Despite her current status as a rock star, The Pretty Reckless frontwoman Taylor Momsen started her life in front of the camera. At only two-years-old, she was starring in commercials, and by the age of six became an internationally recognized talent for her role as Cindy Lou Who in the blockbuster How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Her performance was so momentous she was even invited to meet the Queen of England. She later went on to star as a series regular on Gossip Girl as Jenny Humphrey, perhaps her best known acting role. But underneath all the success, Momsen couldn’t shake a deep feeling of apathy for acting. When Momsen graced the cover of The Untitled Magazine’s Music issue in 2013, she told us that “Music was always the goal and always my focus. Acting was a day job, to pay the rent.” Now, nearly 10 years and several Untitled interviews later, she reminisces on just how crazy it was to leave her previous life to pursue her ultimate dream of being a rock star
Her risk paid off, as The Pretty Reckless released their successful debut album Light Me Up in 2010, and continued on throughout the decade with LPs Going to Hell and Who You Selling For, which made the bands consistent staples on the Billboard rock charts. But as they kept evolving with every project, tragedy struck that would eventually lead to their opus Death By Rock and Roll (featuring the gut-wrenching single “Got So High”) , and eventually their newest release, Other Worlds.
Read the interview with Taylor Momsen by Indira Cesarine for “The REBEL Issue” below and check out the print edition for more from Taylor.
Indira Cesarine: I was looking at our timeline and I realized it’s literally been 10 years since we did the “Music Issue” cover with you in 2013!
Taylor Momsen: It’s so crazy! It’s so cool.
And 10 years later, it’s a bit of a milestone, right?
A hundred percent! Time flies. I feel like that was yesterday too.
That was such a great shoot, it was the second issue of The Untitled Magazine. You were one of our early cover stars, which is pretty cool.
And we’re both still here!
Yeah! I would love to talk about your current performances. Can you tell me about your latest tour?
Well, aside from all the logistical nightmares that is touring, which is par for the course, it’s been fantastic. Just being on the road after five years of not touring is a breath of fresh air. I feel reinvigorated with it, and getting to play the new material every night and going to all the places that we haven’t been to and feeling that energy again is so refreshing. It’s just very rewarding, finally playing the new material. Having to sit on it during COVID and put out a new record and not be able to play it live and get that immediate reaction and gratification and response from the fans was very bizarre. So to finally feel that in a real tangible way, not just from comments online, is amazing. To actually be in a room and have thousands of people screaming, “just put ‘death by rock and roll’” back at you is just elating. It’s awesome.
It must be incredible to perform again in front of a live audience. Your music, in particular, needs to be heard live.
Yeah, it definitely does. I think that it’s created a different scenario too: putting out an album and then touring on it later. Normally when you put out an album, you go on tour right away, and you’re introducing the fans to the music in real-time because not everyone there has heard the new album and you’re going, “this is a new song. Let us play it for you” and they’re getting used to hearing it. In this case it’s been out for a year, so they know all the songs. It’s a brand new experience for both us and the fans in the fact that it’s live. But also feels like we’ve been doing it a long time because they know all the songs. So it’s this cool juxtaposition that we’ve never experienced before with a new record.
Tell me about the actual tour itself. I saw you perform years ago when we did our cover shoot back in 2012. You were doing your Going to Hell tour. It was such a great performance; it was just so intense. What are we seeing at the Death By Rock and Roll tour performances?
I think you’re seeing an extension of what we’ve always done, cause we’re still the same band. But at the same time we’re also a very new band in a lot of ways, because of so many factors; because of all the tragedy, we went through because of all the time taken off. Because of COVID we couldn’t tour, so we had nothing to do. We spent six months straight, at least, in the rehearsal space, just playing for fun. I know it sounds crazy, but we’d never really done that before. Anytime we were rehearsing, we were always rehearsing with a purpose: for a tour, or for a television appearance. In this case, there was no end goal cause there was no end in sight of COVID at the time. So we were just playing as a band for the hell of it, for fun. It really created this whole new dynamic between the four of us that is just awesome. We’re a whole new band that can really do anything on the fly.
This is our fourth album; we have a repertoire of music that we can pull from, which has been really fun on tour where we’re not playing the same set every night. There are certain songs that stay in every night because we love them, but we can switch the setlist out at a moment’s notice with old material and different things from different records depending on the audience or where we are. Touring has this whole new life to it that is super fun.
We’re more mature, we’re more grounded, but we’re also all itching to get out into the world and do this again. There’s this very youthful energy to it that is challenging to find in bands that have been around for over a decade; to find that almost childlike original fire. I think we have that, and it’s fun when you have that.
