Dirty Pretty Thing: Taylor Momsen
PHOTOS BY LAUREN DUKOFF
“I wrote my first song at age 5; it was about my dad’s dead dog or something.” Taylor Momsen says of her formative years spent as an underage music geek. Only a few years later, she was listening to Led Zeppelin and—before she’d even entered fifth grade—witnessed the White Stripes in concert. Momsen remembers well the impact of that particular show: “It was loud, it was violent, it was my first rock show. It was fucking awesome.” And it made her want to be a rock star. “That was always the plan,” she confirms.
Known best as Jenny Humphrey, everyone’s favorite brooding black sheep on teen drama “Gossip Girl,” the ice-blonde, raccoon-eyed Momsen is a budding provocateur in her own right. She is due to release her first album, Light Me Up, as the precocious frontwoman of the cunningly named The Pretty Reckless, an assemblage of attractive outcasts spewing ’90s-kissing grunge-pop vitriol. Fittingly, Momsen’s idols tend to be at least twice her seventeen years; she seems the product of a particularly randy Gen-X fantasy.
For a household name, Momsen is intriguingly remote. She has no problem sporting a garter belt, but is protective of her private life and thoughts, preferring emotional ambiguity. Dig too deep and she offers a polite but insistent refusal to disclose specifics, especially regarding her oft-discussed aesthetic choices which parents find upsetting and she labels “high class hooker”. By suggesting everything but confirming nothing, she’s acutely aware she‘s leaving her public hanging. But a silent dare lingers in the air. You want to ask her more–and we did.
COLLEEN NIKA: Where are you right now, Taylor?
TAYLOR MOMSEN: I’m in Oregon. I literally just got off the stage–it was our final show of the Warped Tour.
NIKA: Did you have any trouble adjusting to “touring life”?
MOMSEN: Not really, it was just awesome. Well, the fucking port-a-potties—on a movie set, you don’t deal with that! Sharing a toilet with 50 bands is pretty nasty. But being onstage feels natural.
NIKA: You often mention how you liked to listen to rock music at any early age. Did you grow up also playing instruments?
MOMSEN: Well, I played piano growing up. Kind of dropped that, then I plugged in a few years later, and learned the guitar. And, of course, I still play that.
NIKA: When did you start putting together The Pretty Reckless? How did it all start?
MOMSEN: It was a natural formation. I’m a singer-songwriter, so for two years or so, I was experimenting with various producers, to see who shared the same vision as me. It seems there are a lot of pop producers right now, and hardly any rock producers. So, when I finally met Kato [Khandwala], it was a big relief, because he’s like the most rocking guy you’ll ever fucking meet. That set the standard. Then [guitarist] Ben Phillips and I wrote all songs together.
NIKA: I find it interesting you claim to be primarily inspired by male musicians. Was that always the case?
MOMSEN: Well, actually, one of my first favorite records was the debut Garbage album, which I heard when I was very young. Shirley Manson is a great female vocalist and performer and I admire her for that. But yeah, I do emulate men more—I grew up on Oasis, Soundgarden, AC/DC, The Beatles. I am trying to do my own thing, but there will always be comparisons, even if I don‘t agree with them.
NIKA: Yes. For example: Are you tired of being labeled the “Junior Courtney Love?”
MOMSEN: No, because she’s awesome. She just isn’t one of my idols or direct influences, despite what people think. The public decided that for themselves, but I’m not going to complain, because she is great.
NIKA: Did you go into making this debut album knowing how it would sound already?
MOMSEN: I knew one thing: it would be rock. It would be loud. When actually writing the songs, though, inspiration came from everyone and everything. Everything was organic, written on the acoustic guitar. I wanted song-driven rock; the elaborate flourishes and specific production all came later.
NIKA: Lyrically, you delve into what some might consider “dark” topics. As you once said: Sex. Drugs. Death. Religion. Does that all come from you directly?
MOMSEN: Well, those things are all a part of life, aren’t they? It’s not really a happy record; if anything, it’s sad. And the songs were co-written with Ben and Kato, but the words are definitely coming from me, and reflect my personal views on certain situations. I write about what I know, what I live, what I observe. Darkness is a subjective word; it depends what your viewpoint is and how you live life.
NIKA: One of those songs, “Going Down” is quite controversial. Can you talk about it?
MOMSEN: It really is just a story and people have made a big deal of it. I grew up Catholic and there were elements in that which meant something to me, but when we wrote this song, it was during the time that all the molestation in the church was going on. The song is a direct reaction to that and I think it’s fitting.
NIKA: Are you going to offer more social commentary on the album?
MOMSEN: I guess, yeah. But I try to write in a way where the lyrics have many meanings and you won‘t really know what’s behind it. With that song, for example, it’s not meant to be what I actually wrote it about–you’d never figure out what I’m talking about, because the actual inspiration is so fucking messed up. A lot of my songs work on multiple levels.
NIKA: What challenges have you faced in your transition from actress to musician?
MOMSEN: Let me think about that. [Pauses.] I’d say that the challenge isn’t on my end, actually. I’ve been singing and writing songs my whole life, but people didn’t know that. It’s up to the public to transition to that reality.
NIKA: Are there parallels between the evolution of the character Jenny Humphrey and the real-life evolution of Taylor Momsen?
MOMSEN: The show definitely tries to incorporate elements of reality–the actor’s image, for example–and inject it into the character they play–it makes it more relatable. So for me, I just began dressing more like myself, and doing my makeup myself, and so Jenny’s style followed suit.
NIKA: How did you develop your own personal aesthetic?
MOMSEN: I like fashion. I like dark colors. I like makeup. Being in the public eye forces you to figure out how to put it all together, I guess.
NIKA: Obviously, you love black eye makeup. Any tricks?
MOMSEN: I have a bounty of products. Bedhead’s black eyeliner is really good—it lasts a long time—but the only thing is you can’t smear it, so I have smudge black eyeshadow around it. Also, lately I have been using red eye makeup!
NIKA: Where do you buy your outfits?
MOMSEN: Stripper stores mainly. Especially for shoes.
NIKA: Okay, so what was the deal with those insane spiked platform heels with the tip cups?
MOMSEN: [LAUGHS] I bought them because they were tall. [PAUSE] Seriously.
NIKA: Not because they were funny?
MOMSEN: No, because I like to wear platform heels onstage and they’re actually hard to find. But fans started putting money in them—so now they are filled with tons of bills. It’s pretty amazing.
LIGHT ME UP IS IN STORES IN OCTOBER. THE PRETTY RECKLESS TOUR THIS FALL.