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A Quietus Interview

Crush Depth: Karen O Interviewed
Lior Phillips , September 9th, 2014 10:05

Karen O speaks to Lior Phillips about expressing more of her persona from a standpoint that’s outside the construct of Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Crushes. Literature tells us that human desires know no bounds. We read Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet, we dive into Racine's Phaedra and land in a dark well of people acting on impulse devoid of all sense, explanation and control. More than anything, we're captured and strung into this deep pit of passion by intense short-lived globs of infatuation that eventually suffocate our periphery – it's lust! Yes it's passion! No it's crushing! All the mechanisms we acquire to fill the cavernous voids begin to unfurl. Everyone has craved the rapture of a crush before, but if you dig at another person's well from the outside you will only destroy its foundation, you have to get inside, you have to dive deep inside. You might land up sticking around while you wait for the water to get pulled up to have a taste. Heck, some people will be thirsty forever, and others will experience an immediate quenching and then move onto another wellspring. The act of crushing is a hard concept to swallow, and quite painful for most. Our minds are little attics that hoard things we treasure over time, but might never touch again, and occasionally you can't get past the past crush until you pull it from the depths of your internal puddle, face it heart-first, and reflect in its image.

This is precisely what Yeah Yeah Yeahs' linchpin, Karen "O" Orzolek is doing, and it all started eight years ago when she first dipped her toe into the dubious pool of solo songwriting. Over the phone from New York, she admits down the line, "I always knew I had other things that I wanted to tell people with my music, outside of what we do with Yeah Yeah Yeahs." The result is Crush Songs, her first-ever solo record and it's dramatic, provocative and painfully honest. It is some of the things you would expect from someone who runs across the stage singing, "As a fuck son, you sucked" but nothing how you'd expect it to sound. It's so lo-fi it's comparable to a pillow talk between two lovers. It triangulates into a conception of personal crush stories, with not one out of the short 16 tracks overpowering any other. From loss, to pain, to loneliness - all those admirable outbursts - it feels focused even if it's relentless and raw.

In this era, her spirited I-Will-Survive temperament shades singular moments with candour, which really authenticates an artist like her. It's refreshing to have someone we can continuously admire and enjoy. But below the strength she sounds wounded but not defeated, "Time away tearing me apart, I wear it on my heart I do, can't sleep I'm wasted" she sings during 'Day Go By'. Before the song approaches the end it collapses entirely and she leaps through quiet octaves, going from a whisper to a roar in a moment's breath, but assures me that, "What takes the most amount of courage is becoming vulnerable and bearing your soul."

Crush Songs' masterstroke is to open the escape hatch from her past love-recursions through songs that are liberated from the shackles of her punk rock and indie touchstones. Karen O can spackle on as many layers of deeply unpleasant or confessional diary reportage as she likes, she lets her past become her mouthpiece and that is all that matters.

One might expect this particular modicum of release, the collection of profoundly personal narratives delicately expressed using merely her voice and guitar, to feel liberating, but she refutes this immediately by explaining how terrified she feels. Even if her demeanor is proportioned perfectly for a public arena, she's always been prone to pain and faced her fears; on 'Poor Song' the hidden track at the end of 2003's Fever To Tell she begs, "Baby I know you're afraid of a lot of things, but don't be scared of love," an existing mantra she might still be reciting to herself. Her music, and her life has shifted exponentially between 2006 and 2014, though the common theme of love and loss remains even if the nature and tone she adopts to discharge it deviates from Yeah Yeah Yeahs' typified rock model.

Just think about your favorite book or movie for a moment, what is it that makes you like them at all? It's usually because the character has revealed some cherished human truth you connected with. This woman wants to reveal herself through intimate aural fixations, calling it "the soundtrack to what was an ever continuing Love Crusade." Karen O is becoming a singer who is at the peak of her powers and occupying her own orbit. Whether you like her strutting in familiar territory or suspended inside her own soup of memories, it must be interesting to face ones own crushing nostalgia from such a vantage point. To crush is a message insomuch as a declaration to moving on from it. It feels necessary. So necessary that it forms part of the album's title, and so required it's the very first word of this piece.

In conversation, O retreats into her cloud of laughter, but after a few moments pause, resurfaces growing chattier when she lands on the right topic, like her propensity for intimate gatherings, exploring strange territories in between Yeah Yeah Yeahs records and her infamous demo that leaked in 2006.

