English-born and now Nashville-based singer-songwriter Karen Elson will release her sophomore album, which is seven years in the making, on April 7th, 2017 . Titled Double Roses, this deeply personal, romantic and thrilling record features guest spots by The Black Keys’ Pat Carney, Father John Misty, Laura Marling, Benmont Tench, Pat Sansone (Wilco), Nate Walcott (Bright Eyes), Paul Cartwright and Dhani Harrison.
mxdwn: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. Congratulations on the completion of your sophomore album!
Karen Elson: Thank you so much I appreciate that.
mxdwn: I absolutely love it — I’ve listened to it probably about seven times over since I got it on Wednesday.
KE: You do? You know it’s so funny because I’ve lived with this record for a really long time and it took me seven years to make the record. I’ve been writing it for years. I recorded it almost a year and a half ago so it’s been sort of ever-present in my life for a very long time. So it’s just so nice to know that people actually like it because it is such a personal record and such a vulnerable record. It helps to know that when you pour your heart out that you know it actually means something.
mxdwn: Has Double Roses been in the works since The Ghost Who Walks or is it a more recent project?
KE: No, it’s been in the works since The Ghost Who Walks. For this record, I probably wrote over 70 songs. When I went into the studio, I sent Jonathan Wilson around 40 songs and we whittled that down. In the studio, we recorded 23, and that was all the time we had, was to record 23 songs. Obviously, the idea of making a double album for my second record when it has been seven years wasn’t necessarily the right thing to do so we cut it down to ten songs and then, there you go. “Wonder Blind,” the first song on the record, was the first song I wrote and “Distant Shore” was the last song so it kind of all came together perfectly at the end.
mxdwn: Can you tell me a bit about how this album is informed by your upbringing in small-town industrial England and how it speaks to the role music has played in your life?
KE: It’s so funny because there’s so much to mention with this record that it’s like me returning back to my English roots. In some ways, I agree. I know that’s on my press release, but in other ways it’s just a reflection of my life the past few years. It’s not necessarily…I mean I’m very English, I can’t deny that. My influences are from a wide variety of places but I think The Ghost Who Walks really held its roots deep in Southern Gothic folklore, whereas this record was much more autobiographical, vulnerable and much more connected to home.
So I think that encompasses obviously the weird dichotomy of being an English woman whose lived in New York for ten years and now lives in Nashville. You know what I mean? I think that’s the only way that it plays into it. I mean, obviously I grew up in a small industrial town — it’s called Oldham, which is 20 miles north of Manchester and it’s definitely dark and cold, but also, part of me growing up Northern English, it gives you a good sense of humor at the end of the day. My father is one of the funniest people I know and he lives in a little caravan in the north of England and he’s honestly one of the happiest people I know. Growing up where I grew up, it comes with many things, but, at the end of the day, why I wrote this record or my sort of inspiration it’s hard to say. Honestly, it’s just what I do.
mxdwn: The title of the album comes from a Sam Shepard poem. When did you first read this poem and what about it spoke to you so strongly?
KE: I’ve been a fan of Sam Shepard’s since Days of Heaven and Paris, Texas; a friend of mine gave me the book Motel Chronicles. For whatever reason, the poem “Double Roses” just started to permeate deep in my life. It just kind of became this sort of strange symbolic…it just had so much symbolic meaning to me. It really weirdly reflected the interpretation of the poem. There’s just something about it that really haunted me and felt beautiful. I like Sam Shepard’s writing — he manages to capture this sort of strength in vulnerability and isolation and loneliness so beautifully that it was something that I was really trying to do with the writing of Double Roses. It had all this symbolic meaning to me. I knew after reading the poem and sort of reading it obsessively over and over again and using it in a song, that my record was going to be called Double Roses.
mxdwn: Speaking of vulnerability, I’ve heard you wrote The Ghost Who Walks mostly in your bedroom closet.
KE: So much has been made of that. Honestly, it’s fucking strange. It’s so funny how you mention something once and then it becomes like, you made a record in your bedroom closet. Yeah, kind of. The realest thing is I had two young kids. The only space I had in my life was there. That was practically my office. I’d go in there and have phone calls or steal a moment for myself. It was a nice large walk-in closet that became almost my office in a way.
mxdwn: The album press release says that for Double Roses, “The turning point was ‘Distant Shore,’ and after that the floodgates were open.”
KE: It’s so funny that you say that. Somewhere along the way, lines got crossed because “Distant Shore” was the last song I wrote. So I was already done making Double Roses, I thought I had one more song in me. I was just writing up until the moment I went into the studio and I just knew that I had one more song. I wrote “Distant Shore” the night before I left for L.A. to make the record. In a way, I don’t know how that all got confused. “Distant Shores” was the penultimate moment where I realized I finally had a record. I realized when I wrote “Distant Shores” — there you go.
mxdwn: What helped you isolate yourself and delve deep to reach those wells of inspiration because raising two kids must have been tough to balance?
