Karen O: ‘When I fell off the stage it was time for a rethink’

The Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs singer, 39, on music, marriage, motherhood and her own mum’s rebel streak

Motherhood kicked my ass so hard. I thought I was tough because I’d lived this pretty gruelling lifestyle where you have to go from 0 to 100 on stage, and all the touring that comes with it. But having my son Django showed me how hard bringing a life into this world is.

The early days of Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs were a self-destructive period of my life. I did some ridiculous, masochistic stuff up on stage, like rolling around on broken glass and getting blind drunk. But it was highly cathartic, too. I was subconsciously coping with the attention and the hype, which I wasn’t prepared for. When I fell headfirst off the stage I realised I had to rethink my whole stage thing.

I had a dual personality as a kid. I was really shy with explosions of performance behaviour. I grew up in a sweet little row of wooden townhouses in New Jersey, filled with young families.

My rebel streak comes from my mum. She’s Korean and when she started dating my dad, who’s Polish-American, it was highly controversial. He was teaching English in Seoul and was on a bus that she walked on to. It was love at first sight for him: he took the same bus every day, hoping she’d walk back on. She had all these wealthy young Korean suitors, but chose the broke Polish-American guy.

When I went to university I had an identity crisis. I was used to being an outsider at high school, but then I chose to go to an arts college and all of a sudden was surrounded by kids a lot like me. It was the first time I felt like the norm.

When I was 28 I’d been in love a couple of times, but started worrying it might not happen again so was revisiting old flames. Then I met Barnaby [Clay, her husband]. We both knew something was different. Usually if I hooked up with someone, at six in the morning I’d be out of there. But with Barnaby, I couldn’t get enough. I felt energised – like he was expanding my universe.

People expect me to be what they see on stage. An extroverted, unabashed party-in-a-bag. What they get is a mild-mannered, reserved, socially awkward woman. It would be hard to keep up the stage persona all the time.

I have mixed feelings when I look back on the band’s early days. The older me would now say to the younger me: “I know you have all these new emotions, and you don’t know what to do with them, and it’s like a pressure cooker, but you don’t need to hurt yourself. Just be yourself, and the crowd will still love it.

If I didn’t make music, I’d be in trouble. It’s a total relief and a total release. I don’t make it because I want to; I make it because I need to.

When Hillary didn’t win I had a deep cry in the shower. I felt hurt and sorrow, not just for myself, but for all women. More than ever, we need to support each other. I’m here to represent the ladies – and anyone else who needs it.

I strive to live more in the moment. I used to in my 20s. Back then I was just into what I was into, without a plan or even the concept of anything like the band working out. After I met my husband I shifted gears a little bit to thinking more about the future.

I’ve become a 9-to-5 person. Since having my son I’m stupidly focused during work hours. Then when 5pm comes round, everything else shuts off and it’s time for him.

Karen O has collaborated with Kenzo on YO! MY SAINT, a music, film and fashion project. The new single is available from streaming services now (kenzo.com)

Candice Pires

The GuardianTramp

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