‘I just wanted to write a love song that stands the test of time’: Karen O on her best work

From her punky breakthrough to her David Lynch collaboration, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer takes us through her back catalogue

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

It is July 2001, and an EP with a 22-year-old frontwoman on its cover is flying out of independent record shops, reaching No 1 on the UK indie chart. Her picture is cropped like a Polaroid: only the shaggy ends of a short bob, her full lips and a necklace on her bare chest can be seen. Bought from an East Village S&M store, it reads “MASTER”, which felt a one-woman fuck-you to the boys-and-guitars indie world at the time. “That was a selfie before its time!” says the woman on that cover today: Karen Orzolek AKA Karen O. “This was my headspace: bratty, complicated, angsty, sensitive 22-year-old living in New York at the turn of the millennium. I still look at that and I see that.”

Eighteen years later, Orzolek is on the phone in in office of her director husband Barnaby Clay, in their Los Angeles apartment. Bang was written in another life: in one night, with other songs from that first EP, in Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ guitarist Nick Zinner’s Brooklyn flat; she already knew drummer Brian Chase from her studies at Ohio’s Oberlin College. Orzolek was enamoured of the lo-fi aesthetic of the 2000 ESG compilation South Bronx Story at the time (“it was so stripped down, so badass”). PJ Harvey’s 4-Track Demos had also had a huge impact. “The fact that she’d done it by herself with a four-track, just let loose, and completely unbridled – she taught me that I could do that.”

A shy, well-behaved child who still liked writing tender songs, something happened to Orzolek when she became a frontwoman, she says. She let herself go. “New York audiences back then were half awake, half asleep, their arms folded, and I wanted to rock that boat. Bang was me totally peacocking. And I loved it.”

Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Our Time

This solo Orzolek composition, a soft epic, ended the band’s first EP. “It was one of the earliest songs I wrote on my own. And me becoming a songwriter … it came as a complete surprise.” At the opposite end of the EP to Bang, Our Time reveals the other side of Orzolek’s split personality, she says. Originally a song known as Year to Be Hated, released on the 2000 compilation Yes New York, Orzolek had known that the lyric had legs. “Time to Be Hated felt like a slogan. It was something I wanted to stamp on to the walls!”

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