For Karen O, frontwoman of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, 2009 has proved to be a transformative year. After nine years as the poster girl for alternative/post-punk/garage-styled rock — playing mostly small venues in big cities — her band is not only headlining for the commercial masses at more formidable showcases like L.A.’s Greek Theater but earning Grammy and other recognition along the way.
Even more striking, however, is O’s transition into film scoring. Her music for “Where the Wild Things Are,” with an assist from Carter Burwell, bears her unmistakable indie stamp, and also captured the attention of the Recording Academy, garnering a nomination in the best song written for film category for “All Is Love.” It is also vying in the Oscar music branch’s upcoming song bake-off.
Indeed, critics and die-hard YYYs fans noticed a shift from O’s music over the past year. Known for a raw, stripped-down approach on the 2003 album “Fever to Tell” and the band’s sophomore effort, 2006’s “Show Your Bones,” the YYYs recruited outside producers and musicians Nick Launay (Talking Heads, Nick Cave, Arcade Fire, PiL) and Dave Sitek (guitarist of TV on the Radio) to augment the more complex style of “It’s Blitz.”
“The last time we wrote a record was over three or four years before we wrote this one, and that’s a century as far as us being away in the music industry,” O tells Variety. “For a band, every year that passes, so many records come out, so you’re forgotten basically. You want to make sure that when you come back, you do it with something that excites people.”
Aside from O’s distinctive vocals, “It’s Blitz,” nominated for a best alternative album Grammy, and the “Where the Wild Things Are” soundtrack have little in common sonically — all the more commendable considering the albums were written almost side by side.
“We’ve been writing ‘Wild Things’ on and off since December 2006,” O explains. “I tried not to overlap (the two LPs) because I’m not really good at shifting gears so quickly, and I want to put everything into what I’m doing, one thing at a time. We had a lot of time to work on ‘Wild Things’ and we could do the Yeah Yeah Yeahs record in there too.”
Her shortlisted and nominated tracks, “Hideaway” and “All is Love,” respectively, were written as bookends on the album. “We weren’t writing ‘Hideaway’ to a specific part (of the film),” explains Imaad Wasif of the New Folk Implosion, who is credited as co-writing five of the album’s 14 songs. “Some of the songs we wrote were a reaction to some of the rough footage they sent us. But ‘Hideaway’ sort of captures a very timeless idea … that basically everything you want could be true.”
O cast different members of the band, plus a children’s choir, into different moods and themes of the film and found the core group (including Wasif) easily capable of the simpler, melancholic tunes, but she enlisted outside talent to raise the tempo for other parts of the score.
With her first crack at film composing behind her, O doesn’t see Karen O and the Kids — as the band was ultimately credited — writing another one. “Probably a one-time thing for me and Spike in particular,” she says in reference to her now ex-boyfriend, the film’s director, Spike Jonze. “But I definitely plan on working with some of the musicians I worked with in the future. There’s such great chemistry between us, and maybe there is kind of a strange or different version for the group that we assembled.”
However, a future might exist for the “Wild Things” music apart from the movie. O says taking the show on the road is, “something we kind of whisper about and talk about wanting to do … kind of aim it for families and kids.”