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Imperfections Make It Perfect: The Pretty Reckless Talk Shop, Songwriting, And Newest Album

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GRAMMY Pro Administrator

February 16, 2017

By: Nicole Pajer

In a world where computers can polish every note of a song to a state of perfection, The Pretty Reckless fought to keep the tracks on their latest release Who You Selling For? as authentic as possible. “Perfection isn’t the goal,” lead singer Taylor Momsen explains. “The imperfections are the things that make it perfect.”

The band just released their latest single "Oh My God" with an accompanying music video last week, and are currently touring to promote their newest project. They have also just become the first female-fronted rock band to have four consecutive No. 1’s on the charts (beating out The Pretenders). We caught up with the fearless frontwoman to discuss her inspiration for songwriting, how the band’s sound has evolved over the years, and how The Pretty Reckless specifically designed their latest record to be listened to on vinyl.

On Who You Selling For? the band has really tapped into more rock subgroups and incorporated elements of blues, funk, and Southern rock. Was the new sound a conscious decision?

This record was a very natural evolution for the band. There was no intentional “let’s go in some sort of different direction.”

[Rock and roll] is freedom that encompasses all the genres. There are no limits. Rock and roll allows you the ultimate freedom to explore and go in any direction.

What did you do differently in the studio this time around?

We tried to capture the human element that is lacking in a lot of music nowadays. With computers, everything can be fixed and lined up to be perfect. I think that perfection isn’t necessarily the goal. The imperfections and hearing the person behind the note and the player behind the instrument is important. So the imperfections are the things that can make it perfect.

The other thing we did differently was bring in outside musicians for the first time, which was really exciting for us. We brought in a keyboard player, Amy Burton, who was awesome. Tommy Byrnes played acoustic [guitar] on “Back to the River,” which also featured Warren Haynes. We brought in three backup singers, who are all legends in their own right – Janice Pendarvis, Jenny Douglas Foote, and Sophia Ramos. It was really fun for me to get to sing with other people instead of me layering myself a billion times. We tried to make it very organic, and capture a moment in time that was a magical take.

The song “Take Me Down,” the vocals and the guitar on that are literally the first time Ben and I recorded it. It was a scratch take. Then we tried to beat ourselves, but we couldn’t because there was something magical about that first time. “The Devil’s Back” was originally going to be a two-and-a-half minute song, but because we were all sitting in the room jamming really organically, the vibe felt good, it sounded really good. Someone put their hand up and said, “Keep going!” and we just kept playing, and now it’s one of the longest songs on the record.

How do you find the balance between leaving some of those imperfections in the record but also wanting to polish it?

We’ve always worked with our producer Kato [Khandwala]. I think it is important to work with the same people because you grow together. We grow together each record and push ourselves to be better. It’s a balance.

When something magical clicks, everyone goes “that’s it.” “Take Me Down” is the best example of that. I sang it every day for a month and I couldn’t beat the original, first time I sang it. So the first time was it.

What is your typical songwriting process like?

Ben and I are the two writers of the band. It all starts with an idea, so whether I’ve got a lyric or a melody or a chord or a riff. Every song is done so differently. He writes on his own, I write on my own, we write together. Somehow it ends up working. Inspiration-wise, you never know where it will come from. My joke is always that if I knew where inspiration came from, I’d move there.

What do you do when you get stuck during the song creation process?

You table it. You move it to the side and move forward and come back to it. If you try to force anything in writing, it’s inevitably going to suck. You can’t force it.

There are a lot of songs that we haven’t even recorded that have pieces to them that they’re not quite there yet, but we’ll get there one day.

Did adding new musicians in the studio for this album prompt you to change up your live show at all?

Not yet. It’s still just the 4-piece live ruckus rock and roll band. It is interesting though because with this record, we essentially have to rewrite everything to do it live as a stripped-down 4-piece. But it is very cool and fun to see because it’s very rock and roll. It’s very ruckus and in your face. We don’t play with click tracks or anything. It’s very live. The live [versions] of old songs or new songs change daily just because we are jamming.

Tell us about the process behind picking the album title and choosing the cover art.

Well the title is a song on the record, “Who You Selling For?” and when we finished the record, the band was talking and we were going through options of titles. We had a bunch of different ones but that one just kind of stuck out. It seemed interesting to us with the record we just made to pose a question to the audience instead of titling it for them, because it’s going to mean something different to everyone who reads it or sees it or hears it.

Is there a lot of pressure behind naming a record?

The pressure is internal – like, “Am I going to be satisfied with this 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now?” The goal is longevity and quality. So as an artist and as a band, that’s how we look at it.

What do you envision being the perfect scenario for listening to this album?

Sit in a room by yourself, put on a nice pair of headphones, and hit play from the very beginning and listen all the way through. The track listing is very important and hopefully it will take you on some sort of journey. The ideal scenario is to listen to it on vinyl. We did something different with this record, where we mastered it like a Led Zeppelin record for vinyl where you can turn it all the way up to 10 and nothing will distort or change. If you want to hear the sonic quality of what we made, vinyl is how to listen to it.

Vinyl is where you need to go if you want to hear how far down the rabbit hole we went.

What is the process of curating your track listing like?

As you are writing a collection of songs, inevitably common themes start to evolve and you don’t start to realize it at the time.

Once you have them finished, you listen back and suddenly realize you’ve told a story, and then the track listing suddenly becomes very simple. It’s like; “Oh I’m going to take you on this journey because I just captured a moment of my life on record.”

It’s very weird. It’s like a puzzle or a painting you are looking closely at and then you step back and see the whole thing.

Walk us through the story behind your latest video for “Take Me Down.”

We’ve definitely had a learning curve with videos from the beginning to now. They took us a minute to understand how to make them. With budgets, I’ll have these grandiose ideas and then we can’t accomplish them. With this video for “Take Me Down” I went back to my very dear friend Meiert Avis who directed it, and he’s a legend. He did all the U2 videos and “Like A Stone” by Audioslave. He did all our videos for the first record. So I called him up again. He listened to the song and he said, “You know what don’t have? You don’t have a video that captures the band in its essence.”

So we went back to Water Music Studios, where we made the record, set up, and actually just played the song over and over and he filmed it and made it look cool. We wanted to make a very relaxed, honest video that went along with the song but didn’t distract from it.

For people that haven’t been to one of your shows yet, what can they expect?

You can expect hopefully a very, very good time. It’s ruckus. It’s in your face. It’s a lot of fun and it’s different every night. Even if the set’s the same, it’s never the same. You can certainly expect an experience, and it’s something to see if you have the chance.