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EB Cover Star Karen O Reflects on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs

In the last cover story for Electronic Beats Magazine, Karen O spoke to Lisa Blanning about crushes, songs, and more.

Karen Lee Orzolek AKA Karen O first caught the public eye as the charismatic and often outlandishly dressed frontwoman for Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a trio of art-rocking post-punks from New York who emerged to much acclaim in the early noughties. While their success led to a number of opportunities for the singer-songwriter, it was creative chances she took in soundtrack work with director Spike Jonze and an inspired foray into theater, Stop the Virgens, that revealed the scope of O’s talent. All of that has culminated in her first solo LP, Crush Songs, with compositions as fleeting and lovestruck as the crushes they extol.

Karen, obviously your new album is about crushes, which I like. It’s a universal theme. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from a crush?

It’s just one of the most romantic things that can happen to you, outside of actually falling in love and having it work out. A crush is one of the best parts of either not falling in love or falling in love.

That’s actually a pretty important lesson to learn, I’d say. Anything more? Maybe something more from a specific person that you learned?

In a lot of ways, the nature of a crush is, like, 90 per cent of the time unrequited, you know? And every now and then it actually works out or you get to the next phase with the person that you’re crushing on. But the majority of crushes are fantasy and if you have an overactive imagination like I do, it’s really satisfying because there’s all sorts of things you come up with in your head. And it just seems like it’s really all or nothing on the romantic side of things. There’s not a lot of things in life you get to fantasize about so much.

But now that you’re married [to director Barnaby Clay] it probably changes your relationship with crushes, no?

Yeah, it does, but you still continue it. One thing about life as it carries on, is that there’s always going to be temptation and there’s always going to be crushes down the line. And I think that’s probably a good thing—it spices up things in the bedroom, and other places, as well. You got to keep the fantasy alive.

Your backstory is fascinating: you’re the mixed-race daughter of two immigrants who grew up to be a rock star. So this is like the American dream.

Well, my dad wasn’t an immigrant, my mom was. My dad was second generation. He was born in Massachusetts.

Oh, I see. I find this so disappointing because everywhere in the press they say you have a Korean mother and a Polish father.

My mom is Korean and she came over with my father, but he is full-blooded Polish. That is, he was born and grew up in the States, so he’s American.

Well, that changes things slightly, I guess. I think I read a quote somewhere where you said that you were an “embarrassingly well- behaved child.”

Yeah, yeah, definitely.

So what was it that enabled that well-behaved child to be so out front as a performer?

It’s probably a pretty common theme among the more wild and extroverted performers, you know. When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were coming up, one of the first bands that we came to Europe with was The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Jon Spencer is a very charismatic, sexy performer, and he’s just about the shyest person that I have ever come across in my life. So I grew up very shy, I would say with a rich internal life, but having difficulty being able to express that in my daily life or really be able to access what was going on in the inside. And I did have a sort of exhibitionist streak in me, even when I was really little. But when it came time to start performing, especially with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, it was like a volcano. There was just all this pent-up energy and maybe frustrated creativity and desire that I hadn’t been able to express because of just being a more shy, awkward person and when I got to the platform of the stage, it came just erupting out.

What about the decision to even go on stage in the first place, and not only that, but to be the face and the mouthpiece of the band? For a shy person, I imagine, to take that leap…

It took quite a few margaritas to get me up there, and that’s actually the honest truth. When I was in my teenage years and college years, I got into indie rock music and stuff like that. And that just felt a little bit more accessible to me than trying to be Michael Jackson, you know. I’d check out bands and, again, fantasize about giving that a shot myself. And I had a lot of teenage angst and 20s angst—actually tons of it. It just started to dissipate in my early 30s. But a lot of that angst just triggered me: if people were doing one thing, then I wanted to do the other thing. It’s pretty predictable, but it always worked in my favor. At the time in New York when we started the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, it was a really dead music scene, and also you had audiences that just stood with their arms crossed, silently judging you as you played a show. That was kind of the vibe. So at that time, I think being in my 20s, having a lot of energy that was starting to erupt, having a lot of angst, I just wanted to shake things up. I don’t know, it was an overwhelming desire to do that.

You said that you had an exhibitionist streak when you were younger. How would that manifest itself?

