s very supportive of my music, and I’m supportive of his, and neither of us is getting on the phone and yelling about songs we’ve written because it’s not necessary.’
If she seems uncharacteristically terse, it is not surprising, for though initially it seemed as though they might manage a Gwyneth Paltrow-style ‘conscious uncoupling’, sending out joint invitations to their friends to attend a party marking the
‘There is nothing like the English summer. I’m so attached to those
memories of childhood: playing outside untıl night’
marriage’s end, subsequently, when lawyers became involved, the divorce proceedings were less amicable.
‘Jack is my very good friend,’ she says now. ‘A lot of things in my divorce were public… but it was just the business of a marriage dissolving.’
She describes White as ‘an amazing father. I view him as a 50/50 partner and I would never want to have his role diminished. We adore our kids and we’re close – we have to be for our children.
‘In the days when my parents split up, it was “never speak to your father again” kind of thing, and I don’t have that attitude at all… I’ve seen when people have terrible break-ups, when a person is bitter, it’s not good for your kids, it’s not good for your family. I’ve seen a lot of that, and I don’t ever want it.’
Elson has a new partner now, about whom she says she is ‘going to keep nice and shtum, because I’ve learnt that there’s no point speaking about that stuff ’. So could she see herself marrying again? ‘I don’t know, honestly. I was married, it was a beautiful thing and getting a divorce was hard. I have no crystal ball in front of me, I don’t want to say I won’t do something, because what if I do? All I know is where I am right now. And where I am right now is a very positive place and that’s what I want to choose to dwell on.’
She lives on the outskirts of Nashville with Scarlett, who is 11, nine-year-old Henry and the cats, in an ivy-hung house with a river at the bottom of the garden. ‘I do love it, it’s very safe, it’s peaceful,’ she says. ‘I’ve got wonderful neighbours, great friends, family. I didn’t realise until I was a mother how much I loved peace and quiet, and waking up to the sound of birds, and staring into the sky and seeing nature… My son’s school is next-door to a horseriding place, so I’ve been taking lessons.
‘In a way, living in Nashville has allowed me to grow up,’ she continues, ‘because when you’re in a city you can get somebody to do everything for you. You can order delivery every night, so you don’t have to learn how to cook, you don’t have to do practical things, like use a power drill. It might take me five hours to put up a shelf, but I will bloody do it. And I’m going to make a little herb and vegetable garden with my daughter. When I get home we’re going to plant stuff together.’
As is often the case for those with enormous media followings, both she and White seem to be Luddites when it comes to their own children. ‘We both agree that the kids are not going to have cell phones,’ she says. ‘And they might play on an iPad but they’re not allowed to be on social media. I think we’re going to monitor them pretty strictly.’
She is equally unenthusiastic about the prospect of her daughter following her into modelling. ‘I’m not going to stop my child doing what she dreams, but I’d give her very solid advice, and say, “You go to a really nice school, I hope you consider getting a good education before these other things,” because I didn’t have that opportunity. I didn’t go to college, I didn’t get my A levels, I only got GCSEs. But I don’t think she’d want to. She’s a very assertive, smart, empowered young lady,’ she adds, with a grin of maternal pride.
Although Elson is grateful to the profession that swept her from Oldham to New York, fame and fortune, she certainly has her issues with it. At 23, she wrote an article about her struggles with a chronic eating disorder; and as recently as last year revealed indignantly that she was dropped from a New York Fashion Week show for being deemed too ‘big’. ‘My intellect tells me, “I don’t want to do your show anyway,” but of course there’s the emotional side where you go, “Oh gosh, I wasn’t good enough, because apparently I’m too fat!”’ she admits. ‘It makes me quite angry, because I don’t think it’s realistic for a woman to fit a certain mould. How about you change the mould, so it’s not just one size? At 38 years old, I’m not going to torture myself with hours of gruelling work-outs and eating kale salad for months at a time in order to wear a dress. If I did, I’d be affecting my health and putting my body at risk. And you can’t be a [good] mother if you’re not taking care of yourself. I’m choosing to be healthier and get less work because mentally that’s the right thing to do.’
In fact, there seems to be no shortage of work for the willowy Elson. Her heavylidded, Pre-Raphaelite beauty has seen her pose for the world’s top fashion photographers, and front campaigns for labels including Yves Saint Laurent, Burberry, Chanel, Dior and Versace. She has just been recruited as the new face of Jo Malone fragrances, and is revelling in the partnership. ‘As a model, you’re asked to hold the perfume bottle and they snap away, and that’s the end of that. But they ask for my opinion on the products, I get to choose the menus for their parties, I have the final say on the guest list and I’m singing at a dinner for them next week. I’m much more interested in doing stuff like that, where I can be more of a collaborator than being the face of something. Because, what is beauty at the end of the day? It’s so subjective.’
Consequently, her approaching forties fill her with enthusiasm rather than dread. ‘I actually enjoy getting older,’ she says. ‘Things become a lot easier because you’ve got the wisdom of life experience that colours how you live. I feel like I’m finally in my skin; I’m comfortable with who I am and I’m not trying to change anything.
‘It’s an acceptance that comes with freedom to do more, because you’re not holding yourself back. If I fall on my face, I’ll get up and do it again,’ she laughs. ‘And if my jeans don’t seem to fit any more, I’ll buy another size.’ You can take the girl out of England…
‘Double Roses’ is out now.
‘At 38, I’m not going to torture myself with hours of gruelling work-outs and eating kale for months at a time’
Velvet dress, £4,040, Gucci. Pink gold, diamond and mother of pearl ring (just seen), from a selection,
Van Cleef & Arpels