KE: It’s not like I live in New York or L.A. where there’s something to do every night. In Nashville my life is a lot quieter so I would have moments when the kids are at school. My writing time is 8am through 2pm in the afternoon. I just write for that amount of time and just make music. I became quite disciplined in that sense where that was my special time to kind of get stuff done.
The realization is you don’t have to do it every day. Some days good stuff might not happen and other days stuff might happen. I think having faith in that — it took me a while to have faith in that — to understand and believe that throughout years and years of writing this record that it would actually come to fruition. I mean I knew I had songs that to me felt good, but again, to convince other people they’re good is a whole other challenge.
At one point I found myself without a manager, without a record label and without a producer. I had a group of songs and no one really wanted to make them. It wasn’t until I met Jonathan Wilson and then got my manager that everything kind of came back together again.
Jonathan was really instrumental in believing in me. I’m so eternally grateful to him in that sense. He really did give me a chance. Through Jonathan, I’ve met so many interesting people. You know Father John Misty is a good friend, Laura Marling, Ben Tench, you know all the people who played on my record thanks to Jonathan. I had met Josh Tillman and Laura many times before but, what can I say, they did give me a shot through Jonathan so it helped a lot. Jonathan was very key with this record.
mxdwn: In addition to the influence of your upbringing in England, and your time in New York and in Nashville, how did spending three weeks in L.A. with Jonathan impact the final product?
KE: Honestly, you know Jonathan has been my friend for ages and you know we just dived in head first. It was inspiring. It was an incredible time. We worked really really hard. It sounds so cliché that we had a quote-unquote “great time,” but we did. It was very creative. It was very free. Friends came over, friends hung out, I made new friends. It was a real sense of camaraderie which I haven’t had in years so it just all felt like such a massive relief honestly.
I’d known Father John Misty and Laura Marling and a bunch of other people beforehand. Pat Carney and all those people, I’ve known for ages. It was just nice that they believed in me and took a chance and said, “Hey, we’ll come and play on this song.” It was nice to see people’s support considering I hadn’t made a record in a really long time. It gave me the boost that I needed.
mxdwn: What were some of the most interesting or surprising collaborations?
KE: They all started out very casual. Father John Misty came to stop by to say “hi” and we had a few glasses of wine and he played drums. It was a really fun experience. Josh is just a hilarious and fun person it’s just a blast when he’s around.
Laura Marling, I will say, she really did have a profound effect upon me. Obviously, I have a massive amount of respect for Laura all across the board as a person as an artist. She lives part-time in London part-time in L.A. There’s this real tenderness to her and kindness. We’d just sit and talk. She gave me that book Women Who Run with Wolves. It’s a real sort of call to arms for strong woman, for feminists. It’s a beautiful book. It sort of breaks down all the female archetypes within history. It’s fascinating. She gave me that book as we were recording and it really did sort of lead me in a way. There was so much kindness that I experienced making this record. It’s hard to talk about the individual experiences because like I said, it was also sort of organic — that word is so annoying, but it was. Friends came by, we made some music. They left, we made some more.
mxdwn: Do you ever envision joining a band with other musicians (in addition to your solo music)?
KE: Always. Always. It would be such a relief to be in a band. It’s like the weight is on you when you do it by yourself. It’s hard you know. The insecurity of not having someone to sort of play ideas off. I mean I always daydream of having my own version Fleetwood Mac. I constantly daydream about that.
mxdwn: You’ve got shows in Nashville and Brooklyn coming up soon. What can fans expect from your live show?
KE: That’s a good question — still trying to work that out. What can we expect? Well I’m changing around a bunch of different things. I’ve got a brand new band with which I’m gonna change things up. I’ve got a harp player and my friend Jackson who has played with me for years.
For the Third Metro, I have a full band. I’m still trying to figure out what to do for the Rough Trade show in New York whether to have a more intimate show or a more full band show. It’s still a work in progress. But I definitely enjoy playing live and I definitely want to explore — that’s where the being a band fantasy comes across because when it’s just you and couple of other people, it can tend to be more subdued. I actually really enjoy playing loud and delving deep into the songs and dragging them out and letting them sort of manifest into their own thing with a live setup. I love playing with a band. There are more opportunities to just lose yourself.
mxdwn: What projects — music or otherwise — are you working on next?
KE: I definitely want to make another record so I’m going to get deep into writing. That’s definitely first on the order, honestly: just writing another record. As soon as I’m done playing around with this one, I want to do the next already. I’ve got big ideas. I’m definitely excited just to do it again, honestly.