Nine Perfect Minutes: Karen O

Text by Jaan Uhelszki

On Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ second album Show Your Bones, the New York trio totally upend their world, changing the band dynamic, their music and even trading Karen O’s rather seditious haircut for a sleeker bob. But as they say, everything is everything, and that transformation is reflected in the music, replacing their early raw power with a more dangerous yet measured calm that belies the psychic storms brewing beneath. YYY’s iconic singer Karen O – the spiritual descendent of both Iggy Pop and Blonde Redhead’s Kazu – talks to SOMA about the power of ex-boyfriends, potato salad, bad perms and the importance of timing.

On this album it seems like you’re a lot more naked and totally unabashed about speaking your mind. People say that it’s a more honest album. Did you feel that way? Did you feel tough enough to be that vulnerable, to be that exposed?
I kind of felt on one hand totally unaware of what I was doing because I was so sick of it. And then on the other hand I felt like I had to say these things or I’d die. There is a stick-to-your-guns approach to this album, and I felt it was a little bit like a war I was waging. I was naked – and I felt that I had to be more vulnerable in order to be stronger.

When you write songs, how do you know when an experience should become a song? It seems like there’s a real autobiographical nature in the way you write songs.
I know that there’s definitely themes, and I tend to stick to my own life, things that are just woven into the fabric of who I am. Usually the way that I write lyrics is I just grab a bunch of books and fan through to see whatever words really catch my attention. I’ll write down a bunch of words that catch my attention and sort of craft them into lyrics.

Was writing “Maps” like that?
It was and it wasn’t. That one lyric, “They don’t love you like I love you,” it was like a little love note.

That you got or you sent? That I sent. I sent to an ex-boyfriend, and that was a period where we were away from each other for a while, and the theme of it was, “Why are you with them? You know, like the person you’re with, and not me.”

I wish I didn’t know what that was like. I know. “They don’t love you like I love you,” like you shouldn’t be there, you should be with me. That’s what that album is, sort of the gist of it. That’s where that lyric came from, and it was an intensely pure expression of what I was feeling. I mean, it could be interpreted in a million different ways, but it’s a powerful thing.

Does it bug you that loving someone isn’t enough? Yeah. Sometimes love just isn’t enough. It’s always about timing. I think that’s the biggest thing. And I have a strange relationship with time. It runs throughout all the songs a lot. Like running out of time. I’m obsessed about it, and nothing is more profound to me.

You’re half-Polish and half-Korean. Were you always this incredibly beautiful and exotic? Did you feel like you were the beautiful outsider? No, no, no, no. No, are you kidding? Actually someone just sent an email to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, my high school yearbook picture from eighth grade, when I had a permanent, braces and I had bangs. A perm on my bangs as well? And I wear glasses but I wasn’t wearing them that day. And I probably started getting pimples at that I point too, so no, no, no, I was a goof. And my head was like three times bigger than my body, I was real thin. I was a total dork. And I was a really spastic kid, too, a real silly kind of goofball. I was totally on the outside all the time. Nothing really fell together until college probably. That’s when I got it together. But up to that point I was always really kind of awkward.

I always think there are different rules for the very beautiful.
Oh. I mean there’s totally a lack of development. I think it’s a strike against you, doesn’t work for you at all.

Is there something that would surprise fans about you, like something you do or something you long to do?
Let me see. Well, I do a lot of different stuff. Filmmaking is one of the more obvious ones. It’s what I went to school for, and then there’s also drawing and embroidering and cooking.

What’s the most rock thing you’ve ever done?
Oh, well, it was probably at South by Southwest. For one thing, spilling beer all over the front row of photographers so their bulbs were just blowing up in my face.

What about pushing Courtney Love into a bowl of potato salad?
That was all the same night, yeah. And on our way of getting kicked out, someone shoved me, and I guess I was like, “Man, I don’t like the dip on your table” or something. And before we knew it, [Love] had her head in it. Don’t know how that really happened. But she didn’t know who we were because we were all wearing the masks that we had stolen from Clinic.