The Pretty Reckless’s Taylor Momsen on Why She 'Sold Her Soul to Rock ‘n’ Roll,' Will Never Act Again
NEW ORLEANS, LA – OCTOBER 29: Taylor Momsen of The Pretty Reckless performs during the 2016 Voodoo Music + Arts Experience at City Park on October 29, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)
Most musical artists yearn to be recognized, earn money, and enjoy a self-indulgent lifestyle. But 23-year-old Taylor Momsen had already experienced all of that when she abandoned her acting career and launched her hard rock band, the Pretty Reckless, in 2009. She’d been acting since she was 7, and in 2007 her TV career peaked when she played Jenny Humphrey on the popular series Gossip Girl. Momsen had also worked as successful model for IMG before she gave it all up for rock ‘n’ roll.
At the time, Momsen was considered a bit of a loose cannon. Though she was just 15 when the band started and 16 when their debut album Light Me Up came out, Momsen was rebellious and provocative — flaunting her sexuality onstage, using shock tactics to attract a crowd, and engaging in the kind of behavior that gives parents of teenage girls nightmares.
“I look back at some of the outfits I wore and I go, ‘Wow, I don’t know what I was thinking,’ but I was certainly honest at the time,” Momsen tells Yahoo Music. “I was young, and I think it was good that we got that out of our systems in the beginning.”
Whether the antics and bravado played a role in her success or not, Taylor Momsen is still going strong six years into her recording career with her band’s third full-length release, Who You Selling For. The album debuted at #13 on the Billboard album chart and its first single, “Take Me Down,” hit #1 on the rock chart, making it the band’s fourth consecutive song to top that chart.
Like 2014’s Going to Hell, Who You Selling For is a gritty album full of bluesy guitars and propulsive hard rock rhythms. But while Momsen has strived to be controversial in the past — exposing her bare back and most of her rear end on the front cover of Going to Hell, for instance — these days she chooses a different way to express herself. The new album’s title addresses the slippery slope between commerce and art, and the songs, which explore hard rock, blues, funk, soul, and pop, bristle with the frustration of giving up family, stability, and privacy to follow a dream.
“I’ve sold my soul to rock ‘n’ roll,” she glibly says. “I’ve given everything to music. You have to do that. When you love something so much, you have to fully commit to it, and that means giving everything else up for it. But at the end of the day I get to scream into a microphone every night, and that’s f—ing awesome. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
YAHOO MUSIC: You touch on many different music subgenres on Who You Selling For. And it sounds like you have more than a passing familiarity with each.
TAYLOR MOMSEN: It wasn’t intentional to go all over the place with this record, but when [guitarist] Ben Phillips and I were writing, we tried really hard not to limit ourselves. As soon as you put any limitations on yourself as a writer, you’re immediately stunting yourself. So nothing was off the table. The reason we love rock ‘n’ roll so much is it represents freedom and it really does encompass everything. Rock ‘n’ roll is everything — it’s the blues, it’s jazz, it’s funk, it’s country, it’s pop. It’s all those things, so you can go in so many different directions and it’s still rock ‘n’ roll.
People from Gene Simmons to Lenny Kravitz have declared that rock is dead. Clearly it’s not, but it seems like there’s a narrower idea today of what rock entails.
As soon as the word “Active” got put in front of “Rock,” it became very testosterone-based. We’ve always had the same motto – “try not to try” — and that’s something we really tried to implement on this record. It wasn’t about being fast or heavy or slow. We really tried to capture the human element with each of these songs, and that’s why all the great records that have lasted the test of time are great.
You used old-school recording techniques to give capture organic quality, even though you may have sacrificed some of the precision and polish of many modern recordings in the process.
Back in the golden age of rock there were no computers and no ability to manipulate stuff, so we tried not to do that on this record. The sound of a real guitar note is important. You want to hear the player behind the music and what he’s trying to express, without all this technology.
Why did you call the album Who You Selling For?
By posing a question instead of defining something, at least it’s open for interpretation so everyone’s going to have a different thought of what “selling for” means. To me, it means something different every day. In general, I’m selling for music. I give everything to music. But today I’m selling for Yahoo.
Do you feel like a product?
I don’t feel like a product, but sometimes I feel like I get treated like a product. In the modern age, instead of treating the music as the product, the artist gets treated as the product, especially with social media. You become the promotion machine itself. It’s a strange time.
Are you active on Twitter and Instagram?
I use it to communicate with my fans and give out pertinent information about where we’re playing, but I don’t give out personal information. I try to stay off it as much as I can. I’m writing songs, and if you’re living on the Internet it’s not real. It doesn’t actually exist. It does, but it’s virtual. It’s not reality. I very much like to live in reality, not a virtual reality.
What was the greatest challenge you faced making this record?
Challenges come up along the way. It starts from the beginning. The writing process is always the most torturous, but it’s also the most rewarding. It takes the longest and it’s the hardest because these songs are coming from your own head and you never know when an idea is going to come. But when we finish a good song, there is no better feeling. The next challenge is taking it to the band and figuring out where the song is going to take us when we’re playing as a full band and where the recording is going to go. It’s all torture and then complete and utter bliss. But it’s all cathartic as well. The ups and downs are necessary to create good art.
There seems to be a lot of frustration in these songs. Where did that come from?