You’ve been so busy putting out new music, it’s incredible. I don’t know how you do it, but I guess it’s also all that time you had during the pandemic, which probably inspired so many new songs. You also recently put out a new video, “Got So High,” right?
Yes, we did. It’s the original version that we just put out, which has a new music video. That’s the original recording – I call them the “definitive recordings” – from Death By Rock and Roll. It just took a while with the logistics to get the video filmed and everything during COVID, so I’m very excited that that finally came out. It’s a song and a video that I’m very proud of. But it’s also on this new piece of music that we’re putting out: this new compilation record called Other Worlds, which is not out yet, but there’s a remix “Got So High” on there that we did. That’s different for us. We’ve never really remixed or done a completely different version of one of our songs before and put it out in a professional format. It’s a version that I always heard in my head and really wanted to make, and due to the pandemic, we had time to do it. I call it the stoner version. It’s this very loopy, monotonous, hypnotic version of “Got So High” that just makes you wanna put it on loop and put you in a trance. That’s another aspect of that song itself, lyrically. It’s something that I really wanted to make, and it’s one of my favorite things. I personally actually listen to it all the time, and I generally don’t listen to our music too much because I can’t listen to my voice over and over or I start to get in my head about it. But that song I’ve been playing on the loop, and I’m excited for that to come out. I think fans will really like it, at least I hope so.
The version that’s out now is definitely more introspective and contemplative compared to some of your more intense rock music. It seems like it’s a very personal song – what inspired the lyrics?
It is. “Got So High” is solely my composition. That was a song that I wrote in a very dark period of my life. It was one of those songs that just flowed. It just came out of me. Those are few and far between, and when they do come they’re a little gift. It was a song I wrote at like four in the morning when I was a mess. It’s a very personal song, very exposing, very vulnerable. When we were recording it, there was a moment once we finished it where I was like, “do we put this out? This is very intimate.” It was a little nerve-wracking to me, cause it was written from a firsthand perspective. A lot of my music is written based on personal experiences, but looking back on them. “Got So High” was very much written while I was living “Got So High,” so it was almost like a journal entry. You’re getting a very intimate look into what my life was at that exact moment in time.
Some of the lyrics seem to address being lost and confused and some of your issues with addiction. Can you tell me more about the moments you drew from when you were writing that song?
Well, it was during a very, very difficult time in my life. It was when a lot of people in my life whom I loved had died, and I was not handling that well. I was drowning myself in substances and drowning in depression. I didn’t know how to get out of this hole that I was in, and “Got So High” was almost the acceptance of that hole, of just me going “well, this is where I live now. This is what my life is. This is what it’s gonna look like, and that’s it.” It was a very sad time period for me; it’s sad looking back on it, it was sad living it, it was just very bleak. So that song is me reflecting on my life in the past and my life at that current moment in time and just going, “I don’t see an out here, this isn’t gonna change this. This mental state that I’m in is permanent.” I didn’t see an out, and that was a very scary place to live in. But this song is a reflection of me accepting that. Looking back on it, that’s a scary thing to accept: how life is going and it being very tragic, where there is only sadness, only bleakness. There’s only substance, it’s all I have left. That’s really where that song came from.
I’ve seen that you’ve opened up a lot about your mental health issues. Was that scary to talk about and to throw out into the world?
I don’t think I really thought about it that much. I’m an open book because of my music, in the sense that I wrote about it all on the record. So by the time I went to talk about it, I was promoting the album. I had already talked about it all; the record was out. If you listen to the songs and the lyrics at all, it’s right there for you to hear and interpret. I’m not subtle about it [laughs]. So speaking about it in a more direct way, in a less metaphorical way, became necessary. There was no way to talk about Death By Rock and Roll without talking about everything I went through. I think that in the beginning of promoting the record it actually was very cathartic; every interview was almost a form of therapy, where I was being very honest. Any time you let bottled-up emotions out, that release feels good. It can be scary to do so, but it feels good when you’re done.
So in the beginning, I think that that was actually very cathartic and helped me close that chapter of my life. Any wound, if you pick at it too long, it starts to bleed again. Wounds of loss, they never fully heal. They transform into something different over time. I might not be bleeding all over the floor, but I’m gonna forever have that scar. As I started to pick at that scab, it wasn’t fully healed by any means. It was about a year into promoting the record, and it started to take its toll, talking about it ad nauseum to random people around the world in the press. I made a decision that I needed to take a break from talking about this stuff, cause it was reopening all those wounds that were still healing. I needed to shut it off again and keep moving forward and living my life and let the music do the talking. I can’t keep having therapy with interviewers in every country for 12 hours a day, every day.
