“I guess I’m deeply connected to my inner child,” says singer-songwriter Karen O, giggling on the other end of the line. “It’s something you’re supposed to giggle after saying, right? But it’s true. I honestly have a direct connection to that inner child. I think most artists do – being able to connect to the feeling of being a 9- or 12-year-old.”
Or 13, which is how old Anne Frank was when she hid with her family in an Amsterdam house for two years during the Holocaust, only to be discovered by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps just prior to the war’s end (only her father, Otto Frank, made it out alive).
“I’d flip through Anne’s diary, read a passage here and a passage there, and connect with how she felt, or how I felt when I was 12 or 13,” says O, recounting how she worked on the soundtrack for Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman’s latest animated feature, “Where is Anne Frank.”
“When you’re that age, everything is a huge drama – even the little things. I connected with that feeling and simply started humming, like someone dreaming. I thought of Anne, lying in her room, looking at the shadows on the wall, and humming. Little tunes, little hums. Very intimate. I recorded myself humming on my iPhone and sent it to Ari. It evolved from there.”
Reminded of O’s method, Folman smiles. “Right, those hums! I’d wake up in the morning and receive an email with a hum from LA. It was so much fun! It all started with the hums Karen recorded on her phone. It’s unique. Most musicians creating music for a movie wouldn’t send such a raw recording to the director. They’d sit in the studio with a computer, create a simulation with instruments, and then you’d receive it – it’d take some time. But Karen, she just sits, watches the different clips, whistles, hums and emails them through. There’s something wonderfully loose about her.”
In most cases, those hums would then take on a more developed form and become the beautiful songs or instrumentals we hear on the final soundtrack. Occasionally, though, they remained in their original form.
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“I think in one of them we even used the original hum from a phone recording,” O says. “We were unable to recreate that emotion. It was a kind of fleeting moment, something that floated into my head and couldn’t be captured again.”
This is not the first time O has been humming themes for movies. She did it on the wonderful 2009 soundtrack for “Where the Wild Things Are,” Spike Jonze’s adaptation of the children’s classic by Maurice Sendak.
Folman is an admirer of both the movie and soundtrack. “I think it’s one of the most underrated films in history. I’m crazy about it – there’s no other way to say it,” he enthuses. “And Karen’s soundtrack is, in my opinion, one of the best soundtracks ever made. I used to fly to film festivals a lot when it came out, and I had this ritual that whenever I got on a plane, I’d listen to the soundtrack in the time between sitting down and taking off. I did this dozens, if not hundreds, of times and thought: As soon as I get the chance, I’ll ask her” about working together. “She has this quality that allows her to wound you with a single line, effortlessly. Very minimalistic. It gets into your veins.”
When Folman eventually approached O and asked her to pen the soundtrack for “Anne Frank,” she was excited and agreed immediately. She later added Ben Goldwasser, one half of indie rock band MGMT, to work on it as well. “The contract stipulated that she contribute 11 instrumental tracks and one song,” Folman says. “Thanks to COVID, I got a lot more from her – 27 tracks and four songs. She bombarded me.”
O says the biggest challenge was figuring out how to write music for the character of Kitty – the fictional character Anne addressed all her diary entries to, and who in Folman’s movie bursts out from the written page and visits 21st-century Amsterdam in search of Anne, unaware of the fate that befell her.
“It puzzled me, how to write for Kitty,” O says. “Anne was simpler: she’s a star, she loves to steal the show. She explodes with emotion and an inner world, hope and tragedy. That’s so embedded into Anne that I couldn’t figure out how to write the music for Kitty.
“Eventually, I realized that Kitty embodies the freedom Anne longs for when she’s hiding, and that her music should express the passage between experiencing the world through a tiny crack in the window and opening that window and going out into the world,” she explains. “When important gates open in young people’s lives – the first time they fall in love, when they lose someone, the biggest initiation rituals – maybe that’s what I was trying to do with Kitty: to express some of those emotions through music.”
The last outbreak
Karen O was born Karen Lee Orzolek in Busan, South Korea, in 1978. Her father is an American of Polish descent and her mother Korean, and they moved to New Jersey when Karen O was growing up. So did her East European roots have any influence on her decision to get involved with a movie about the Holocaust? “I don’t know,” she responds. “The truth is, I don’t know a lot about my father’s family. He doesn’t talk a lot about his roots. But from what I know generally, both Poland and Korea are countries that were occupied and had oppression and a lot of suffering. It could be that some of that history trickled down to me somehow, but certainly not in a straightforward way.”
O rose to fame some 20 years ago as lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, part of that wave of mainly New York-based groups that emerged at the turn of the century – bands like the Strokes, the White Stripes and Interpol, and also James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, also featuring guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase, supported Depeche Mode in Tel Aviv back in 2009. In retrospect, that era was the last truly electrifying outbreak of rock music.
Looking back now, does it seem like a different life?
“Yes, absolutely,” she laughs, “especially after the pandemic. I feel like I’m having a different life from the one I had before, regardless of COVID. Starting out in New York at the age of 21-22, before technology was the main way we communicate with others – that definitely feels like a different life.”
O was the only woman on the front lines of New York’s rock ’n’ roll resurrection. But the thing that made her such a total character, the kind whose charms you couldn’t help falling for, was the complete freedom she projected. Journalist Lizzy Goodman’s book “Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011,” was published in 2017 and O is one of its undisputed stars. Everyone speaks with a sense of awe about her liberating spirit and the inspiration they derived from it.
