Karen O talks music as a “magical process” at inaugural WUTI Festival
The festival, created by Women Under the Influence (WUTI), took place September 20-22nd in the magical mountain town of Idyllwild, CA
Songwriter Karen O tried her best to reveal the secret of successful writing of music for movies during a conversation as part of the inaugural “WUTI Goes Wild”, a three-day festival celebrating women in film, held this past weekend in Idyllwild, California, but couldn’t really find a way to explain her artistic process. When asked if she likes to read the scripts and really delve into the details of the film she’s writing for, she said, “I’m at my best the less I know. Music for me is all about feeling like a conduit—it’s almost a magical process.”
While discussing the film Where the Wild Things Are, which was directed with her usual film collaborator, Spike Jonze, for which she wrote and performed several original songs for the soundtrack, she told the audience that she would be sent dailies from the shoot in Australia and write songs based on that raw footage instead of the completed film. For O, it’s all about the emotion in the story and the emotion she feels Jonze is looking to express through the song in the scene.
She says that working with Jonze is a true joy: “when you work with a friend, it all flows out effortlessly.” When he initially asked her to work with Carter Burwell on the score for Where the Wild Things Are, she admitted she was blissfully naïve as to how much work and what a big deal it was, to score for such a big-budgeted studio film. But Jonze, she says, is like a big kid, and she felt no pressure to work any differently from him. “I follow the trail to the emotion that needs to be captured and hopefully that’s what Spike wants.”
O also revealed the three movie song moments that have most inspired her the most in her writing-for-movies career: the Welsh lullaby “Suo Gan” in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987), “Trouble” by Cat Stevens in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971), and “If You Leave” by OMD in John Hughes’s Pretty in Pink (1986). Each of those exemplifies, for O, the perfect use of a song in a movie. She says she often thinks back to the emotions she felt watching those scenes and uses them as templates for her own original songs.
As for her process, she admits she and Jonze are perfect collaborators because they both like imperfections, they like it messy. They both also fully embrace their child-like elements. O says her biggest fear during adolescence was becoming an adult and losing those traits that children have of expressing themselves, letting go, and exploring all types of creativity and deeper truths. She says she sees adults close themselves off and never indulging in belly laughs that would last for minutes, the way a child does. “There’s been a rebellion in me since I became an adult. In my own work I’m always trying to find my way back to where it started—that effortless connection with emotion.”
Her most famous movie song, “Moon Song,” from the Jonze-directed Her, was written at her dining room table in five minutes. When the song was nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars, she said it was the most unexpected thing, but wonderful.
When asked if she would ever contribute a whole score to a film, she resisted, saying she’s a songwriter, not a composer. She said she is currently working on a project, but didn’t reveal anything about it. No matter what it is, it is sure to be enigmatic and unique.