THE POP BREAK
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Taylor Momsen of The Pretty Reckless on Their New Album, Warren Haynes, Soundgarden & a Summer of Touring
In a world devoid of authentic rock n’ roll at the mainstream level, The Pretty Reckless shuns aside conformity by playing blistering guitar riffs at gritty volumes with such eloquence and aggression in the vocal delivery that reignites the soul in rock n’ roll.
As we speak, The Pretty Reckless have become the torchbearers for modern rock and continue to push their songwriting prowess into riveting heights of musical excellence. The band released their third LP Who You Selling For? last October and all twelve tracks demonstrated a distinct ability to craft heartfelt melodies atop of riff rattling chord progressions that resurrect the tastiest songwriting dynamics of the 60s, 70s, and 90s. Heart, maturity, and confidence define one of the pivotal rock releases of the decade thus far.
Eight-years into their career, this New York City powerhouse has climbed into the Billboard charts and cultivated a loyal following worldwide by releasing timeless anthems that translate the synergy of their live sound into their studio recordings. The Pretty Reckless will headline the concert haven known as the Starland Ballroom on Friday, May 19 in Sayreville, New Jersey.
In an exclusive interview with The Pop Break, I spoke in-depth with vocalist Taylor Momsen about her band’s sonic evolution and the songwriting process for Who You Selling For? Keep your eyes glued to the screen as Momsen discusses her creative inspiration and genuine excitement to open for Soundgarden later this summer.Photo Credit: Andrew Lipovsky
The title of your new album, Who You Selling For? That question carries so much depth, especially for a musician and band of your caliber. Even after a few months since this album’s release, what does “Who You Selling For?” mean for you personally and how has that notion evolved?
Honestly, we get asked that all the time and it really does mean something different to me everyday. I think that’s why we chose it. Obviously, it’s the name of a song on the record and it is a pinnacle song for us on the album. When we were going through options and titles for the record, Who You Selling For? immediately stuck out. We thought it was interesting to pose a question to the audience instead of defining something for them. For me, it means something different everyday. Today, I’m selling for you and tomorrow, I will be selling for somebody else. But at the end of the day, I sell myself for music because it is what I love and it is my identity.
The opening track, “The Walls Are Closing In,” possesses this haunting piano interlude underneath your vocals. It really creates this calm before the storm atmosphere. Could you take me through the songwriting process and how you decided to transition into such a heavy riff on “Hangman?”
With “The Walls Are Closing In,” we tracked it separately even though it continues into “Hangman.” It was originally going to be its own song. We said all we had to say in that short amount of time. After “Hangman” came along, “The Walls Are Closing In” became an intro to that song, which is one of my favorites on the record because it is artistically all over the place. With this record, the biggest thing that we tried to do and I think having “The Walls Are Closing In” be the opening track is a great example; we really tried to make an organic record and unintentionally wound up making a classic rock record. We wanted to capture the human element of the musician and performer. I find that imperfections can be the thing that makes the song perfect.
Now with the ability to digitally manipulate everything: not that I am opposed to working on computers and using modern technology and all those things but at the same time, if you line everything up and fix everything all the time, you are really eliminating such an important part of music. You want to hear the person behind the note and the crumble behind the note: the struggle to get there, the pain, the guitar, so you could really understand that person. We tried to capture that. And really, it was about making and finding that magic moment for lack of a better word. “The Walls Are Closing In” was done in one take and that’s why it starts with me talking (Laughs). We were all just sitting in a room playing and that was the take where we were like, “That’s the start of the record.” (Laughs)
You have a solid eight-year history of working with Kato Khandwala. Could you describe his role in capturing the organic essence of your sound?
Kato doesn’t write with us. Ben and I are the two writers in the band but Kato has worked with us since the beginning. He is very much a fifth member of the band because we have worked together for so long. Not that I am comparing ourselves to The Beatles by any means, but I really think there is something to developing a relationship with a producer instead of jumping from person to person for every record to try something different. There is something to growing with that person so as the band grows, you are growing with the producer as well. We are all on the same page. He really is one of our best friends on the planet and it would be strange to not work with him.
This being your third record, what was the most difficult challenge or welcoming advice that Kato provided from a vocal standpoint?
