Karen Elson | The Ghost That Walks

9 09 2010

For those not familiar with Karen Elson, simply put: she’s a very talented and beautiful  lady. To elaborate, albeit just slightly, she is a British supermodel who recently released an album on Jack White’s Third Man Records. Interestingly enough, this album has been getting a lot of attention, both positive and negative. The issue is that most people read something like that (“supermodel turned musician”) and immediately condemn the work regardless of it’s merit. For me, not only is the actual material important but the context is key to understanding where she is coming from as an artist. Only after considering both is it fair to opine one way or another. First, let me give you a little taste of the title track from her debut The Ghost That Walks. Then we get into the business…

Pretty good stuff, no? The girl has an excellent voice that is drenched in this moody folk meets gothic style. Here’s the scoop: Karen is a supermodel of significant notoriety (if you follow that world) but she has long been a singer/songwriter, using the guitar as her writing tool. The arts must be in her genes as her twin sister, Kate, is a film maker in her own right. Plus, it’s not like fashion isn’t a creative field. Sure the models tend not to contribute artistically but they need to “get it” as they are a large part of the atmospherics that collectively create a designer’s show.

That aside, She has actually been doing this singing thing for a while now. Many people don’t realize that she is a founding member of a political cabaret troupe in NY called The Citizens Band. Some might say cabaret is nothing but an arcane side show but that couldn’t be further from the truth. These girls actually put on an amazing show that transcends sex appeal covering songs by artists as diverse as The Velvet Underground, Kurt Weill, Elvis Presley, Mimi and Richard Fariña, Pete Seeger, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Marlene Dietrich. Not surprisingly, Karen is a strong talent that stands out amongst the others both with her fantastic voice and songwriting skills… ok, and the sex appeal too. Live footage of The Citizens Band is very rare but I was able to find this one performance of one of Karen’s originals called “Mouths To Feed”. It happens to be on the new album but it’s not exactly one of my favorite tunes. Not to mention that the video is very amateurish, literally as it was taken by an audience member, and it doesn’t necessarily capture the essence of their typical showmanship. But nevertheless…

This gig in The Citizens Band led to collaborations and supporting work with Robert Plant and Cat Power. But that’s not what produced this great great collection of material. Actually, it’s not what but who produced the work that is most responsible for inspiring her to take it to this new level. I casually mentioned earlier that Jack White was invloved but I purposely left out the details as I find this to be one of the more interesting parts of the backstory. Jack is just her producer, he’s her husband. Karen and Jack met while filming the music video for The White Stripes’ video “Blue Orchid”.

The video’s director, Floria Sigismondi, remarked that “you could sense the energy between them.” They married within the year and now have two kids together. An odd side note: They had a remote wedding on the Amazon River in Brazil where White Stripes manager Ian Montone was the best man and Jack’s ex-wife, Meg White, was Karen’s maid of honor. Anyway, while living happily ever after in their Nashville home Jack found Karen “hiding” away scrolling out these songs. He eventually persuaded her to show him what she had been working on and he was blown away with what he heard. With some more encouragement, she wrote a few more and, like that, the album was born.

White’s contribution is in sound design only as the producer but that is one of the most striking things about this album. It sounds richly organic. He very wisely blends a very gritty instrumental with her beautiful voice to create this fantastic combination that is strangely haunting yet alluring. All and all, I am please to say that she checks out. Her songs are good, her voice is great (so long as she doesn’t go too Stevie Nicks with vibrato) and artistically, there is certainly integrity there. Like many albums in this iPod era, this album is not a complete winner but there is definitely some good stuff there. If I had to pick just a few tunes, I recommend  “The Ghost That Walks”l, “The Birds They Circle”, “Thief At My Door” and this one: “Pretty Babies”

References: 

Karen’s Official Site

Karen’s MySpace Page

Karen on Facebook

Karen on YouTube

More info on Karen Elson

More info on The Ghost Who Walks

More info on Jack White

More info Third Man Records

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