Why Taylor Momsen Turned Her Back on Hollywood
The lead singer of The Pretty Reckless opens up to Marlow Stern about their new album, overcoming a deep depression, and why she won’t be appearing in the ‘Gossip Girl’ reboot.
“I feel like I’ve turned the curve a little bit,” mutters Taylor Momsen. “I’m not worried about seeing tomorrow.”
A few years ago, the frontwoman of The Pretty Reckless was spiraling, lost in a haze of drugs, booze, and what she calls “a black hole of depression.” Momsen’s rock group was on tour with Soundgarden and opened for them at Detroit’s Fox Theater on May 17, 2017. The following day, singer Chris Cornell would take his own life. Then, less than a year later, Momsen lost her best friend—and the band’s producer—Kato Khandwala to a motorcycle accident.
“We lost a lot of people quickly, back-to-back,” she says. “More than the people I talk about with the press, too.”
Momsen, 27, is Zooming me from a rather caliginous-looking boathouse in Maine, where she’s been holed up during the pandemic. She’s owned the getaway spot for seven years, and it often doubles as a rehearsal space for The Pretty Reckless. She’s been hard at work promoting the band’s fourth studio album, Death by Rock and Roll, a confident, melancholic record which Kerrang! called, “their most confident collection yet, full of persuasive rock songs in which Taylor, her voice punchily prominent in the mix, holds court on a variety of important topics,” from the #MeToo movement to the media’s unforgiving gaze.
“When I say that I really poured myself into this album, I mean that in the most literal way possible—physically, mentally, blood, sweat, and tears,” she says.
In a former life—that is, before she “quit” acting—Momsen was performing for the big and small screen, having been signed to Ford Models at the age of 2, and then appearing in projects like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, and of course Gossip Girl, where her turn as the troubled striver Jenny Humphrey made her something of a teen idol. We talked about all that and much more.
How have you been spending lockdown? Writing and recording music?
Pretty much, yeah. We finished the album right before COVID, and due to the insane world circumstances, we pushed it a little bit. It felt kinda weird to put out a full album and not know when we were gonna be able to tour—we still don’t, unfortunately, but I came to the conclusion that we can’t sit on this music forever. For Chrissakes, we put out a song called “25” that I wrote and recorded when I was 25, and I’m now 27. I was like, what, am I gonna put this album out when I’m 30? Because I’m super proud of it and glad that it’s finally coming out now.
“25” is a haunting song. Did you experience somewhat of a quarter life crisis?
Yeah. I hit a very low point in my life around that time period. It lasted a little longer than 25—it was a few years there—but I think I wasn’t so sure what the future was going to hold, and honestly, I wasn’t sure if there was going to be a future. I hit, I wouldn’t say rock bottom, but I was getting close to that. I was in this hole of depression, substance abuse, and was not well mentally. That song was the first step toward me writing this record, which was really the first step toward me trying to heal myself. I turn to music in times of strife and trouble, and writing is how I find my center again.
There’s a line on “My Bones” that stuck with me. It goes, “When I was young I could perfectly see / Now I’m as blind, blind as a girl can be / Out of insanity into ecstasy / We all sin, so why am I so guilty?” It struck me as being about the harsh judgment you received as a young actress in the spotlight—which must have been difficult to navigate.
Every time we put out an album, because I’m writing about my life, it seems that people immediately associate everything with my past of acting and growing up in the spotlight, and sure, that was a huge part of my childhood and how I grew up and why I am the way I am today, but that isn’t necessarily what I’m thinking of when I’m writing. I’m not thinking about filming The Grinch! [Laughs] That’s just something that comes up once a year around Christmas because there’s no avoiding it. I tend to write from a much more personal standpoint that doesn’t have to do with the entertainment industry. I am just a person at the end of the day.
A standout track on the album, in my opinion, is “Witches Burn,” which seemed quite topical given the four years of pure insanity that we’ve just endured.
Hell—you can just say it. It’s been hell. In a broad sense, “Witches Burn” came from a place of getting put on trial. From a female perspective, and also from a male perspective, we’re all human, and we’re all making mistakes all the time. I’m certainly not perfect and I’m not claiming to be, but I’m going to do what I want, and for that I might burn. Everything now is based on the court of public opinion, and I think that’s a very dangerous space to live in. I think it’s great that everyone has a voice, and can use their voice, and that ethos of the movement is a great thing because there’s communication around the world that didn’t exist before all this, but at the same time, it can turn very negatively very quickly, where people immediately judge something that they don’t have all the information about. And as a woman, I feel all that. “Witches Burn” was written at the beginning of the #MeToo movement. I’m not saying it’s a “#MeToo song,” but that was certainly something that was unavoidable as a subject matter at the time.
