Right up there with Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, and Kate Moss, supermodel and musician Karen Elson is one of those faces that is immediately recognizable. The signature red hair, porcelain skin, soft, lazy smile — Elson’s physical presence and attributes have made her a muse for some of the top designers in the fashion sphere. Yes, for nearly 30 years names like Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Alexander McQueen, Anna Sui, and Dior have all tapped the star for campaigns and runway collections, solidifying her as a mainstay in industry.
And while frolicking catwalks around the world and brandishing a successful modeling career is all well and good, there’s another world Elson has slowly but surely staked her claim in recent years: Music. Since 2004, the singer-songwriter has worked tirelessly at her passion craft, recording four albums as a solo artist. The British-born mom of two even moved permanently to music capital Nashville, surrounding herself with some of the top writers and producers in the game.
In a Zoom call with TZR, Elson describes her latest project, Green, released on April 30, as the most “hopeful” of all her works. “It's much lighter — easy on the eye, easy on the ear,” says the artist. “I wanted it to be music you play when you're sitting by a fire. Music [you play] when you and your friends are talking intimately, I wanted it to feel like that.”
Indeed, the first single from the project, “Broken Shadow,” is an ethereal, serenely haunting tune, sung sweetly to the gentle strumming of a guitar. “I guess the essence of the song was sort of triumph over adversity, finding yourself,” explains Elson. “Coming to terms with yourself. The idea of looking at a broken mirror — what is the reflection you see? It's very indicative of how we feel in general [...] I think it's like making peace with that, in a more esoteric sense.”
Ahead, the model-turned-musician discusses her life in Nashville, her views on the evolution of the fashion industry in recent years, and the little inspirations and rituals that keep her peaceful amidst the chaos.
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Green is technically your fourth solo album. How does it compare to what you’ve done in the past?
I think I take myself less seriously. For the first two records, I had a chip on my shoulder about, ‘No one's going to take me seriously because I'm a model. And no one's going to view me as an artist because of what they perceive I am, through an image.’ And I just had to get over that. I had to make peace with my own insecurities. And I think that's been a big evolution for this record, is that I am much more at peace with myself, and feel like I am creatively in a really good place. And, because I don't take myself as seriously, I'm having more fun with it.
Is there a favorite song you have on the album?
Obviously I love ‘Broken Shadow,’ I really do. [Also, there’s] ‘Fergus In The Sun,’ because that was a tribute to my beloved cat who passed away. This is how literally I am not taking myself seriously. I'm writing songs about my cat. We were writing on this table and he would always come and sort of, the king that he was, lie down as the sun was sort of peeking in. And we were just playing guitar around the kitchen table, and Ferg would be in the middle of it. And we were like, ‘That's a really nice little interlude, within the record.’ It's so funny saying that my favorite song is my song about my cat, but I'm going to own it.
How have the past two years impacted you as an artist and a writer?
Before the pandemic hit, I was on absolute burnout levels. I was really unhappy in my life. I was looking around at what I built and wondering, what's the point of it all? Especially in regards to the fashion industry — I was feeling incredibly disconnected, like I was constantly put in really toxic situations. My joy was running at a low.
And through the isolation, I definitely found a lot of peace. It was challenging, of course, but there were these moments where I realized I hadn't sat and looked up to the sky in so long. I haven't sat by the fire and enjoyed a glass of wine without feeling this frantic energy about a never-ending to-do list.
And as we go back into this version of normalcy, I can't let myself get back to that place. It's a struggle. I think I developed an anxiety disorder for real, when [the world started to open up again]. Because I forgot how much energy it took for me to be on. I don't want to be that person anymore. I'm still navigating. It’s a moment where you realize that you’ve got to live your life. You have one life to live.
Talk to me about your relationship with the fashion industry now? What are your thoughts on the changes and evolutions over recent years?
