Magazine Feature

The Pretty Reckless' Taylor Momsen on Why Rock Isn't Dead -- Just In a 'Transitory State'

Taylor Momsen
Frank Hoensch/Redferns

Taylor Momsen of the American band The Pretty Reckless performs live during a concert at the Lido on Oct. 6, 2016 in Berlin, Germany.

For Taylor Momsen, songwriting is therapeutic. She’s only 23, but the lead singer of hard rock band The Pretty Reckless has spent 21 of those years in the industry. A showbiz kid whose parents moved from city to city, she was placed into modeling at the age of two, then film and television -- Momsen played Cindy Lou Who in Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas and later Jenny Humphrey on the teen TV drama Gossip Girl. But once she was old enough to make her own decisions, she gave it all up for music.

“I quit everything and started a band because that’s what I always wanted to do,” Momsen tells Billboard over the phone. Growing up on her dad’s classic record collection -- The Beatles, The Doors, Pink Floyd -- she’s had a lifelong penchant for rock (she even taught herself how to play guitar), a passion that strengthened when she saw The White Stripes live in concert, one of her very first shows. "It was super loud and I was blown away by how much noise two people could make on stage," she recalls. "It was a moment that made me want to play rock n’ roll for a living."

Momsen, who began writing songs at a young age, never had an outlet for them until she met her bandmates, guitarist Ben Phillips, bassist Mark Damon and drummer Jamie Perkins. Even though they’re now breaking records as the first female-fronted band with three chart-toppers in a row, a feat last accomplished by The Pretenders in 1984, Momsen doesn’t see stats, gender or genre boundaries. “I’m just making music,” she says. “I don’t see a difference when it comes to gender in music -- a good song is a good song. Whoever is delivering that, if it’s delivered well and the song is good, I’ll listen to it. I don’t see it as a separation like that."

Momsen also disagrees with the oft repeated mantra that 'rock is dead.' "I think rock music is in a transitory state. I think all music is right now, with the new paradigm and the way music is being released. It’s all changing right now and I don’t think it’s really settled. I don’t think anyone figured out the new button yet."

The Pretty Reckless, who are touring in support of their third album Who You Selling For, would rather have each listener interpret the record on their own terms. “When you release music, it no longer belongs to you,” Momsen explains. “It belongs to the world. By defining it, that’s cheating the enjoyment of music and how broad it is.”

She’s highly metaphorical and steers clear from anything that restricts her creative approach. She doesn’t even want to meet her idols, she says, because she’s afraid to destroy the illusion she’s built in her mind. Take Soundgarden, for example, who the band opened for in Quebec. “A quick hello was as close as I wanted to get,” says Momsen of Chris Cornell, one of her biggest idols along with Robert Palmer and John Lennon. “I like what I’ve created in my head.”

But it’s not a self-sustaining existence. She feels universal experiences always find their way into her songwriting. “When you tour, you go to all these places and you see that everyone is going through the same pain,” she says. “Then you see it on a television screen and we all look so divided, but it’s not the case. Everyone’s just trying to get by.

"It’s a mess right now, everything, not just the election. I don’t know what’s happening in the world right now but I try to get my head around it and I can’t. I feel like everyone else. I think everyone just sort of has their hands in the air going like, 'What the fuck is going on?' I’m still thinking about it."

With everything going on in the world, Momsen wrote enough material to fill two records. The band considered releasing a double album, she admits, but the idea was scrapped. “We’ll hopefully be back in the studio sooner than later.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Oct. 29 issue of Billboard.