Taylor Momsen: 'Sexuality Is Just a Part of Human Nature'

Pretty Reckless singer talks about her music, image and songwriting process behind the band's most recent album "Going to Hell."

Taylor Momsen: 'Sexuality Is Just a Part of Human Nature'
Alt rock band The Pretty Reckless has recently released "Going to Hell," their second studio album. It is a powerful showcase for frontwoman Taylor Momsen, who tackles ballads and heavy tracks with a voice dripping in pathos and emotion. The New York City band has only been together for seven years but they've already scored big tours supporting acts like Guns N' Roses and have become media darlings - due in no small part to Momsen's sensual blonde image. Here the singer talks about her music and the new album.

Ultimate-Guitar: You've cited the Beatles, Oasis, Nirvana and Joan Jett as influences. Those are very disparate artists - what did you draw from each one?

Taylor Momsen: They are very different but I think the main thing I took from all of them was the importance of songwriting.  All of it is based on the Beatles. Each of these artists was influenced by the Beatles. It seems they did everything. You can put on any Beatles record and see that their main focus was quality. Everything was of the highest quality and that's what I aspire to with my music. It takes so much dedication and focus to create quality art. There's just not enough time in a day - it becomes an obsession.

When you formed the Pretty Reckless, did you have a vision of what kind of music you wanted to make?

It was always the same for me since I started playing music - make good music, music that can last. Real songs, real playing. That's all I wanted. It was so exciting playing my first show in NYC. I got hooked and I've never looked back.

Was "Zombie" an early indication of the direction you wanted to go in musically?

I think "Zombie" was one of the first songs Ben [Phillips, guitar] and I wrote together. It was also the first decent song we wrote, so yes, it was an indication of what we were going to start striving for in the future. Good songs, good records, and those could hopefully turn into great songs and great records.

Was it a positive experience recording "The Pretty Reckless" EP? Were you comfortable in the studio?

The studio is one of my favorite places to be. If you find the right studio and you have the right songs, it's another side to making music that becomes a complete obsession. I could live in the studio.

One of your early videos for "Make Me Wanna Die" shows you taking off your clothes. You knew that your sexuality was going to be a part of your musical persona early on?

Music and image have always gone hand-in hand-in one way or another. I always have a visual going in my head when I'm writing songs, so the video actualizes at least some of what I was thinking while writing it. Sexuality is just a part of what goes on. Just like sexuality is just a part of human nature. There's many details that go into creating and hopefully the more you listen or watch those details come out more.

You opened for the Guns N' Roses Chinese Democracy tour in 2012. What was that like? Did you hang out with Axl?

It was awesome. I've hung with Axl once or twice. He's obviously cool and is really an amazing singer. There's not much else to say after the words Guns N' Roses.

How would you characterize working on the "Light Me Up" album?

That was a long time ago. I was so much younger. It was an exciting experience because it was the first risk I'd ever taken with anything I'd done professionally - showing the world something you made that you love. It's a big rush of emotions.

Any big challenges in the studio? A particular vocal?

The challenge was always, "How good could we make it? How far could we take it." That's the challenge. It's in the big picture and how to make the details add up to get the music as close to what you want it to be as you can.

"Going to Hell" was a very cool record. What were your thoughts going into that album?

We had just written a group of songs that we wanted to record and that was it. We went in and just started working. There's not much pre-planning involved. It just starts to happen.

Hurricane Sandy hit while you were recording, which must have been horrendous. Had you already recorded tracks/vocals that were lost?

Mostly we lost all of our gear and guitars so finishing things became difficult in having to keep the continuity of sounds. Like if I wanted to change a line in a vocal or a guitar part, we had to rebuild our inventory of gear just to do that. It was hard but in the end I think the hard work paid off.

Does a lot of the angst and pain in your voice on these tracks come from the devastation that Sandy caused?

It comes from anywhere and everywhere. I just open my mouth and sing. I'm telling a story with a melody. That's it. So, however it sounds is how it sounds.

Are you a dark personality or a jokester?

I would say a little of everything like most people. I do know I'm a worker. I feel most comfortable when I'm creating something. When I'm not, I'm a bit lost.

Sometimes the second album can be a difficult one - right?

