After recording her 2010 debut album, the Jack White-produced The Ghost Who Walks, in Nashville; a beguiling homage to her adopted homeland, filled with chilly murder ballads, southern gothic meditations and bewitching tales of stolen lovers and lost dreams, on her second album, Double Roses, Karen Elson has come home to her English roots.
Written in stolen moments over the past seven years, Double Roses is a reflection on life’s unexpected trajectories; a woman ruminating on her life’s path and the bold choices she made in finding her authentic self. “Every single song came out of a moment in my life. It might have been a split second thought or something that got under my skin, but writing was my weird way of working everything out,” confesses Elson.
“With The Ghost, I was still very unsure of myself as a musician and I disguised things as murder ballads”, explains the singer. “This time I wanted to try writing from a more vulnerable point of view. I felt that to make an authentic record this time meant that I had to tap deeply into my own secrets and real life experiences. These songs come from life experience, not a fictional narrative.”
“Obviously the big elephant in the room is that I divorced a very brilliant and talented man whom I care for and respect deeply,” explains Elson. “But this is by no means a break-up record. At almost 38, I have lived a wild and unusual life. Double Roses was my look back on the past 20 years of life, love and sorrow. To say it’s written about one experience is to reduce all other powerful and poignant memories that have colored the record.”
She continues, “One song that influenced this record is “Storms” by Fleetwood Mac on the record Tusk. It’s Stevie Nicks at her most fragile. It moved me deeply and made me wake up and realize that if I didn’t tap into my own sorrow then why bother make another record? It was the war cry I needed to push myself off the cliff. This is why I love music when a song, a chord, a lyric strikes your heart and tears you open. I like to call Double Roses my ‘post-divorce album’. This is a recording about my life changing and me really jumping into the deep end to find out what was there. To figure out ‘what did this all mean and where am I now?’”
What she found is that she is a fully realized musician, who can access the deepest parts of herself, constructing an album of uncommon and profound beauty; the tale really of a woman coming back to herself.
While one of world’s most recognizable supermodels, over the past two records Elson has demolished the notion that models are better seen than heard. But by no means a musical newcomer by the time she recorded her first album she had been a member of Manhattan-based political cabaret outfit The Citizens Band for five years and had appeared on recordings with Cat Power and Robert Plant.
But even before that, music has always been a part of Elson’s life. It’s been a solace, a calming presence and a great passion in Elson’s life, ever since she was a was an unruly teenager listening to the dark complicated strains of Mazzy Star, the Smiths, Nick Cave, and PJ Harvey. It’s what inspired her to dream big dreams and block out the sameness and scant opportunity living in the North of England. It’s what gave her the courage to leave the small town she grew up in, and take to the uncertain road that led to exotic places and fashion capitals, where she became one of the most sought after fashion models.
“Music was always my first love and I always wanted to sing. That was definitely what I wanted to do in life, period. My childhood was fairly complicated and I think music became my escape. My tapes and my Walkman became something of a revelation for me. I would sit in the bedroom that I shared a room with my sister and put my headphones listen to music and literally daydream. Imagine that I was someplace else. I still listen to music like that.”
And now she makes music like that. Chilly, austerely beautiful, her arresting voice capturing each mood and nuance of the song, detailing the emotional geography of her heart and mind. Laura Marling, who makes an appearance as guest vocalist on the album’s first single “Distant Shore”, puts it this way: “Listening to Karen’s voice was like hearing a soft morning bird outing her inner loveliness. The songs are raw, precious and delicate like antique jewelry.”
Perhaps that’s because music permeates Elson’s every day and in between each of her own albums she always made time for it, listening to things as disparate as the Cocteau Twins and abstract psychedelic music. “I’ve always been into Cocteau Twins and interesting female vocalists. That’s definitely the stuff I drift off to but I kind of blew even my own tastes apart.”
But Elson is nothing but a musical adventurist. You might have noticed that in some of her infrequent but always dazzling appearances in recent years, be it singing “Ashes To Ashes” with Michael Stipe at the David Bowie tribute concert last year, performing for T Bone Burnett’s Speaking Clock Review, opening a series of shows for Neko Case, recording a haunting version of Lyle Lovett’s ‘If I Had A Boat’ for the “Still Alice” movie soundtrack, releasing cover versions of Fleetwood Mac and Buddy Holly for tribute albums or releasing limited edition covers of Lou Reed or Jackson C Frank songs for Record Store Day. Elvis Costello, who worked with her on the Speaking Clock Review, says,“Karen’s a really good singer. She was just tremendous on it and she had some really good songs. And her first record was so good.”
