“Without this album, I don’t know where I would be right now, I don’t know if I would still be around. I was that low.” Death, tragedy, substance abuse – in the years since her last album for The Pretty Reckless, to say Taylor Momsen has been through a lot would be an understatement. After the passing of her long time friend and collaborator, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, who tragically died while touring with the band, followed by the death of their producer Kato Khandwala, her album “Death By Rock and Roll” essentially became a lifeline for her, pulling her out of a deep depression, where she had lost all hope or desire to live. She was brought back by listening to her favorite heroes including The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and The Who, while songwriting her way back to life. What has been borne out of her darkness is an incredibly mature sound, a more sophisticated look, and soulful personal awakening that has skyrocketed the album’s title track “Death By Rock and Roll” to No 1 on the radio charts. The full album was released on February 12th, hitting No 1 on iTunes in the United States, UK, Australia, Canada, and more.
The Pretty Reckless was never the average rock band by any means. Since forming in 2008 they have had the distinction of being the first female-fronted band to have back-to-back No. 1 singles at the active rock format and the first female-fronted act to have five No. 1 singles on the Billboard chart. Momsen’s last album “Going to Hell” released in 2014 crashed the Top 5 of the Billboard Top 200, including three No. 1 hits – a feat that had not been accomplished by a female-fronted group since The Pretenders in 1984. With over half-a-billion streams, The Pretty Reckless have headlined countless sold-out shows and toured with the likes of Guns N’ Roses. “Death By Rock and Roll” marks a new era for the band, as they continue to propel themselves forward despite the pandemic or any other obstacle that may have been in their way. “I think anytime you go through loss and trauma, and one hit after the other, when life is just feeling like it’s beating you down… it forces you to grow up whether you want to or not.” Momsen was “reborn” wiser and stronger, with the music literally “pouring” out of her, “I think that this album is really, in my humble opinion, the best album we’ve ever made because it was created from such a raw and vulnerable, honest place that you can’t manufacture…”
The Untitled Magazine’s Indira Cesarine caught up with The Pretty Reckless’s frontwoman Taylor Momsen for an in-depth exclusive about her personal journey from darkness and tragedy to healing through music, how she navigated making a new album and music videos amidst the pandemic, as well as what has inspired her latest tracks, new look, and fiery, raw new direction.
I love the title of your new album “Death by Rock and Roll,” what was the inspiration behind it?
“Death by Rock and Roll“ started out as a phrase that Kato, our producer who passed and who was my best friend in the world, used to say all the time. It was kind of an ethic that we lived our life by, back in 2008 when we formed the band. It was this code of “Death by Rock and Roll” which was not morbid at all – it came from a place of “ live life your own way, go out your own way, don’t let anyone tell you differently – rock and roll till I die..”. So it’s very much like a battle cry for life. And when he passed that phrase just kept ringing in my head and I couldn’t get it out. It just made a lot of sense. It was the start of this album. I can say this is probably the first album that I had titled before I had actually written all of the material for it.
I understand you had back-to-back tragedies in your life between Chris Cornell and your producer Kato Khandwala both passing, did those experiences impact the writing on the album?
100%. Not to immediately get very heavy, but there is no way to speak about this record without talking about it. We were on tour with Soundgarden which was just the most amazing experience of my life. I’m the biggest Soundgarden fan in the world so to be opening for them and to be on that tour was absolutely incredible and then to have it end so tragically – a shock is an understatement. We were all just devastated. We were still in the middle of touring at the time, we were promoting our last record and we had another year of touring planned. We played a few shows after that but I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t in a good headspace to be public – I couldn’t get on stage every night and fake my way through a show when I was dealing with my own personal grief. So I took a step back and I canceled everything. I needed to go home to process this in my own time and not in front of the entire world. So we did that and left touring – which was not the best business decision but it was something that I really needed to do. Chris’s passing really affected all of us deeply. Soundgarden was one of the reasons we all bonded in the first place over 10 years ago. It was The Beatles and Soundgarden – so we were all going through it together. I started to write again and I was calling them [the band] and I was saying we need to move forward, let’s get in the studio – I have a few songs I don’t know what they are for, I don’t know if it’s for a record or an EP or just maybe nothing but let’s start doing something.
As soon as we started to put those plans in motion I got the phone call that Kato had died in a motorcycle accident and that was just the fucking nail in the coffin for me. I couldn’t process it. I went extraordinarily downhill very quickly into this dark headspace of just depression and substance abuse and everything that comes along with loss and grief and trauma. I didn’t really know how to get out of it. I think the bigger thing is that I didn’t know if I wanted to. I had kind of thrown my hands up into the air and was like “I quit life”. I felt like “everything I love is dead, I don’t see a future here” and that’s a really dangerous headspace to be in. To make a very long story short it took months and months and months for me to wrap my head around it and I still don’t think I have my head wrapped around it fully, but I finally got to a place where I needed music. I had shunned music for a while just because everything I listened to – no matter what the band or what the artist was – brought back some sort of memory that I wasn’t equipped to deal with – it all brought back some sort of emotion which was just too painful.
