The Pretty Reckless return this month with GOING TO HELL, their second studio album, after an extended period of touring and the title is, in part, a defiant sneer at the chain of events that ocurred during its making.
Taylor Momsen, 20, is she of the killer boots and peroxide mane, the raspy voice and provocative stage wear. But she’s also an uncompromising artist, devoted to the band she’s spent the last five years fronting and her ongoing development as a songwriter. Critics have often presented mixed views of The Pretty Reckless, some deriding them as “generic”, others eternally suspicious of Momsen’s graduation from actress to singer, but you can’t argue with the stats. Over a million combined singles and albums sold. Yeah, take that haters.
Little has changed with Momsen since first interviewing her several years ago. She’s as opinionated as ever though perhaps more careful with her words which are, today, spoken with the cracked, frail tones of one suffering with laryngitis. “I sound like a boy going through puberty,” she croaks with a wry smile.
The most obvious place start is ‘Going To Hell’, which closes a four year gap between full albums, and is the first new material since 2012.
It took a lot longer to record than we expected because we had a lot of tragedy occur during the recording of this record. We wrote the songs and had them ready to record and everything was great, then Hurricane Sandy came in and wiped out our studio so we lost of all of our gear and the studio and we had nowhere to go so that took time, rebuilding the studio. We finally got into the roll of things again then our producer’s wife passed very suddenly and unexpectedly and that stopped everything again because she was very much like a mother to the band. We’re still not over it at all and we wrote the song ‘Fuck The World’ after that. Then (after recording) there was the business side of things to sort out.
How did that kind of adversity alter making the album?
We wrote the song ‘Going To Hell’ after the hurricane so it’s affected some of the songs though the majority had been written before. The tragedy though has definitely added to the record.
Going To Hell is darker than Light Me Up, what was behind that shift in sound?
It wasn’t a conscious decision to do that, it was more touring Light Me Up for two years and we don’t play with tracks so we became a really tight unit as a band. So this record is much more reflective of what we sound like live and it’s much more mature. I wrote the first record when I was a 15 year old girl and now I’m a 20 year old woman so I think that the subject matter has moved forward. So it got heavier and darker but the songs dictated that, it wasn’t intentional.
Given that gap between albums and going through a time of experience and learning, do you look at your older material and feel, oh, definitely written by my 15 year old self?
No, no, I’m very proud of my work and we always write with the idea that you have to be able to song these songs 10-20 years from now and not be embarassed by them. So we have very high standards and keep raising the bar so it gets better and better.
The Pretty Reckless have toured relentlessly for a long time, how do you write material when you’re in that bubble you get into on the road?
Well, as a writer you’re always writing but the good stuff comes when you’re off the road because to write you really need privacy and be alone with your thoughts so none of the songs on this album were ones written on tour.
Have you been taking those live/travelling experiences and putting them into the record?
Yeah, after seeing the whole world with your own two eyes it definitely changes your perception of it and your perception of your own life and we talk a lot about that on this record – like in the way the world is stuffed, man, like we’re doing it really wrong! And no one is really talking about it so we did. No one communicates, the imbalance of power, violence.
Was there a fear that people might think, “like, what do you know about world injustice and what are you going to do, you’re in a band”?
I think if you don’t have something to say then don’t say anything. And we have something to say, that’s why I like writing songs, I have a voice and an opinion and you don’t have to agree with me but at the same time I don’t think anyone is going to argue with me that the world is pretty fucked up.
Can it be changed by people like yourself?
I certainly don’t have the answers but I hope to get people thinking and talking about it, you know, music, like pop music, is great for escape and it’s great to go to clubs and have fun but you’ve gotta have some depth in your life as well.
One of the things I’ve admired about you is that you’ve not budged an inch with your work despite the sweeping changes in music and trends. In a way by locking that out you’ve given yourself a freedom.
Oh yeah, we don’t follow trends or anything and we wrote this record with the intention of no boundaries at all. We’re not writing for anyone but ourselves and I hope it connects with people in some way. If I’m honest enough you should be able to relate to it in some way.
Although you have a strong fanbase does it disappoint you that everything seems to be being sucked down by the pop machine right now, at least on a mainstream level.
After the 90s and grunge scene, that was the last time that rock had a real impact and a movement on culture and people. Pop music always exists and it’s never going away but music is very cyclical and guitar needs to come back into the forefront so we’re hoping that rock will make a resurgence and that we’ll be a part of it.
Your parents are Catholics and growing up with that comes into your lyrics and the visuals in ways that push a few buttons. How do they feel about what you’re doing?
They’re very religious but they respect that I’m my own individual and I have my own views on things. I’m not against religion by any means but I have my own take on that. They respect me as an artist and they know I’m going to speak my mind. They’re very supportive, they understand that they have to allow me to make my art the way I’m going to make it and that I think for myself.
When I first met you you were very reluctant to talk about anything but music. Your personal life was strictly off limits.
Yeah, I don’t think it’s anyone’s business.