You mentioned hitting a low point prior to the recording of this album, and I’m curious how writing and recording this album helped bring you out of the darkness.
You know, we went through a lot of losses. It was this very weird time period where we were opening for Soundgarden, which was the epitome of the highest of highs. I couldn’t believe we were on that tour. For me, it’s The Beatles and Soundgarden, and opening for them was mind-blowing. So, to have it end so tragically, it really went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows at the snap of a finger. To find out the news about Chris [Cornell] the next morning, after we’d been with him and played a show in Detroit the night before, was so devastating that I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I couldn’t process it. It crushed me in a way that I still don’t know how to put into words. We played a few shows after that, and I came to the conclusion that I was not in a place to be public and needed to take a step back. It was unfair to the fans, I was treating myself poorly, and I was not in a good mental space. I felt like I was cheating the audience out of something they deserved, because I wasn’t fully there. So, I canceled everything, which was probably not the best business decision for that record, but I needed to for my own mental health.
I went back home, tried to grieve on my own time, get my feet back on the ground, and as soon as I started to put myself back together a little bit and come to terms with what had happened, I’d written a few songs and was calling my producer Kato [Khandwala] and as soon as we started putting those plans in motion, I got the phone call that Kato had died in a motorcycle accident. That was really… it was the nail in the coffin. It was the thing where I just… I quit. My best friend’s dead? The fifth member of my band—and my best friend in the whole world—just died? It was just so overwhelming. I sunk so immensely down into an overwhelmingly… I don’t even know how to describe it other than this black hole of depression, and that led to substance abuse. And I didn’t know how to get out of it—or know if I even wanted to. I’d become very comfortable in my numbness, and in my absence of life. It took a really long time. There was a time period where I couldn’t listen to music, and where everything brought back a memory that was too painful to deal with.
To make a long story short, I finally got to a place where I realized I was so lost that I had nowhere else to look, so I went back to music. I thought, “Let me try this again—because it’s always worked in the past.” I asked myself, “What made me fall in love with music in the first place?” And the answer was The Beatles. It’s the first band I heard as a kid, the first one I fell in love with, and the reason I started writing songs. So, I listened to everything by The Beatles—every record, every documentary, every anthology, everything I could get my hands on. That eventually led to all the other records. And eventually, that led to Soundgarden. I could finally listen to Soundgarden again, and it brought me joy. And then I picked up a guitar, and I could play music again. It helped me fix myself. And when I picked up that guitar, this whole record just flowed, like some weird therapy session. Everything I’d been holding inside of me overflowed. It just came out. By allowing myself to finally do that, I was able to find my center again, and find my place in the world. As cliché as it sounds, rock and roll saved my life. I don’t know if I would be here if it wasn’t for this album. I know that sounds super depressing and heavy and shit, but it’s the truth.
You never really got to choose acting, since you started so young. Was part of your motivation with music to choose your own destiny, in a sense?
That’s not how I ever really saw it. Music is something I was always working towards. I started writing songs when I was extraordinarily young, because it became the thing I fell in love with. I traveled around a lot as a kid and didn’t grow up in a conventional way, so my best friend became my notebook, where I was able to express myself freely and without any form of judgment, and it was private, and it was mine. It was poetry, and then I put poetry to music, and played piano, and then guitar. You can be a child actor in a film when you’re 5, but you can’t put out an album when you’re 5—and if you do, no one should listen to it.
Although you did have a song you wrote when you were 8 years old [“Blackout”] put out [by Heidi Montag].
Well, yeah… But hey, I got no comments on that! [Laughs] But you kind of just proved my point: it’s something I was always doing. When you’re a child you do what you’re told, and that was my schooling. I traveled around, went on auditions, worked on film, and worked on television. Music was something that was always mine. It was my passion. I knew at a very young age that I wanted to be in a band, but I needed to wait for the right time, and find the right people. And then I met Kato and I met Ben, and I thought, “Well, I’m out. I’m done. I quit. I’m just gonna make music, and tour, and make record after record.” Hopefully, I can only do that for the rest of my life and don’t have to subsidize it with other jobs. And I’ve been fortunate enough that I don’t have to. I don’t even think I ever considered myself an actress; it’s just something that I did. I don’t even know if I chose music. It chose me at a young age.
