From “Gossip” to gaga: Taylor Momsen gets a new gig

The MAROON interviewed former “Gossip Girl,” current rock star Taylor Momsen

By Anastasia Golovashkina

Taylor Momsen played Jenny Humphery on CW's television series Gossip Girl.
Taylor Momsen played Jenny Humphery on CW’s television series Gossip Girl. (Spin Magazine)
  You can tell a lot about a band from the fans that wade (or claw, or drunkenly threaten) their way to the front rows of their shows. For Taylor Momsen’s punk-rock quartet The Pretty Reckless, those fans are a portion-controlled mix of underage Gossip Girls and the parents who chauffer them. It’s a respectfully peaceful pack, dominated by clusters of teen and preteen girls—the kind of crowd that you’d expect from a Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift concert, if either of those artists subscribed to the rock genre.Though neither packs even half of Momsen’s vocal mastery, it probably helps that she’s the same age as Bieber.THE MAROON had a chance to chat with Taylor Momsen before The Pretty Reckless played Chicago’s Bottom Lounge on March 29. “But we’ve actually been really busy writing our second record right now,” Momsen told us in our interview with her earlier this month. “We just got back from doing Soundwave Festival in Australia, and we’re about to start a two-month headline tour, ‘The Medicine,’ in North and South America.”But while the band’s younger crowds may still prefer a sugar pill to ‘their medicine,’ from performing at the likes of Lollapalooza and Warped Tour to opening for brand-name bands like Evanescence and, later this month, Marilyn Manson, Momsen’s less-than-three year old band has certainly paid its dues.Warped Tour? “It’s definitely its own little thing!” Momsen told us. “I mean, many festivals are very similar: lots of bands, lots of schedules, sound check. But at Warped Tour, there is no sound check, and you don’t know what time you’re playing until the day of. There have been quite a few days when you’re just getting out of bed, and you’re on stage in 20 minutes! So, you just get on stage and have fun with it.”Thursday night’s opening act Madina Lake is also a Warped Tour alum, while newcomer (and fellow opener) The Hollywood Kills is now vying for its own chance to play the cult quasi-rock tour. Though it’s certainly not for everyone: “It’s very chaotic,” Momsen recalls. “It’s its own little world of festivals, its own little touring environment. So we went through this kind of Warped Tour Boot Camp.” “Now,” Momsen added, “we’re ready for anything.”But it seems like Reckless has been ready from the beginning. Since founding the band in 2009, Momsen has yet to take a real vacation: “It’s been kind of non-stop,” Momsen says, “with writing, recording, touring. Right after we finish up ‘The Medicine,’ we’ll be going straight into recording a second record.”Though Momsen loves to do it all (and do it all the time), it turns out that this self-proclaimed “non-stop” actress-turned-model-turned-musician prefers to have her space. “Writing on tour is definitely something that I’ve had a hard time getting used to,” she admits. “I’m one of those people that, when I’m writing, I like to disappear, so that no one sees me, so I’m in my own bubble. On tour, that doesn’t really work . So what I’ve often done is sectioned off part of the bus so that no one will bother me. It’s my bubble, my area.”Momsen writes the songs and does almost all of the interviews – but, as anyone who looks at their photographs or attends their shows would know, there are still three other band members to account for. How, then, does a Reckless record come together? “Every song is written so differently; there’s really no direct process,” Momsen says. “But I think that, when you’re writing a record, you’re in a certain place in your life, and it cohesively just ends up coming together as a reflection of that place—of that theme, of whatever it is you’re writing about. It can be love, or it can be emotion, or whatever the fuck it is, you know. But it comes together.”“The most challenging part about it all is that writing can be a, torturous process. You’re just coming up with nothing and nothing forever—and then, you finally have something, and that’s the best feeling on the planet . It’s the best.”Momsen has said many times that her band’s first studio album, Light Me Up, was meant to be “a very personal record,” largely focused on her experiences or views on “love, death, and music itself,” as well as “rock and roll,” “sex,” “drugs,” “religion,” and “politics.”The interplay of rock and roll, sex, and religion is especially prevalent in the band’s live performances of their single “Goin’ Down”: “Hey there Father, I don’t wanna bother you/But I’ve got a sin to confess,” Momsen croons in the opening lines of the controversial song. “I’m just sixteen, if you know what I mean/Do you mind if I take off my dress?” The song’s lyrics have obvious religious and sexual themes, so it’s no surprise that the band’s tradition of asking an audience member to come on stage and dance – er, strip – got started in a church.