Karen Elson is a supermodel who blossomed in the aftermath of grunge in the 90s, making an impact with her striking, porcelain beauty and red hair. She has walked and appeared in campaigns – and continues to – for nearly every international fashion house. From Oldham, greater Manchester, startlingly Elson has now lived in America for half her life, such is her young success; first New York and currently Nashville, where she is mother to two children by Jack White.
It was the universe that united Elson with Ren Harvieu, a fresh talent from Salford. With mutual friends in common, the musician was inspired to send Elson Train Song as "I thought it'd be right up her street. Within a day or so she sent it back with harmonies on it – and some creepy organ as well. It was brill."
"I kind of fell into music," Harvieu explains. "I put a Myspace page up and eventually got contacted by the manager I have now... after several attempts I ignored! I still live in Salford, in an old hospital, which I think is haunted. For me this is all still weird and exciting, I feel like I'm ready."
Dazed Digital caught up with Elson for her side of the story behind her collaboration with Ren, as well as those tentative steps in unleashing her musical talent.
Dazed Digital: Was music a part of your identity before modelling?
Karen Elson: Yes, definitely. Being a model was something thrown at me when I was sixteen years old – what am I gonna say? No to the opportunity of travelling the world and living this remarkable, weird and wonderful life? Before, when I was a teenager, what I wanted to do was sing, though I didn't know anybody to be honest who had any sort of similar musical taste. It was a dream I never imagined would go anywhere.
When I lived in New York I met so many interesting people – musicians, artists, filmmakers, other models and thought 'I could do this if I really put my mind to it'. There were a few opportunities when I was younger to make a song here and there. My friend, James Iha, who was in the Smashing Pumpkins, asked if I'd sing the Serge Gainsbourg song [I Love You (Me Neither) (Je T'aime Moi Non Plus)] with Cat Power. I'd met her quite a few times and, you know, she is a wonderful person who I deeply admire. James was incredibly encouraging; him and Melissa Auf der Maur – of Hole and latterly the Smashing Pumpkins – were key in me having faith and believing in myself. When somebody you admire gives you validation, that starts the wheels turning. I picked up the guitar and slowly learnt how to write songs.
DD: And there's the cabaret you were in too, Citizen's Band...
Karen Elson: Really that was one of the most fun things I've done in my entire life. If I could just go on tour for a year of my life with the Citizen's Band, I'd be so excited. I love them all so much. Slowly but surely I started singing more and ultimately, a few years ago, with Jack [White]'s help, made a record, The Ghost Who Walks. Now I'm starting to work on another record. But it took me that long to write the first one... [Laughs].
DD: It has to feel right?
Karen Elson: It does, but I also admit I do have a devil on my shoulder that can sometimes really say harsh things to me. There is a moment that's good to get in [the studio] and get it done – I could sit and procrastinate about how I hate all my songs for years. One of the greatest lessons I learned from Jack is that you kind of have to ignore that and get in there and do it. I'm trying to ignore that devil on my shoulder. [Laughs].
DD: How did you meet Ren?
Karen Elson: I heard about Ren from Sarah Sophie Flicker, who's also in the cabaret I'm in. Sarah also makes films and does music videos, she's an all-round creative girl. Sarah and Maximilla [Lukacs], her filmmaking partner, made a music video with Ren and they were telling me how much I'd love her and what a sweet girl she was, how much I'd love her music. We got in contact with each other and sent a few emails before I got sent a track, this Vashti Bunyan song Ren had recorded. Coincidentally I was in the studio at the time, as I'm putting a single and b-side out for Record Store Day. I was mixing and it was perfect timing – I just added some vocals. It's a really lovely song, the lyrics are so sad and beautiful.
DD: Where did you shoot the video?
Karen Elson: Ren flew out to Nashville, which was really sweet. Because Nashville is sort of way out there! [Laughs]. As I travel for work, when I'm home I just can't move, you know? Obviously I've got two children. We did it with my dear friend Jo McCaughey, who takes a bunch of pictures, a great photographer. She's from Yorkshire actually! She lives in Nashville – she's actually married to little Jack [Lawrence] from The Raconteurs and The Greenhornes. So I finally met Ren. You can tell she has a very deep soul, there's something very interesting and special about her.
Girl duets are such lovely things, I was thinking about this as I was about to do my vocals. Was it Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris that had a band called Trio? I was really thinking about that – 'we need another Northern singer so we can have our own Trio!' I didn't want to overwhelm Ren's vocals but complement them. And I do think our voices mesh well together.
DD: Are you modelling at the moment?
Karen Elson: Well I've been doing a bit of both things. I'm going to the south of France this weekend as I'm playing a show down there. Then I'm going to play a show in Nashville next week. I really want to try and finish writing my record this summer so that autumn or the end of the year I will have recorded. Modelling is a few days now and then and I can easily jump on a plane and go and do a shoot. But even one job every other week takes it out of me, I feel like I need to be a creature of habit when I'm writing songs. If I'm not, everything's in chaos and I'm at a loss.