'All I ever wanted to do was write a love song that stands the test of time': Karen O on her best songs

From her punky breakthrough to her David Lynch collaboration, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer takes us through her back catalogue

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

It is July 2001, and an EP with a 22-year-old frontwoman on its cover is flying out of independent record shops, reaching No 1 on the UK indie chart. Her picture is cropped like a Polaroid: only the shaggy ends of a short bob, her full lips and a necklace on her bare chest can be seen. Bought from an East Village S&M store, it reads “MASTER”, which felt a one-woman fuck-you to the boys-and-guitars indie world at the time. “That was a selfie before its time!” says the woman on that cover today: Karen Orzolek AKA Karen O. “This was my headspace: bratty, complicated, angsty, sensitive 22-year-old living in New York at the turn of the millennium. I still look at that and I see that.”

Eighteen years later, Orzolek is on the phone in in office of her director husband Barnaby Clay, in their Los Angeles apartment. Bang was written in another life: in one night, with other songs from that first EP, in Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ guitarist Nick Zinner’s Brooklyn flat; she already knew drummer Brian Chase from her studies at Ohio’s Oberlin College. Orzolek was enamoured of the lo-fi aesthetic of the 2000 ESG compilation South Bronx Story at the time (“it was so stripped down, so badass”). PJ Harvey’s 4-Track Demos had also had a huge impact. “The fact that she’d done it by herself with a four-track, just let loose, and completely unbridled – she taught me that I could do that.”

A shy, well-behaved child who still liked writing tender songs, something happened to Orzolek when she became a frontwoman, she says. She let herself go. “New York audiences back then were half awake, half asleep, their arms folded, and I wanted to rock that boat. Bang was me totally peacocking. And I loved it.”

Karen O and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Karen O and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Photograph: Publicity image from music company

Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Our Time

This solo Orzolek composition, a soft epic, ended the band’s first EP. “It was one of the earliest songs I wrote on my own. And me becoming a songwriter … it came as a complete surprise.” At the opposite end of the EP to Bang, Our Time reveals the other side of Orzolek’s split personality, she says. Originally a song known as Year to Be Hated, released on the 2000 compilation Yes New York, Orzolek had known that the lyric had legs. “Time to Be Hated felt like a slogan. It was something I wanted to stamp on to the walls!”

She tried to channel Lou Reed when she recorded it (“I’ve spent my entire life trying to do that”), and her father’s collection of of 50s and 60s CD compilations during her childhood informed the song’s mood, which flips between dusty Americana and girl-group sheen. “I’d listen to those CDs religiously– the best of 60s country, the best of 50s doo-wop – and I’d choreograph dance routines to them in school. They’re totally ingrained in my system – and that all just came out.”

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

“To write a love song that stands the test of time … that’s all I ever wanted to do. Especially as I’m a hopeless romantic,” Orzolek laughs. “So this song is pretty important to me.” The song that changed the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ career for ever was Maps, initially buried on the second side of 2003’s debut album Fever to Tell. Written in 20 minutes (“It was like it came completely out of the ether”), Maps’ devastating chorus was lifted wholesale from an email that Orzolek had sent to her then boyfriend, Liars frontman Angus Andrew. “He was on tour, and we never saw each other, and I hated it, so I emailed: ‘Why do they get to be with you? They don’t love you like I love you.’” Maps’ video was a huge hit on MTV, and both mainstream and alternative critics adored it. Kelly Clarkson producer Dr Luke has confirmed that its structure and guitar breaks inspired Clarkson’s huge 2004 hit, Since U Been Gone, while Beyoncé’s Hold Up samples it. Orzolek still likes hearing the songs. “It’s like a memento to a time. But it’s also left me long ago, and dived into the mainstream … taken on its own life.”

Karen O and the Kids

Orzolek began her non-Yeah Yeah Yeahs career in 2005 contributing to a film soundtrack (she features on a Har Mar Superstar track, Cut Me Up, for horror movie House of Wax). Then she wrote the soundtrack for Spike Jonze’s 2009 version of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. “I loved the book when I was young – and this film meant I got to meet Sendak,” she says. “He was such a punk: irreverent but sensitive, not playing by the rules. He totally gets that kids don’t just want happy, sugarcoated stuff. They want to be scared and explore loss and death. Things that inflame the imagination.”