“I don’t remember where we were playing, but it was in the U.S., and it was in a church, and it was a very weird environment. It was a very strange show. So we asked if anyone wanted to get on stage, and this chick in the front row just fucking took her top off and jumped on stage,” Momsen recalled. “Then, it kind of just became a ‘thing.’ It gets the crowd excited, and we get a great response!” Thursday’s show was no exception.Drugs also make an powerful appearance on the band’s first record, not only on songs like “My Medicine” (“I’ll drink what you leak and I’ll smoke what you sigh” … “Somebody mixed my medicine/I don’t know what I’m on”), but also in Momsen’s real-life public presence. Since founding the band, she’s made what appears to be a dedicated effort to appear ‘rock-and-roll’ by smoking on her songs (see: the first ten seconds of “My Medicine”), at concerts, and in interviews.Moreover, the music video for “My Medicine” (which also marks Momsen’s first take at directing) presents a psychedelic party scene and features drug use prominently. To be sure, it’s a great, can’t-stop-watching kind of clip – but, like much of Momsen’s public presence, it also seems reminiscent of an act. Momsen doesn’t hold her cigarette like a smoker, nor does she carry herself like the promiscuous youth or post-adolescent drug addict she portrays in her shows and in her music.Fans can look to the band’s latest EP, Hit Me Like a Man, for indication of how their second record is going to sound. “If the EP gives you any sort of direction where the music’s going, that’s kind of the point—some of those songs will probably end up on the record, too.”But back to Momsen. Though her July 26, 1993 birth date makes her the age of a typical college freshman, thanks to hits like How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) (she played Cindy Lou Who) and her role as black sheep Jenny Humphrey on the hit show Gossip Girl, she’s already made a name for herself on screens and stages, both big and small, worldwide. But with her last episode of Gossip Girl having aired on May 17, 2010, it’s been a while since Momsen has occupied the small screen—or any screen outside of an amphitheater or music video, for that matter.Has she retired? Is acting something that she tries to distance herself from? “No, I don’t think of it that way at all. It was a big part of my life,” Momsen told THE MAROON when we interviewed her earlier this month. Her use of the past tense is powerful, as is her ability to redirect an interview. Reminded that she’s “been in the spotlight since the age of two” and that “many people know , or first got to know , as ‘little Jenny Humphrey’ from Gossip Girl, or as the Grinch’s no-less-‘little’ Cindy Lou,” she responded with overt hesitation: “I mean… it’s definitely a very different kind of life. There have been difficulties, but I think that you have to take everything with a grain of salt.”But then her voice, and her mood, picked up as she turned her thoughts to music: “But I love acting, and I love making music, and I love touring, and I love everything about what I do!” Referring back to our question about the public eye: “It’s cool; it’s just something that comes along with it.”Music might just be what the band’s theme of the “Light Me Up” song, album, and tour titles is all about. Momsen doesn’t need a lighter to lighten up; she just needs a tune.From the moment that Momsen first took the stage that night, clad in a white t-shirt with her trademark blond hair and signature black hole eyes (past a two-inch diameter, ‘raccoon’ becomes a bit of an understatement), everyone in the Bottom Lounge—not just her hard-core fans, but to a large extent even the photographers, venue employees, and awkward back-of-the-pit parental chaperones, as well—was hooked.It didn’t matter that the front row was packed with Jenny Humphrey aficionados; it mattered that Momsen was finally in her element, that she was ‘lit up’ by simply making music. Her fans (most too young to smoke, though Momsen, ever the role model, claims to have picked up the habit by age sixteen) reflect these sentiments, ‘lighting up’ the venues with their own unwitting karaoke and fervent flash photography.In that respect, The Pretty Reckless is truly live rock at its best. If you haven’t heard them yet, they sound nothing like you’d expect (and yes, Momsen’s young voice is really that raw and powerful in real life). Music—that’s ‘the medicine.’ That’s the real Momsen.