I must confess to being a huge Gossip Girl fan. So I’ve gotta ask if you’re going to be in the reboot.
No, I don’t have any plans to be any part of the reboot. But we are living in a very strange time right now, so never say never to anything—that’s kind of my rule of thumb of life, because who knows what the future’s going to hold. But… no. It’s not something that I have any plans to do. I do think it’ll be really interesting to see. I never really watched the show when it was on the air. I don’t really ever like watching myself. It makes me uncomfortable. So, I don’t think I realized at the time what kind of cultural phenomenon the show was. Because it was so based on technology, which at the time was so burgeoning—our character got the new “hip” phone every season, and it was like the razr—and now with social media and the way everything’s transformed so quickly, it’ll be interesting to see how they take that same concept and bring it into the modern era. Maybe I can finally watch it now.
You were so young on Gossip Girl, and when I was preparing for this interview I re-read some old interviews of yours. And I gotta say, some of the questions you were being asked as a teenager were very sketchy. People were asking you very weird sexual questions when you were 15, 16 years old.
I mean, I probably kind of brought that on myself though, because I was very forward—and I still am, I just think I’ve calmed down a little bit with my language. But like any teenager, I was going through a transitory phase in my life, and my sexuality was burgeoning, and it was something that I wore on my sleeve very aggressively. That’s not to say some of the questions weren’t really inappropriate though.
In one interview I read, a male interviewer asked you if you were going to be in Playboy, which seemed pretty creepy.
It’s a little weird when you’re not 18 yet. I don’t think that shit would fly in today’s new PC culture. But you know, sex and rock and roll go hand in hand, and it’s all primal and part of nature, so I was never uncomfortable talking about it. It was more when you’d get the skeezy guy, and you’d go, “OK, guy. Just a little less.”
I know you toured with Marilyn Manson, and given the allegations from Evan Rachel Wood and others, I’m curious what that experience was like for you?
Honestly, I’ve been living in such a bubble, so I’ve heard little snippets of things. I’m not informed enough to really speak about what’s happening with him. I’ve been doing this, talking about the album, so I don’t really know what’s going on. Speaking from my experience, I don’t think I’m informed enough to talk about it, but I had a lot of fun on that tour. I’ll stop myself there, because I don’t really have anything to say on that.
That’s totally fair. Not everyone’s experience is the same. There’s always skepticism when actors make music, and I think you’ve silenced a lot of your critics by now, but what has it been like trying to prove those people wrong and break through that wall of doubt?
There was a lot of skepticism due to a lot of factors. Being on a popular television show and trying to convince people you’re not the character you play on TV that they see every week is hard. I know the entertainment world, and I have my favorite shows, and I don’t want to know that they’re real people. No, you’re my favorite character, and that’s it! I understood where it was coming from, but it was a little frustrating in the beginning, because people saw it as a “phase” or something. In the beginning, no one realized how serious I was about it, and how seriously I take it, and how I was in the process of leaving everything else behind.
I was talking with Jodie Foster the other day, and she discussed how she turned down The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, and how that was a big fork-in-the-road moment for her where she could’ve been in the Brat Pack. Have you ever thought about the alternate future where you’re Hannah Montana? Because you almost were.
Oh, wow. That was a very long time ago now. I think it would have been a very different show, and somehow, I would have told everyone to go fuck themselves. I’m a very strong-willed person and like to do things my own way, and music that’s made by committee or art that’s made in a factory-form, that doesn’t work for me. I simply enjoy expressing myself. That’s where I find happiness, that’s where I find solace, and that’s what I focus on. Everything outside of that I consider a waste of time, so I don’t really give it the time of day.
I am dying to go to a concert, so I imagine you must be dying to play one.
It’s been since 2017 or 2018 that The Pretty Reckless played. A long fuckin’ time. We’re dying to get back on the road, and it’s a very weird thing to put out a new album and not be able to play it live and have that full-circle completion where you have that symbiotic relationship with fans for one night only, and then move on to the next. It’s like tantric sex—the longer we wait for concerts, and people want them so bad, they’re going to come back bigger and better than ever, and we’re just going to explode. So, that’s my little joke—and I’m sticking to it. Fingers crossed it happens sooner rather than later, because I think we’ve all had enough of the tantric portion.