I finally hit, I don’t want to say a rock bottom, but one of the bottoms. I needed music again so I started by listening to what made me love music in the first place – the simple answer was The Beatles. I started by listening to the Beatles again and basically started from the beginning to rebuild my love of music from scratch, from the start. I started by listening to all the Beatles records from front to back and delving into all the demos and then the anthology and from that, it turned into Led Zeppelin and The Who and Pink Floyd and eventually leading to me being able to listen to Soundgarden again and have it bring me some joy instead of just painful memories. That was the turning point for me. I eventually started to pick up a guitar.
This record is very different from our previous albums in the sense that I didn’t have to try to write it. It just poured out of me whether I wanted it to or not. It was like I opened the floodgates and this record was just born. Normally when you go to write a record or write anything you have to search for inspiration. It’s a very tortuous process – not knowing if it’s going to come or not. In this case, inspiration had been pounding me in the face and I had just been ignoring it and repressing it. So when I finally opened the floodgates it was like a dam being broken. That was really the start of the healing process where I just allowed it to flow. I wasn’t writing with any purpose, like thinking anyone would hear it, or even thinking far enough that we would even record these songs. It was just something I needed to do for my own catharsis and my own healing process. That was the start of getting my shit together or at least attempting to. So as cliché as it might sound, this music is my life. Without this album I don’t know where I would be right now, I don’t know if I would still be around. I was that low. So it really does prove the point that music saves – and it has healing power, unlike any other art form, in my opinion. I think that this album is really, in my humble opinion, the best album we’ve ever made because it was created from such a raw and vulnerable, honest place that you can’t manufacture and can’t duplicate.
So what was the first song that came out of you as you were working on it? Was it 25? What was the first track that got you rolling?
“25” was one of the first ones. It was kinda a combination. “Death by Rock and Roll” the song was something we had been working on and started writing 10 years ago but never finished. That was something we revisited early on. Finishing the lyrics and finishing writing that. But 25 was certainly the first song that I had really completed. I wrote the song when I was 24 and we recorded it right after I turned 25. It was the first song recorded for the record. That was a moment where I was in a very reflective state. It’s a very autobiographical song in a lot of ways. Just me looking back on my life. I think everyone does when they have a birthday coming up! And going through my life, where I’m at now. Even though it was written from a dark place it’s actually quite a hopeful song. It tells my life story in a metaphorical way. When I finished it, I took a step back and I looked at it and I went, I think that this might be really good, I think I might have just gotten way better. I think I might have taken a step forward in my writing. That was the start that spearheaded the rest of the record. “Death by Rock and Roll” and “25” are the two that we really started with.
Having been to your previous performances and familiar with your prior music, “25” seems like a far more mature song in many ways. It definitely seems like you’re coming from a place that’s, I don’t want to use the word “grown-up,” but it comes from a far more sophisticated point of view. And with the music video, I feel like you pushed your work in a more sophisticated direction than you have in the past. It definitely seems like a turning point for you, that song.
Thank you, and I think it certainly was. That came from just all the shit we went through, I think anytime you go through loss and trauma, and one hit after the other, when life is just feeling like it’s beating you down – that eventually your not living in a child’s mindset anymore. It forces you to grow up whether you want to or not. I feel like I grew. I aged quite a few years in a very short period of time, I guess if you want to put it that way. Cause you know when you’re confronted with death and things like that are so heavy and so real, there is no avoiding them even if you as much as you may try. It ages you. It’s just a part of life. I grew up exponentially. I don’t want to say quickly – you know I started at 24 and I’m now 27 – so it took a while, but in one way it feels like it was overnight. I think that is a huge part of that, just a lot of growth that happened in my own life very quickly that just made me start seeing things from a wiser, more grown-up perspective.
I would have to say considering you started working at the age of 2, you probably already have a more experienced view of the world than the average person. The average kid does not start working as a model and actor at 2 years old or go through the things that you went through at such a young age. If age were the sort of thing we could quantify based on experience and wisdom you probably are much older than your years.
