“Fame is so fleeting and stupid,” utters Taylor Momsen.
For three-plus years, the celeb-infatuated sphere knew the striking blonde as Jenny Humphrey, problem child extraordinaire on the CW series Gossip Girl. Jenny was, as the concerned Dad would say, a real piece of work; a Machiavellian social climber who pushed pills, covered up a cancer misdiagnosis, and was deflowered by the town lothario.
It proved such a convincing turn that those in the tabloid media seemed to conflate Momsen with her troubled small screen character. A plethora of publications deemed her “the next Lindsay Lohan” for teenage “transgressions” ranging from puffing on cigarettes to dressing provocatively. She was hounded by the prying paparazzi, desperate to label her a partied-out starlet.
“Once, my tampon string was put on the Internet when I was 15 because some asshole shot up my dress and it made big headlines,” she says. “For a year, if you Googled ‘Taylor Momsen’ the tampon photo was the first thing that came up. When that happens, you just go, I really just don’t give a fuck, and you close the computer. People are going to say what they’re going to say, and the tabloids will always spin shit.”
Five years ago, Momsen turned her back on Gossip Girl—and acting. She’d hooked up with producer Kato Khandwala, who introduced her to guitarist Ben Phillips, and the three began writing some songs together. After a few band alterations, The Pretty Reckless was born.
Now, when the phrase “actor-musician” is mumbled, it immediately conjures up horrifying images of Bruce Willis crooning a cover of “Under the Boardwalk,” or Russell Crowe howling away in 30 Odd Foot of Grunts. But Light Me Up, the debut LP by The Pretty Reckless, was—surprise!—met with critical acclaim.
“It’s terrific fun,” wrote The New York Times. “Salacious, convincingly muscular, unnervingly rowdy.”
And there was Momsen front and center, dressed in black, singing and playing rhythm guitar. With the band’s newfound success, her appearances on that hit CW sitcom became scarcer, until her character was shipped off to London during Season 4. She returned for a brief cameo in the series finale, which, fittingly, featured the Pretty Reckless track “Kill Me” at its conclusion.
“I started modeling at 2, and then acting at 3, and then Gossip Girl when I was 12, so I wasn’t really making my own decisions,” she says. “When I got to a place where I realized I was in control of my own life, and had found the right band, and everything was coming to fruition, it wasn’t even a question: I was going to quit my day job. I came to set every day with a fuckin’ guitar. But I’m very lucky that the producers were nice enough to write me out, allow me to tour, and pursue my passion, because they very easily could have told me to go fuck myself and keep me on the show.”
The band’s latest recording, Going to Hell, hits stores on March 18. It's a shot of angsty adrenaline, angular guitars, and emphatic vocals that plays a bit like Joan Jett-lite, and the title, according to Momsen, stems from both the hell endured in recording the album, as well as the injustices witnessed during the band’s tour of the world.
“The power lies in the few and then you witness so much poverty, depression, and repression, and it changed my perspective on everything,” she says. “I came back and thought, It’s a fucked up world.”
Momsen and Co. recorded their sophomore album at Water Music Studios in Hoboken, New Jersey. But, midway through recording the LP, Hurricane Sandy struck and left the band rattled.
“We lost everything,” says Momsen. “The biggest thing we lost was time and we had such a good vibe going, and had built up this room at Water Music with our specs, so it was perfect. We lost $500,000 worth of gear, including a beautiful piano from the 1900s, guitars, recordings, a MIDI console. Hazmat had to come in and clear all the sludge and sewage.”
Things were further complicated by the death of their producer Khandwala’s wife, who was “like a mother” to the band. The group laid down the tracks “Going to Hell” and “Fucked Up World” in the aftermath, and ended up finishing the album at Water Music when the studio got back up and running.
When it comes to The Pretty Reckless, much ink has been spilled over Momsen’s skimpy sartorial choices, as well as the album’s provocative cover art. It features a nude Momsen, back turned to the camera, with a cross-arrow painted on her back and pointing towards her crack. It took several hours for the symbol to be hand-painted on Momsen’s back, and the image was photographed by Danny Hastings, who also shot the cover to Wu-Tang Clan’s debut LP, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).
“I wanted it to be striking,” she says of the cover. “I came up with a symbol, the cross with the arrow going down, which symbolizes Going to Hell. It was an elaborate process but the nudity came from: when you come into this world, there’s nothing but your soul, and you leave with nothing but your soul. People have misinterpreted it and turned it into something else, but that’s just tabloid manipulation.”
She pauses. “Sexuality and rock ‘n’ roll go hand-in-hand and have since the beginning of time, and if anyone thinks I’m doing anything more controversial than fuckin’ Led Zeppelin, you’re insane, because I can see Robert Plant’s fuckin’ dick… you know?”