Taylor Momsen knows what you're thinking. Why is a cute 17-year-old blonde star of a hit TV show playing loud and nasty rock music? Isn't she supposed to be singing electro-generic pop songs written by a 40-year-old Swedish guy?
No way, says Momsen, who plays Jenny Humphrey on Gossip Girl. Her four-piece band, the Pretty Reckless, is a reflection of all the music she loves and has loved since she was a little girl: the Who, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and especially the Beatles. With that background, no way she's gonna sing about the dreamy boy she sits next to in math class.
"I grew up with the classics, and once you go classic, you can't go back," she says. "A lot of different artists influenced the record over time, but not so directly. It's more of an overall picture that's hard to define. It would be a lot easier to write a fucking record if you knew where to look."
The debut album from the Pretty Reckless, Light Me Up, includes a mix of rock styles from the past 40 or so years: blistering guitar workouts, fuzzy-crunchy punk, bluesy sex jams, even pretty acoustic ballads. But mostly it's amp-shredding rock & roll siphoned from the rougher branch of '90s alt-rockers, like Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Hole.
"It's such a pop-oriented market right now," says Momsen. "But this is very much a song-driven rock & roll record. Everything started with the songs, not the production. Everything was written on acoustic guitar."
Though Momsen won't straight-up admit it, there's lots of Courtney Love in her songs and in her act. The way her voice tears as it reaches the furthest regions of her range. The way Light Me Up barrels through its songs with little regard for melody. And the way Momsen dresses onstage like a skanky Lolita — raccoon eyes, short skirts hiked above black stockings, unbuttoned shirts that reveal lacy black bras.
Yes, Momsen plays a hardass on record. She shows some vulnerability ("Make Me Wanna Die") and disappointment ("Zombie") from time to time, but most of Light Me Up's songs — all of which she co-wrote — trash ("Miss Nothing"), bash ("Light Me Up"), and offer no apologies ("My Medicine").
It's world-weary stuff from a 17-year-old girl from St. Louis who got her start playing little Cindy Lou Who in How the Grinch Stole Christmas 11 years ago. "In one sense, the songs are very much about me," says Momsen. "But in another sense, they're very much metaphoric. As much as I'm going to give my life away is in that record. But I'm going to leave some stuff for myself. It's an honest record, but some names have been changed to protect the innocent."
Light Me Up was released in the U.K. in August. It debuted in the Top 10. U.S. fans had to initially settle for a four-song EP. The entire 10-track album finally hit digital outlets last month. The record is still waiting for a physical release here. "I'm not the one in control of that," sighs Momsen. "I just make the music and hope it gets released."
Which brings us back to people's expectations. Momsen admits that some of Light Me Up's jagged little thrills are direct reactions to that whole you-should-be-making-perky-pop-songs way of thinking. "There were definitely struggles in making a rock & roll record in the industry right now," she says. "But I don't write for any market or to fit in anywhere. I just wanted to write great songs."
Either way, Momsen says this is where her career has been heading for the past decade. Given the choice among her acting (she's on hiatus from Gossip Girl right now), modeling (until recently, she was the face of Material Girl, the clothing line started by Madonna), and kick-ass-frontwoman gigs, she says it's an easy decision.
"Music, I can never give up, but acting ...," she laughs. "I consider myself a musician who also acts and models. I started acting at a young age, but I didn't choose that. I didn't wake up one day and say, I want to be an actress. I woke and said, I want to play in a rock band."