Etched in black ink on the heel of Alison Mosshart’s left hand is a tattoo: “14-2-02”—Valentine’s Day, 2002. It’s a very important date for the 30-year-old singer, marking the first time she took the stage with Jamie Hince, her cohort in The Kills. As half of one of London’s most celebrated punk-rock alt bands (complete with fashion street cred and a supermodel groupie in the form of Hince’s lady friend), Mosshart has her hardcore stage persona down. For this interview at The Mercer hotel in New York last December, she arrives with bangs covering her face and a cigarette hanging from her lips. She takes a menthol drag and lets out a loud, phlegmy treble cough, a sound an acute Kills fan might recognize as an opening note of the tune “Cheap and Cheerful,” in which Mosshart begs: “I want you to be crazy ’cause you’re stupid, baby, when you’re sane.” To watch her perform it live, you’d think she was exorcizing some pretty hateful demons. Lately, she’s even gotten a second project started, coming together with musicians Jack White, Jack Lawrence, and Dean Fertita as the band the Dead Weather; they just recorded tracks, and their first album will be out later in the year. Not that Mosshart is planning a break from The Kills. The duo is putting out its latest ep, Black Balloon, this month, and will continue on a hectic touring schedule that includes a pit stop at Coachella.
Sure, the raven-haired Mosshart looks appropriately tough, but a second persona appears as she peels off the rock-star veneer. The tour for The Kills’ third album, Midnight Boom (Domino), ended only days earlier, and she has just gotten off a flight from Japan. In New York on downtime, she’s a soft, smiley songwriter from Vero Beach, Florida, with a shy, nervous giggle. She’s been known to send hilarious e-mails about the travails of living with Hince in North London and is an unabashed Gossip Girl fan (in fact, one Kills song was the soundtrack for the show’s second-season promo, and Mosshart has friends in the cast). Mosshart is so down-to-earth she meets me a little late because she was up late last night chain-smoking cigarettes, writing songs, and painting, at one point spilling thick black lacquer all over a white wall at her week-long sublet in the East Village. As we pop inside The Mercer Kitchen to order soup—paint under her fingernails and the distinctive scent of Marlboro Menthol Lights still in her hair—she asks if I want to go ice skating in Central Park later. What self-respecting rebel would want to skate with the tourists? But Mosshart doesn’t seem to care what people think as long as she can keep playing.
DEREK BLASBERG: Do you see this dichotomy you have, being both a cute American girl and a tough-as-nails English rocker?
ALISON MOSSHART: That’s a weird question.
BLASBERG: What I mean is, if I saw you in one of your music videos, looking all sullen and broody, I wouldn’t say, “This girl is totally going to be my best friend.”
MOSSHART: Ha! But performing is one thing, and day-to-day stuff—like the way you talk to people—is totally different. If I acted like I did onstage in normal life, everyone would probably hate me.
BLASBERG: How do you get yourself ready for a performance?
MOSSHART: Usually it involves a drink. Maybe vodka with some juice in it.
Alison Mosshart performs with The Kills, Dead Weather and The Raconteurs:
BLASBERG: What do you wear? No offense, but every time I’ve seen you perform you’ve worn the same leopard-print blouse over an old T-shirt.
MOSSHART: Yeah, I get hooked on things. Mainly that’s because of temperature reasons and movement reasons. T-shirts and really thin shirts are good because I get hot and sweaty when I’m jumping around.
BLASBERG: Ew! You sweat?
MOSSHART: When I’m done playing I look like I’ve just jumped in a pool. It’s really sexy.
BLASBERG: Have you ever fainted onstage?
MOSSHART: Yeah. A couple of times, actually. I did at Lollapalooza, which was outside and about 115 degrees. The stage was black, and we felt like we were melting—the bottoms of my shoes were literally smoking. Another time, when we were in France in this massive auditorium, there were loads of people and absolutely no ventilation. I would look out to the audience, and all I could think was, You are stealing all my oxygen! It got stuck in my head. You guys are stealing my oxygen! And it kept on going around and around, and then I blacked out.
BLASBERG: What does it mean, “black out”? You crumble to the ground? Or you just tip over?
MOSSHART: Crumble right down. My legs just gave out. My muscles felt like jelly, and I couldn’t hold anything or make a fist. I couldn’t stand up. I couldn’t sing or even make noise because it takes too much energy.
BLASBERG: Did people ask for their money back?