It is not really like that. It’s collaborative and at the same time, we don’t write in the studio. Ben and I write everything before we step foot into the studio. We already have a distinct vision for what we want to achieve. Once a song is written, he could naturally hear where a song is supposed to go. Everything starts on the acoustic guitar and once you have a solidified song – our motto is: if you could play it all the way through on acoustic and it’s a good song with nothing – the next step is to bring it to the band and Kato in New York and go from there. As a songwriter, we have a vision for what the song should sound like before we enter the studio. That’s where Kato is very good at helping us. We communicate very well and he understands our weird and artsy language for what we are trying to describe, which isn’t necessarily technical (Laughs). It could be the word “vibe” or whatever it is and he is very good at helping us capture our intentions for what each song is.
The entire band just slams away on “Wild City.” What was your lyrical approach to that particular song? Your vocal performance, as well as your background singers, really brought the funk essence of your sound into new territories.
“Wild City’ started with me. I live in New York in the lower east side and I was walking down the street and I was just looking at people and that’s kind of where the core of this song developed. I grew up in New York and what it’s like to be young and alone in New York City: it’s an experience that not everyone gets to experience. I tried to capture that feeling in the song. Again, it was about capturing the human element of our music by bringing in background singers and outside musicians. This was the first record that we did that. We brought in Janice Pendarvis: she is an icon of a singer. We also brought in Jenny Douglas-Foote and Sophia Ramos and all of three of them were amazing on “Take Me Down” and now “Wild City.” That was really fun for me to be able to sing with other fantastic singers instead of having me just layering myself over and over (Laughs). It really added a new fresh element.
And we also brought in a keyboard player – Andy Burton. We brought in Tommy Byrnes and for “Back to the River,” Warren Haynes. We allowed ourselves to open up in the studio in a way that we hadn’t before. It wasn’t just the four of us or five of us with Kato. We brought in other musicians and embraced the aspect of seeing where the song will take us. That was really exciting and created a new sound: I don’t want to necessarily say a new sound, but something that we haven’t tackled before.Photo Credit: Rob Renn
I like what you said earlier about this album being a classic rock record. “Back To The River,” harkens back to the era of bands like The Allman Brothers. Cool enough, Warren Hayes was a guest on the track and added some beautiful slide guitar. How did this collaboration come about?
What are you going to do when you’ve got this sort of Allman Brothers tune? You’re going to call The Allman Brothers; you’re going to call Warren Haynes – one of the greatest slide players ever. He literally is the reason why The Allman Brothers reformed and I am a massive fan of his. That came about because we had this song and we all loved it. As great of a guitar player as Ben is, we really wanted to elevate it to another level and Warren Haynes was the first name that came to mind. We sent him the song and he had a listen and responded back and said, “Yeah, I would love to play on this.” He really took it to a whole new place. The song wouldn’t be the same without him on it. It was our first feature and first collaboration (Laughs).
Was it crazy to listen back to your own song knowing that you had one of the world’s premier blues guitarists performing on it? That’s so wild.
It’s so wild and such a compliment and honor that he would say yes to that. In the modern day, there is a lot of pairing certain artists with other artists and a lot of collaborations and duets. To me, that could get a little formulaic. Once the song actually calls for an artist, whether it’s a singer or guitar player, if the song itself desperately needs that, try it unless you can do it yourself. That song desperately needed a fantastic slide player. Go Warren, thank you so much!
“Bedroom Window,” features some of your rawest lyrics to-date. “As I look out of my bedroom window/ Is it all real or just fantasy?/ I have lost touch with what makes me human/I have lost touch with reality?” Could you take me through this song and what you tried to capture from an emotional perspective?
I think this whole record captures a lot of what that song captures as well. Writing a record is such a strange process. We had toured behind the record Going To Hell for two years straight. When we got off the road, we all were kind of beat. It has been said by many artists before but anytime you accomplish some massive artistic feat: whether it’s a really long tour or just one song or record – whatever it is – you put so much of yourself and your soul into it. You put everything you have into it. When it’s over, you’re left empty with this giant void in the pit of your stomach. There is such a cliché with musicians and drugs and alcohol and what do you fill that void with? I try not to fill it with alcohol but I don’t always succeed with that (Laughs). You try to fill it with new music. When we got off from tour, I was so desperate for new material and I immediately jumped into writing new stuff. I was in kind of a…I don’t know what the right word is but it’s a lot of emotions: confused and lost.
I live in New York but I have a place in New England that I go to that is very isolated and very Stephen King esque to get away from everything and find my center again. That one stemmed from me literally looking outside of my bedroom window after having toured the world for two-years and seeing all this shit. When it comes down to it, you look out of your window and everything looks the same yet you are always being told that the world is blowing up outside of you (Laughs). That is where that song stemmed from but I think that’s a common theme across the record.
