Karen Lee Orzolek was born in South Korea, to a Korean mother and a Polish father. After moving to the United States, she eventually enrolled in Oberlin College in Ohio. It was there that she met Brian Chase, a jazz drummer. After transferring to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, she met Nick Zinner. The three of them would eventually form the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
In 2001, Karen O and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs released a self-titled EP, and on the strength of some significant buzz, performed at that year’s SXSW music festival. After that, they toured all over the U.S. and the UK, powered by the growing reputation that Karen O was getting as a must-see performer.
In 2003, the band released their first full-length album, entitled Fever to Tell. The art-punk album received largely glowing reviews upon its release. The single “Maps,” which showed a quieter, more subdued Karen O, became an international hit thanks to its moving music video.
The success of Fever to Tell found Karen O and her bandmates in the spotlight, and some weirdness came with their newfound fame. In 2003, Karen O was approached by Playboy magazine, though she turned down their offer, to appear on the cover. The band’s debut album was also nominated for a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album, a recognition that was somewhat surprising, even with the band’s growing fame.
It was during this period that Karen O decided to leave New York and relocate to Los Angeles, a move that reportedly alienated her bandmates and put the future of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs into question.
With Karen O still in L.A., it came time for the band to start working on their second album. Recording sessions found the band at odds with each other over their musical direction, and the resulting album, 2006’s Show Your Bones, was widely regarded as an uneven effort. Despite middling reviews, most major publications had come around on it by the end of the year, and the album featured prominently on many best-of lists.
In the time in between Fever to Tell and Show Your Bones, Karen O worked briefly on a solo album that did not get beyond the conception stage.
Karen O became somewhat of a hot commodity in the months following the release of Show Your Bones. She was enlisted to work on several side projects and directed music videos for the Liars (she was dating lead singer Agnus Andrews) and for her own band. She collaborated with Peaches and Johnny Knoxville on a song for the Jackass 2 soundtrack, and she also sang a version of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” for the I’m Not There soundtrack.
As somewhat of a stalling method, the band released an EP called Is Is in 2007. The album came and went without much thought, but it proved in retrospect to be a last hooray of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as a noisy art-punk band. Their new album, It’s Blitz!, released in March of 2009, is a synth-heavy album that moves decidedly away from their earlier, guitar-laden sound.
The album has earned the band rave reviews and has reestablished Karen O as one of the most vital rock stars performing today.