Well, you know, I had a penchant for wanting to perform, and making home films and choreographing dances with my friends and stuff like that. From really young. From even four years old, I think. There was one particular event that happened when I was in the fifth grade. There was a talent show. I lip-synced to “Twist and Shout” or something like that, but I wore these really dark sunglasses. I was around eleven at the time, and the sunglasses were so dark that I couldn’t see the audience—basically my young peers and teachers and stuff. They could see me, but I couldn’t see them, and I just went insane, I went crazy. I remember my teacher being totally shocked to see that side of me. So that performer was there. I just took it all the way, it was always kind of what I wanted to do. I was not a tame performer.

That means your parents weren’t surprised with what you ended up doing with your life.

I think they were probably surprised that I was a success, although they weren’t so surprised. I showed signs of that when I was growing up.

One of the songs on your album is called “Native Korean Rock.” How does that part of your identity inform what you do?

I don’t sit around and think enough about those sorts of things, as far as analyzing how this and that affected me. But that being said, I think it had a really big affect on me. For one thing, I grew up in suburban New Jersey, and a lot of American kids don’t travel a lot when they’re young. They don’t get out of the States or maybe even their town for most of their life. But I grew up going to Korea, almost a dozen times over the course of my childhood, because my grandparents were there. They are actually pictured in the packaging of Crush Songs. If you open up the flaps, they’re in there. So, I grew up experiencing that culture, with that always being part of my life.

And also being half-Korean in a largely undiverse school and community kind of made me an outsider. I didn’t have to be one, it just happened because I didn’t fit in—not only as the result of being half-Korean but also because of the kind of person that I was. I was a little bit offbeat and shy, but I feel like being mixed- race always saw me a little bit outside of what was the norm of the kids I was around. As a result of that I was a lot of the time on the outside looking in, building my identity off of how I wasn’t like everybody else instead of how I was like everybody else. And that’s the making of someone who ends up in punk rock, I think you could argue.

I really like the soundtrack work that you’ve done for Where the Wild Things Are, as well as “The Moon Song” for Her. Both films were directed by your former boyfriend Spike Jonze. I feel like “The Moon Song” is something of a Breakfast at Tiffany‘s “Moon River” moment—it even has the word moon in it. Was that conscious at all?

Oh yeah, I think that since so many of my influences are film-based, “Moon River” was probably in the periphery of my creative process. I think the main influence was from the film The Jerk.

The Steve Martin film?

Yeah, “Tonight You Belong To Me,” when he and Bernadette Peters have the duet on the beach with the ukulele. I love that scene so much, and it’s so romantic—so much so that I convinced Spike to have him playing a ukulele instead of a guitar for the song. I don’t know how creativity works, but the moon came right to mind.

If you say that you take a lot of inspiration from film in general, are there other moments in film that stand out to you particularly that you know have affected your work in the past?

Oh yeah, countless amounts. John Hughes was a huge influence on early Yeah Yeah Yeahs love songs. There’s that one scene, I think it’s in Pretty in Pink at the end when Molly Ringwald storms out of the party and she’s crying and it’s nighttime, and she’s walking down the suburban street totally distraught. Then Andrew McCarthy, her love interest in the movie, comes running after her, and they run towards each other in the street. It’s just this teenage romance moment—because I’m obsessed with teenage adolescence, and that period of time in your life. Hughes’ films were also a big influence for “Modern Romance,” off of Fever to Tell and “Y Control.” And there are countless other examples without a doubt.

I love how the films that you’re choosing are The Jerk and John Hughes as opposed to Kurosawa or Ingmar Bergman or whatever. It also seemed like the work that you did for both previous mentioned soundtracks helped to create the context for this record.

Well, the backstory for these songs is that I was never writing them as a record or anything like that. It was really just like, maybe you’re a painter or something like that, and you’re overwhelmed with emotion about someone you love in your life, you get to a canvas and you have to go [scrawls in the air] like this. So writing these songs was me finding a way to channel all this emotion that I was feeling and find an answer to the questions I had in my heart, and having to get it out through song. But these weren’t intended to be released in record form, it’s just the result of what I do when just thinking about it isn’t enough—just write a song about it.

I meant more sonically.

[Laughs] Well, you could have interrupted me. Lo-fi is the way that I do things because I can’t really play anything that well, so I keep things really simple. On Wild Things, I had amazing musicians with me, but still they’re so good that I had to keep reeling them back in to keep it really, really simple. It’s probably that my sonic aesthetic is just simplicity.

And also the songwriting feels much more related. But really, the project that I was most fascinated by—which of course I haven’t seen in person—is the Stop the Virgens project. It looked like it was an impressive production, I was very impressed. So is there a narrative arc that you can describe for that production?