But as a musician you tend to write in a personal way. Where’s the line drawn then when it comes to sharing parts of yourself, even in a song?
The line is if it doesn’t have to do with the art then it’s none of your business. When it comes to anything about Taylor and behind closed doors it’s only my business. But if you listen to the songs long enough and hard enough, you could learn everything about me. It’s all right there, I’ve said everything about myself in the music so I don’t feel the need to repeat myself in an obvious way. There’s a way to do it, to keep your personal life private. I don’t want to be known for something that is irrelevant, I want to be known for something that I’ve created and am proud of.
Which song from Going To Hell would you tell fans “this is my baby, this means the most”?
Ah, they’re all my babies!! It’s like asking someone to pick a favourite kid. It’s impossible! (laughs)
I knew you’d say that, you have to pick one, I’m being bossy about this.
I am very fond of the song ‘Sweet Things’ but they’re all equally important. We have a lot of fun playing ‘Sweet Things’, the band really enjoys that live cos it’s really complicated and elaborate.
Taylor Momsen is used to staring down adversity: The multi-talented singer/actress and her band, the hard-rock outfit The Pretty Reckless, had to scrap their entire first swing at their second album, Going to Hell (due on March 18th), after Hurricane Sandy tore through their recording studio. “We definitely had a few setbacks,” Momsen told ELLE.com when we rang her up on a recent afternoon. Fair enough. But still, no one can plan for laryngitis! In true Momsen fashion, the singer didn't bat a heavily mascaraed eyelash when she fell ill: After several days on vocal rest, not to mention four long years on the road and several in the studio, the 20-year-old former Gossip Girl star chatted with us about her band’s follow-up to their breakout 2010 debut, Light Me Up.
Taylor! We’re so glad you can actually speak now. We hear you had a nasty case of laryngitis and couldn’t talk for days. For a hard-rock chick who screams her lungs out on the regular, that must have proved a bit challenging, to say the least.
It’s the last thing I ever wanted. Playing live is why we write these songs. I’m getting closer to one hundred percent and can’t wait to get in front of the fans. I’m actually on my way to the airport now.
The new album has been wrought with many delays, gthe largest being your studio getting destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. How has this affected the album? Does it make it even more satisfying now that the album is complete?
After Sandy not only did we lose all of our gear but it took time to put the studio back together. Shortly after, suddenly we also lost our producer’s wife and good friend, Lisa. We are still recovering from that time. But from tragedy came two new songs, "Going to Hell" and "F**ked Up World," and we can’t wait for everyone to hear the record in its entirety. It really represents a moment in time in all of our lives.
I'm sure you are proud of every song on the new album. But are there any in particular that stand out as especially meaningful? And if so, take me inside the writing and recording process for them.
Picking my favorite song is like picking your favorite child. You just can’t. They’re all my favorite.
Fair enough. What was your life like while recording and writing this album? Did you have to shut everything else out in order to completely focus on the task at hand?
We had come off of touring Light Me Up for two-and-a-half years and it was awesome. I got back and shut the world out for a couple of months in order to come down, regroup and jump into the next record. I’m always writing, but this was the time that we really started to pick the songs for Going to Hell, and when I’m in that zone, I’m completely dedicated to it. I have to be alone to write so I took a few months and disappeared to write the record.
How did it feel when people responded so positively to your band and your music?I have to imagine there was a part of you that wondered if people would always think of you as an actor even though I know you’ve long been a musician.
Acting was my day job; music has always been in me. I grew up on my dad’s record collection and now I’ve been able to give back with our own vinyl. I just wanted to record music and play it live. Having people to play for makes it that much better. I really just make the music I want to make. If people like it or hate it, it's just me doing what I love.
Was it important to go full-out with music and ditch acting?
You got it. It didn’t feel like ditching at all; music is who I am. I met the guys that would become my band, Ben and I wrote songs we were proud of, we made a record, we went on tour. I’ll continue that for as long as I can.
You've been working since you were super young. Have you ever wished you could have lived a "normal" teenage life instead?
What is normal? I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing, I don't know any different so I can't really say.
What is a typical day like for Taylor Momsen?
The majority of my life is spent on the road so I wake up, usually take some time for press, head to sound check, play a set, meet the fans, hang with the band, go to sleep and get up to do it all over again. I love food and wine and also like to paint and sculpt when I have the time.
Fashion, it seems, has always played a large role in your life and career. When did you start getting especially interested in clothes and picking out your particular looks?
I’ve always felt that music and image were related. And therefore it’s always been a part of what I do. I experimented with different things when we toured Light Me Up. For the Going to Hell tour I started making my own stage clothes and that's been a really great way to express myself.
Before we let you go, what is your ideal onstage outfit?
Leather pants, a cross t-shirt from my collection, and boots or heels depending on my mood that night. I move around a ton, get down on the floor. I’ve gotta have functional stage clothes that are cool and represent my music.
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The album leaked!