In conversation with Joan Jett and Taylor Momsen: “Until women control the money, that glass ceiling is still gonna be there”
Neither Joan Jett nor Taylor Momsen needs an extended introduction: both musicians have been figureheads in the rock world for decades. Joan began in the ’70s when women were non-existent in hard rock music, carving out a space for herself and future musicians. Taylor spent the 2010s leading one of America’s most prominent alt.rock bands, The Pretty Reckless. Until the pandemic hit in March 2020, they were essentially living as full-time touring musicians. It’s all they’ve known since the ages of 15. But for the first time in years, they have to sit still.
How they originally met remains a mystery, but it was around the time Joan was positioned to produce the Pretty Reckless’ debut album Light Me Up, which unfortunately didn’t happen due to scheduling conflicts, but they remained close acquaintances.
While they might be generations apart, they’re realising that with age comes valuable wisdom. “You’re not that old,” Taylor tells Joan. “Personality-wise you might not think that,” she replies, “but still, when you get here you realise how young the 20s are, how young the 30s are, and how you’re not even starting to know yourself at all until you’re 40. For real.”
On the evening of International Women’s Day 2021, Kerrang! joined the pair in conversation. They spoke of breaking the glass ceiling of rock, gave advice for female musicians dreaming of breaking into heavy music, and considered how they’ve handled professional disappointments…
The Glass Ceiling Of Rock’N’Roll
Joan: “Attitudes have not changed as radically as people would like to believe. They believe, ‘We’ve come so far, women are equal,’ but if you live in this business – or I bet countless women will tell you – things haven’t changed that much. But there is an appearance of equality, the PR of ‘You’re equal’. Women and girls have a lot more tools now: social media, the internet, you can get your music out to people easier and cheaply, and you can reach the world. In The Runaways, we had no shot of doing anything like that. We were very limited.
“Musically I still had a lot of resistance until fairly recently. [The glass ceiling] is live and well, but I feel it crack a little bit more each time. I thought when I got to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame [in 2015] it was a big deal. You just don’t know how much people notice it or not. And, you know, it’s never something I aspired to; I didn’t join a band to get into the Hall Of Fame. But I can’t explain it… I hadn’t felt ‘seen’ since I Love Rock’N’Roll. Since the early Runaways, where I was taken seriously.
“I think until women control the money – control the dollars and who gets them, where the money goes – that ceiling is still gonna be there. And that’s not to say that women won’t necessarily open doors for other women all the time, either. You just don’t know.”
Taylor: “I fully agree with that. When I first formed Pretty Reckless, I was 14, 15 years old. It was hard to be taken seriously. Before they’d even heard it or seen it, people [had] written it off before they even gave it a chance. I mean that’s in 2008. Our first record came out and never got played on radio in America. It technically was released here, but it never really got a chance. It was a very weird time where I felt very… I don’t even think judged is the right word. It was like, ‘Whoa, okay, you just get written off.’ And at the same time I could look around at people like you, Debbie Harry and Suzi Quatro and go, ‘They did it.’ And they did it in a time period where this was unheard of. That gave me this boost, because I need this rock’n’roll. I always say it has this healing quality to it; it’s like soul food. You were one of the trailblazers that really allowed me to do this as a profession.
“To get to your point of women being in control of it: Our first album, like I said, technically was released in America, but it was not pushed, it was not received, it was essentially shunned. I was very unhappy with that. I started working with independent labels and actually licensing all my records so that I could maintain control, because that was something that was really important to me. The way it’s distributed, the way you want to put it out, however you want to market it, that can be a collaborative conversation that we have, but I’m not just going to sign my life over and have you – a label or a person or a man or someone behind the curtain – telling me how to express myself. Because that’s what rock’n’roll is – it’s the ultimate freedom.
“When you were talking about women making the money and [being] in charge of it: my manager’s a woman, my lawyer’s a woman…”
Joan: “They’re the ones making the decisions about the money and where it goes. That [should] be not just in music, but across the board. I found in The Runaways and with The Blackhearts that outside of America, [in] countries with the same views as America about women, there was a certain sort of acceptance or a curiosity. Or something that felt less hostile in a lot of places to me.”
Taylor: “Hostile’s a really good word.”
Joan: “Because it doesn’t mean they liked you, but they weren’t throwing things and calling you names. I didn’t know why it was so important for audience members to make those kinds of views known. Just walk out if you don’t like it. In Britain, there’s a greater variety of music infused into the British life. I find that even though the audiences [there] are tough, they will still watch critically. They wouldn’t just cut you down, they would give you a reason.”
Taylor: “I feel like when we put out our first album, we went over to the UK and the reaction there was way more hostile and judgmental because we’re talking about the 2010 tabloid prime in the UK. They like to build you up to tear you down. But the organic response of the fans was so enthusiastic, so genuine and it came from a place of no judgement.”
Mentoring Other Women
Joan: “It’s not so formal as like, ‘Well, I’m your manager, you’re the student.’ I was never an intentional mentor. Taylor and I have [worked] together professionally, you know, playing onstage together, doing songs together, that stuff.”
Taylor: “I have mentors that I’ve never even met; musicians that I’ve never met in my life, and they’re not even alive on this planet anymore. But to me they’re mentors because I listened to their music and I relate to that, I learn from that. A mentor isn’t necessarily [involving] something that is said to you by someone. It’s communication and that can be done through music.”
Joan: “I became friends with Bikini Kill in the ’90s and wrote songs with their lead singer, Kathleen Hanna. I would say I was somewhat of a mentor to her because I think she was a Runaways fan as well. I feel pretty safe saying that, she probably would be okay with me saying that. I produced their best three songs. I was there right when it was happening. You know when you’re in it and you don’t even realise you’re in it until it’s gone, then you go, ‘Wow, man, that was a special time.’”
