It’s okay – she’s with me.
There has been an attractive trend of late in which men pair up with pretty women to produce pop music. The savant Beck produced an album by the Anglo-French actress and chanteuse Charlotte Gainsbourg, the dreamboat singer-songwriter Pete Yorn teamed up with the dewy film star (and Tony-winner) Scarlett Johansson, Justin Bieber’s mom instigated the career of Justin Bieber, and the indie musician M. Ward collaborated on a pair of albums with the singing actress Zooey Deschanel for their successful She & Him project.
Not to mention the chanson-singing former model Carla Bruni, who has a husband-president of a major country in her corner.
And now add Karen Elson to the list. The porcelain-pale British supermodel, who is also a mother of two and a cabaret troupe member, recently released The Ghost Who Walks, a moonlit debut album of haunting ballads, bluesy cabaret and storm-clouded folk rock. Oh, and it’s produced by Elson’s husband, Jack White, the White Stripes musical mastermind who drums on the record and who prodded his wife to record the songs she had been writing alone.
“It can be a blessing and a curse,” Elson says by phone from Nashville, where she resides with White and children. “Half the people coming to a show could be Jack fans. Therefore, I’ve got an audience already.”
I was always just the weirdo, to be honest with you.
The flipside for Elson, who plays Toronto Wednesday night and Montreal Thursday, is that others will see her as a privileged queue-jumper, parlaying her cover-girl face and connection to rock royalty to snatch a record deal (with her husband’s personal label). Such critics and unconvinced music fans may not be willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Elson recognizes the high likelihood of skepticism, but can’t be concerned with the association with her husband – especially on stage, where White, not part of Elson’s touring band, is nowhere in sight. “Just by playing live, I’m showing, as honestly as I can, myself,” the chatty singer explains. “I’m performing up there without anything to lean on – without me being the model, without me being Jack’s wife. I’m there as me.”
We get a glimpse into who this flame-haired runway-stalker on The Ghost Who Walks, the album’s title track. It’s an eerie murder ballad about knives plunging deep, with rain-drizzled Doors-like keyboards. But it’s also self-referential. Growing up, Elson was harassed for her tallness, thinness and paleness – she was the ghost who walked. “Oh, yeah,” she says. “I was always just the weirdo, to be honest with you.”
The fiddling Cruel Summer is a sweetly sung country waltz about jealousy and summer storms. “Nashville has violent weather,” says the 31-year-old native of Manchester, England, and former New Yorker. “It’s bewitching, though. The girl in me who loves The Wizard of Oz gets all excited, and hopes she’ll be carried away by a tornado somehow.”
Elson pretty much has. Initially unsuccessful as a towering teenaged model in London and Paris, she found fame at 18 when she shaved her eyebrows and chopped her red locks into a blunt cut, which landed her on the cover of Italian Vogue. In 1998, the size-2 stunner was voted by VH1 as the year’s best model, and more awards and contracts came later (and still do).
While living in New York, she helped form the Citizens Band, a politically conscious cabaret collective founded in 2005. And after appearing in a White Stripes video for the song Blue Orchid, she married White in 2005.
Asked about the decision to have her husband produce her debut record, Elson is of two minds. Although the choice felt “comfortable” and “right,” she had reservations, out of concern for her man’s professional reputation. “He was taking a big risk,” she says, referring to White’s string of success with White Stripes albums, various side projects (The Dead Weather and the Raconteurs) and a collaboration with country superstar Loretta Lynn. “I didn’t want to be the one where people said ‘Why did Jack do this?’ That was my biggest fear.”
Elson’s fears were not unreasonable, but her album and the recent projects of Gainsbourg, Johansson, Bruni and Deschanel have all succeeded.
Interestingly, Johansson’s debut album ( Anywhere I Lay My Head, which included covers of Tom Waits songs) was viewed with initial skepticism and then scathing criticism. On the other hand, Break Up, her more recent disc with Yorn, fared better.
The ladies have come a long way from Sonny and Cher and Ike and Tina Turner – man’s name first, unlike Deschanel’s She & Him project – but it doesn’t seem to hurt having a man in front in other respects, holding the door open for the woman to walk through.