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Don’t hate Karen Elson because she’s beautiful. Dislike her because she’s also married to a rock star (The White Stripes front man Jack White); has two cute kids (Scarlett, three, and Henry, two); runs a vintage clothing store near her home in Nashville in her spare time, and can actually carry a tune. The model, 31, who’s received critical praise for her voice as lead singer of cabaret troupe The Citizens Brand, will release her first solo effort, “The Ghost Who Walks,” in May. Tonight, the flame-haired Brit will give a preview of the album during her gig at New York City’s Le Poisson Rouge. WWD caught up with Elson from her home in Music City while she was packing for her big trip.
WWD: How would you describe the music on your album?
Karen Elson: I was definitely influenced by living in Nashville and listened to a lot of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, so there are a lot of mournful songs on there. There are also a lot of murder ballads on there, which is quite morbid. The last song on my record is called “Mouths to Feed,” which was inspired by the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, about a woman who’s a farmer, who’s been working her hands to the bone and all she has left is dust.
WWD: Sounds uplifting. Why such dark subject matter?
K.E.: I’ve felt sadness and all kinds of things in my life. [But] if I said, “Woe is me,” I think people would laugh at me and say, “Shut up.” So that was always the catalyst for my record — trying to tap into the life experiences I’ve had but not necessarily using me as the main figure, using characters and whatnot instead.
WWD: Your husband produced your album. Did you have any reservations about working with your spouse?
K.E.: Originally I was very hesitant to play him any of my songs because I respect the boundaries of our relationship — he’s not on set when I’m doing a photo shoot. And Jack is this brilliant, unbelievably talented man so there was a lot of fear of like, “What if I play him this song and he looks at me and says ‘That’s really good honey. Stick to the day job.’” But once I got over that, he was beyond supportive.
WWD: Are you worried your modeling career will prevent your album from being taken seriously?
K.E.: I was unbearably concerned and insecure about that, and that’s what has taken me so long to put a record out. Model-slash-anything is just such a [stigma], which is a shame because I know so many ridiculously talented models. It’s just the connotation of the word ‘model.’ If you said waitress-slash-singer or secretary-slash-singer, it’s all fine. [But] this album wasn’t some sort of vanity project where I said, “Hey, Jack, let’s make a record so I can be a singer now.” I worked incredibly hard at making it legitimate.
WWD: How does performing on stage compare to walking down a runway?
K.E.: I’m petrified [doing both]. On the runway, I just feel so awkward. I feel like I’m the clumsiest model. I see all these beautiful 6-foot-tall amazons and 5-foot-8 me who still can’t even walk in heels, and as much as I try, I usually end up tripping up somewhere. [But] the payoff with singing is that you’re singing your songs. The payoff with the runway, maybe there isn’t one. I’m just crossing my fingers that I’m not going to fall.
WWD: You are certainly not the first model who’s taken up with a musician. Why do you think this is such a common pairing?
K.E.: The two worlds cross paths. Ever since I’ve been a model, I’ve always been surrounded by musicians, though I don’t know what that says about musicians. I guess there just is that model-musician cliché, and Jack and I fell for it. Nevertheless, it wasn’t a contrived thing. It just happened. What can I say?