I think there are common themes of desperation and confusion. I was trying to adapt back to regular life after being on tour for so long. The tour really is a bubble. We toured Going to Hell for two years and when we got home I went, “Where did two years of my life just go? And who am I now?” So there’s an adjustment period and you have to try to find yourself again. I think that is reflected in a lot in the lyrics and the writing of this record. You’re so disconnected from society when you’re on tour, so when you get back home you feel very alone and you have to try to figure out how to reconnect back into the real world. That can be a challenge.
After doing two albums with vivid images of you on the cover, you went with a melancholy black-and-yellow sketch of an androgynous, long-haired figure looking down. Why did you choose that route?
A friend of mine did that. They listened to the record and sent back this piece of art. When we saw it, the whole band threw their hands up and said, “Well, that’s the record cover.” We were going through a lot of ideas, but this one fit the title so well. Everyone has a different take on it. It’s abstract expressionism. There’s so many things you can take from it, which fits with the record, which goes all over the place. Every time I look at that image I see something different. And I think that was very reflective of the record and of how I was feeling. The yellow parchment represents age, which is appropriate to me. We were all feeling older these days.
When you had three #1 songs in a row on Going to Hell, you were praised as the first female-fronted band since the Pretenders to achieve that. But it seems like you’re far more interested in being a great band than being a great female-fronted band.
I don’t see gender like that. I just think a good song is a good song; a good band is a good band. All my idols were men: John Lennon, Chris Cornell, Robert Plant, the list goes on and on. I just think good is good, bad is bad. It’s that simple. I don’t see the need for anyone to separate one band from another and say, “They are female-fronted; they are not.” It just doesn’t register that way for me.
You said touring for two years straight made you crazy. Do you plan to tour differently for this album?
We’re going to try to do it a little differently. I would like to record a little bit between some of the shows rather that tour for two years and then going, “Where did that block of my life go?” When I’m going that long without creating something new, it starts to wear on me. I start to lose my sanity a little bit.
Do you have any pursuits outside of music?
I consider myself a writer. I’m working on a couple different books right now. I don’t know if they’ll ever get released, but I’m working on them. That’s a form I’d like to entertain. I’m doing a little of everything. Obviously I write poetry because lyrics are poetry, but I’m working on a children’s book. I’m sure there’ll be some sort of autobiography of the band at some point. I’m working on a novel. These are just things I do as a hobby to try to keep myself sane. And I sculpt and I paint, but that’s more for me personally and not for the public.
Would you ever consider returning to acting?
No, I never want to do that again. That was so my childhood. I literally was in junior high, so I look back on that and it feels like a past life. Playing a character is not something I’m interested. I’m much more interested in self-expression.
Two weeks after Dave Grohl broke his leg falling offstage this summer, Florence + the Machine filled in for him at the U.K.’s Glastonbury Festival. Emailing beforehand, “I just said, ‘If you’ve got a broken bone, you have to eat lots of broccoli because there’s iron in it,’ ” says frontwomanFlorence Welch. “I was really nervous about Glastonbury and he said whenever he’s nervous, he watches Queen performing at Live Aid and that sorts him out. So that’s what I watched, too.”
Of course, Welch, 29, knows a few things about nursing injuries. The British siren fractured her foot in a freewheeling stage dive at Coachella in April, but was up and prancing across the Governors Ball stage in New York less than two months later, mere days after her How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful album release. As she revs up a three-week North American tour that kicks off Friday in Nashville, the pesky appendage is the least of her concerns.
“It feels fine now,” Welch says brightly. “It gives me a little trouble, occasionally, but I almost don’t remember that it happened. Sometimes, I’m like, 'Wow, I broke a bone. That was a whole thing.’ ”
In fact, she’s glad it happened. Leading up to Beautiful’s launch in June, she performed a handful of gigs to intimate crowds in Los Angeles and New York (including Saturday Night Live). Sitting on a stool, she was backed by stripped-down arrangements which only underscored her powerful lilt.“That was kind of amazing,” Welch says. “It gave me a chance to go back to how it was when I first started performing, which was literally more of a singer/songwriter telling stories and talking about songs. I didn’t realize how much I was using my physicality as almost another distraction and it was really interesting to have to be vulnerable in that way again.”
The injury became a metaphor of sorts for her new music — the product of a near-breakdown fueled by relationship problems, heavy drinking (“I used to drink before every performance. … But I don’t anymore,” she told Billboard in May) and nearly four years of non-stop touring in support of albums Lungs (2009) andCeremonials (2011). Taking a year off from the road to record Beautiful, she channeled those frustrations into searing anthems such as Ship to Wreck and What Kind of Man and now feels rejuvenated heading back out.
“Having that year where I really had to face myself, I found a new approach to (touring), which is less extreme,” Welch says. “Having been so broken down by it, as it were, the album itself kind of got me back up again, and I had to deal with a lot of things in my life. It’s a work in progress, but I’m managing to still do that while touring, which is really good.”
On this 11-city trek, Welch and her band will headline Austin City Limits festival Sunday and play two dates (Oct. 16 and 17) at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl (which partly inspired Beautiful’s title track). They’ll also play New Orleans’ Voodoo Music + Arts Experience over Halloween weekend, which happens to coincide with keyboardistIsabella Summers’ (aka “the Machine’s”) Oct. 31 birthday.
Although they haven’t come up with Halloween costumes yet, it will be tough to top last year’s. “We were Calvin and Hobbes,” Welch laughs. “Because I’m tall and orange, and she’s small and blond.”