From the moment she showed up to a huge crowd at New York’s Mercury Lounge more than 20 years ago, the singer and songwriter of Yeah Yeah Yeahs Karen O, born Karen Lee Orzolek, has been considered one of music’s most captivating performers.
During those early years as the sole vocalist in an explosive male-dominated music scene that spawned bands like the Strokes, Interpol, LCD Soundsystem and TV on the Radio, Karen wielded the microphone like a gatekeeper. -voice, simultaneously commanding and submitting to a crackling energy of bodily chaos and emotional catharsis. Many of these sweaty, beer-spitting exorcisms are on full display in the recently released film. Meet me in the bathrooma documentary adaptation by the music journalist Lizzy BonmanThe acclaimed 2017 book of the same name.
Realized by Dylan South and Will Lovelace, the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, but its domestic distribution seems timely, released just a month and a half after the last effort of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, cool it down, the band’s first record in nine years. With the 20th anniversary of the trio’s debut album, Fever to say, Also scheduled for next year, Karen has found herself in a unique time where her past is in constant conversation with her present. After recently playing two of the biggest shows of her band’s career at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, New York, and the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, she spoke with vanity lounge about the evolution of her performance, seeing a version of herself through archival footage, and being part of an art movement that could never be replicated today.
Last month, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs headlined two big shows in New York City and Los Angeles, where Linda Lindas and Japanese Breakfast opened. It must have been incredibly satisfying for you as an Asian American, to be able to uplift other Asian American musical artists, giving them the kind of opportunity that you may not have had. when you started.
It’s funny, because I really feel like it was such a mutually beneficial situation. I think in many ways Linda Lindas and Japanese Breakfast gave me an opportunity, elevating me and selling the greatest shows we’ve ever played in the United States. Michelle [Zauner]especially with his book, [Crying in H Mart], she just opened this view on Asian American artists and Asian American women, putting them much more on the radar. She has generated so much interest from her story. I feel like she opened a lot of doors for people to notice that I’m half-Asian again. Because I’ve been through the majority of my career where most topics of conversation were “what’s it like to be a woman in rock?” and so rarely asked about being biracial or having Asian heritage. And then with the Linda Lindas, just talking about sharing the shows with them, normally playing any kind of hometown show in New York, I don’t know what happens to me, but I usually get really dark. It’s so much, and the pressure, and there’s a lot of ghosts. There is an intensity to playing in New York. And if it wasn’t for the Linda Lindas literally dancing in unison during our soundcheck like they were in a musical – and just seeing them in this empty tennis stadium – it filled me with joy to see this freshness of their perspective and vision of the world where everything is just incredible. They did me a real solid by alleviating the anticipation anxiety I had about this show. It was meaningful for all of us and our fans. I was getting text messages from people saying, “I’ve never felt this represented before.” It was just such a happy and cathartic sight.
I have my copy of Meet me in the bathroom on my shelf and watched the documentary. When you think back to that past self, that freshness that you were describing with the Linda Lindas, what comes to mind in terms of growing up, not just as an artist but as a person?
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