Every great partnership has to begin somewhere. For Karen O and Danger Mouse, it was a drunk dial in 2008.
At least, that’s how half of this duo featuring the queen of the aughts rock revival and the versatile Grammy-winning producer remembers it. Karen O drew a blank when Danger Mouse (born Brian Burton) brought it up late last month at Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village, where they worked on their new album, “Lux Prima.”
“I got this phone call, and you were like, it’s Karen O. I was like, what?” Burton said. His flummoxed collaborator at the other end of the couch slowly recalled what had happened: After years of saying they wanted to work together but only meeting briefly, Karen O had seized the moment.
“I get excited about things after a couple of drinks — then I’m like, yeah, I’m going to call him now!” she said. “That’s so me, too,” she added and let out the Karen O cackle, a high, sharp peal of laughter.
Sipping tea in an upstairs studio at the storied recording complex, both musicians were in Clark Kent mode, Zen and studious. (To be fair, this is Burton’s forever mode.) Since 2001, Karen O — short for her last name, Orzolek — has been best known as the frontwoman for the trio Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a stage-devouring, beer-spraying punk who can swing a microphone around her head while nailing every note with an ecstatic grin on her face. Burton was a cross-genre producer searching for his niche when “The Grey Album” — his unauthorized mash-up of Jay-Z’s “The Black Album” and the Beatles record known as the White Album — became a cause célèbre (and almost ended his career before it started) in 2004. He went on to form Gnarls Barkley with CeeLo Green; work with Gorillaz, Beck, the Black Keys and U2; and collaborate with James Mercer of the Shins in a group called Broken Bells.
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They’ve both recently entered their 40s: not old enough to be old, but old enough to question what’s coming next. It’s something that was on their minds as they began their journey into “Lux Prima,” an album of sprawling, soulful, cinematic psych rock filled with astral bass lines, gauzy strings and Karen O-isms like “You’re not coming for me/I’m coming for you.”
“I’m on a vision quest of sorts: What does it mean to be a woman artist in her 40s? And how can I lay it down so that’s like, something [expletive] awesome,” Karen O said a few days later at a tony Lower East Side hotel that sprouted up two blocks from the tiny Mercury Lounge, where Yeah Yeah Yeahs played their first show, opening for the White Stripes. “It’s not a paved road, it’s not a well-beaten path,” she added. It’s “find your way through that wilderness and write us a postcard.”
THOUGH THEY MET AROUND 2005, had that fateful phone call in 2008 and ran into each other again in 2012, the Karen O and Danger Mouse project didn’t get moving until 2016, a year after Karen O gave birth to her son, Django. Yeah Yeah Yeahs had last put out an album in 2013 — “Mosquito,” which concluded their contract with Interscope — and the singer followed up with an indie release called “Crush Songs,” a quiet series of meditations on romance she’d written alone in her New York apartment around 2007.
She was relishing her newfound freedom. “On the one hand,” she said, “Yeah Yeah Yeahs have had the great fortune of the label not meddling in our process. But there’s expectations for singles and the trajectory that you have to hit.” She added, “Until I was out of that deal, I didn’t realize the subtle psychic weight that I’d been carrying for like a decade.”
Nick Zinner, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist who did a little playing on “Lux Prima,” said the pressures of the band were “something that you can spend a lot of energy trying to not think about,” and he knew this kind of independence was something Karen O “was yearning for.”
Karen O compared working with Burton to when she wrote her “psycho opera,” a decidedly noncommercial art project called “Stop the Virgens,” in 2005 (it was staged in Brooklyn and Sydney, Australia, in 2011 and 2012): There were no expectations from the outside and no limits. Before they got started, Burton played her Michael Kiwanuka’s “Cold Little Heart,” the beautiful, shape-shifting 10-minute song that kicks off the London artist’s 2016 album, “Love & Hate,” which he produced, and it struck a nerve.
“That’s what made me want to make music when I first heard Pink Floyd in college,” said Burton, who easily switches between his roles as a producer and a musician. “I had always thought music was entertainment, and I didn’t want to be an entertainer, I wanted to be an artist.” He referenced his days in Athens, Ga., when he became immersed in the ’90s psych-rock scene anchored by the Elephant 6 Recording Company. “I was like, people make 15-minute songs? You’re taking yourself out of competition or pop or any of that stuff, you’re just making something. That’s what I want to do.”
Karen O chimed in: “That’s what I want to do. After all these years.”
So the first thing they did was make a 12-minute song, the lush, groovy “Lux Prima” (it later got a haircut to nine minutes), following Burton’s process: Come in with nothing and make something. They worked five-hour, two-week shifts in Burton’s Los Angeles studio so Karen O could stick to Django’s schedule. (While she defines downtown cool for a generation of New Yorkers, Karen O now lives in L.A., where she doesn’t have to schlep a stroller up subway steps. And Burton, a longtime L.A. resident, has relocated to New York.)
Because the “Lux Prima” material was the first original music Karen O had written since giving birth, “I was really wondering what would be streaming out of me after that experience,” she said. “I felt more deeply connected to the cycles of life and like, consciousness. And I had a deep sense of love that was different.”