Yeah, there’s definitely a narrative arc, but I’ll do a really shit job of explaining it. I wish I had one of my buddies who helped produce it with me, they’re so much more eloquent than I am.

Give us the Twitter version.

OK. In a way it has more of a mythological vibe to it, about these virgins who are these creatures born into the world, innocent, but they’re sort of doomed by the central figure who, in a way, is their mother, or something like that. But it’s their rites of passage of discovering life, sexuality, self-expression—to be kind of punished for Dionysian excess and being punished for wanting too much experience. And then, finally, they end up sort of sacrificing themselves at the conclusion.

Is this a corollary for growing up? I ask because earlier, you said you felt very drawn to the adolescent period of life, and I wonder if this might be related to that somehow?

Yeah, I think it probably is. But it’s funny, because the music for that just came flooding out when I was 25, and it was so unconscious, maybe a little bit subconscious, that it took ten years to kind of piece together what the themes and story of it were. So it’s probably all related.

What was the most satisfying part about that project for you?

Well, for one thing the production had, like, 40 women in it, with a largely female cast and production team. That was a very different experience for me. I grew up in the rock world mostly working with men, almost 99 per cent of the time. So that was really satisfying about it. And it was such an insanely ambitious production for someone who’d never done anything like that before, that it just gave me so much more confidence and experience in jumping genres and being able to connect a bunch of different kinds of art, so that was awesome, too.

I just wonder if that feeling was related at all to the earlier part of your career when you were actually receiving accolades as a pin-up and a sex symbol, and you were asked to pose for Playboy, which you refused. The spread of experience, or what you must have felt about those different kinds of feedback must have been an interesting contrast.

Yeah, it was a totally interesting contrast. I think in those early days with that kind of stuff it was so bizarre to me, I couldn’t believe I actually got an offer for that kind of thing. It felt like total absurdity, but I guess what I do is kind of absurd, too. I’m probably also not the only person to feel like that after getting made the offer.

But now you’re at the stage where you’re able to create an environment from scratch that is open and welcoming and encouraging. It might not have started out that way, but in the end you talk about it as being a sort of affirmation of femaleness.

Yes, absolutely. It is. And I’m trying to catch up with that, too. It’s relatively new for me, and I’m just being more conscious of it. That wasn’t always the case.

I feel as though your collaboration with artist and costume designer Christian Joy has been very important for you.

I’m wearing her right now. She’s always with me.

How does this relationship operate and how do you guys feed off each other?

We found each other probably about 13 years ago and have very much grown up together. So what I do, which is hard to explain with music and performance, she does with costume design in a really amazing way. She’s an artist more than a costume designer. And because we’ve basically been working together for 13 years, we often have common references in mind for any given stage, record, or project. We start bouncing them back very excitedly. Sometimes I’ll have a very specific thing that I want to get done—like in 2009 I really wanted a studded, black leather jacket, a la The Ramones or Michael Jackson, et cetera. So that was a more specific thing, but generally it’s not quite as specific as that. We just talk about artists that are influencing us at that moment, and then I just give her complete freedom to do anything that she wants—outside of maybe wanting a leather jacket or this kind of thing. But traditionally, I don’t see the costume until the night that I’m going to put it on, which is really unusual for a working relationship.

That’s a lot of trust.

Yes. It’s a ton of trust. And I’d say, maybe 19 times out of 20, she totally nails it. But there’s one time out of 20 where I’m like, “There’s no way I’m going to wear this.” But no, I do wear pretty much everything that she’s ever made for me. And I will continue to do so. And the other thing is I keep pushing her out of her comfort zone. Because I like to go out of my comfort zone, I just drag her out of hers with me. The costume that she made for me for Crush Songs, the two of them, they’re totally different from anything that she’s ever done before. One of the references was the singer and actress Marlene Dietrich, so she had to make a kind of thirties gown for me, and she’d never done that before. We call it, “the agony of ecstasy,” our collaborations, because there’s a lot of trust, but there’s also a lot of pain and torture. We have a little bit of a sado-masochist relationship in ways, where I drive her crazy with her having to do this, pushing her out of her comfort zone. And she drives me crazy by making things that are really uncomfortable or revealing. I’m pretty much a prude.

I read an interview where you said you were like brothers and you beat each other up all the time and you destroyed a dressing room once, somehow.

[Laughs] We used to be brothers, but now in our more mature years, we’re more like sisters.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014/2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. To read more from this issue, click here. To watch Karen O perform live in Berlin last year, click here.

Published February 25, 2015. Words by Lisa Blanning.