I would imagine that those interviewers would probably feel honored to say that they were part of your therapy [laughs].
I don’t know if “honored” is the right word [laughs], but I also think that it was important to share my story, at least to the degree I did. I never tell the full thing because that’s too much; you find pieces of your life that you can share to get the point and the message across without literally giving a full videography step by step.
But I think that it was important to share those stories and to share what I went through simply because there are a lot of people that go through the same thing. My story is not unique in that way. I think that’s a huge factor in music and part of why music is so important: it can really help heal. Making this album really helped heal me and pulled me back from a very dark place. I want to impart that to people that are going through the same thing or share that experience and make them feel less alone, and impart the message that it does get better. Even if it doesn’t seem like it, you just gotta wait it out. If I can help someone by sharing music and sharing my story, then that’s totally worth it. That’s what all the records that I love have done for me: connecting with lyrics and connecting with artists and going, “I’m not the only person who feels this.” Knowing that you’re not alone is very supportive and it’s very encouraging to keep going.
Tell me about the new album, Other Worlds. Can you share what inspired the title?
Other Worlds is basically a compilation album. I call it a compilation album because it’s not a complete record of brand new material; it’s covers alternative versions of our own songs, an amalgamation of things that I just really love. It came about, again, thanks to the pandemic during the lockdown. There was nothing to do, and there were a lot of live streams from home. Everyone was going a little stir-crazy, to say the least. And so I made a lot of music from home on my little battery-powered Tascam eight-track recorder – cause that’s how technologically advanced I am [laughs].
I worked with a lot of artists that I love and respect doing covers of songs that I love. I’m very specific about picking covers, I don’t do a lot of covers. I notoriously shy away from them because I really enjoy writing my own music. There are a lot of reasons I don’t do many covers, but one of them is that in order to cover a song and do it justice, you really have to delve inside that song. If you’re not beating the original or creating something new with it that is equal or better – or at least different enough that it stands on its own – then don’t do it.
Due to the climate of the world, all these songs I picked to sing are very fitting with what was happening. When lockdown ended and we all started to get back to normal, I looked at all the stuff that I had recorded and, unbeknownst to me, we made an album of all these things that I’m very proud of and really would love to share with the world in a proper format instead of just random YouTubes and things that you have to scour the internet for.
The title is self-explanatory in the sense that it’s us delving into other worlds, from acoustics to covers of other people’s worlds, and collaborations with other artists. It’s the other side of The Pretty Reckless that you don’t get to hear all the time. A lot of it is very stripped back, very vulnerable and beautiful, and not super hard; there’s not a lot of electric guitars. Of course there’s “Loud Love” on there, so that goes right out the door with that one [laughs]. But in general, this record, Other Worlds, has a very cohesive vibe to it that I think is very pleasant and hypnotizing in a lot of ways.
I’m just very excited to have people hear it. And I hope that they like it, cause I really like it. That’s really the only decision-making factor when we put out anything: if it’s something that I really like, then we do it. If not, if there’s a moment of hesitation, then it’s not a good idea. We scrap it and move on. And I really like this, hence it’s coming out!
It’s interesting that you’re releasing covers. Are there any covers or collaborations that are going to be on the album that you can share?
Yeah! The first one that sparked the whole idea was a cover of the Soundgarden song “Halfway There” that I do with Matt Cameron. That was actually his idea during the pandemic that we did as a tribute in honor of Chris Cornell’s birthday. So Matt Cameron came in and sparked the idea of making stuff during the pandemic. That’s where it started, and “Halfway There” turned out very cool. Then there’s a cover of “Quicksand” by David Bowie – which features Mike Garson – which is just absolutely beautiful and such an amazing song. The lyrics are so resonating. Also there’s a song called “The Keeper” that I do with Alain Johannes, which is a Chris Cornell composition. Alain Johannes plays the guitar on that, which was one of my favorite songs. The lyrics are so stunning.
Any time I choose to cover a song, I pick songs that have so many layers to them that it’s like they’re onions; you get inside them and you delve into them more instead of just listening to them for fun. But when you’re covering something, you have to get inside the song and you learn every aspect of it and try to turn it into something that is very honest coming from me. I pick songs that I really relate to, and all three of the songs I just mentioned I’ve been a fan of for years and years and years. But really, when I delved into them and actually started recording them, I found there’s so many layers to the songs themselves, that it was just such a pleasure as an artist to get to live inside for a minute and expand my horizons, to give a chance to cover songs that by artists that are better than me. They help me see where I want to go as an artist and give me goals for the future.