Orzolek’s work with Jonze continued on his 2013 film Her. Her track The Moon Song bagged an Oscar nomination, and she played it at the 2014 awards ceremony (“It was the craziest, most surreal thing I’ve ever had to do”). But the Oscars luncheon, held a fortnight before, was even better, she gossips. “I assumed I’d be sitting with people I knew, but there I was with an animator, a Netflix executive and then Leonardo DiCaprio sits next to me with his dad.” She laughs: “Turns out he was a fan of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, though. He likes [2006’s] Gold Lion best.”

David Lynch ft Karen O
Pinky’s Dream

Orzolek’s Hollywood odyssey continued with this collaboration with one of her “top idols”. “It was incredibly nerve-wracking. “He was all: ‘OK! I want you to do the song now’, giving me these lyrics I’d never seen before and putting me in the vocal booth, waiting for me to come up with something.” Orzolek’s internal mother figure kicked in. “I was all: ‘Karen! Do not buckle! You’ve not got time to be shy! You’ve fucking got this!’”

It worked, too: Lynch’s voice rang brightly through the talkback after she sang. “He went: ‘Hot dog! Hot diggity-dog!’, all pleased. Like it was the 1940s!” Her voice works perfectly to the non-director’s ear, too: a worldly-wise, whispery Julee Cruise asking a mysterious figure to watch the room and watch the road. You sense the shy girl behind the microphone, the humility bleeding out as she sings. “There’s only one of him,” she says now, awestruck at the memory. “And there I was.”

Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Soft Shock

In 2009, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs released their third album, It’s Blitz!, which Orzolek says her band “poured absolutely everything into”. Coming after 2006’s more restrained Show Your Bones, it had a sharper pop sound; new producer Nick Launay, fresh from working with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, got on well with them, and one day was talking to the band about a carpenter he knew who’d had a near-death experience.

“He’d had this accident – he’d been so close to dying – but as he came back he felt so supported and comforted by love,” she recalls. “And Nick was telling us this story while we were playing away on Soft Shock.” Thinking of the song takes her back to that setting, she says, and the band at the peak of their powers. “This ranch in the middle of nowhere in Texas, surrounded by desert, feeling totally right about what we were doing. It captures a route we were taking – the perfect way to go.”

Danger Mouse and Karen O
Danger Mouse and Karen O. Photograph: BMG

Karen O ft Michael Kiwanuka
Yo! My Saint

This 2018 collaboration with Kiwanuka, on a song accompanying a short film for a campaign for the French-Japanese fashion label Kenzo, marked the first time Orzolek had written lyrics for someone else to sing. The story of a fashion photographer falling in love with two models, inspired by Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and fashion model Sayoko Yamaguchi, the film’s narrative brought out Orzolek’s love of “Asian melodrama”, she says; she still feels very connected to her South Korean side. She was born in Busan before moving to the US when she was two years old, “and I really want to push people’s buttons and move them to tears. Turn on Korean TV and surf through the channels, there are always people crying their eyes out.” she laughs. “So, high romance with high odds in a song inspired by south-east Asia? I was all over that.”

Karen O & Danger Mouse
Lux Prima

Orzolek’s new album with Brian Burton AKA Danger Mouse, has its roots in their first meeting as friends in 2008. It took until 2015 to finally get together. “And we went into the studio with zero ideas, a clean slate. Not a clue,” she says. “Then the first thing we came out with somehow was this nine-minute, weird epic.” The title track from the album, it sounds like Goldfrapp meets 70s soul, but strangely twisted. More than anything, though, she says, this collaboration has been about “both of us breaking our moulds to a certain degree. It’s kind of like getting free.” Spoken like the woman she may forget she was once, and the woman she always will be.

* * *

Karen O & Danger Mouse’s new album, Lux Prima, is released on 15 March on BMG. Karen O has curated a longer primer to her work, featuring the above alongside other favourite tracks (minus the songs from Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ debut EP which are not available on streaming services). You can listen and subscribe to it in Spotify below


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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