Karen O, born Karen Lee Orzolek, was twenty-one when she took the stage with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for the first time. It was September 2000, a Sunday night at the Mercury Lounge, and they were opening for The White Stripes. The band – Karen, guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase – had practiced together as a trio exactly once. Karen downed four margaritas, drenched herself in olive oil, and got into the persona that would catapult the Yeah Yeah Yeahs into the rock pantheon and turn her into a generational icon: a living, snapping human thread and sparkling, as sharp and raw and responsive as an exposed nerve.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were central to the New York rock revival of the early two thousand – a scene, immortalized by Lizzy Goodman in the book “Meet Me in the Bathroom”, which was dominated by all-male bands like the Strokes and Interpol . The impetuous sound of YYYs – chords as bright and fiery as the neon lights of a Dan Flavin installation; precise and explosive drums and guitar; and Karen’s voice, an electric growl that softens and quivers, has evolved, over four albums, without losing its center. The same goes for Karen’s stage presence. She became famous for her anarchy on stage, swallowing the microphone and spitting full mugs of beer into the audience, as depicted in “There’s No Modern Romance,” a 2017 documentary. Today, her vibe is less GG Allin, more Freddie Mercury and Debbie. Harry.
Karen is now forty-three, married to British director Barnaby Clay and mother of a seven-year-old son. And yet, deep down, she remains a punk with the ways of a restless teenager. She has long spoken of a split in her identity, between her shy self in real life and the wild person she becomes on stage. (Goodman described her as an “exhibitionist Boo Radley, a deformed on-stage dervish who disappears after the encore and is rarely seen in real life.”) What connects these two selves is ingenuity, a total reliance on the ‘instinct.
When we spoke on Zoom, at the end of the summer, her name came up as “Karen Clay”. She wore a ripped shoulder-to-armpit Scorpions t-shirt, and her hair fell over her face in her signature lopsided mullet-shag. She was preparing the release of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ fifth album, “Cool it Down”, at the end of September, on the independent label Secretly Canadian. Despite clocking in at less than thirty-five minutes, “Cool It Down” has an expansive sweep and is full of uplifting mercy. I told him that I had spent the previous Saturday on acid in the mountains, listening to the record and crying. We spoke again at the end of August. These conversations have been condensed and edited.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ last album, “Mosquito”, was released in 2013, ending your contract with Interscope. How did you know it was time to create the new?
I started getting itchy to have new material in 2019. We had done these back catalog celebration shows, which were fun – there was no pressure to present anything new – but it felt like we needed fresh blood in here. And 2020 was supposed to be a cool year. We were going to headline the Pitchfork Festival; we had it all planned.
Obviously that and everything else didn’t materialize, and in 2020 we had this shared feeling, among other musicians and many other types of artists, of a deep separation from what we do. It came to my mind, I don’t know when we will be able to play live again. I don’t even know when we were going to be able to be together in the same room again. It was sobering, especially because there were times in our career where I was, like, can I do this anymore? Do I have it in me? Will the muse visit me? But, for the first time, it was, Oh, you might not even have the choice.
But then, in 2021, you and Nick got together and started writing.
Once the vaccines are out. I had no idea what was going to happen. We had been through so many emotions, but we hadn’t processed it. Yet, to this day, I haven’t really dealt with it – this pandemic and everything that came before: having a kid, four years of Trump.
For the first session, we usually start with a really innocuous jam session. We go to Nick’s basement and have fun. You move around the room, play what you want: keyboards, guitar, bass, vocals. You can twirl and tinker on anything. So we jammed, we played crazy hooks, super goth stuff, we had a blast. We were dizzy to reconnect with this process, which is like a lifeline for us. We did a few sessions like that, and very quickly we decided to break our own rules a bit. We work with Dave Sitek [of TV on the Radio], who produced all of our records, and feels like the fourth member of Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I was, like, “I’m going to go through Dave’s folder because he only has thousands of music tracks, and if there’s a track I like, let’s just write on it.” And one of his pieces turned into “Spitting off the Edge of the World”. We also did some other new stuff – we had never sampled anything before, but on “Fleez” we sampled the ESG.
And “Burning”, the second single, interpolates Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons.
We had never allowed ourselves this thing that hip-hop artists have been doing since the beginning: winking at other artists, incorporating their work into ours. But, this time, we were just, like, “Let’s do what makes us feel good.” And then it happened very quickly: the lyrics appeared and changed, like the particulate matter in the room. Literally, it feels like a shift in the ions, like there’s another presence all of a sudden. Sometimes we look at each other, like – it almost feels like we’re not alone, like we’re not alone together anymore. Some songs we’ve written in the past, including “Maps,” for example, were like that.
This album feels like a concise roaming around a real emotional center – a hard-earned sense of freedom, a kind of jagged longing for catharsis and collective liberation. The cover photo shows a woman falling through a clear blue sky, above a pit of flames. When did you feel like the album was going to express what it was doing?
Well, the stakes have never been higher, have they? And souls have never felt more lost, you know? And I think those two things fanned the flames of my creativity.
I rely on songwriting, on the language of music, to guide me to my higher self. Because I’m as lost as everyone else in my daily life. Like, as a person right now, I’m having a hard time keeping my head above water. But when I make music, I feel like I’m really listening to a deeper truth – a kind of universal truth, something brutal and comforting. I wanted to dive into that more than ever in my creative career. It was to me, like—it might sound like I’m talking bullshit, like I was full of myself. Like, you might think, she lost her fucking mind. . . .