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Taylor Momsen Goes Deep on Music, Religion, and Duct-Taping Her Nipples
The lead singer of The Pretty Reckless and one-time star of Gossip Girl has a lot to get off her chest.
By Kathy Iandoli
Oct 21, 2016
It’s the edge of autumn in New York City, and despite a chill settling into the air, the Lower East Side’s watering hole Donnybrook is lit up like it’s still a summer night. The corner bar has locals pouring out singing Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” onto the street, as only faint warbles of the late Brit’s voice are heard from the jukebox inside. It’s filthy and cool at the same time, and it’s where Taylor Momsen feels the most at home to meet. Over a glass of red wine, her eyes light up as she discusses her third studio album, Who You Selling For, arguably her band’s best work to date.
The Pretty Reckless formed in the early aughts, when Momsen was barely 16 (and in the midst of her Gossip Girl fame), and branded her a rock star with the vocal edge of Joan Jett and the crystalline looks of Debbie Harry. It also set her up for a life lived largely on the road. She’d been bookended by tour dates for as long as she could remember when she and bandmate Ben Phillips finally sat down to write this latest album, which she describes as a rebirth of sorts. Here, the 23-year-old lead singer talks music, acting, and her real stance on religion. She also laments that, once upon a time, she duct-taped her nipples.
What was your mind-set coming into this project?
We toured [our second album] Going to Hell for about two years, and then got off the road and were pretty zonked. Ben, the guitar player, and I, we write all the songs and the music. And we don’t write on the road, really; we jot down ideas, but it takes isolation and solitude for us to write. So by the end of the tour cycle, we were really itching to do something else. We pretty much immediately walked into writing the new record. I went away too. I have a house in New England, a tiny little house in the middle of nowhere. It’s Horrorville, Steven King-style. It’s as far away from people as possible. When I get off tour, I want nothing to do with anyone.
Is touring exhausting for you?
It is! It super is. But you can’t be a band and not play, and playing is so invigorating. It breathes life into you. So does creating something out of nothing. There’s no better feeling than finishing a good song and sitting back and playing it like, “Shit, I just made that!” My joke is that it’s like an orgasm. It’s three minutes, or however long the song is, of sheer and utter bliss, and then complete and utter hell because then you go, “Oh shit, I gotta do it again.”
Did you approach your writing differently this time around?
I guess what we really wanted to do differently on this recording was we really wanted to create an organic experience … there’s no overdubs, no manipulation, no anything. For example, if I was going to sing a song one day and I sang it once and it wasn’t working and it wasn’t clicking, there was no, “Try it again! Try it again!” It was immediately done. Move on and come back to it later, because we really wanted to capture the magic of the performer. And for the first time, we brought in outside musicians ... three background singers, a keyboard player. So we were jamming. We really wanted to make a classic rock record. The whole point of rock-and-roll is it’s freedom. It’s freedom to be expressive, it’s the freedom to say, “Fuck it!”
Is your previous album, Going to Hell, a "Catholic guilt" record? The label Razor & Tie called it that.
That was someone else’s words, not mine. It’s not. It’s not a religious record. It’s a metaphoric record of heaven and hell, good and bad. Good and evil exists everywhere.
I was raised Catholic.
Are you still Catholic?
I say I’m a "roamin’" Catholic. But that shit is real.
Yeah, it certainly is.
Do you still identify?
Are you religious?
Not particularly. I’m spiritual but I don’t practice any sort of thing. I believe in good, having morals, be a decent person.
I heard a rumor that you flash people at shows.
When we first started out, I was a little young and stupid. I wore Xs on my nipples and corset dresses with stripper heels, and thought that was a good look. I’ll say this: It fit me at the time, whatever phase I was in or whatever that was. Everyone likes to stereotype things or write them off as not that serious or “this is just a phase,” especially when you’re that young. The music was never a phase, but the wardrobe was certainly a phase, so I think that may have overshadowed the music in the beginning, for sure. I was so outrageous.
I don’t know. I think that me now, I wouldn’t take a 16-year-old seriously in any capacity. “You’re a kid, why would I listen to you? You’re a child.” So looking back at it now, I’m like, of course! What was I thinking? I’m wearing stripper heels, flashing duct tape on my tits, and being a fucking nutcase. But I was 16 and living out whatever I was going through at the time. But I don’t look back on the records and go, “I wish I didn’t do that.” So the music was always the thing that has been in our world.
There are some dark lyrics on this new album.
It’s not a light record! It’s a pretty dark record.
It’s pretty heavy! There are moments where it sounds like you feel swallowed whole by the industry.
I wouldn’t identify it specifically as the industry because I think that’s too limiting to the songs. I’ve read that in a couple reviews that have come [out] that I’ve seen, which is fine.
I just didn’t want to say your life was swallowing you whole.
And I appreciate that. I go through ups and downs just like everyone does. In ending this [tour] cycle, [I got] home to my house in the middle of nowhere and was going, “Who am I?” and feeling very lost and confused and — I hate to use the word "depressed" because it sounds so heavy but ... I was lost, I guess is the right word, and very kind of desperate for something new. And I think desperation is a common theme that runs throughout the record.
