The Pretty Reckless Biography
Last updated: 08/14/2011 11:00:00 AM
One night several years ago, Taylor Momsen’s father took his daughter to a White Stripes show. “Before that, the only concert I’d been to was Britney Spears,” says the singer, songwriter, and guitarist. “But once I saw Jack White onstage, that was it. I grew up as a dancer and I thought you had to dance to be a girl in the music industry. Then I saw the White Stripes and I was like, ‘No, you don’t. I can do that.’” Momsen was nine.
Jack White’s raw power and deceptively simple guitar-and-vocal attack proved to be highly influential on the now 16-year-old Momsen, who began humming melodies before she could talk and writing songs at the age of five after falling in love with The Beatles. “I was obsessed with them,” she says. “I also loved Led Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd, Audioslave, Soundgarden, Oasis, and Nirvana. That’s what I listened to. My rock idols are all men.”
So it’s not surprising that Momsen channels a lot of masculine energy on LIGHT ME UP, her rock-and-roll-heroine-in-the-making debut album with her band The Pretty Reckless. The songs, all written by Momsen and Ben Phillips with their producer Kato Khandwala, run the gamut of emotions, alternating at times between seething rage and a bruised vulnerability. With Momsen’s inky vocals, pummeling riffs, and swaggering attitude, LIGHT ME UP sounds a bit like what might have happened had Led Zeppelin been fronted by “a chick.” The album’s ferocity could raise an eyebrow from those expecting a pretty, blonde teenager to gravitate toward straight-up pop songwriting. “It’s heavier than people might expect from me,” says Momsen, who is best known as the actress who plays Jenny Humphrey on The CW’s Gossip Girl. “But this album is the most honest expression of who I truly am.”
Momsen is a smart, emotionally complex young woman who has developed a strong identity despite growing up in the notoriously critical and fickle entertainment industry. Born and raised in St. Louis, MO, Taylor spent much of her time in NYC and at thirteen, she relocated to Manhattan. At two years old, Momsen signed to a modeling agency and a year later she began acting professionally appearing in commercials as well as films such as The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. In 2007 Momsen was cast as a lead in the CW show Gossip Girl.
“I didn’t choose acting or modeling, I got thrown into it,” Momsen says. “I liked it, so that wasn’t a problem, but music and songwriting are what I’ve always really wanted to do. I’ve been working with producers and hanging out in recording studios since I was five, I just couldn’t put out an album when I was eight,” she says with a laugh. “Now I can.”
LIGHT ME UP is an unflinchingly honest chronicle of Momsen’s experiences, filtered through her unique point of view. “The record is about life,” she says. “It covers everything: love, death, and music itself. It’s rock and roll. It’s sex. It’s drugs. It’s religion. It’s politics. Each song tells a story about the trials and tribulations and emotional struggles that I’ve experienced or observed. It’s not a happy pop record, but it’s not Satan-worshiping either. The lyrics aren’t meant to be taken literally, they are open to interpretation.”
The songs tackle everything from romantic insecurity (the full-throttle rager “Make Me Wanna Die,” which also appears on the soundtrack to the film Kick-Ass), to despair (“You”), to how working non-stop can you make you feel like one of the un-dead (“Zombie”). Momsen pushes back against the haters on “Light Me Up” and asks how far you have to go to get forgiveness on “Going Down.” With her growly, world-weary alto, Momsen can do it all: garage-rock rave-ups (“Miss Nothing”), punchy blues-rock stompers (“My Medicine,” “Since You’re Gone”), as well as emotional power ballads (“Just Tonight”) and lovely acoustic guitar and string-driven numbers (“You”).
“I’m not just writing something because I think people might like it,” Momsen says. “I hope they do, but I’m writing it because I have something to say. So many feelings go into the lyrics that it’s hard to explain what they’re about. Momsen first hooked up with Khandwala (Blondie, Drowning Pool, Paramore, Breaking Benjamin) and partner and songwriter, Phillips in October 2008. By the spring of last year, they felt they had hit upon a sound that felt authentic to her.
“The three of us have similar musical taste, so it was easy to find that singular vision,” Phillips says. “Kato and I worked very hard to help Taylor reach her potential because we could see how talented she was right off the bat. She went into the vocal booth and began to sing and we turned to each other and went, ‘Holy sh*t, she’s f**’ing great.’ Her voice was astonishing. So many artists these days let their voices be discombobulated by computers. Taylor doesn’t do that. She doesn’t need to. She can walk into a room and kick your ass.”