MOSSHART: I have gotten a few mean letters. They’ll be like, “The bands after you were fine and blah blah blah . . .” Yeah, they went on at, like, 6 p.m., when the sun was down, asshole. My skin was literally cooking.
BLASBERG: The jeans you’re wearing look familiar.
MOSSHART: Embarrassingly enough, I think these are the exact same jeans I’ve worn on the past two tours.
BLASBERG: And the gold boots?
MOSSHART: I love my gold boots. Hedi Slimane made these, and now I have three pairs of the gold, plus pairs in every other color, in black, in patent. I have a friend [at Dior] who reorders a pair for me whenever mine get tired. I challenge anyone to show me a boot I like better.
BLASBERG: Is it weird for us to talk about what you wear, your style? You’ve been doing music for over a decade and a half, and then we gab about Dior boots and your favorite leopard blouse.
MOSSHART: It’s a little peculiar. But I loved the way the bands I grew up admiring looked and the way they dressed. That was just as inspiring as the other elements. It’s the whole thing: the music, their lives, their style . . .BLASBERG: What were the bands you most admired when you were young?
MOSSHART: Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, Patti Smith, Captain Beefheart, the Stones . . . Johnny Cash!
BLASBERG: When did you start playing music?
MOSSHART: When I was 13. I just sang at first—I didn’t ever play guitar before The Kills.
BLASBERG: What was life like before The Kills?
MOSSHART: I was in another band in Florida, touring and going to school. I started that band when I was in junior high school—
BLASBERG: Wait, junior high? Like sixth grade? I was still passing notes in sixth grade. Hell, I was still dating girls in sixth grade.
MOSSHART: It was, like, an indie-punk band. It was called Discount. I didn’t make up the name.
BLASBERG: Still, that’s good for a bunch of sixth-graders. If I were in a band in sixth grade I would have called it The Banana Republic Club.
MOSSHART: That might have been better. But I’m thankful for that experience. I was touring at 14. That’s when we toured England and I met Jamie [Hince].
BLASBERG: How did you two hook up?
MOSSHART: Touring then was low-budget. I met a lot of people on that circuit, sleeping on people’s floors. Once I stayed in Jamie’s apartment—it was kind of this squat with two levels. Downstairs were my friends Ben Corrigan, who drove our tour bus at the time and who is now a photographer, and Sean Forbes, who works in a record store. I stayed with them, and Jamie lived upstairs with this unpredictably difficult kid called Simon, who once got wasted on whiskey and started waving a big bread knife at me and talking nonsense. I expressed an interest to Jamie in working with him. I said that I was done with the band I was in—I felt like all I did was make up words to other people’s songs—and I wanted to do something different. I told him I wanted to start writing myself, and he lent me a four-track to take on the road for the rest of my tour, which I took as an opportunity to mix, like, 20 tapes of music and bring them back to have Jamie listen to them. I really looked up to him.
BLASBERG: But this is purely musical? There was no funny business between you two?
MOSSHART: Absolutely only musical. Nothing more. I was really nervous around him—I don’t think I spoke in a year of knowing him. I just giggled. He made me laugh all the time. He’d talk, and I’d listen.
BLASBERG: How do you two work together now?
MOSSHART: It’s still like that! [laughs] No, we work in a million different ways. Sometimes we sit together and jam things out—but we’re both equally controlling and equally secretive. So we’ll work separately, even in the same room, where we can see but not hear each other.
BLASBERG: Your last record was everywhere.
MOSSHART: It’s weird. The music enters this public realm, whereas before it was private. You don’t know how anyone is going to react to it. You don’t even know how you’re going to react to playing it. It’s a total mystery.
BLASBERG: So you never thought your song “Sour Cherry” would become a Gossip Girl promo?
MOSSHART: No, but I was very proud of that. I love that show. I have friends on that show.
BLASBERG: But isn’t it bizarre? For a rocker in London to discover her song is the anthem of an American teen drama?
MOSSHART: Not for me. I think it would be more bizarre for my mom to hear it on TV. For me, that’s the industry I’m in. When you do music, your friends are writers, actors, painters. It’s all under the same roof. So anything creative is interesting to me. I don’t really like the idea of my music showing up in a beer commercial—that would be weird. But being on a show that I watch? That’s kind of cool.
BLASBERG: Still, you have entered a realm that’s not just about music. If someone hears your song on Gossip Girl and buys your CD, that’s probably an audience you didn’t expect. And Jamie dates Kate Moss, which is a whole other element.