Who was it that had the quote, “When you finish something of great importance to you” — like writing a record, recording a record, a tour, whatever it is — “and then it’s over, you’re left with this giant hole”? What do you do with that hole? A lot of artists fill it with drugs and alcohol. That’s why there’s such a cliché along with it. You threw everything on the table, all your parts, given everything to it, and you’re left this shell of a person. And then you have to figure out how to fill up that shell again with something new, and that’s a process that happens every time you create something in any sort of drastically large period of your life. And so that’s something that I think I deal with a lot personally.
You’re 23, but do you feel like you’ve lived a million lives already?
Um, yes, in one way; no, in another, because I don’t know anything different. I’ve been around the world a couple times, so I’ve done a lot of things that maybe some people at my age would [not have]. But I don’t think that ’s a good thing or a bad thing. That’s just what it is. That’s where my life has taken me at this point, sometimes by choice and sometimes not. But that’s everyone’s life! There’s a lot of things in my past that wouldn’t have necessarily been my choices but at the same time, going back in time and changing something, I wouldn’t want to do that because I like where I came out.
You’ve had a job since you were 2 years old, when you started modeling. As a little kid, did you realize you were at work?
When I was really little, no. Again, if you only know what you know, you don’t know if something’s good or bad. You don’t have perspective. But once I got to an age where I was old enough to make my own decisions, I quit everything and did what I actually wanted to do, which was start a band. I’ve been writing songs since I was a wee child.
Oh my god, I have boxes and boxes of journals that stack up.
Do you remember one of the first songs you wrote?
Probably, but I certainly don’t want it out there. You write a lot of bad songs before you write good ones. It takes time! So my point being, when I got to an age where I realized I could make my own decisions, I did. And I quit everything and I did what I actually wanted to do and I haven’t looked back since.
Is that liberating and scary at the same time?
It really wasn’t any of those things. It was more, “Wait, what?” It was like I woke up one morning like, “Wait, I don’t have to do this? This thing that I’ve been doing my whole life that’s not ... Wait a second! Hold on!” When I realized I could actually make my decisions, it was a very strange feeling. It’s like a switch went off in my brain, like, “Oh, then why am I doing this? I don’t enjoy this, so I’m just gonna stop doing this.” And there was a lot of elements of the business side of things that were very complicated and not that simple, but none of that mattered to me. It was like, if I don’t have to do this thing that I don’t enjoy doing anymore, or I don’t know if I ever really did, then I’m not gonna do it anymore! Because this is my life, and I want to live it and enjoy it if I can.
So where do you go from here?
Isn’t that the great question? You said that and it reminded me of — do you know Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Do you know the episode “Once More With Feeling,” the musical episode? I worship Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If I could be Buffy, I would. But one of the songs is “Where Do We Go From Here.” Sorry. It’s one of my favorite episodes, and the music on that is incredibly amazing and I think [creator] Joss Whedon is a genius. Anyway, so where do we go from here? Well, we’re going to Paris on Saturday, then we’re going to Berlin, then we’re going to London … I think the long-term goal is to continue to grow as people and as a unit, individually and together, and hopefully continue to keep making records that are better every time, because if you’re not moving forward, you’re either standing still or regressing.
Are you always this deep?
I think I’m a homebody. I don’t talk to anyone. I sit at home, and no one asks me questions or I’m talking about goat noises.
Do you ever binge on pop-culturey things?
There are pop-culture things on television [that I like]. Not so much in music at all. I love South Park. I LOVE South Park. I worship South Park.I find comedy to be one of the highest of the art forms. To get up on the stage and perform stand-up, where you don’t have the backup of a guitar player or a drummer or anything, and you have to entertain? I love Louis C.K. I love Marc Maron — he’s a mastermind. He’s figured something out. Curb Your Enthusiasm is something that I watch to clear my mind a lot. I just watched Ali Wong, have you heard of her?
Yeah, she has that Netflix special!
Yeah, the Ali Wong special is amazing. So I love comedy. If I could be a comedian — well, I probably would not take that job because it seems really hard, but I wish I could be.
If you were to ever take another acting role, what kind of role would it be?
I wouldn’t take another acting role. No. Asking about acting to me is like asking about junior high. (A) I literally was in junior high the last time I acted, and (B) it’s such a lifetime ago, it would be like me interviewing you and asking you, “If you were gonna go back to junior high, what would be the class that you’d wanna get a better grade in?” Or something like that.
It feels like a foreign concept at this point.
It really does. It feels like a foreign concept at this point. You said it.
You need a documentary for the band.
Well, we might be working on something. That’s a wink, wink, but I can’t wink. I’m working on a book right now, not an autobiography. No promises for anytime soon, but it’s something to keep me busy.
Because you’re not busy at all.
Well, something to distract from everything else. And I paint and I sculpt and I enjoy doing things that aren’t for the public. There’s no pressure to it, it’s just something that’s a cleansing of the mind.
So if you weren’t doing this, where do you think you would be?
I don’t know. I think I’d probably be doing this, but maybe no one would know about it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.