From both a personal and songwriting standpoint, out of the twelve tracks, which would you pick as your personal favorite and which are you most proud of?
Ugh, that is an impossible question and you have to know it is because they are all my children (Laughs). That’s how I look at our songs: no song is more important than the other. It changes daily. Right now, we really love playing “Hangman,” “Oh My God,” “Living In The Storm,” and “Prisoner” is really fun. With this record, you really can’t pick one song. It’s meant to be listened to as a whole and it’s meant to be listened to from front to back. Hopefully, the listener and audience goes on a journey that encapsulates them into the state that I was in when I was making that record. That is why I think records are so cool. The saying is, “We are living in the world of singles right now.” I think it’s great that music is so accessible and immediate and all those things. For me, records are still very powerful because it captures a moment in an artist’s life that you won’t get again. As an artist and person, a record really captures a moment in time.
I completely agree. A song like “Hangman” feels like an emotional release that captures your mindset in that moment. The dramatic essence of your vocals atop of Ben’s guitar brought such a captivating darkness to that track. What was your immediate reaction when you first heard Ben play that riff?
We actually wrote that song together. It is Latin chant of a poem by Chidiock Tichborne, which is called “On the Eve of His Execution” and we translated that into Latin. That is kind of where that stemmed from. I don’t want to get too in-depth and I don’t like to talk too much in detail about the songs. I am a huge, huge, huge fan of music. As an example, I have been listening to Pink Floyd since I was an infant. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” is a fantastic song. I recently just watched one of the many Pink Floyd documentaries and I learned how that song is about Syd Barrett.
I didn’t want to know that or know the inner workings of that song because it meant something personal to me. By divulging too much of the writer to your audience, I think you are taking something away from them. Music is meant to be interpreted however you hear it. Whatever it means to you, that is what the song means. Music is ever evolving even if the track never changes or the recording stays the same. Even as the writer myself, it’s going to mean something different to me every year that I grow. For every changing moment, it takes time to reflect and look back at your art and go, “Oh, this is what I was actually saying when I thought I was saying something else.” It’s constantly evolving and to define something specific for the audience, I think it’s unfair to them if that makes sense (Laughs).Photo Credit: Andrew Lipovsky
No, I definitely understand your point. I think of a band like Soundgarden – ironically enough, since you will be opening up for them – where Chris Cornell keeps his lyrics vague enough for the listener to form their own meaning.
Yeah, because even if your lyrics are inspired by something direct from your life – it could even be a quote – at the same time, it’s all puns and metaphors. To define it that specifically is challenging and kind of unfair (Laughs). And yes, we are touring with fucking Soundgarden and I am so excited because they are one of my favorite bands of all-time!
How crazy is that? What was your initial reaction like when you were first approached with that tour?
I was shocked and extremely excited. I mean, that is the bucket list tour for me. We played with them once before in Quebec City to 90,000 people at a festival. It was amazing. To be able to play more than one show with them is a dream come true.
What is your favorite Soundgarden album? And which songs are you most excited to hear when you watch them perform every night?
So impossible to answer (Laughs)! Again, it changes daily because I listen to all of their songs on repeat. I keep making the joke; I’m like, “I don’t know what I’m going to wear on the Soundgarden tour because all of my t-shirts have Soundgarden on them.” I love all of their records. Badmotorfinger is what got me into them, Superunknown is amazing, I love Down on the Upside, and I really got into King Animal when they released that. I’m just looking forward to seeing their show every night and analyzing what they do and just sitting there in awe.
For your own band – the headlining shows, the opening slot for Soundgarden, the festival appearances across the United States – what excites you the most for this upcoming summer and fall?
Honestly, I’m looking forward to all of it. The festivals have always treated us so well and it’s so great to be able to go back and play those shows again. I would be lying if I didn’t say that Soundgarden is going to a highlight for me just because I’m such a fan. They are also playing the same festivals as us too. It’s going to be a great fucking tour. Headlining is amazing because now that we have three records and a few EPs out – we actually have enough material to be able to switch it up. At our headlining shows, we are playing longer than we have ever played before. We used to do a punch you in the face and get off the stage set because we only had so many songs. Now, we’re playing almost up to two-hours, which is almost kind of easier. You have time to settle and become one with the audience. I’m really looking forward to all of it and having a culmination of all those experiences during one tour, it really is amazing.
The Pretty Reckless performs Friday May 19 at The Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ with Them Evils. Tickets can be purchased here.