The last time I saw Karen O perform she summoned several thousand festival-goers into a hypnotic chant (“M-aaa-aaa-ps, M-aaa-aaa-ps”), sashayed around stage in a sorceress’ silver poncho, kicked inflatable eyeballs into the crowd, stuffed an entire microphone in her mouth, and sang (also yelped) in demonic glee at the helm of New York art-rock icons Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
It’s a different scene at last night’s listening party for her solo debut, and not just the exposed brick, clean white walls and high ceiling of our unknown host’s Tribeca loft, where 100 or so people are sitting cross-legged on the concrete floor. It feels like summer camp, with really lax alcohol rules. On paper, Crush Songs — at one point Karen refers to it as “that little record” — is the opposite of a Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, reportedly written during a time in her late 20s when a series of romantic crushes made love seem impossible. It found a home on fellow NY cool kid Julian Casablancas’ Cult Records, who’s granted her complete control of the project, from preempting its digital circulation by mailing out a limited batch of rainbow-colored vinyl ahead of its September 9 release to holding Sofar intimate listening parties in 21 cities around the world (Auckland! London! Johannesburg! Pittsburgh?).
There are rules to these Sofar parties:
1. No talking (or selfies) while music is being played or performed.
2. No leaving early.
3. If you like what you hear, support the artist in the old-world tradition of buying an album or concert ticket.
This fosters a supportive, engaged crowd, which is a good thing because Crush Songs is downright heart-wrenching. Tracks read like crumpled-up diary entries — simple, tender acoustic melodies and occasional hand and mouth percussion crackling in lo-fi, each accompanied by a hand-drawn sketches in the liner notes (here, projected on the wall) for maximum emotional output. These range from a headless Sasquatch clutching a girl, to couples embracing (lots of couples embracing), to a young man wearing a t-shirt with the words “ow, i loved u” printed on it.
Karen sings demurely on record — and later, as a surprise guest, in person — like each word hurts to get out. Her voice is fragile when isolated from Nick Zinner’s blazing guitar and Brian Chase’s throbbing drums, perpetually on the verge of cracking. Both halves of the couplet, “Love is soft/Love is a fucking bitch” are sung in the same deflated tone. She smiles at the second part when she sings it live.
Other lyrics feel like she’s letting us in on a secret:
– “Left my baby in New York City/Oh what a pity, he’s in New York City.”
– “Gotta tell the doctor/Tell him my pain is gone.”
– “If you love somebody, there will always be somebody else/So make it right for yourself.”
Drowned out by the din of the AC, Karen asks for it to be turned off for the last song of the evening. The lights go off next. “The secret’s out. I’m a big softie,” she laughs. Then, cradled by the strum of guitarist Moses Sumeny, she starts in on “The Moon Song,” — a kindred spirit of the Crush Song‘s material, though written for an Academy Award-nominated soundtrack. “A million miles away…” The last line lingers, feeling a million miles away from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ showwoman we’ve come to known. Turns out, Karen O can be even more.
Follow Lauren Beck on Twitter @heylaurenbeck.