Pity (or envy) Taylor Momsen. A legitimate rock and roll talent, she entered the musical fray amidst a four-year stint as an actress portraying WASP-y Jenny Humphrey on the CW’s teen drama Gossip Girl by forming the band The Pretty Reckless with producer Kato Khandwala and guitarist Ben Phillips. The band played their first show in 2009.
While her high profile as a television actress no doubt helped form and launch the band, it also set her up as a somewhat controversial figure in the press when it became apparent that she and the band would have to wrestle against the typecasting that came along with it.
As a result, when the band’s debut LP, Light Me Up was released in 2010, many who were expecting a teeny-bop album from the young actress were taken aback that it was, in fact a genuinely heavy rock and roll album and that Momsen proved herself to be a capable and assertive vocalist.
In the time since then, the band has hit the road on the Vans Warped Tour, played a series of festivals in Europe, and will play Lollapalooza in Chicago at 6:15 p.m. on Saturday August 6 before embarking on another tour overseas.
RS: Have you been to Lollapalooza before?
TM: I’ve never been, no. We wanted to play last year so we’re really excited to get to play this year. We were on Warped Tour last year and we couldn’t leave Warped Tour to play there. But I was really bummed, I wanted to play there and I wanted to see Soundgarden so bad.
RS: How was the Warped Tour experience for you?
TM: Warped was cool. It was very much like a boot camp. You play every day, it’s the summer, you don’t know what time you’re playing until the morning of.. It was a very down and dirty experience. It made us a better band by the end of it, playing every day for the entire summer, it was definitely a great tour.
RS: Kind of a trial by fire.
TM: Kind of. I mean, you don’t know what time you’re playing until nine or ten that morning and so it would be like, ‘Get out of bed! You’re on stage in a half hour!’ and it was like, ‘Oh, what?! Oh God, ok!’ Festivals are fun, it’s definitely a different kind of energy than a club show.
RS: So what other festivals have you played?
TM: We’ve done a lot of festivals overseas. We were in Scotland, did Oxygen in Ireland, Download, Wireless, Rock in Rain, Rock in Park..
RS: So I understand you’ve been listening to a lot of Neil Young as of late?
TM: Yeah, on our last American tour I got into a really massive Neil Young phase. We’re thinking of covering a couple of Neil Young songs, working them out right now, we’re not sure which one just yet.
RS: What are your favorite songs or albums of his?
TM: Well, I love “Hey Hey My My,” which we’re thinking about covering. “Cinnamon Girl” I love, “After the Goldrush,” there’s so many.
RS: His album Ragged Glory kind of reminds me of the sound of your record.
TM: Yeah, I’m not too familiar with that one, but definitely live rock and roll, raw, that’s what we really wanted to bring back into music is, you know, actual playing and songs that are about something other than a club, you know. When you come to see a show, it’s live and what you see is what you get. And it’s very much like that on the record. There’s no studio manufacturing or tracks on the synthesizers, everything’s a real instrument and people playing, real vocals and all that. That was really important, that’s what we all love about music. I think that’s gotten lost in today’s modern world of songs about the club and dance music and I think there’s a place for all of it.
RS: Maybe music’s a little overproduced in general?
TM: Yeah, a little overproduced in general. And I think our show is.. our record is definitely more produced than the show is but the show is.. we took this record that was so meticulously worked on for two years and had to translate it into a three-piece band, whereas the record has three different guitars going on, and we had to take that and make it fit into a four-piece band – three-piece, four-piece when I play – so I think when you come to a show it definitely creates a different energy and a very live, raw, unexpected energy of a rock show which I think is what I love about seeing bands, what I love about music.
RS: Part of the excitement.
TM: Yeah, absolutely. It’s definitely part of the excitement. It’s all of the excitement.
RS: So how would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it before?
TM: I would describe it as song-driven rock. Um, I don’t really know how to classify it other than that. I think we had the kind of Beatle ethic where every song is its own thing. Every song started on the acoustic guitar and the production, everything else came later. So it’s very much about the songs themselves. So I think that’s just how I’d define it, I mean there’s not one specific genre it’s just rock. But I think there’s something kinda for everyone on it.
RS: You don’t want to over-define it.
