“I have a hundred ideas that pop into my head at once,” says Karen O before unleashing a peal of vigorous, sincere laughter. “Starting a family was a huge game-changer, and now I’ve been getting involved in cooking up all kinds of things.”
The birth of her son is only one of the many major changes in the five years since she released Mosquito, the last album that her groundbreaking band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs released before taking an extended hiatus. In the subsequent years, Karen O has been busy with her intimate solo project, as well as contributions to a Tomb Raider video game soundtrack and a song about Nellie Bly for Google. Last month, she brought her passions for music, storytelling, film, and fashion together into a single project, collaborating with A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night director Ana Lily Amirpour for YO! MY SAINT, a video celebrating the SS18 collection from fashion house Kenzo. Later this year, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs will return to the road for shows with NYC indie rock contemporaries LCD Soundsystem, coming off the back of a reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.
The art punk icon’s fiery tenderness is just as apparent in conversation as in her songs, surely a boon to her creative process. “It was like the universe just dropped it in my lap,” she says of YO! MY SAINT, that laugh again warming the room.
How has it been focusing on both your creative spirit and raising a family?
Karen O: It’s been challenging, striking the balance between work and motherhood, and sometimes I feel like I’m kicking ass and sometimes I feel like it’s kicking my ass. It’s been a huge learning curve. I don’t think I’ve ever had a schedule or routine in my life. Maybe when I was at school or something, but for most of my 20s and 30s it was this free-floating artistic vibe. Then you have a kid and all of a sudden it’s like you have a nine-to-five job, and your child gets a lot of the room in your head. In some ways that’s great; when you are working, you’re ultra-focused and there’s no room for slack. But it can be difficult to try and fit creativity into a specific period of time in a day. You’re just always thinking creatively. But yes, I feel like having my son, the process of bringing life into the world, was an enormous thing for me creatively. It connected me to some cosmic stuff. In that sense, the creative aspect has been on a different level, and I’m just learning logistically how it works on a day-to-day basis. That’s the hard part.
“People still want and need the deep shit. We need it as human beings trying to survive in a really screwy time” – Karen O
Has motherhood also affected your relationship to ‘fame’ and the music industry? That part of the world has shifted so drastically in even the last year, and continues to change.
Karen O: Yeah, it’s a lot of change. (Laughs) It’s one wild rodeo, but you go with the flow. The majority of my career, I did what excited me and tried to do the best that I could – but it feels like it’s not really up to me in the end. With the Kenzo project, after I had my son I was shifting gears. I wanted to create, but to be more behind the scenes with stuff. I wanted to veer more into something where I wasn’t in the limelight. I wanted the whole creative process without having to be the face of it. And then I got a message that Kenzo was wanting to do something more music-oriented. In a way, it was a dream project because it was a crossover between music, filmmaking, and fashion, three things that have always inspired me.
I heard the song pop up on the radio the other day, and I just really felt it didn’t sound like anything else on the radio. It’s romantic, dramatic, and tells a story. From a storytelling perspective, I was working with Ana Lily Amirpour. Musically, I collaborated on writing and producing the song with Michael Kiwanuka, and he’s magical! It’s been a really dynamic project and a lot of fun, and really just what I was looking for.
There’s something at once nostalgic, futuristic, and of-the-moment about the film. How did you approach writing music for a narrative that shifts and bends time like this?
Karen O: There are always multidimensional things going on in my head. (Laughs) Humberto (Leon, Kenzo creative director)’s concept of a love story between a muse and an artist was fascinating. Plus, I was a fan of the style of the pieces in the collection: it’s high fashion combined with the 80s, just high drama.
And then the muse in the film is Japanese, and I’m half-Asian. From my heritage, one of the main references was the Korean godfather of psychedelic rock (Shin Jung Hyun). I like his music so much because it’s just so emotional, like late Elvis: just pouring it out, your heart on your sleeve. Korean music is extremely melodramatic, like Korean soap operas. Growing up, I saw that Asian culture was very conservative. You don’t wear your heart on your sleeve until you have a few drinks and start doing karaoke. And then all of your emotions are out, and it’s major emotions. (Laughs) The creative expression of Korean artists is very expressive and quite surreal.
So, all these things were going through my head, and then music came flooding out. My sole motivation when I make music is to feel something, to touch someone emotionally, to move someone. I felt like all the previous Kenzo films were so creative, really quirky, and funny, but I wanted to have a romantic one with a bit of emotion. I wanted to stir something on the inside.
“(In) Asian culture, you don’t wear your heart on your sleeve until you have a few drinks and start doing karaoke. And then all of your emotions are out, and it’s major emotions” – Karen O
You’ve been making music for nearly two decades now. What did the Kenzo project teach you about yourself?
Karen O: More than anything, it taught me that there’s an audience for deep shit. Nowadays, it’s hard enough to even graze the surface because there’s just so much stuff out there. But people still want and need the deep shit. We need it as human beings trying to survive in a really screwy time. And that’s what comes most naturally to me, and what I strive for the most.
You started out in an era that still preserved the artist’s private persona, and in a lot of ways, you’ve spent the last few years out of the press. Has this helped to preserve your art in a way – helped keep a bit of your art a mystery?
Karen O: I’m just much more introverted than I am extroverted. I’m only extroverted up on stage. Or at a dance party after I’ve had a few drinks. The rest of the time, I’m quite introverted. I hold my cards close. But different strokes work for different folks. For some people, having it all out there and doing work works great for them. Being more private and keeping my friends close and then coming out with something big works for me.
Is it hard to tap into that persona on stage, then? Crush Songs, your first solo album, was very intimate, but now Yeah Yeah Yeahs are going to be playing the Hollywood Bowl and festivals. How has it been exploring that side of your personality again?
Karen O: It’s… a mixed bag. And a can of worms. (Laughs) We’re playing shows in support of our first record again, so it’s different than just playing shows again. It’s bringing us back in time to when we started. I was actually nervous about that. When we wrote Fever to Tell, we weren’t writing it thinking that we’d have to be performing it pushing 40. It’s such a high-energy record. I was like, ‘Oh, holy fuck, here we go!’ But when we did a handful of shows last year, the Fever to Tell songs were the ones that felt the most energising to play out of the catalog. They were feeding me when I was performing them. It’s interesting that when that record came out, the world was pretty fucked up. Everything was upside down. And now everything’s upside down again. Playing that music when everything’s upside down feels cathartic.
When I spoke to you a few years ago, I remember you saying how vulnerability is necessary for love to truly ever work. How does this play into your idea of a ‘love song’? Have you changed the way you approach a love song over the years?
Karen O: I have new music coming out later this year that I’ve been working on, and I think the love songs that I have been writing are to women for the first time in my life. I’ve been boy-crazy most of my life, but then I found my man. After becoming a mother, I have this whole different perspective and immense respect for women that I just wasn’t aware of prior to becoming a mother. A lot of the love songs I’ve been writing more recently have been celebrating womanhood and the feminine divine. It’s shifted into that gear, which is really beautiful.