Life Advice To A Younger Self
Joan: “No matter whatever it is you wanna be – and it can change a few times before you’re really sure – make sure you go for what you want to be in life, because everyone wants to tell you what to be, whether you’re a guy or a girl – especially if you’re a girl. Anything you wanna be, most of the time people will go, ‘Why do you wanna do that?’ Just making faces over the fact you can’t do things, as opposed to going, ‘Wow, that sounds interesting, go for it.’ The immediate jump for everyone is always, ‘What are you doing? Are you crazy? You can’t do that?’ It seems to be the default setting for people when you talk about your desires and what you hope for your life. Don’t let anyone deter you.
“If you try and don’t make it and you fail, at least you tried. And that really means a lot. If you don’t try, you’ll get to the end of your life, look around and go, ‘Man, I should’ve gone for it and if I didn’t make it, I’d have figured something else but I didn’t go for it.’ I’ve seen and met a lot of people who didn’t take that choice, whatever it was, and they’re not happy. I know people who tried and maybe didn’t get to where they expected to, but they can live with themselves.
“My parents told me when I was five that I could be anything that I wanted to be in life, and I believed them, and I think that’s a big part of when the guitar teacher said, ‘Girls don’t play rock’n’roll’ I didn’t go, ‘Oh shit, girls don’t play rock’n’roll.’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Girls play cello and Beethoven and violin and Bach at my high school. Are you telling me girls can’t play guitar?!’ No, what you’re telling me is girls can’t play rock’n’roll because it’s sexual and women can’t own their own sexuality. I knew it was a big mental thing, I knew that at 13. People who are parents out there, you’ve got to encourage kids. Let them find their own way and be there to support them with what they wanna do. They’ll be okay, but let them have that part of their life at least.”
Taylor: “I totally agree with all of that. The only thing I would add is that you can do anything you wanna do and that should be encouraged, especially for women.”
Joan: “Well, you can try to be anything you wanna be, but there are no guarantees. That’s another problem.”
Taylor: “Exactly, that’s the thing. Success is a word that comes around a lot and it’s like, ‘What does that mean, commercial success?’ How do you define success? To me, it’s when I make something I’m really proud of. If it does well that’s fucking awesome and I’m so grateful, but if you don’t find success internally… When I’m lost I tend to turn inwards and ask, ‘Where do I want to go?’ That doesn’t mean where do I want to go publicly and with my career, it’s how do I want to impress myself and see myself when I look in the mirror?
“Encouragement is everything; I was always encouraged to do what I wanted to do. I grew up in a household where my father was a huge rock’n’roll fan and introduced me to bands from the youngest age. From a personal standpoint, I never had limitations put on me. I don’t think I’m good at giving advice, but if anyone ever asks me – especially in music – if you love music and you have this desire that’s unexplainable in words, then by all means go for it, but don’t expect the rest of the world to agree with you. You’re going to have to fight for it and it’s a lifelong battle. It’s not going to get easier as time goes on. So if you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, for some outside validation, I think you’re going to end up feeling a little fucked up. In that case, do music as a hobby.”
Joan: “If you’re doing it to be a star, then it’s the wrong career.”
Taylor: “You’re forever going to be disappointed.”
Overcoming Professional Disappointments
Joan: “When The Runaways ended it was devastating to me. I felt like it was my baby and I was so sure it would work and people would love the band.”
Taylor: “I do!”
Joan: “I just didn’t get it. But as the band got older, the direction of all of us started to diverge. I was worried I was going to get fired from the band I started, so I thought, ‘Let’s just finish this album and leave.’ It was definitely like a death and the first I’d dealt with because I hadn’t had any dead people yet. So I didn’t know how to deal with it; I partied way too much, drank too much, did other things a lot. Not good. Really not good. Then I met Kenny [Laguna, manager and creative partner] in the summer of ’79.
“How did I get out of that? It had a lot to do with somebody who believed in me and that somebody was Kenny. He thought it was gonna be easy to help me, he knew people, he had friends and thought, ‘Someone will give her a deal.’ We went to everybody, every favour Kenny could pull. We sent letters to 23 record labels, we sent them I Love Rock’N’Roll, Crimson And Clover, Do You Wanna Touch Me, Bad Reputation and a song called You Don’t Own Me. I got 23 rejection letters saying, ‘There are no songs here, tell her to lose the guitar, sorry – she’s not our kinda artist.’ So either they don’t listen to the tapes they get or they can’t hear hits. Probably both of those things.”
Taylor: “You proved them so wrong (laughs). Every song there is a hit.”
Joan: “We made our first merch and people didn’t sell records out of the trunk of their car – no-one had ever heard of that. We did that because that was our first record company office. That was Blackheart Records, the trunk of Kenny’s Cadillac.”
Taylor: “That’s so rock’n’roll, that’s what it’s about.”
Joan: “But it wasn’t a choice, it was a necessity.”
Taylor: “But it became a part of you, and at some point fused with you and became your identity. All your stories are cool but that story is cool. I feel very bad for people who don’t feel rock’n’roll. Not understanding the power of that music. It’s not just aggression, it’s vulnerability, it’s femininity. Like, femininity is a huge part that’s lacking especially now, and I don’t mean there aren’t enough female-fronted bands, I just mean the femininity aspect of rock’n’roll. It’s very testosterone-driven right now. You’re missing this whole other element to the music.
“I’ve been disappointed by myself for getting onstage and not being at my best. I’ve had fleeting moments of disappointment throughout my career and at least for me I try to move past them as quickly as possible and onto the next thing. It was a bad day – chalk it up to that. Disappointment is a part of life. You can look back and nit-pick everything you do or you can move forward. Sleep it off and figure it out tomorrow.”
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