Karen O, born Karen Lee Orzolek, was twenty-one years old when she took the stage with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for the first time. It was September, 2000, a Sunday night at Mercury Lounge, and they were opening for the White Stripes. The band—Karen, the guitarist Nick Zinner, and the drummer Brian Chase—had practiced together as a trio exactly once. Karen downed four margaritas, drenched herself in olive oil, and stepped into the persona that would catapult the Yeah Yeah Yeahs into the rock pantheon and turn her into a generational icon: a human live wire, snapping and sparking, as acute and raw and responsive as an exposed nerve.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were at the center of the early-two-thousands New York rock revival—a scene, as immortalized by Lizzy Goodman in the book “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” that was dominated by all-male bands like the Strokes and Interpol. The Y.Y.Y.s’ headlong sound—chords as bright and as yearning as the neon tubes in a Dan Flavin installation; precise, explosive drums and guitar; and Karen’s voice, an electric snarl that softens and trembles—has evolved, over four albums, without losing its center. So has Karen’s onstage presence. She became famous for onstage anarchy, swallowing the microphone and spitting full cups of beer into the audience, as captured in “There Is No Modern Romance,” a documentary from 2017. Today, her vibe is less GG Allin, more Freddie Mercury and Debbie Harry.
Karen is now forty-three, married to the British director Barnaby Clay, and the mother of a seven-year-old son. And yet, at heart, she remains a punk with the mannerisms of a restless teen-age boy. She has long talked of a split in her identity, between her shy real-life self and the wild person she becomes onstage. (Goodman has described her as an “exhibitionistic Boo Radley, a warped dervish onstage who disappears after the encore and is rarely seen in real life.”) What connects those two selves is guilelessness, a total reliance on instinct.
When we talked on Zoom, late in the summer, her name popped up as “Karen Clay.” She was wearing a Scorpions T-shirt ripped from shoulder to armpit, and her hair fell across her face in her signature lopsided mullet-shag. She was preparing for the release of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ fifth album, “Cool it Down,” at the end of September, on the indie label Secretly Canadian. Despite clocking in at less than thirty-five minutes, “Cool It Down” has an expansive sweep and is full of a galvanizing mercy. I told her 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,” came out in 2013, ending your contract with Interscope. How did you know it was time to make the new one?
I started to feel itchy to have new material in 2019. We’d been doing these back-catalogue celebratory shows, which were fun—there was no pressure to showcase anything new—but it was feeling a bit like we needed some fresh blood in here. And 2020 was supposed to be a cool year. We were going to headline Pitchfork Festival; we had all these things planned.
Obviously, that and everything else didn’t materialize, and in 2020 we had that shared sense, among other musicians and many other types of artists, of a profound separation from what we do. It dawned on me, I don’t know when we’re going to be able to play live again. I don’t even know when we were going to be able to be in the same room together again. It was sobering, especially because there’ve been times in our career where I was, like, Can I do this anymore? Do I have it in me? Will the muse visit me at all? But, for the first time, this was, Oh, you might not even have the choice.
But then, in 2021, you and Nick got together and started writing.
Once the vaccines were out. I had no idea what was going to happen. We had been through so much emotionally, but we hadn’t processed it. Still, to this day, I haven’t really processed it—this pandemic, and everything that happened before it: having a kid, four years of Trump.
For the first session we usually start with a really innocuous jam session. We, like, go to Nick’s basement and just mess around. You move around the room, play whatever you want—keys, guitar, bass, vocals. You get to twirl around and just tinker on anything. So we were jamming, playing some silly hooks, some super goth stuff, cracking ourselves up. We were giddy to be reconnecting with this process, which is like a lifeline for us. We did a few sessions like that, and pretty soon we decided to break our own rules a little bit. We work with Dave Sitek [of TV on the Radio], who’s produced all of our records, and feels like the fourth member of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I was, like, “I’m going to go through Dave’s folder because he’s got just thousands of pieces of music, and if there’s a piece I like, let’s just write on it.” And one of his pieces turned into “Spitting off the Edge of the World.” We did other new things, too—we’d never sampled anything before, but on “Fleez” we sample the ESG.
And “Burning,” the second single, interpolates Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons.
We’d never allowed ourselves this thing that hip-hop artists have been doing since the start—to nod to other artists, incorporate their work in ours. But, this time, we were just, like, “Let’s do whatever feels good.” And then it happened really fast: lyrics coming through and changing, 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 the two of us aren’t alone anymore. Certain songs that we’ve written in the past, including “Maps,” for instance, were like that.
This album feels like a concise roving around a real emotional center—a hard-earned sense of freedom, a sort of jagged desire for catharsis and collective release. The cover photo is of a woman falling across a clear blue sky, above a pit of flames. When did it feel to you that the album was going to be expressing what it does?
Well, the stakes have never felt higher, right? And souls have never felt more lost, you know? And I think that both of those things stoked the flames in my creativity.
I rely on songwriting, on the language of music, to guide me to my higher self. Because I get as lost as everybody else in my day-to-day. Like, as a person, right now, I’m struggling to keep my head above water. But when I make music it feels like I’m really tuning into a deeper truth—some sort of universal truth, something that’s brutal and comforting. I wanted to dive into that more than I ever had in my creative career. It felt for me, like—this might sound really like I’m bullshitting, like I’m full of myself. Like, you might think, She’s lost her fucking mind. . . .