Zinner said he saw his longtime collaborator wrestling with a new set of concerns. “Whatever Karen does, she’s working through something that’s happening with her,” he said, adding there was a “different element” in the mix this time. “Definitely being a mom. And being a woman in the age of Trump.”
Burton was struck by Karen O’s process — she writes lyrics in the studio, which they both called torturous. But Karen O likes it because it helps her find an arc for the full album. And the primacy of the album was critical.
“There were only a couple of times we were like, ‘Should there be a single in this?’” Karen O said. “There’s plenty of hooks and melodies in the record, but as far as like a single in 2019, what does that sound like, especially in alternative music?”
Burton quickly added, “Don’t even try.”
The nine tracks on “Lux Prima” unspool grandly, from the ominous lullaby “Ministry” to the stomping girl-group squall of “Woman” to the compact psych-funk groove of “Leopard’s Tongue.” The duo will present the album as a “multisensory art installation” in April at the Marciano Art Foundation in Los Angeles. The event, overseen by the creative director Barnaby Clay (Karen O’s husband), will use lighting, projections and other stimuli to creative an immersive experience — the antidote to the kind of glance-listening that dominates pop’s current era of distraction.
Holding people’s attention isn’t easy in 2019. Danger Mouse later shared the advice he gives the young artists on his label, 30th Century Records: “Just have faith that if you’re doing the stuff you want to do, it will be heard at some point.”
Dan Auerbach, the Black Keys singer and guitarist, admires Burton’s ability to pull the best from his collaborators. Burton, who has worked on four albums with the band, was the first outside producer the duo let into their world. “I think we just liked how drum-heavy his stuff was, kind of dusty and funky and always so rhythmic,” Auerbach added. “He just has a sixth sense with melody.”
Despite having worked with some of the most successful artists in music, including Adele and Red Hot Chili Peppers, Burton’s guiding ethos remains heart over trends. “Usually when I work with somebody I tell them, ‘This is probably going to be your least-selling record, and if we make a couple of accidents that work out, it could be your best-selling record,’” he said. “‘But it’s probably not going to be anywhere in between.’”
James Mercer, the Shins leader who teamed with Burton in Broken Bells, said his band was listening to “The Grey Album” backstage in Copenhagen the night Burton showed up unannounced to meet them. “That’s the type of person he is, he’s that brave and gregarious,” Mercer said. “He’s very good at being open to new ideas, so he definitely has stuff he learned from working with U2 and the Chili Peppers.” Mercer wasn’t surprised when Burton joined forces with Karen O, saying they’d listened to Yeah Yeah Yeahs together in the past: “He’s a fan of female singers, and she’s kind of the best.”
Burton’s admiration for Karen O is obvious. “She has a voice I believe,” he said. “My whole thing was making sure that one of the coolest chicks in the world likes what we’re doing.”
KAREN O HAS BEEN KNOWN as a rock ’n’ roll badass for so many years that many of the nuances of her personality and art have been blasted away.
For starters, she has a deep appreciation for soul music, particularly from the 1960s. As a kid, she would listen to her father’s collection of anthologies on repeat, “And I think they really imprinted songwriting into my brain,” she said.
In early August, Karen O randomly pulled out a compilation featuring Aretha Franklin that she’d leaned on during her 20s, and wrote on Instagram that the Queen of Soul “broke the mold.” Ten days later, Franklin was dead.
“That was a bit weird,” Karen O said at the hotel, her tight bob of hair hugging her face. Thoughts about the irreplaceable artists of her youth and the idea of legacy started to gnaw at her as she approached 40 last year. What happens when “even the biggest people in the arts just eventually fade away?” she wondered, and what would she herself leave behind?
“She is a rock musician who’s idling in a genre that is currently completely undervalued,” the singer Shirley Manson of Garbage, a friend of Karen O’s, said in a phone interview. “People laugh at us, the rockers. Karen and I have spoken about this. We’re like, ‘We’re the [expletive] rockers, and we love it, because there’s no one else in our pool. We’re still swimming around like sharks.’”
Manson turned her attention to the music industry, which she called “a really staunch patriarchal system” that devalues women as they get older. “You have to walk through the valley of death yourself and figure out who you will be. Karen’s going to have to find out for herself what Karen O will be, and she’ll figure it out fine.”
Karen O tends to look to the left when she’s talking, and her gaze remained fixed as she described that midlife crisis. “I felt those cliché things,” she said. “Like, wow, maybe I’m not going to get around to doing all those things I wanted to do. I’ve just been wildly ambitious and idealistic and actually quite optimistic about making stuff.” Suddenly she was struck by how hard it felt to create, and how fleeting and impermanent everything can seem.
She said she turned to a friend who was a punk rocker in the late ’70s and early ’80s for advice, “And she said to me: ‘Yeah, ashes to ashes man, isn’t it great? Once you realize that you’re free.’ And I was like, wow. I can’t process that quite yet, but once I do, that’s going to be [expletive] good times.”