If Taylor Momsen sold her soul for rock and roll, she certainly got a good deal. The frontwoman of New York-based The Pretty Reckless makes her case on new album, “Who You Selling For?” which flitters between power anthems like “Oh My God” to gentle serenades like acoustic ballad “Bedroom Window,” and hones in on more blues and soul influences than previous releases. The lead single “Take Me Down” is the most obvious, inspired by blues legend Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” that sees him bargaining with the devil for his music abilities.
“It’s about wanting something so much…” the singer says about the message of the album, before trailing off, her voice hoarse after a few weeks on the road where she delivers night after night of grueling performances that more than pays back those dues.
Being a frontwoman is a passion the 23-year-old has had from a young age. “I’ve been singing since before I can remember and always writing songs without realizing I was doing it,” she says, noting that seeing a White Stripes show in the first grade solidified everything. But her family’s wishes were for her to be an actress. At two years old, they signed her up for her first modeling contract; by seven, she found her breakout role as Cindy Lou in Ron Howard’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and, as a teenager, she landed a gig as it girl Jenny Humphrey on the CW’s “Gossip Girl.”
Momsen is remiss to talk about her former career, other than saying “god no” if asked if she will ever return to that stage. “It’s so nice not to have to be a character anymore,” she admits about showcasing her true self in her latest performances. “Acting was never my choice. I got put into it. But when I got to an age where I was old enough and could make my own decisions, I decided to stop doing it and pursue being in a band.”
At the time, Momsen was 16 years old. A chance meeting with long-time producer Kato Khandwala (who also worked with Blondie) introduced her to guitarist Ben Phillips with whom she shares many of the group’s writing credits; bassist Mark Damon and drummer Jamie Perkins round out the four-piece. “It’s rare to find musical partners and friends that close in life for the past nearly 10 years. We’re lucky,” she says.
In the time since, The Pretty Reckless has toured with Marilyn Manson, Evanescence and Guns n’ Roses during “The Chinese Democracy” tour in 2012, and released a series of albums including “Light Me Up” in 2010 and “Going to Hell” in 2014, which charted with singles “Heaven Knows” and “Follow Me Down.”
While religion has obviously been a constant theme in the music of The Pretty Reckless — Momsen grew up Catholic in St. Louis, Missouri and went to Catholic grade school — the iconography is more of a metaphor for good and bad “that most people can understand,” says the singer, citing spirituality’s long-term relevance in music. That includes her most essential influence, The Beatles, who she credits for providing an impressionable foundation for experimentation and expression.
“The thing I like most about rock and roll, and why we play it in our band, is because it represents freedom in music and life, and allows you to go in so many directions,” she says. “It’s blues, it’s jazz, it’s pop. It encompasses everything and allows you to go anywhere as a writer, and that’s the biggest thing for us. We don’t want to put limitations on ourselves, and we certainly didn’t do so on our new record. It took us on a lot of twists and turns.”
In addition to a variety of genres imported into the album, “Who You Selling For” also taps a who’s who list of contributors including Warren Haynes, Billy Joel’s guitarist Tommy Byrnes and supporting vocals from Janice Pendarvis, who often sang with David Bowie. Though it was just released in October, the record has had resonance with “Take Me Down” hitting the number-one spot on the rock charts. As the fourth consecutive No. 1 for the band, it breaks the record for a female-fronted act, which was originally set by The Pretenders in 1984 — and for Momsen it’s only the beginning of what’s to come for The Pretty Reckless.
“The more shows we play and the more we work together as a unit, the tighter we get, and hopefully the better we get,” says Momsen, eternally grateful for the opportunity. “I don’t know who I’d be as a person if I didn’t do it. It’s my identity.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.