“The most drunk I’ve ever been in my life is definitely with Karen, and the most trouble I’ve ever gotten into in my adult life is probably with Karen, and the most fun I’ve had has probably been with Karen,” said Dave Sitek, who fronted the band TV on the Radio. “It’s just her ability to defend the sandbox against the adults. She defends the right to just be creative and follow your bliss,” he told Goodman.
In an interview, Goodman described Karen O as the sound of freedom and the purest expression of the spirit of the time.
Guitarist Kid Congo Powers, a former member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and The Gun Club, described O like this: “She’s totally unselfconscious. I don’t even know if she knows that she’s going for it or not, and that’s the beauty of it. She’s completely in the moment and that’s all you can really ask from a singer.”
“I think my freedom and not being selfconscious have to do with the fact that my life was very restrained until I started making music”, O explains. “I was pretty shy as a kid. I never felt like I belonged. It also has to do with my origin: I never experienced racism being half Asian, but I always felt like an outsider. The most interesting things in my life happened inside my head, in fantasy. And when we started the band and I suddenly realized I could express all these great emotions roaring inside me on stage – it was like a gate was opened; a license to be completely free. To let go. It was like a revolution for me. I rebelled against my holding back. I went to the opposite place. I let myself escape all the restrictions that were placed upon me by my environment and the people I grew up with.
“What further strengthened my rebelliousness was the fact I was the only woman on that music scene,” O continues. “Rock ’n’ roll is such a male genre, and there’s an altar in front of which musicians kneel – the altar of rock ’n’ roll legacy, with all these male icons. Since there are so few women in rock, they don’t have an altar they’re able to kneel before. I didn’t feel I worshipped someone who came before me; I had no idea what I was doing. My approach was ‘Let’s give it a try and see what happens.’ I felt the rush of freedom and rebellion because I wasn’t tied to any tradition of ‘This is how it’s done.’ What came out was unaware, and I really enjoyed the sweetness of that freedom.”
Karen O’s lack of selfconsciousness also included the freedom not to look perfect on stage or in photo shoots. “Think of someone like Madonna,” O says. “She broke boundaries and was considered a rebel, but she always looked perfect. Her videos, the choreography, the show – it was all totally designed. I was the opposite of that. If you look at almost every picture of me on stage, to this day it’ll always be the most unflattering. I sweat. I have a double chin. All the dirt on the stage floor somehow sticks to me. Cigarette ash is all over the place. I shout and my face gets twisted. It was in defiance of the way music should supposedly look. There was something extremely liberating about it. The minute I tasted that freedom, I felt: Fuck yeah! This is how it should be.”
Until, at some point, you inevitably became more aware, at least to some extent.
“Yes. You can’t be free of selfconsciousness forever. When we started getting noticed and the hype grew around us, and people in the media and in the music world started taking us seriously, something changed. It got me very confused. There was no longer the innocence of the beginning, when you’re as free as you’ll ever be in your life, before the world pays attention.”
‘It was a moment’
Looking back at her nascent rock years through the eyes of a woman now in her 40s, O has an interesting reservation about the mind-set that characterized her and her peers in early 2000s New York.
“We grew up and came of age in a time where postmodern thought was in fashion: Question everything. Kill your idols. Go against the institutions,” she says. “I think that’s healthy up to a certain point. But when that’s the only perspective, it becomes very cynical – and I think that prevented us from fully experiencing our moment. Because it was a moment, what we achieved. It was a different moment from other moments, but we felt uncomfortable being in it.
“There was a lot of self-doubt because of that postmodern mind-set. I think the generation that followed us didn’t have that problem. They grew up in a world that encouraged them to appreciate themselves and celebrate their achievements. We didn’t have that in our generation. I regret...” She pauses, perhaps regretting that choice of word. “Don’t get me wrong, we were happy,” she resumes. “It was a wonderful time. But as for our own self-esteem, we didn’t have it like we should have.”
In June 2021, Interview magazine connected O with another Korean-American musician, Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner, who was born 10 years after the Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer. Toward the end of their conversation, O said with typical forthrightness that she wonders whether she’s still relevant these days.
When asked now if she’s still worried about her relevance, she initially says yes, but then questions that and discusses her contribution to the representation of women, especially Asian women, in rock.
“I feel there’s been a massive change in the representation of Asian-American women in culture,” she says. “It wasn’t like that five years ago. Not even three years ago. I’ve been performing for 22 years and I’m thrilled that, inadvertently, I helped pave the way and strengthen the representation of women in rock, especially Asian-American women. I see musicians younger than me like Mitski and Japanese Breakfast, and a lot of others. In some way, it makes me feel less bothered by that question of whether I’m still relevant.”
“And there’s my band too,” she continues. The last Yeah Yeah Yeahs album came out in 2013. Add the pandemic to this long hiatus, and you could be forgiven for thinking there’s little chance of the band ever releasing more music. Even during its heyday, the band was known for its refusal to do what the music industry expected, which led some to call them the No No Nos. However, it seems the band is actually in a Maybe Maybe Maybes state of mind right now.
“During the pandemic, I was struck by the fear that I may never get on stage again or be on the road with my band – who in many ways are my family,” says O, whose actual family consists of her partner, English film and music video director Barnaby Clay, and their 6-year-old son. “But we’re back playing and we’re working on an album that will come out soon. I’m grateful for it at the deepest possible level.”