I hear that a lot, it’s something people have told me throughout my life, “you’re so much older than your age.” I always take that with a grain of salt. Yeah, I’ve lived a very strange life. It’s not exactly average, and all of those experiences lead to who I am now. It’s all a combination of growth. I only know me so to compare myself with someone else in retrospect, it’s like well am I older or am I younger? Somedays I feel like I’m 107 and somedays I feel like I’m a 2-year-old child again. It kind of depends on the day. I never really know what I’m doing. I’m just kind of living and trying to constantly grow as a person and grow as an artist and just better everything that I do. If the last thing was great the next thing has to be better. If we were on tour and we had a great show the night before the next shows got to be better! We have to keep moving forward. I think as soon as you start to feel stagnant or you come to a conclusion that this is the best I can be, that is the death of an artist. You always have to be thinking ahead and thinking forward. As soon as you’re comfortable I feel like that’s the death of art right there.
Yeah art often comes from angst.
Yes, art comes from everywhere! Look at any artist and any sort of pain or trauma. It doesn’t always have to be negative. Positive things that have happened in one’s life, that all is a part of who you are and you have to indulge all sides of that. You have to draw from all aspects of life and sometimes that means going to the darker sides of life, subject matters that are uncomfortable to talk about. If you limit yourself in any way, like I’m just going to write about this side of things or that side of things, then you’re stunting yourself. And that’s never a good thing. You really have to be an open book which is sometimes difficult.
What is your process for writing songs, do you do it in solitude or do you work with the band while you’re writing?
There is no process! Believe me, I wish there was, it would make it a lot simpler. The only kind of constant is that Ben and I are the two songwriters of the band and we write separately but we always come together at the end. The only thing that is consistent is that it starts with an idea, and that has to be an inspired idea. It can’t be something that’s manufactured. I could sit down and craft you a song, but that’s not the kinda art that I want to put out into the world. I’m trying to make something that’s going to last a lifetime, an eternity, not something that’s just going to be a fleeting moment. That can be a struggle sometimes especially now we’re living in such a fast-paced world. Something comes out and people have already moved on before it’s been released. It’s a very A to Z society especially with social media and the way music is put out now. It’s very single-based. Call it old school if you want, I still very much love the album. To me, the album is the highest art form. An album encapsulates a moment in an artist’s life. Sometimes it’s a long moment, sometimes it’s a short one, but it encapsulates a time period. Cherry-picking songs and singles have always been a challenge for me because it doesn’t tell the whole story. You really have to listen to the whole album from front to back to get the whole picture. I can’t write with people. There’s a lot of people who do writing sessions where you sit in a room with lots of people and brainstorm ideas. That has never made sense to me. It takes isolation for me. It takes time with your own thoughts. Sometimes the song can come in 5 minutes and that’s amazing when that happens. Sometimes you spend months or years working on something. So there is no process. The only constant is that it’s me and Ben and we have a really symbiotic relationship that just works and that’s just a very lucky and fortunate thing where we’re always in sync with each other.
You can definitely tell that when the two of you are together. You don’t even need to speak, you can tell there is a sort of unspoken communication.
We definitely have that going on, and Kato was a part of that. He never wrote the songs, but he was a part of that kind of symbiotic relationship. When the band formed, I met Ben and Kato at the same time. When the three of us met it was just this kismet relationship that none of us were expecting. You meet a lot of people in life and none of us were expecting to all just click in this weird way. We felt like we had all known each other forever. In past lives, in future lives, like ‘I’ve known you my whole life’ and were just meeting. That’s something that is just so lucky. It was a very weird thing to lose him. It felt like losing a piece of myself because we were all so close. There wouldn’t be a Pretty Reckless if I had never met Kato. I met Mark and Jamie shortly after I met Ben and Kato, but he was essentially the fifth member of the band he just didn’t tour with us.
Let’s talk about your track “And So It Went,” which I understand is about the state of civil unrest. Tell me about the inspiration for the song as well as the video where you are wearing that awesome pink suit?
It’s kind of crazy looking back at it now. The song was written and recorded way before the pandemic, so it’s insane to me how relevant some of those lyrics are in particular to what’s going on in the world right now. I think that’s something that happens a lot in art. Does life imitate art? Does art imitate life? I think it’s probably a combination of both. That song came about a few years back when I was feeling like the world was starting to feel a little off. You could just kind of feel that tug where civil unrest was starting and the world was kinda starting to go crazy. So then I wrote about it. It’s very socially driven, the song itself. I don’t want to get too detailed into it. I don’t like doing that with songs because I think it’s unfair to the listener. I just think that it takes away an element. I always say the music is mine, it’s like my child and it’s mine. It’s my baby and I raised it and I gave birth to it and all those things. But once you put it out into the world it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It’s like sending a kid off to college or something – you have to say goodbye and you know I hope I did a good job but now it’s up to you. Since the album is just coming out I don’t want my personal take to take the song away from the listener. It doesn’t matter what it’s about to me anymore, it’s about how you relate to it and how you connect to it, and how you associate it with your own life. That’s the pinnacle right there. I think it’s strange to talk about music. It’s not meant to be talked about, it’s meant to be listened to and everything I have to say is within the song itself. I don’t really consider myself a good speaker, I’m a songwriter.
