Wild Thang: Karen O

Photo: Wattie Cheung/Camera Press/Retna

Karen O, captivating lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, first worked with director Spike Jonze on a video for the band’s single “Y Control.” (The two also dated for a while.) For his latest project, Where the Wild Things Are, Jonze asked the songwriter to compose her first soundtrack. O spoke with Logan Hill.

Were you a wild child?
I guess everyone has their wild side, and mine was halfway between being really shy and kind of a goofy spazoid. I never bit anyone, like Max, but I slapped a lot of butts.

I don’t know if you’ve seen kids do that—butt-slapping. Like, slapping the butts of my grandparents and babysitters. When I wasn’t shy, I overcompensated.

What were your influences when you were writing?
I wanted to pay homage to some of my favorite movie music, like Simon and Garfunkel in The Graduate or Cat Stevens in Harold and Maude—I’d say especially Cat Stevens: organic melodies, really simple performances, a lot of emotion. One of the influences that Spike brought to me initially was the Langley Schools Music Project [a children’s choir covering pop songs]. These kids sing really complex, emotional songs like David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and the Beach Boys’ “In My Room.” The songs are all sort of jangly and imperfect, but the heart behind it kills you.

Your soundtrack is made up of instruments you might find in a classroom: xylophone, acoustic guitar, piano, organ.
We wanted it to be immediately familiar—like you’ve known the songs your entire life. I will sacrifice any formality for just the right spirit and feeling. We used a lot of the first mixes because as soon as you start messing around and trying to make things perfect, the feeling goes missing and it’s hard to get back.

The song “Hideaway” is flat-out tragic. It doesn’t feel like kids’ music—it’s more heartbreaking than anything you’ve done with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
I didn’t want to write music for children, I wanted to write music for everybody but that children could relate to. We were writing to pretty raw dailies—they hadn’t even assembled the film yet—so it probably reflects that footage.

This film isn’t the first time Jonze created scary images with kids. The “Y Control” video involved psycho-looking children dancing around a dead dog.
Yeah, with Spike it’s always a big kids’ club—kids trapped in grown-ups’ bodies—with all that wacky spazoid stuff brewing under the surface.

Where the Wild Things Are
Warner, October 16

Wild Thang: Karen O