The New Now - Archives

This Year’s Model: Karen Elson

Lyndsey Parker
The New Now

Rock star/supermodel couplings are a showbiz cliché--Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall, Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley, Seal and Heidi Klum, David Bowie and Iman, Pete Doherty and Kate Moss, Rod Stewart and any number of interchangeable blondes, the list goes on. So when British supermodel Karen Elson ran off with Jack White only weeks after meeting him on the set of the White Stripes' "Blue Orchid" video and set up house with him in Nashville, few people seemed surprised (even if the White-Elson wedding ceremony took place in a canoe on the Amazon River and was conducted by an actual shaman). What is surprising is that five years later, Karen Elson has become a rock star in her own right, releasing her debut album, The Ghost Who Walks, to critical acclaim.

While Ghost... was produced by Karen's famous husband (who also drums on the album) and was released on his imprint label, Third Man Records, it's still very much her own credible creation. Eleven of the album's dozen tracks are her own folksy-country-bluesy compositions (she's been writing songs and making 4-track recordings since her early modeling days), and all 12 tunes feature her unexpectedly sultry, strong vocals. (Trivia alert: Karen once sang backup on Robert Plant's 2003 song "Last Time I Saw Her," and was a founding member of the New York cabaret troupe the Citizens Band.) Upping the credibility factor even more is the involvement of guitarist Jackson Smith, the son of Patti Smith and late MC5 legend Fred "Sonic" Smith, who just happens to be married to Jack's bandmate/ex-wife, Meg White. Other musicians involved in the project include bassist Jack Lawrence (who plays in Jack White's bands the Dead Weather and the Raconteurs), Rachelle Garniez (from the Citizen's Band) on accordion and backup vocals, and My Morning Jacket's Carl Broemel on pedal steel. Not too shabby.

While Karen's album has been met with the expected skepticism and reservations, music critics have been mostly kind to her, which makes her an unusual case (fellow supermodel Naomi Campbell's one critically panned album Baby Woman was a bomb, and Kate Moss has been dabbling in indie music for years with little success). Sentimentalist magazine describes Karen's album as "a regal, gothic-folk affair of low-hung moons and murderous lovers....a haunted world of violent thunderstorms, hungry vultures, starvation, creaky houses and elm trees." British paper The Guardian says Karen brings "a convincing, Loretta Lynn-type lonesome quality to the lovely 'Lunasa' and 'The Last Laugh.'" A BBC review states, "Elson clearly has an astute ear for lilting melodies and a clever lyric. She sings with a comfortable confidence, an attractive Cat Power-like huskiness." Consequence Of Sound writes, "Despite being born in Oldham, England, Elson's vocals sound essentially American: charming but haunting, and with a touch of country twang. Perhaps it is the perspective of a relative outsider having lived in Nashville for the past five years that makes The Ghost Who Walks all the more intriguing." And Antiquiet declares Ghost... "an overall cohesive album that has a good balance between atmosphere and strong songwriting. And it's more than enough promise to show that Karen Elson has what it takes to rise above 'me-too' status."

Given Karen's modeling background and rock-wife pedigree, she may find it hard to be taken seriously in the music world at first. While she's had great success in fashion--walking the runway and appearing in glossies for Marc Jacobs, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, and Burberry, and appearing as the campaign face of St. John and Opium perfume--as mentioned above, models like Karen traditionally have not fared well crossing over into music. But once doubters get a chance to hear The Ghost Who Walks, they'll realize Karen Elson is more than just a pretty face.

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