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Karen O – spring 2019
Karen wears black-leaf jumper Y/Project, bodysuit Costume Studio, sequinned skirt Courrèges.Photography Clara Balzary, Styling Emma Wyman

Karen O: soft shock

She captured the chaos of the post 9/11-era like no other – on her new, Danger Mouse-produced solo album Lux Prima, the singer makes music for the new age of anxiety

Taken from the spring 2019 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here

One might not expect Karen O – frontwoman of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the “wildest, freest, dirtiest, most unencumbered rock star of her era”, according to Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom – to go straight in for a warm hug upon meeting a journalist for an interview. But she does, and, as a compromise for blowing past an attempted handshake, she offers the back of her hand, like a very gentle, reverse-high five. “Here, we can do one of these,” she says, laughing, as if either of us know what “these” are.

Having come up in the cacophony of New York at the height of post-9/11 paranoia, O has always coexisted as a punk-rock demon on stage and a somewhat shy, softly spoken woman in ‘real life’: in fact, the split personality is an exact product of that era’s particular mode of chaos. “To get ahead you needed a blend of swagger and humility,” says Goodman, whose definitive oral history of the scene reminded the world why O is the rightful queen of rock’n’roll’s 00s rebirth when it came out in 2017. “In my opinion, part of what has kept Karen so remarkably sharp for so remarkably long is that she has stayed so connected to that crucial razor’s edge.”

Today, nestled in a booth of a cafe on the east end of Sunset Blvd – she’s lived in LA on and off since 2004 – O sips a glass of rosé and talks about having just turned 40. Her birthday, as it so happens, had fallen on Thanksgiving Day. “It kind of made sense,” says O, reflecting on the full-circle moment, “just to have those reminders of everything you’re grateful for in your life.” Right now, the singer’s reasons to be cheerful include her son, Django, her filmmaker husband Barnaby Clay, and her parents, with whom she was headed off to hand-make dumplings with that very afternoon (her mother is Korean, her dad Polish). Then there is the upcoming release of her new solo record, Lux Prima, a collaboration with acclaimed producer Danger Mouse. “But, yeah, it’s an interesting one,” she says of the birthday milestone. “My mother-in-law wrote a card that said, ‘Welcome to your 40s – now you have both youth and experience!”

Cutting her teeth in the New York City club scene of the early 2000s was “a really specific moment of catharsis”, says O. Speaking on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ first show – opening for The White Stripes, no less – in a Dazed profile from 2006, she said: “I was too wasted to know what I wanted to be like on stage. I was gone, really nervous. I poured a bottle of olive oil over my head, wore a white wifebeater and covered my nipples with two black hearts made of duct tape. The smile and expression on my face was... I don’t know, you’d think it was heaven on earth for me.”

“We were doing shows like there would be no tomorrow,” O reflects on the era now, illustrating the accelerated fervour which helped catapult the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and peers such as The Strokes and LCD Soundsystem to global attention. “(Because) there was a point where we really thought there might not be a tomorrow. It was this really untethered celebration of youth and life and self-expression.”

“Up to now there’s nothing that’s been more formative than my (early) years with the band,” continues O. “It was super-hard; it was so fucking hard. It really took its toll, but it was so rewarding. Just being a woman in that position... It’s wild, man. I look back and I can’t even believe how the fuck I did that.”

Fuelled as it was by an amalgamation of anxiety and aggression, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ debut album Fever to Tell personified the zeitgeist of the Lower East Side renaissance. (The instantly iconic, Technicolor sleeve art was designed by SSION singer Cody Critcheloe.) With later releases, O was drawn to an increasingly stripped-back sound: on “Cheated Hearts”, from the band’s sophomore album Show Your Bones, her voice shone in ways that early hit “Maps” foretold, while O’s first solo record, 2014’s Crush Songs, was so bare it was basically a collection of minute (or so)-long bedroom demos.

Now, on Lux Prima, O sounds expansive, palatial, and retro-modern. The album seamlessly spans the continuum between atmospheric lullabies – “Ministry of Love”, a track O calls a “return to nature” – and ass-kicking anthems like “Woman”. On the title track, she presides over a luxuriously cinematic, nine-minute-long epic that evokes everything from 1960s French art films to a feeling of floating through the cosmos, or staring through a rainy window on a New York City subway. “More than any other record I’ve done to date, I want the listener to have as much licence to have their own experience with it,” she says. “It’s pretty dreamy and it takes you places, and I just feel I don’t want to get in the way of that process.”

The album marks O’s first partnership with prolific, genre-agnostic producer Brian Burton, better known as Danger Mouse (Gorillaz, Broken Bells, The Black Keys). “I think that the greatest gift is to collaborate with other people, because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” she explains. “And when you collaborate with someone for the first time it gives you the chance, even after doing this for over 20 years or whatever, to be naive again and return to innocence, creatively.” For Burton, Lux Prima’s expansive mood was dictated more by the songs that O was writing in the studio than by any desire to create something ‘epic’. “The album really just grew in scope the more we were finishing the demos,” he explains. “(The more) Karen was singing melodies and lyrics, the more lush the songs needed to feel.”

