Taylor Momsen on the highs and lows of the Pretty Reckless
by Kathryn Kyte
November 13, 2016
After ten years together, Taylor Momsen says the Pretty Reckless is a family.
It says something when a band can challenge an industry record from over 30 years ago, beat it, and then one up it. This is exactly what’s happened with The Pretty Reckless, the first female-fronted band to have three No. 1 rock hits in a row, an accomplishment not achieved since The Pretenders did it in 1984.
Fast forward to 2016 and the band’s number one single, “Take Me Down,” brings the tally up to four consecutive chart toppers, inching closer to breaking Three Days Grace’s record of having five rock singles in a row on active rock radio.
Who You Selling For is the band’s third studio record, and follows their widely successful 2014 album, Going to Hell, which started the band’s record setting run with hit singles “Heaven Knows,” “Messed Up World” and “Follow Me Down.” The album sees tracks from quiet reflections to full-on rock tangents. “Bedroom Window,” the most ballad-like tune on the record, speaks as a first person narrative, which is then followed by all out anthem “Living in the Storm.”
“With ‘Bedroom Window,’ it’s about me sitting in my place, looking out my window at this world that I’m going to have to go back into,” explains lead singer, guitarist and songwriter, Taylor Momsen. “And then with ‘Living in the Storm,’ it’s like boom, now I’m in the storm, here we go.”
“Track listing is very important with our records,” she adds. “We’re hoping our records are a front-to-back listen, and they take you on a journey.”
Momsen has found a confidant and songwriting partner in bandmate Ben Phillips. Together, the pair wrote all 12 tracks on the album, and their relationship is not one that 23-year-old Momsen takes for granted.
“It’s very rare in music, well, and life, to meet people that you connect with so immediately, that was the case with Ben, Mark and Jamie,” notes Momsen. “Then Ben and I started writing together and it was a very natural process, actually not even a process—just natural. It’s a very lucky find, and lucky relationship.”
Writing with Phillips may be natural, yet balancing her introvert and extrovert self when it comes to the music can pose challenges. But Momsen understands that it’s all part of the game, and she’s not complaining.
“Anytime you commit to something like writing a record, there’s stages. When I’m making the record, I’m very introspective and isolated, and very much in my own head, then once the record’s written we bring in the band so that’s the next process,” says Momsen.
“Then there’s the recording stage, which is always a good feeling—hearing your record—it’s a good feeling. Then, there is certainly a mindset of going out on tour, going from living by yourself in a one bedroom apartment to a bus with 12 people,” she jokes before noting: “It’s chaos and you’re never alone.”
Momsen may only be in her early twenties, but for someone who was put into modelling at age 2, and was a teenager when she starred in a primetime drama hit (Gossip Girl), it’s not all that shocking she has such a strong, mature footing.
Her early-on stardom was a big hurdle that the band had to overcome when they released their first record, Light Me Up, because for those who knew Momsen through her TV persona, it was kind of a mind-screw to realize Jenny Humphrey didn’t exist anymore. Although, let it be known that like in real life, her on-screen character was starting to evolve into darker territory as she neared her final season on the show.
“I’m always growing. I mean, everyone is always growing, but I’m not a teenager anymore,” says Momsen.
“I was 15 on the first record, and now we don’t feel like spring chickens anymore,” jokes Momsen. “But we’ve been a band for almost 10 years now. We’ve grown as a unit, and individually, and the fact that we are still here: it’s family, it’s a tight unit.”
“I’m either by myself or I’m with the band, that’s my life.”
The camaraderie is real with each member’s crude sense of humour bringing out “the most disgusting jokes with each other,” but that connection doesn’t fade when the tour ends.
“The funny thing is when we get off tour and people are like ‘when are you going to see your friends?’” says Momsen, laughing. “Within a couple of days off tour, I’m already calling our drummer and being like ‘hey you wanna hang out?’ I’m either by myself or I’m with the band, that’s my life.”
What You Selling For is ripe full of supporting talent from outside of the immediate group, too; not every band can reel in artists like guitarist Warren Haynes, who plays on “Back to the River.”
“That was very exciting for us,” says Momsen.
“We had written [“Back to the River”], and after recording it we were sitting there thinking, ‘what’s this missing? It’s missing Warren Haynes,’” she explains. “So we called him up, sent the song and he said he’d listen and see what he thought. Then he agreed, sent back his track and well… he brought that song to a whole new level; he delivered, to say the least.”
The talent pool doesn’t end there. One of the standout tracks on the album, “Wild City,” features backing vocals from Janice Pendarvis (David Bowie, Rolling Stones), Jenny Douglas-Foote (Lenny Kravitz, P!nk), and Sophia Ramos (Rod Stewart). Album closer “Mad Love” also features them, and it works perfectly as the conclusion of the record.
“Janice is just a legend in her own right, and she brought such talent with her. It was a lot of fun to sing with other singers for once, instead of me just wearing myself [out] over and over,” explains Momsen.
Also featured on the 12-track record are guitarist Tommy Byrnes (Billy Joel) and keyboardist Andy Burton (John Mayer), and once again the band worked with longtime producer Kato Khandwala, who produced both of their previous studio albums.
But even with these superlative additions, it’s the tightness of the band that remains at the core of their sound. That connection as a band certainly comes together when performing, and as Momsen notes: “We don’t even play to a click track, it’s very much a jam on stage,” adding that “Oh My God,” “Living in the Storm” and “Take Me Down” are already among her favourite to play live, and are helping to “bring new life” into the band.
If you asked her where the band starts and her as an individual ends, it may be hard for her to decipher, especially when it comes to songwriting.
“It’s just kind of a part of who I am at this point, it’s my identity, it’s very much personal and it’s sort of a torturous process, because there is no process,” she says about songwriting. “I read a lot, I isolate myself from the world because I can’t write around people, I watch movies, paint, sculpt, people watch. I have images in my head, which can take you down a rabbit hole, which isn’t always pleasant, but that comes with the territory.”
But by the sounds of it, this is the territory she feels most normal in.
“It’s torture, but then when you finish the song it’s utter bliss. Then you’re like, ‘shit I have to do this again.’ It’s a lot of highs and lows.”
Luckily, when those lows happen, Momsen can latch onto her other love: comedy.
“I’m missing all my shows, like South Park,” she says. “I love Louis C.K. and I’m a huge fan of Larry David, too. I think Larry David is like the Beatles of comedy.”
“Humour is one of the best outlets,” says Momsen. “I mean you have to be able to laugh. If you can’t laugh at yourself then you’re not living right.”