Usually, when a person endures a typically dark period in their life the perspective they gain tends to change their lives forever. I believe these songs were written during one of those periods for you, so how are you feeling about the release?

Karen O: I'm a little stressed you know! We're trying to put the live show together for Crush Songs and there's just generally a lot going on in my life, but it's all good things and I'm now doing pretty well now in comparison, but I guess I'm just a little nervous still.

Of course as expected, I can imagine it's quite frightening to release your first-ever solo album, especially considering songs of this nature. I really do love how you teamed up with Sofar Sounds to host the little listening parties around the globe before the album release. Have you played at any of the shows?

KO: Funny you mention that, I actually showed up to the New York one on Wednesday evening!

Did they know you were going to be there?

KO: [Laughs] It was in the middle of someone's living room and I kind of well, I was spotted by a few people I think, but I tried my best to sneak in just before they played the record. I actually landed up hanging out in someone's bedroom while they played the record which was probably the equivalent of being a film director and you hanging out while everyone's watching your film, but then you have to go speak afterwards.

How did the audience react listening to the record? Did they sit transfixed?

KO: It felt a little bit surreal and a little bit nerve wracking but they were a really supportive and friendly crowd. When we played it though, it was barely audible because it's New York City and there's just so much street noise.

Comparatively that must have been bizarre too, because you're so used to people flailing their arms about for a Yeah Yeah Yeahs gig and now this is such a soft record, it almost demands that you wear headphones.

KO: You're so right, this is all so different and it's the softest record I've ever put out, it's so quiet so you had to strain to hear us, but you know A for effort I think. I wasn't aware of the existence of Sofar Sounds before this record too, but now I couldn't really think of a better context to hear this record than like, in a living room and in a small group setting. I mean it's the perfect context for it because the record is just so intimate.

It really feels like you had an open-ended structure to build your narrative too. Was that freedom helpful in any way and do you believe the Yeah Yeah Yeahs longevity affords you with the freedom to indulge in side projects so easily?

KO: Oh yeah, definitely. It's a couple of things really; one thing is that I have a pretty strong voice and a lot of things to express so I've always felt pretty strongly about exploring in super strange territories in between our Yeah Yeah Yeahs records. I've always wanted to make music on my own and work with new people to express more of my persona, essentially from a standpoint that's outside the construct of Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It's just something that I feel I was planting the seed for really early on. You know, come to think of it, right after Fever to Tell. I always knew I had other things that I wanted to tell people with my music outside of what we do with Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I definitely think the experience and being fortunate enough to have success with Yeah Yeah Yeahs has really opened the space up and opened the doors to feel freer to explore. This record is not going to make me any money, it's just needing to come out of me.

It makes sense that the one project breeds confidence and then fuels the other's slightly more internalised conversation, and it's that relationship in music that I find completely fascinating. Do your songs still come to you in the same way that they did at the start, or has your own approach to writing changed over the years?

KO: People evolve, but do they ever change? I feel like I'm still writing songs, especially with these love songs, that probably come from the 12-year-old version of me and will always in some way, come from the 12-year-old me.

You were a rather wise 12-year-old then Karen!

KO: [Laughs] I know. It's weird because as an artist and a musician, my sensibility for hearing music and melodies has constantly been evolving, so has my ability to work with different people over the years - it's just gotten better. The thing is, I don't stop learning from each experience, but am I changing as a writer? I'm not so sure that I am actually.

Speaking about change and you evolving as an artist, I remember reading an article a few years back where you mentioned that writing a love song ballad is the ballsiest, most punk thing an artist can do.

KO: Oh it totally is yeah, and I stand by that completely. Gosh I even remember when I said that, I was referring to my ex-boyfriend's band Liars and you know what, they've written some really beautiful love songs in the past! But they would never play them live and I was always like, 'Come on man, don't be such a pussy!' Playing the harder stuff is definitely easier for people, but there is no courage in that. For me, what takes the most amount of courage is becoming vulnerable and bearing your soul, and not ever worrying about how the crowd is going to react to you playing soft sweet songs all of a sudden. It's punk rock to sing, write and perform love songs.

Which is practically what you're doing right now, and even the age-old tale of love and how vulnerability is necessary for it to truly ever work – it all demands a profoundly deeper type of strength too.

