If you’re looking for the punk-rock girl from New Jersey, you’ll find her in West Hollywood, sipping wine.
Karen O has changed quite a bit over the past year. Cutting into her veal at the upscale Italian restaurant Madeo, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer looks more understated than the bruised superhero she’s played on MTV. Her asymmetrical mullet has been shorn to a bowl cut — a softer, semiandrogynous look that makes you instantly nostalgic for kindergarten and early Beatles. She’s wearing a classic black hoodie and a bright, chunky necklace. To her far left is Adam Sandler at his table. Behind him is Ben Kingsley. Classical music is playing and napkins are creased on laps. You’d think a place like this would make any woman who’s ever spit her beer on purpose want to take the first Greyhound back to New York.
Well, you’d be wrong.
Ever since she moved to Los Angeles in early 2004, Karen O (full name Orzalek), 27, has been going through a process familiar to anyone who has ever started over in this city: self-reinvention. When she left the East Coast, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had released their debut full-length, Fever to Tell, a lo-fi shot of raw bravado that helped them rise from New York art band to a Grammy nomination and a hit single. And Karen’s scabby-kneed sexuality had become a will-to-power for kids raised too late for riot grrrl. Spewing drinks on her audience, tonguing microphones, and rocking sequined leotards in a way that could get you kicked off the U.S. figure-skating team, she’d turned herself into the face of fuck-you feminism at a time when virtually no female rock stars existed. But there were setbacks, as well — falling and nearly breaking her back in Australia, splitting with her boyfriend, filmmaker Spike Jonze. Playing out her personal drama onstage had also taken its toll.
“Living in New York in my early 20s, I had enough angst to go around,” she says, her distinctive voice almost drowned out by a nearby discussion of the upcoming Oscar race. “But then the well dried up because, on the road, it’s expected of me every night. I had to deal with all this free-floating anxiety. It was like 26 years of crap, this black cloud floating over my head. Then when I came out here, I chipped away at that cloud with a fucking toothpick, and I saw that the cloud had a face. I was staring at myself.”
Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner, who was Karen’s roommate in Brooklyn, New York, in 2001, echoes her thoughts: “When I was younger, music would always come from a place of frustration or depression. And when the Yeah Yeah Yeahs started, it was about opposing that idea. We wanted to write uplifting pop songs that could make us happier. But trying to keep true to that vision means shutting off a large part of yourself. And you can only hold down depression and frustration so long before they pop back up.”
Show Your Bones, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ dark and deeply personal second album, reflects that long look inward. Despite (or maybe because of) the turmoil, it’s an emotionally rich statement that also fleshes out their stark, in-the-red sound — an impressive feat at a time when many young bands spend their careers trying to replicate their first record.
To read the rest of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs cover story, pick up the April issue of Spin on newsstands everywhere, or subscribe now!