The supermodel and singer-songwriter explains how motherhood gave her the courage to pursue music, and why living a "real" life down in slow, soulful Nashville was the tonic she needed as she built her family.
Growing up in the cold and damp of northern England, supermodel Karen Elson spent her days in humble fashion: roaming the soggy farmland, letting her imagination run free and dodging bullies at school. The flame-haired beauty, or "skinny whippet" as she was called by her classmates, was painfully shy. She buried herself in choir practice and dreamt of the day she would leave Lancashire behind to become a singer.
Much to her surprise, it was a chance encounter with model scout Debra Burns that propelled her out of Lancashire and into the world of fashion. A shoot with Steven Meisel landed her the cover of Vogue Italia when she was 18, and her career catapulted into supermodel-dom from there. However, countless magazine covers, ad campaigns and an endless string of runway shows — including one for Marc Jacobs while seven months pregnant — never deterred her from her first love.
How and when did your love of music begin?
I grew up in northern England. It wasn’t the most exciting place, and it didn’t seem to me that there were a ton of opportunities, especially for a quirky little girl like me. My imagination and my love of music are really what steered me. I remember listening to the radio with my cassette player, recording my favorite songs and then playing them back while singing into my hairbrush. People would hear my voice and say, “You’re so good – you should be a singer when you grow up!” And that sort of became my thing. I would daydream about getting out of my town and becoming a singer.
But it was modeling that eventually got you out of your hometown?
When I was 15, I got scouted by a model agent and ended up moving to London and eventually Tokyo, where I spent my 17th birthday (alone, by the way). Can you imagine? It was such a crazy, exciting time in my life; a total culture shock, but I loved it. I was at an age where I saw everything through rose-colored glasses. Once I became successful, modeling took over much of my life. But music was always with me and I knew I would come back to it one day.
When and how did you dive back in?
You know, I hesitated. I am a real perfectionist and I wanted to do it right. I was so worried about not being taken seriously. I was hell-bent on it being right and authentic and I really dug my heels in the ground. In a way, I think having children pushed me to come out of my shell and stand up for my passion. I realized I could spend the next decade thinking about making a record, or I could just bloody well up and make a record. There’s nothing like having children to put things into focus. It gives you this timeline, in a way. For me, it felt like it’s now or never.
“There's nothing like having children to put things into focus. I realized I could spend the next decade thinking about making a record, or I could just bloody well up and make a record.”
How else did motherhood shape you?
For me, becoming a parent is really what made me a woman. Up until then, my whole world had been about me. And then Scarlett came along. It was the most humbling experience. As parents, we’ve all had those nights lying awake with a sick child, going on a couple hours of sleep, having to rally the next day to get to work. You can’t ever switch off, in the most wonderful way. I think becoming a mother really made me grow up.
Scarlett is now 12 years old and entering her teen years. How do you talk to her about beauty, especially given the job you’re in?
I recognize the responsibility I have, working in the world of fashion and [being] surrounded by people who represent the standard of beauty. This is a very strange and peculiar life that I have, and also that her father [Jack White of The White Stripes] has. It’s our job to educate her, to show her that no job totally defines you. That real beauty is not what you see in a magazine. It’s character, and goodness and emotional intelligence that radiates from within.
How are things changing at home now that the children are entering adulthood? Can you share three tips to parenting during these in-between years?
Listen. Validate what they’re feeling and don’t try to minimize it.
Include them in the dialogue. Now that my children are older, we meet once a year to establish the “family rules” and each person weighs in on subjects ranging from curfews to how many hours of screen time they should have.
Don’t be afraid to show your kids that you’re not perfect. Every parent is flawed. It’s okay to make mistakes. The important thing is how you recover from those mistakes.
“Don’t be afraid to show your kids that you’re not perfect. It's okay to make mistakes. The important thing is how you recover from those mistakes.”
What drew you to Nashville and what has kept you there all these years?
When I first moved here, I think it felt a bit isolated and I thought to myself, "Well, this is the sacrifice I’m making for my kids." But the irony is that it’s actually the best thing that’s happened to me – and our family. Nashville gave me time to be quiet and to be a mother. I never thought that would be the tonic that I needed. And I can’t imagine a better place for my children to grow up. It’s so authentic down here; there aren’t as many distractions, and my children are free to be children. The real magic of innocence is intact here, much like it was when I was a kid growing up in the hills of Lancashire. And I feel so fortunate for that. Our life is “normal.” I wake up, make breakfast, drive my kids to school. Plus, their father is here, and I feel really lucky that he is their dad because he is a great father. He has a lot of integrity. He walks the walk, and that makes all of this a lot easier.
Who are some of your favorite musicians?
Oh gosh: David Bowie, The Cure, The Smiths, Joni Mitchell … I have to say, though, that after I made this last album, "Double Roses," something weird happened. I’d been so saturated with all this brilliant, too-cool-for-school music, I began craving pop songs. I can’t explain it, but I am really into Robyn at the moment. I think she’s a badass. And "Toxic" by Britney Spears? I love that song! I’m almost 40 and I am a pop music fan for the first time in my life. I’m officially the embarrassing mother I never thought I would be.