This album must be a really exciting new way to present your work, considering it’s not following in the footsteps of anything you’ve done before.
It is. It’s a very exciting, new-level venture. I’m not exactly sure what it’ll do, but I hope it creates a little bit of catharsis for people who listen to it. That’s what it created for me while making it, and now while listening to it creates this wave of peace that is quite enjoyable, at least to me.
There’s also full-circle elements to this record that made it important to put out. The cover of “Loud Love,” for example was actually the first song we recorded without [the late] Kato Khandwala and with Jonathan Wyman. It was right before the Chris Cornell tribute show in Los Angeles, the I Am the Highway show. Matt and Kim had asked me to sing “Loud Love” with them. I know the song, but fronting Soundgarden is very different from just listening to the song as a fan. So I really needed to learn the song and get inside it. So we went in and recorded it, and it was almost this test subject of a song for us to see if we could be in the recording studio without Kato; before it was gonna be too painful. It was a test subject for all of us to see if we could continue making music. We used “Loud Love” as the dummy check for that, with no intention of ever putting it out, it was simply for me to learn the song. It was the first thing that we recorded during Death By Rock and Roll sessions, even though it wasn’t for the album. I think that it was important for me to put that out there as well, cause that was a huge milestone for us: to record a song, any song (of course having it be that song was extra important) without Kato and get that under our belt and realize that we can keep making music. It’s painful and it’s hard and there are a lot of hurdles to continue to overcome, but we can do this.
Some of the new music that you put out, like “Got So High,” aren’t necessarily stuck in the hard rock genre. It seems to be experimenting with other sounds. How would you describe your sound now and where The Pretty Reckless stands in terms of the genres you guys are crossing into?
We will always be and have always been a rock and roll band, and I use the phrase “rock and roll” and not “rock” because rock, especially in this modern paradigm, has been genre-fied to the umpteenth degree and it’s very specific. Rock and roll encompasses everything, and rock and roll is what I love because rock and roll has no boundaries to it. That’s what’s amazing about it: it’s derived from pure and utter self-expression, and it encompasses every genre. It’s blues, it’s jazz, it’s folk, it’s pop, it’s hard rock, it’s country at times. It’s all of those things encompassed into one, and as a writer that is a very freeing place to live. That’s why I love rock and roll: because there are no boundaries. When I go to write a record or write a song, there’s no limitations put on me by the genre because the only common theme with all our music is that everything starts on an acoustic guitar or a piano or an organic instrument. From there you can really just let your mind go and delve into all these, pun intended, other worlds, and have it still fall under the umbrella of rock and roll.
What I love about rock and roll is that rock and roll is the ultimate freedom. As I grow – cause as a person and as an artist, I’m always evolving – I’m always changing and coming full circle and then delving into other directions. There’s no hard line of “you can’t do this because now you’re entering territory that there’s no market for” or whatever. From an outside perspective, there is no hard line, and from an inside perspective, there’s no hard line. It really allows my mind to wander and I get to express myself in the purest form possible, by not putting any musical limitations on myself. That’s why I make music, to purely express myself as honestly as possible for myself, and then share it with the world and hope that other people can identify with it as well.
How have you evolved as musicians since you released your debut album?
I think that I haven’t reflected on that too much to have a great answer. Cause I think if I start nitpicking my life, it could go very bad [laughs]. Self-reflection is wonderful, but too much of it is destructive. I think that’s why everyone went crazy in the pandemic. The simple answer is I’ve just gotten older. I think that all of the instincts and the initial fire, the rebellion, the reasons we started, the internal drive, and the need to express myself are still there. It just is ever-evolving and ever-growing as I evolve and grow as a person. I think that our records are so interesting and so amazing because they really encapsulate a time period in an artist’s life.
I can listen to our first album or Going to Hell, or any of them, and immediately be taken back to right where I was. And that’s so cool. I write from a very personal place of self-reflection, and I always try to be as honest as possible. No subject matter is off-limits because I think as soon as you put limitations on yourself as an artist, it’s the death of art.
So all of those things have remained the same. You’re hearing an evolution of a person. As I continue to grow and mature and get older with more years under my belt, you’re just hearing all of that culminating into songs. That, in theory, should continue to happen as I continue to make music and continue to grow.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced throughout your career that you’re proud to have overcome?