Not for us - we just write songs we like and record them. Hopefully people hear them and hopefully people enjoy them and connect with them but I have no control over that. I only have the power to satisfy myself and that's the ethic of this.
"Follow Me Down" opens the album with soft squeals of ecstasy. What's happening there?

That's a mix of things that are going on in the song. It's actually a bunch of sounds running together. It's meant to set up the story line of the songs, which is a little more metaphoric than it might seem.
"Going to Hell" is a very cool uptempo rock track. It sounds like the guitar tones are getting heavier from the first album - would you agree?

Yes, there's less production on this record, so the guitars really stand out.

You play rhythm guitar - who were your heroes?

The same as my songwriting heroes: the Beatles et cetera. I use guitar mostly to write songs. As a band I'm mostly the singer but that will probably change though as time goes on.

"Heaven Knows" has a bit of a Queen "We Will Rock You" vibe. Were you a Queen fan? Freddie Mercury?

Of course, he was a genius. They all were.

"House On a Hill" reveals the acoustic ballad side of the band. You sing beautifully on that track. Do you dig singing ballads as much as the heavy stuff?

I like singing anything good. Playing faster songs live can be more exhilarating but I like it all.

Is there a slight country feel in that vocal?

I wouldn't say that but if you hear that it's fine.

Is it more difficult singing a ballad than the rock tracks because your voice is more upfront and more naked?

Not really. I just sing. Some songs have higher ranges or lower ones but it's all the same in the end.

"Sweet Things" was a very strange and wonderful song. Where did that come from? Who's singing the male vocal?

We started writing "Sweet Things" at the Hard Rock in Chicago. I don't know why but I like their rooms for writing. Ben is the singer on that one.  It's kind of a Peter and the Wolf story. That's where the idea came from.

"Dear Sister" was very cool - where did that idea come from to keep the song at 0:56?

That's how long the song was plain and simple.

There are tons of cool guitar parts on the album. Do you play guitar on the albums?

I play a little electric and acoustic but it's mainly Ben and Kato [Khandwala, engineer]. They've been playing together for years so they know each other really well.

Talk a little bit about your guitar of choice? Amplifier?

I play a Telecaster through a Wizard amp. I love Tele's. I have a collection of guitars: a few Teles, some Strats and some Gibson-style stuff.

"Burn" was terrific - vocal and acoustic guitar. Also a bit of country here?

I'm not thinking country but I can understand why you'd say that because of the acoustic.

What was it like cutting that vocal? Easy or tough?

It's just how I sing. Same as the others.

Were you influenced at all by country artists? Adele? Bonnie Raitt?

Bonnie Raitt is someone I respect a lot. I haven't listened too much to country though.

"Waiting For a Friend" is another remarkable song with you and acoustic guitar. Talk about that approach/performance.

That was a simple live take - no click tracks, no nothing. Kato worked out this simple great harmonica part with the harmonica player and it just worked.

You're not playing harmonica?

No, our friend Jeremy [Gillespie] is playing.

I love the end of the song where you hear your hands rub down the acoustic fretboard - was that conscious?

That's what happens when you do that. It's why guitars are so cool.

Where did that style come from?

Just the way we wrote it.

Do your hard rock fans embrace tracks like these?

I think so. I hear about them a lot. Rock is great because it can mean anything. It's about the honesty and the freedom of it - not the sound.

Did you achieve everything you wanted to musically on "Going to Hell"?

When it was done it was done, I'm happy with it.

What was that like working on Paul Barker's album, "Fix This"?

Awesome. His stuff sounds great and it came so easily. He sent us a track of music and let us twist it around and write a song over it and then he did his magic. I'm proud of it. I wish more people heard it.

Did that require a different singing approach/technique from you? Something heavier?

It was pretty easy actually and it all came very naturally. I loved that it was heavier. People need to start listening to heavier music. If you let it, it can be very freeing.

Will you be guesting on any other albums?

Nothing right now, but you never know.

What are the plans now?

Tour the world, make videos, and then get right into a new record.

Interview by Steven Rosen
Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2014

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    Once I opened a TPR's digipack, there was no lyrics, no credits, only nude pics of this girl. I think that pretty much sums up this band.
    I love how direct she is. Her answers are short and to the point and though it leaves you wanting more, you have to appreciate the integrity of it all. It's just honest and real and you can tell she is someone who seems pretty comfortable with herself. I think that's cool.