KO: Yeah! You're so right, I feel the same way, and you know you have to always take the leap, and you'll never know if you're leaping off a cliff and if you're going to fall flat on your face and break every bone in your body. When it comes to love it's all about taking a big risk for a big reward especially after you've been in love a few times and you know how painful it is to have your heart broken. When you've been burnt you have to bring even more courage to every new encounter every single time. Falling in love is exhausting.

When did you write this particular batch of songs?

KO: I wrote them in 2006 and actually, mostly 2007

You know, for years I've wanted to know more about that demo, KO At Home that some idiot leaked of your solo work back in 2006.

KO: Yes you know it really sucked!

I understand the idea of celebrity click-bait links, but that just felt obnoxious.

KO: It was the most disrespectful thing that has ever happened to me.

I hear you and it's really awful. I automatically assumed the songs on this album were the same songs that were leaked all those years ago, are they?

KO: You know it's funny you ask, because those songs were actually a different set of songs completely. They were songs of just me, messing around with a recording contraption that Dave Sitek [TV On The Radio] gave me around that time. Those songs were just... I don't know... quite frankly, I'm not as big of a fan of them! I thought the other day, 'What the hell was that stuff about?' I am a fan of these songs though, these songs that I'm actually releasing. You can imagine it was especially uncomfortable for me when those surfaced.

When did you write KO At Home?

KO: They were written around 2004.

So around the time your debut Yeah Yeah Yeahs album Fever To Tell came out - which actually makes me think of the track 'Maps' which covers a similar narrative to the song 'NYC Baby' on this album. You tackle – of course broadly speaking – the concept of falling in love, going on tour and then not having your lover close by.

KO: There's such a parallel - I didn't even think about that. It was like a recurring theme in my life, being on the road and being someone who is in love and trying to make it work but moving around all the time.

It definitely stood out, because I think that issue of how real desire is lacking in our daily lives is something that isn't going to fade with time, it's potentially going to get worse. But one of the most arresting moments on the album comes in the track 'Body' when you say, "There will always be someone else so make it right for yourself."

KO: I remember exactly where I was when I wrote and recorded that song. I was in a rental house at the top of a mountain in California. I actually used more effects over the guitar to make it sound a little more substantial.

It's a great track really, it fits perfectly in the little acoustic corner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' back catalogue, and you reach that ridiculous scream on that one, which sounds a little less confrontational and a little more confessional.

KO: That's probably the only one where I really lash out! I can't help it. You know that feeling when you're screaming on the inside? That's the way I felt.

But most of the songs are very personal and arrive with a lot less theatricality involved in comparison to those recorded by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, so has the gap between your more performative side and your personal side changed through the years?

KO: The story with these songs is that they were never really meant to be released or anything like that, they were just me sorting through my love life and my personal life by really just writing them and trying to make sense of my life and express those feelings and get it all out. At the time I felt I had to just get it all out my system, so the nature of these songs is just me, in a nutshell. They couldn't be more personal; every single song is about somebody or a situation in my love life. As far as shifting as an artist, it's impossible to extract the theatrics out of me! Even with some of the presentation on this, the shows will be mildly theatrical. The music is totally raw and bare, but the presentation is still going to be dramatic.

Is there an example of a song on this record that you might not have put out a few years ago?

KO: Yeah I mean [long pause] I'm hardly ready to put it out right now. I was having major heartburn problems before even that little video for 'Rapt' came out, because I'm forcing myself to really release it. Why? Well, what's that saying, "I'm ready as I'll ever be, but I'm not ready at all." It's such a simple reason why I am putting it out – I just thought some people would appreciate it and it might be meaningful for some, so I thought, instead of keeping it to myself it would be worth sharing.

Has releasing this album then, in some small way, moved you into a new place that will influence how the next Yeah Yeah Yeahs album comes out?

KO: Well this music is already about eight years old, so it's already been around for quite a long time. Releasing it is a big deal for me, but it's so subconscious and by the time we start writing the next Yeah Yeah Yeahs record, I never know what subconsciously is affecting me. Releasing this collection of songs will definitely affect me in a positive way, but I'm not sure yet how that's going to impact the next time around for writing. You know, we'll see when we get there. [Laughs]

Do you have any plans for a new album?

KO: We haven't actually starting writing for that yet, but I know we'll be working on another record in the near future.

Crush Songs is released this week via Julian Casablancas’ label Cult Records