I’d say the challenges of losing Kato, losing a loved one. I think that hit me in a way that I was not prepared for as a human being. I did not see an end to that darkness when I was living it and I really didn’t see me coming out. The other side of that is that I became very content living in this very dark hole that I had created for myself. I sat there looking at it, going, “This is my life now, this is where I live,” and I was very accepting and fine with the fact that I was just gonna fade into nothing and my life was over. I thought the band was over. I thought I’d never make music again. I thought that my identity was lost… the amount of layers that came with losing Kato was immense. And that obviously came with depression and substance abuse as well. With all of those things, I didn’t see myself getting out of that. So I’m very proud to say that I did, and I think that that is something that’s a huge message. I never really like to attach messages to records because I don’t really view them like that, but I think the message of Death By Rock and Roll is very hopeful. It’s a very hopeful record at its core, which I didn’t realize while making it. I realized it afterwards when I listened back to it, that it is this full circle story of grief and loss and trauma. I was writing it in very real time, so it shows that there is light at the end of the tunnel, if you’re willing to see it. If you just ride out the course, you will get to the other side, things do get better. Even in the blackest of holes, when you can’t see it, you just gotta be patient and you will get to the other side and life will be bright again.
That’s something that I am extraordinarily proud of, because I didn’t know that I’d make it to where I am now. I’m 29, shit, I didn’t think I’d live past 25. There’s a whole song about it. In a grander scheme and an overall outlook, I’m very proud to say that we’re still a band and we’re still here. I made the first record when I was 15 years old, and everyone thought I was crazy. I quit all my other jobs and formed a rock and roll band and went on tour, and I’m still here doing what I love with amazing fans around the world who have been so gracious to support us through all the ups and downs and this very long journey that is rock and roll.
It’s been said before, but it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll. No truer words have ever been spoken. I’m very proud that we’re still here and we’re still doing it and we have no intention of going anywhere anytime soon.
I feel in many ways that you are the ultimate rebel. Like you said, you dropped everything at 15 to form a rock band and follow your dreams.
Saying that out loud sounds absolutely crazy [laughs].
What does being a rebel mean to you at this point in your life?
I think being a rebel means being completely true to yourself at every point in time, at least as true as you can possibly be, consequences be damned. I think that’s something that I have always done and will always continue to do, because at the end of the day, if you’re doing something for yourself, you’ll always be fulfilled. As soon as you step outside of yourself and start doing something for other reasons, that’s a slippery slope into a life that is suddenly no longer yours. Being a rebel means being your truest self at all costs. I think that’s a difficult thing to do. People say it a lot: “be yourself, blah, blah, blah,” and I don’t think that people necessarily grasp the depth of that statement. There’s a lot of consequences and a lot of hurdles and a lot of things that come with truly knowing who you are and putting your foot down no matter what.
What advice would you give to somebody who’s struggling to really let go and follow their dreams, but is faced with the societal challenges of what people will think?
Close your eyes and jump, or don’t and stick with the easy path. It’s a difficult path, but if you feel it in your bones and you have a direction and a path that you see for your life, and you wanna follow that, then be prepared for anything. At the end of the day, it comes down to just making that decision for yourself like I did. I closed my eyes and jumped. I had no idea where I was gonna land or if I’d land on my feet, but that was a risk that I was willing to take because I had a fire inside me that I couldn’t snuff out. And I knew that if I didn’t do it, I would regret it for the rest of my life.
That is the thing; you have to make the decision. How much does it matter to you? If it matters to you that much, you just have to do it.
Yeah. I can only talk from a perspective of art and music, there’s lots of other things in this world that people have passions about. For me, I couldn’t be a fully developed person if I didn’t make art and music. It’s who I am in my DNA and in my core. The outside world of success or fame or notoriety or recognition or any of those labels you wanna put on, they didn’t enter my mind. It was this primal need to create that I couldn’t ignore. If I did, I would be miserable. That’s why I’m saying consequences be damned. Nothing was more important to me than creating music. When you have a desire and a need that is so deep inside of you like that, all the things that can be intimidating or scary go out the door because they don’t matter. The consequences don’t matter because I need to do this. The need is so real, and it’s physical. I didn’t have a choice in the matter, and that’s what makes it scary. This is what I have to do. I don’t know where it’s gonna take me, but I have to do it.
What are you looking forward to most with what you have coming up?
In the long run I feel like I’ve turned over a new leaf in my life. I’ve come out the other side, at least for now. I hope it stays that way. I feel reborn in a lot of ways, and I think that’s a very exciting place to be. I’m really just excited to live, as cliche as that may sound. I’m excited to create, and to see where this life and this journey is gonna take me next.
Interview, Photography and Styling by Indira Cesarine for The Untitled Magazine
To read our print feature on Taylor Momsen, pick up your copy of “The REBEL Issue” here.
Make-up and hair by Roberto Morelli
Fashion Assistant Elise Adams
Photographed on location at The Untitled Space