Karen O was born in November 1978 in Busan,South Korea to a Korean mother and a Polish father. She eventually moved to the United States, where she grew up in Englewood, New Jersey. She has commented on her childhood: "It's almost embarrassing how well-behaved I was, which is probably why I do things like spit water on myself on stage as an adult." She attended Oberlin College, but transferred to New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.
Karen O is best known as the frontwoman for the band Yeah Yeah Yeahs. She has also been noted for her sense of fashion, wearing ostentatious outfits made by her friend, fashion designer Christian Joy. In the early days of the band, she became well known for her outrageous antics during live shows. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs first ever gig was fronting for The White Stripes.
Playboy made an offer for her to pose on their cover. Karen O said on the subject, "I was approached but I said no. Who knows though? Maybe I'll do it in the future, but now doesn't seem to be the right time." Since then, however, Karen stated in an interview with Associated Press magazine that she has changed her mind and would never do Playboy because of the audience that Playboy magazine attracts.
During a tour for the 2003 Livid Festival in Australia, at a sideshow at The Metro in Sydney, she accidentally danced off the stage and was reluctantly taken to a hospital. A few days later at the Sydney leg of the Livid Festival, she appeared in a wheelchair pushed by Angus Andrew.
Karen O won Spin Magazine's Sex Goddess Award in both 2004 and 2005. In 2006, she was named one of rock's hottest women by Blender. In 2007, Karen O placed #3 on Spinner.com's Women Who Rock Right Now. In February 2010, she won a Shockwaves NME Award for the Hottest Woman.
She began working on a small side project called Native Korean Rock and the Fishnets with fellow NYC musicians in 2008.
In 2009, she contributed backing vocals, screaming animal sounds and noises to the songs "Gemini Syringes", "I Can Be A Frog", and "Watching the Planets" on The Flaming Lips album Embryonic.
In 2011, she contributed vocals on the song "Pinky's Dream" on the David Lynch debut album Crazy Clown Time.
In 2012, she collaborated with experimental rock group Swans on the song "Song for a Warrior" on their album The Seer
She also lends vocals to the song "GO!" on Santigold's 2012 album Master of My Make-Believe.
On the collaboration project with N.A.S.A. on The Spirit of Apollo, she appears on the track "Strange Enough", together with Ol' Dirty Bastard and Fatlip.
O's vocal approach has been described as "ethereal", and has been described as "yelping" at times. She described her approach:
We still have to grab people by the collar … We put out a record every three years now; we could easily be forgotten. If you look at a lot of our peers that we came up with, a lot of them have disappeared.
O has also collaborated with James Iha on his second solo LP "Look To The Sky" released in 2012.
O was featured in the track "Cut Me Up" by Har Mar Superstar for the soundtrack to the 2005 horror film House of Wax. For the movie Jackass 2, Karen O collaborated with electronic artist Peaches and Johnny Knoxville to record a track entitled "Backass"; for Jackass 3D, she covered the Roger Alan Wade's "If You're Gonna Be Dumb" under the alternative title of "If You're Gonna Be Dumb, You Gotta Be Tough". In 2007, she also contributed vocals to a version of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" for the I'm Not There movie soundtrack. At the end of episode 409, "Brothers Cinco", of the Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! she performed a short song. She also has a song titled "Strange Love" on the album "Frankenweenie Unleashed!"
In May 2011, it was reported that Karen O had collaborated with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on a cover version of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" for the soundtrack to the English-language version of the film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for which Reznor composed the score. In December 2011 it was announced that the song would open the soundtrack album, be released as the opening single, and be available free to all who pre-ordered before the official release date (December 9).
Work with Spike Jonze
Karen O and Spike Jonze collaborated on a 2005 Adidas commercial, Hello Tomorrow.
Karen O composed all of the songs the soundtrack of on Jonze's film Where the Wild Things Are (with the exception of a cover of the Daniel Johnston song,"Worried Shoes") in collaboration with Carter Burwell. . She is listed on the soundtrack as "Karen O and the Kids". Karen O and her Yeah Yeah Yeahs bandmate Nick Zinner co-wrote "All is Love", which was nominated for the "Grammy Award for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media", a songwriter's award, at the 2010 Grammy Awards.
Karen O at Bumbershoot 2009.
Karen O also contributed "The Moon Song" to Jonze's 2013 film Her. O and Jonze were nominated in 2014 for a Academy Award for Best Original Song for "The Moon Song".
In 2004 Karen O, using the moniker Marshmellow, directed the music video for "We Fenced Other Gardens with the Bones of Our Own" by the Liars, fronted by her then boyfriend Angus Andrew. The following year she directed the "Blessed Evening" video for Foetus with her then boyfriend Spike Jonze working as cinematographer. In 2006 she directed the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' video "Cheated Hearts".
Under the moniker Kids With Canes, Karen O and her boyfriend Barnaby Clay directed the music video for the Tiny Masters of Today song "Hologram World", released on February 8, 2008. Karen also contributed vocals to the song, served as choreographer of the video, in which she appears along with Yeah Yeah Yeahs bandmates Nick Zinner and Brian Chase as well as Mike D from the Beastie Boys, Gibby Haynes from the Butthole Surfers, Russell Simins from the Blues Explosion and Sam James from The Mooney Suzuki.
The KO at Home demo leak
On December 10, 2006, a home-recorded album titled KO at Home was leaked via an invite-only BitTorrent tracking site. The album, originally a personal gift to Dave Sitek of the NYC band TV on the Radio, was discovered inside a suitcase Sitek left behind in a New York City apartment. The disc's 14 tracks and scan of the cover – a photograph of Karen O, with a poem written by Oscar Wilde on the back side of the photo – quickly spread. The music news site stereogum.com broke the story of the leak the following morning and continued their coverage when Sitek lashed out at the fan who leaked the demos. Eventually Sitek followed up his comments with an apology letter. Karen O's response to the leak was "shit happens" and although she was somewhat "grossed out," she offered advice on which of the songs she liked the most, namely the tracks "Pumpkin" and "Snakes and Worms".