But it was time to make her own music again, and Elson found her way to Jonathan Wilson, the wunderkind producer who has been credited with revitalizing the Laurel Canyon sound, working with such musical giants as Roy Harper, Jackson Browne, Phil Lesh, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Bert Janch and Robbie Robertson. Friends thought he would be the perfect fit for Elson’s songs. It turns out they were right.
“Jonathan is a gentle soul, but he was the fire under the coals of this record, in a very subtle way,” explains Elson. “He has this serenity about him, and going into the studio with him, it just felt right. He works with incredible players and never once did I feel that they didn’t think I was an equal, or one of them. But mostly, Jonathan taught me how to just have fun recording. I’ve been lucky with my producers. Jack allowed me to have a lot of freedom and was sort of a spirit guide for Ghost. Jonathan was the spirit guide for this record. While they’re two very different records, you still need a spirit guide.”
Besides Wilson, who played bass on some of the tracks, Pat Carney, The Black Keys drummer, appears on - and produced - “Call Your Name,” Father John Misty (drums on “A Million Stars”), Laura Marling (backing vocals on “Distant Shore”), Benmont Tench (keys), Wilco’s Pat Sansone (guitar, co-production) and Dhani Harrison (backing vox).
“We would have friends pop by the studio, and one day Josh Tillman (Father John Misty) sort of causally came by. Jonathan asked if he wanted to play drums on the song we were working on and Josh said yes. Josh just has swagger, he just has it. Playing the drums on “A Million Stars,” he made it into this sort of lackadaisical Rolling Stones in the south of France vibe.” Says, Sansone, “Karen immediately impressed me with not only her gorgeous soulful voice, but her extreme flexibility in the studio. She was truly unfazed by whatever we would throw at her in the studio. Arrangement changes, new approaches to songs. She could roll with anything with grace and musical intelligence. And during the sessions I was repeatedly moved by her vocal performances…Making the record with Karen, Jonathan, and all the amazing musicians they assembled, is one of my favorite record making experiences to date. "
Another high point for Elson was when Laura Marling stopped by to drop off a book for Elson and ended up staying to contribute backing vocals to “Distant Shore.” “Laura is incredible human but what a musician. She’s fearless in her expression and in her voice. She helped me really crack open that track.”
The heart of the album, really is the title song “Double Roses,” which got its beginnings from a Sam Shepard poem that appears in his journal collection Motel Chronicles. After reading it on a trip to New York in the spring of 2014, it put the whole album in perspective, she felt herself mirrored in the short verses.
Like in England
And she leans way back
Inside of England
Her nose flares
And her eyes close
The rose sails her home.
Elson incorporated the poem as spoken work into the title track and sought Shepard’s permission to do so—sending a letter to him via her friend and bandmate Jackson Smith’s mother, the poet/musician Patti Smith.
Some might call this a Eureka! moment, but for Elson it signified a return to herself, to her roots, to her very Englishness. Because of that, she began writing, not from an American point of view, like she did on The Ghost Who Walks, but as someone reared in the industrial towns of Northern England, among equal parts grit and ethereal, but dangerous beauty.
That poem released something in her. No longer had the need for clothing her songs in lace and filigree and southern gothic tradition, she allowed herself to make an album that was true to her English roots.
“I think I allowed my Englishness to come through,” says Elson. “Because I am English. I think that’s why I didn’t make the record in Nashville. As much as I love Nashville, I think it’s so easy to fall into sort of the sound of Nashville. I didn’t want it to have a country twang, or a southern sensibility. Instead, I kept picturing that this record should live either in the moors of England, on in London on a foggy, rainy day.”
And it does, the album’s ten tracks, pulled from more than 50 she’d written since her last release have a more personal and intimate feel than her earlier songs with a more searing heartfelt honesty. The songs are seeped in vivid, sometimes violent imagery, swelling with storm clouds, deep dark seas, waves, winds and distant storms, conjuring visions of Thomas Hardy heroines standing on precipices of stony cliffs bemoaning their lives. But unlike those beautiful injured beauties who seem resigned to their fates, Elson was out to construct a new one. And she has.
“At the end of writing the album I felt liberated. I felt free. I felt like me,” Elson says.