So that's a bit complicated. The creative aspects [of fashion] I love. The business aspects, however, they're challenging. I don't want to be so antagonistic about the fashion industry that it comes across, like I don't like it. I do love it. I just think for women to be put on a pedestal in general, it's hard. Because you always get knocked off it, and you always have moments of, ‘You can't live up to the image.’ And I don't want to live up to the image anymore. I'd much rather be me and be happy, than be another version of myself.
I do think change is happening. It’s a very slow, like glacial pace, but it is happening. I think social media has a huge impact on that, because I think people can now air their grievances and everyone's standing up for themselves. Even for me, I feel like finally I can talk openly about my struggles, and about how fashion has made me feel. And it is important, but people need to listen.
That's the next thing — action. Because you can't just be people spouting off and nothing happens. There has to be actionable change. And that's what I struggle with, because fashion is a slug. It takes its time and is still very fickle. Everyone moves at a million miles an hour, and it's just not healthy. It's not healthy at all for anybody. So many people I know, are at like a burnout phase. And I do think there's a way to do this business differently. I really do. But it's just going to take leaders to want to do it differently.
OK, let’s talk about something a bit lighter, like your day-to-day life. What’s the first thing you do when you wake up?
I’m so embarrassed but it’s either Wordle or Instagram. I love Wordle.
When you have the chance to treat yourself, what do you do?
I'm not good at doing nothing. That's the problem. But a treat for me would honestly be a spa day: pedicure, manicure, facial massage, body scrub. Lay it all on me. And then a nice lunch with some wine, chatting, early night. Great.
What are you listening to these days?
Oh, I just got into this girl, Yebba. Her voice is unbelievable. This girl is so talented. I heard her music recently, and I was like, Who the heck is this? Her voice is stunning. But her story and her songwriting, it just crushed me. So, [I’m an] instant fan.
[Her sound is] almost like very soulful. It can go from like a ‘Drake’ feeling to Dusty [Springfield] and Memphis, but her vocal range and her songwriting, oh my God. I literally cannot recommend her enough. You've got to listen to her.
One thing you can’t live without is...
Probably toast and tea in the morning. What are you going to do? I'm English.
Where are you dreaming of traveling to? Why?
I really want to go to Greece and take a sailboat somewhere. I think that would be so magical. Maybe to Turkey, as well. Because all those places are so ridiculously beautiful. Oh, and then Rwanda to see the silverback gorillas.
What’s your go-to secret weapon when you want to look and feel good?
I love Vintner’s Daughter — I love their face oil. I use that religiously every day.
Do you have a favorite workout/wellness practice?
I'm a little crazy. I do Orange Theory. I love cardio. Like today, this morning before jumping into this press [day], I woke up early, went to Orange Theory, ran, lifted weights, rode, did the rowing machine. And I love that. I also love Pilates. I love some yoga from time to time. Probably need to do a bit more yoga. I think I could use a bit more mindfulness in my life for sure. But actually a version of peace for me is running fast.
What’s the best piece of relationship advice you’ve ever received?
Best piece of relationship advice is to communicate. I think the older I get, I mean I'm in a very happy relationship [right now], but I think what I noticed about me and my partner is that we talk. We communicate. And if there's a problem, address it. If there's something that needs to be looked over, address it. I can tend to kind of keep my feelings close to my chest and not necessarily share, out of fear. Like, ‘Oh my God, I'm being crazy. I shouldn't share this.’ What I've learned is that, you just have to. It’s like tending the garden. Your relationship is a garden and you've got to prune the weeds, and you've got to be mindful to give it the nurturing and love.
Also, last piece of relationship advice that's so valuable to me is like, letting a person do them — like, not clipping somebody's wings. You go off and do you, I'll go off and do me, and then we come together ... and respecting that independence. I'm a very independent woman and, in the past, I've definitely felt smothered. And what's interesting about the relationship I'm in, is that he is also a very independent man as well. So we both have this sense of, go off and do our thing, and then come back. And it's a very healthy mindset.