MOSSHART: I don’t know if that kind of attention helps or hinders. Regarding Kate, you could look at the sales for The Babyshambles [Moss dated Pete Doherty, who is the band’s lead singer and guitarist] and say having Kate attached to your band—in the media, anyway—doesn’t necessarily help. It’s a totally different group of people who read tabloid magazines compared to hardcore music fans and people who go to gigs. [Tabloid readers] work in offices or something and probably don’t have a real connection to the arts. They don’t care, they just read these magazines on the train. I don’t think they cross over.BLASBERG: Is it weird having Kate around?
MOSSHART: We get along great, despite people making up stories that we don’t. Of course we do—we always have.
BLASBERG: So she’s not some skank who stole your style? And your haircut? She has bangs now, too, you know.
MOSSHART: What are you talking about? That’s hysterical.
BLASBERG: Your tour just wrapped. You seem to me like a person who would get off on lonely moments on the road.
MOSSHART: I do. But not always. I’ve been doing this since I was 14. There have been times when I’ve felt ill, physically and emotionally. Only recently have we gotten control over it. We’ve learned to space things, which is something Jamie and I have really had trouble with. We get excited, and then we’re here and then there, all over the world, and not looking after ourselves.
BLASBERG: Can you work on your music on the road?
MOSSHART: No, but we do other things. We do art. We can’t work on a bus when there are loads of people around.
BLASBERG: Or when your bus driver has stolen your tour bus with all your things on it and ditched you in Texas, which is what happened on this tour. That is still one of my favorite stories of all time. Regale me with it again, won’t you?
MOSSHART: After our California gigs we stayed in a Hilton near the airport in l.a. because we were flying to our next tour stop in Austin, Texas. Our bus driver was supposed to meet us in Texas a few days later. It was a Sunday when he should have arrived, but he didn’t. Three tons of black metal vanished into thin air, with all of our things in it. It was surreal. Well, the manhunt was called off when the bus—but not the driver—was found behind a Best Western in L.A. by our friend Lalo Medina, who kept me abreast, minute by minute, like an episode of Cops, as 10 armed policemen and a helicopter arrived on the scene and entered the bus.
BLASBERG: What happened to your stuff?
MOSSHART: Lalo, the coolest dude alive, very nicely packed it up and sent it to us. The weird part was that all of the driver’s things were on the bus, too—his jacket still on the back of the seat and the keys still in the ignition. He left the motor running, and the generator died when the gas finally ran out. The bus was pitch-black and couldn’t be started—Lalo had to pack the bus up using a flashlight.
BLASBERG: Do you think the driver’s dead?
MOSSHART: I wish I knew where he was. He’s not dead, because I keep hearing he’s stolen more buses. I think that’s his thing. I also was told that he went on a three-day coke bender with a hooker—apparently that’s also his thing.
BLASBERG: Stealing buses and doing coke with hookers? Sounds like a great guy.
MOSSHART: Those are my fans! Those are the people I want to reach out to!
BLASBERG: You’ve obviously reached them, because I’m here! If you weren’t playing music, what would you be doing?
MOSSHART: I don’t know. I’ve thought about this—I say write books, or draw pictures. But there’s this side of me that truly loves and is obsessed with and addicted to performing. It’s hard for me, because when I don’t play for a while, I crave it.
BLASBERG: What do your parents make of all this?
MOSSHART: I get along great with my family. My parents are really proud of me and my brother, who’s a chef here in New York. I don’t see my
parents often, but they’re very supportive, especially as I get older. They know I’m not going to stop doing this.
BLASBERG: Do they want you to move back to America?
MOSSHART: Probably. But I can’t. I have responsibilities and ties to London that I’ll be dealing with probably forever.
BLASBERG: When are you going to be rich? Your songs are on Gossip Girl!
MOSSHART: I don’t know. It would be nice if we were though, just for a minute, so we could pay off this house and be free.
BLASBERG: Just sell a bunch of jingles to a beer company. Sell out!
MOSSHART: We don’t want to. We just did this collaboration with Yves Saint Laurent, for a fragrance. They used our song “U.R.A. Fever.” That was cool.
BLASBERG: I guess YSL is a little more classy than beer, but probably not as much money. What about cigarette ads? Would you give them a jingle?
MOSSHART: If there were cigarette commercials, I would have done a few by now.
Derek Blasberg is a Missouri-bred, New York–based fashion journalist and writer. He is one of V magazine’s senior editors and is a contributing editor at style.com and several international editions of Vogue.