“We were doing shows like there was no tomorrow, because we thought there might not be a tomorrow” – Karen O

Touching on a trend towards isolation among musicians as driven by ever-improving recording and production techniques, O talks about her concerns: “It’s amazing that you can make an entire record alone in your bedroom, but it’s not necessarily the healthiest thing. So much of the magic in art – and definitely with music above all else – is about collaboration and what happens with creative chemistry between people. Like with (Yeah Yeah Yeahs bandmates) Nick (Zinner) and Brian (Chase), it makes no sense whatsoever, we’re completely different people, but for some reason you get us in a room and something happens, and I couldn’t compare it to anything else I’ve ever done.”

The pair worked on the album in short bursts for just under a year, a time-frame which overlapped with a tumultuous moment in American culture: the 2016 presidential race. “We were doing a session close to the election, and shortly after as well, and I felt to a certain degree that I needed some comforting from the blow of how things turned out,” says O, describing the immense disappointment and dismay she felt following Donald Trump’s surreal victory. “Especially in what felt for me, personally, like a loss for women. So I got quite riled up about that and just needed some comfort, because everything felt so uncertain and aggressive and against, you know, what felt like a lot of progress going in the right direction.”

Some of the tracks on Lux Prima stand out as songs “that felt like me working through what was going on” after the election, says O. On “Woman,” which “came totally like a bolt out of the blue”, she responds to the emotional rawness and resurfaced trauma she witnessed from the women in her life following Trump’s wildly offensive campaign trail, throughout the rise of the #MeToo movement and, more recently, with the controversy surrounding Brett Kavanaugh, confirmed as a US supreme court justice despite facing accusations of sexual assault. “I learned about a lot of my friends’ experiences with (sexual assault and abuse),” she says, noting the track was spawned from a deep sense of protectiveness O felt for women as a whole. “I feel more sensitive than I have in a long time, and it’s easy to feel numb from the onslaught of everything.”

Reflecting on professor Christine Blasey Ford’s powerful testimony against Kavanaugh before a panel of senators in October, O says, “I feel really positive about women being able to empower themselves to tell their stories without the shame they’ve carried over the years... and that felt like a step in the right direction, right? But then, of course, (Kavanaugh) got nominated...” She trails off, distancing herself from yet another exasperated discussion about how messed up America is. “(‘Woman’) is definitely my ‘fed up’ song. Fed up with the monkey-business of politics. It’s a song to (make you) feel like you’re taking the power back.”

What is apparent at this historical moment of stress is a shared experience of hair-trigger emotion and dismay not entirely dissimilar from the world out of which the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Karen O, explosively emerged. (“I’m curious to see what comes from this age of anxiety,” O muses. “This is, like, the golden age for therapists! They’ve got their private yachts.”) But, says the musician, at least leaning into that rawness can make you truer to yourself and your art: “Authenticity comes from being able to be in touch with how vulnerable you are.” O cites Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-nominated film Roma as a glimpse into what kind of art is inspiring her today: “It’s a super personal story, and (Cuarón) is obviously a genius on many fronts, but there’s just something about it that’s so authentic,” she says. “It’s a masterpiece, and so inspiring that it really feeds the soul. It’s something I’ll always remember.”

Speaking on the value of vulnerability, O continues: “I feel like most artists who are worth their salt start from square one – creatively, at least – (thinking) they don’t know if they’re any good any more, if they’ve got anything to offer, what it’s gonna be, if it’s gonna be a disaster or a revelation.” Lux Prima consists of the first songs she’d written since becoming a mother in 2015 and, for the musician, creating the album felt a lot like starting anew. Her universe has expanded in a multitude of ways, a fact that’s reflected in this new, spacious era of music. “I mean, bringing life into this world is as fucking natural as it gets! Maybe it’s a fantasy, but there is just something comforting about (the idea of) nature being a mother.”

“(After the election) I needed some comforting from the blow of how things turned out, especially in what felt for me like a loss for women” – Karen O

“A lot of this record for me in general has just been about more deeply identifying with being a woman, being a mother and a bringer of life,” says O. “Climate change is a big concern for me, as well. (So) I’m kind of working on the elemental and cosmic levels as well as, like, the here and now. This music was a process to help me heal, to get through what felt like a couple of blows.”

For Goodman, though Karen O has moved on from the days of dousing herself in olive oil on stage, she continues to shine as a beacon of provocation. “She’s never gotten safe, even as she’s moved with grace and confidence into the spaces that have opened up for her with success,” she says. “She’s still just a girl in a room figuring out how to land on something that turns her stomach or makes her cry or scream or laugh or quiver. She’s still living, creatively, in that unsafe place where the id rules and you are just showing up, hoping to find a way to feel something big, so you can share it.”

Lux Prima is out on March 15

Hair Dylan Chavles at Art Department using Bumble and bumble., make-up Yumi Lee at Streeters using Dior Beauty, nails Tracy Clemens at Opus Beauty using Flora 1761, photography assistants Robbie Corral, Sidney Meret, styling assistant Marcus Cuffie, hair assistant Andree Rodrigues, tailor Hasmik Kourinian, production Mini Title