Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O talks about going it alone and her new solo album Crush Songs

Orzolek is releasing her first solo album, Crush Songs, a muted, tender, and, in her words “voyeuristically personal” 14-track, 25-minute collection of lo-fi songs of love and longing

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People are usually very disappointed when they meet me,” Karen O claims with a laugh, before delicately biting down on a beef slider.

“It comes as a shock that the me they see up there on stage is not the me that they get all the time.” For the past 14 years, Karen O – real name Orzolek – has fronted the art rock band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and become famed for her high-energy, often seemingly unhinged stage persona, a howling, growling, shoe-banging dervish, smeared in mascara and clad in an array of outlandishly theatrical costumes. “I could never shake that girl-who-spits-beer tag either,” she shrugs. “I only ever did it twice, maybe three times, and only ever spat beer on myself. But once was in front of the world’s press, at SXSW, which probably didn’t help.”

It’s a pavement-crackingly hot New York afternoon and we’re in the Great Jones Café, a tiny diner and long-time hangout of the band, who, along with the Strokes and the White Stripes, led a noisy rock revival in the early Noughties. And while the spectacle of a battle-ready Karen O striding in, sporting a glittering ostrich feather cape and a gas mask, would be thrilling, even her low-key look is cooler than most of us could muster given a month to prepare: grey skinny jeans, pointy lace-ups and a vintage Isaac Mizrahi blouse with a diamond pattern that matches her original 1950s sunglasses. There’s not a hint of a mascara smear, only her trademark scarlet lipstick, and it’s all very far from being disappointing.    

Tomorrow, 35 year-old Orzolek releases her first solo album, Crush Songs, a muted, tender, and, in her words “voyeuristically personal” 14-track, 25-minute collection of lo-fi songs of love and longing. Many of the tracks were written and recorded alone, in hotel rooms, and their original raw sound remains. It’s a world away from the thrashing guitars and dancey throbs of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ four albums, and is, she says “pure Karen Orzolek”.

“I have friends who are producers who’ve been trying to get me to do a very produced, upbeat kind of ‘Karen-O-goes-solo-dance-revolution-record’,” she says, depositing a pool of ketchup next to a giant stack of sweet potato fries. “But there’s so much of that out there in the world. It doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot out there ... about just, like, navigating through your love life .... ” 

Much of it was written back in 2006 and 2007, a bleak time for Orzolek. She’d recently broken up with the film director Spike Jonze (“He’s in there somewhere,” she says of the album. “But probably less than people think; there are other significant exes in there too.”) and relations within the band were so tense she had moved across the country, from New York to LA, to give herself some space. So, why release these songs now, I ask. She pauses for thought. “They were hanging around and taking up space in my head and my heart, and I just felt I wanted to share them.” 

Her solo adventure in no way signals the death of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, she assures me. “I spent those four albums feeling like we were building something, and now it feels like we’re established, we’ve arrived, so there’s just more room to do other stuff too.” In the past few years, she’s also written and performed the soundtrack to the film Where The Wild Things Are, and an Oscar-nominated song for last year’s Her (both directed by Jonze, demonstrating a highly evolved friendship between the ex-lovers), as well as Stop the Virgens, her ambitious, slightly bonkers “‘psycho opera” which premiered in Brooklyn in October 2011. “I’m not as interested in doing records for records’ sake these days, I’m more curious about musical storytelling and entertainment,” she says. 

Even if the story is that of one’s own misery? “Heartbreak is one of the feelings that makes you feel most alive,” she enthuses. “I mean, it totally reduces you to rubble, but you don’t feel it very often in your life, and once you’re settled, you’re settled, so who doesn’t want to revisit that melodrama and rekindle some of those feelings?”

“And some of those songs are about the process of actually finding the one that I ended up with,” she continues, a little dreamily. In 2011, she married the British film director, Barnaby Clay. “You don’t experience a lot of falling in love in your life either, and who doesn’t want to revisit that moment too?”

Born in South Korea, Orzolek grew up in New Jersey, the daughter of a Korean mother and Polish father. From an early age, she says, she was gripped by the sort of crushes that inspired this album. “I was a chronic crusher, totally boy crazy, from when I was tiny,” she laughs. “I remember being about five and checking boys out, thinking: Mmhmm, I’m going to get my mitts on him. But I didn’t actually have a real boyfriend until I went to college.”

She studied at Oberlin, the liberal arts college in Ohio, latterly famous as Lena Dunham’s alma mater, before transferring to New York’s Tisch Academy of the Performing Arts. “So there were a lot of crushes, a lot of years of pining and unrequited love.”

Clay was initially also a crush. “I couldn’t look straight at him for a while when we started dating,” she giggles. The couple met seven years ago in the Peasant Bar, a few blocks away on Elizabeth Street. “Our friends used to run it, and one day, he walked in with his cousin, Tristan, who I’d known since I was about 20.” Orzolek becomes brilliantly animated when recounting their courtship. “He’d just moved here from London, and I scooped him right up,” she says, laughing gleefully, sweeping her arm around, claw-like and making a gobbling sound. “He hardly had a minute to glance at all the pretty ladies wandering around before I snatched him.”

She was still living in LA at the time (“So it was hardly fair at all,” she says, not appearing in the least bit apologetic), but she soon moved back to New York to join Clay. This year, however, they have also bought a house in Echo Park, LA, and now split their time between the two. “New York just brings out the workaholic in me – it’s almost impossible not to be a workaholic here,” she says. “But I need that abrasive energy, that call to arms. When I’m in LA it’s the opposite – you’ve got to remember to stay on the ball there, because it’s so laid back. There isn’t that constant energy of ambition and there are so many more opportunities to just chill the fuck out.”

She has struggled in the past with the pressures of touring, suffering severe burnout from the itinerant life on the road. The forthcoming live dates, therefore, are limited and carefully chosen – 10 nights in small venues in New York, LA, Berlin and London (where she will play Bush Hall). Will she adopt a new stage persona for this new set of “dreamy and intimate” performances? “I don’t have an answer to that yet,” she says, after lengthy, quiet contemplation. “I can’t plan these things. I’ve just got to show up and see what comes out.”

“That’s kind of what I did with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs initially, even though it was after six margaritas,” she laughs. “This time it won’t be after six margaritas.” One element she can confirm is that Christian Joy, her friend and long-time costume-maker, has the outfits in hand. “Let’s face it,” she grins. “I’m not going to show up in my jeans and T-shirt.”

That really would be disappointing.

‘Crush Songs’ is released tomorrow. Karen O will be playing Bush Hall, London on 4 and 5 Oct