TM: Yeah, I don’t want to over-define it. I want it to speak for itself, you know? I don’t know man, I mean, I can write and I play and I can sing but I don’t know how to define… that’s not.. that’s not what I do, that’s what you guys do. You guys define it. I mean, it’s hard to talk about it. That’s what I’ve found is the hardest part of doing interviews and the hardest part of this industry is having to talk about your music afterwards and try to explain it, you know? Really, there’s no great way to do that. It always comes out wrong so I just say ‘Let it speak for itself, interpret it how you want to interpret it.’
RS: How and why did you come up with the band name, the Pretty Reckless.
TM: Well, first we were called the Reckless, which I liked but we had some trademarking problems so we had to add a word. But if anyone wants to just call us the Reckless, without the Pretty, feel free to. We had to add a word for trademarking issues, but it was originally called the Reckless.
RS: When you first started the band, you already had a high profile as an actress. How did that affect your work as a musician?
TM: I don’t think it affected my work as a musician at all, I think it affects the public view of it. Because there’s such a stigma with actresses who make records. If you’re asking me personally, I consider myself a musician who also acts. Every musician has to have a day job, I mean, I have to pay my rent, you know what I mean? I’ve been writing songs since I can remember, since before I could f—ing talk. So for me it was nothing new, it was something I’d worked with my entire life.
And it took that time to be able to write a record’s worth of material that I wanted people to hear.
But you know, I think getting people to see you outside of your character, the character that I played on television, was definitely a challenge and it still is, to have people even give it a chance and not just write it off as, you know, whatever, a vanity project, you know, whereas I want to make music for the rest of my life. I don’t want to act. The goal is to be able to write songs and play and only do that. But everyone’s gotta pay their rent. So my day job happened to be in the public eye. And happened to be on TV. And it’s been difficult to get people to see me outside of that. And see the band as a real band. It’s not a project that was thrown together. You know what I mean? And so I think that that aspect of it is difficult. But for me as a musician, it doesn’t affect it at all as far as writing and what I’m creating.
RS: So you see your work as an actress as completely separate from your work as a musician?
TM: Oh yeah. They’re completely separate. Acting is a job. It’s a job I’ve done my whole life. Literally, since I was three years old. But music is a lifestyle, it’s a choice, it’s my choice. You know. It’s something I couldn’t live without. I write songs and have forever because I need to and I don’t know what I’d do myself if I couldn’t. So they’re completely separate entities.
RS: How did you get started writing and playing music and how old were you?
TM: Um, since… I’ve been singing since before I can remember. I’ve been writing songs since I was a little kid. Not good songs, of course. But I’ve been writing since I was young. It became a kind of outlet for me to deal with everything. And deal with myself and my life. And whatever. And I don’t know, I just, I kind of grew up with it. I don’t know how I started or why I started but I did and I never stopped.
RS: And I understand you play guitar as well?
TM: Yeah, I started playing piano when I was younger but I wanted to play rock and roll. So I switched to guitar when I was, like, 8 or 9. And I’m still not anywhere where I want to be on guitar. But.. in time. In time.
RS: For your upcoming tour overseas, do you have any special plans other than the shows you’ll be playing?
TM: I don’t know, really. That’s the biggest thing when we tour around the world and it amazes. It’s one of the most amazing jobs on the planet. You’ll be in a city for less than 24 hours. Especially when you’re doing the festivals, it’s not like you have time to go around the city, you’re very much focused on the show. You fly in, or drive in, or whatever, see the shows, maybe see a couple of bands that are playing and then you’re leaving for the next city or the next country.
So you see lots of buildings. You see everything outside of a car window while you’re driving. Which is amazing but of course we always wish we had a little more time everywhere.
RS: So while you’re in Chicago for Lollapalooza, are you going to make a trip to Reckless Records?
TM: Reckless Records? The Record Store?
RS: Yeah. There’s three locations in Chicago.
TM: Well, the last time we were in Chicago we actually drove by it and I have a photo of it. But yeah, if we have time we might have to go stop in there. I grew up in St. Louis so we used to come to Chicago a lot when I was younger. I love Chicago. It’s one of the cities in America I actually know a little bit.