You are a very good speaker!
Thank you, but you know what I mean. Everything I’m thinking and my point of view is the way I see things. It’s all in the song that’s all right there for you to interpret but it’s not my place to preach my point of view at you.
With regards to the video, I noticed that you had these contrasting personalities – the persona in the pink suit with the crown and then the persona of you with the fishnet headgear. What was your inspiration in regards to those choices of styling? I felt like there must be something specific that you were going for?
I’m not entirely sure where all of that came from but I was really specific about it. I don’t know if it came in a dream, but I saw it in my head. Like my songs, I spend a lot of time conceiving them, as well as the videos and picturing what they should be. Then you get on set and you have to shove it all in one day. It’s a lot of prep work of me mentally working out what this video should look like and how it should flow. It’s always kind of a challenge, especially with rock music, to make a video that feels like the song. You don’t want to make something that overshadows the song and you don’t want to make something that’s completely contrasting to it. You want to make a visual representation that accentuates the music and is somehow entertaining but also makes you think and maybe listen to the song again and take it from a different perspective. I was going through and watching tons and tons of videos and was like ok, what are the best videos? it doesn’t matter the time period. I was watching a lot of Madonna and Micheal Jackson and epics like “Thriller”. Videos that were really the turning point in the music video game and how can we attempt to make something that is that visually entertaining and still hold the integrity of the music and really just put rock music back on the map again. It used to be something that was so powerful but that’s kinda dwindled over the years. I wanted to make the rock video something that was relevant again. That’s my goal with all the videos we’ve made and the ones we’re going to continue to make. To make something that holds artistic integrity and also is entertaining at the end of the day. The suit idea came from watching Annie Lennox. Her song actually has a lot of strange structure to it and an outfit that fits that kind of powerful condition that the song conveys. I don’t think I’ve ever worn a suit in my life, and you can’t go wrong with Versace. The video featured a juxtaposition with kids showing innocence and violence at the same time and how you transform over the years as you get older. There are a lot of elements to it.
I have a feeling that a lot of people are going to try to read a lot into it, with the kids with the masks, you and the crown, and your sort of snaky persona. There’s a lot of strong references going on there that definitely could warrant all kinds of interesting storylines.
I rarely read comments so when I do and read someone who’s written a whole exposé on what everything means I’m like, that’s awesome! I love reading people’s interpretations of it, it’s so fun.
Yeah, it’s great to throw it out into the world to be taken in as they will.
Yeah, and make something that’s just fun to watch and goes with the song in the best way possible. I have a lot of different sides to my personality so reflecting that in a video is important. I’m not just one-dimensional. With “25” I was sort of doing the same thing – showing different versions of myself. A woman at a bar telling her story to a ghostly bartender and a woman on a jazz stage singing to this kinda absent and ghostly audience. The rooftop scene is essentially a woman on a rooftop waiting for her lover. In “25,” I really wanted to make New York City the love of the video because I’ve had a love affair with New York since I was a baby. It felt like that was the right thing instead of making it a person.
Are you currently in New York?
No, I’m back in Maine which is good, but it’s fucking cold in February. I miss New York desperately. Even during COVID – just being there a week and a half, even though we were working nonstop – just to feel a little bit of the energy again was like a breath of fresh air. I haven’t left Maine – we made the record here and so I’ve been in Maine for quite a while. I’m a New York girl. That’s where I primarily live but I feel like it made sense to stay in Maine during all of this madness.
Do you have a studio in your house?
I don’t have a studio but I do have a little recording setup that I’ve had to figure out. That was my biggest challenge of COVID was figuring out how to record myself from home because I don’t do that, I’m not an engineer. I write songs, I play the songs, I sing the songs. I am not a recording engineer by any means. I’m very technologically challenged. It was probably the first time I’ve opened a computer in 8 years while figuring out how to do a zoom meeting. Trying to record on the computer, I gave up on that really quickly. It just didn’t feel organic. I didn’t like it so I went back to how I used to record myself when I was young with my battery-packed analog four-track. That’s how I’ve been making all of the songs and recordings that we’ve done during the pandemic – which is probably not the easiest way, but it works for me.
Is the whole band recording at the house in Maine or are you guys separated and coming together to work on stuff, how do you have it set up?
No, we’re all separated. But we are all relatively close. The whole reason I got a house in Maine in the first place was because of the band. Ben and I live in New York but Mark and Jamie live in New England and our rehearsal stage is up here. We were supposed to be going on tour back in the beginning of 2020. After the record cover photoshoot which was back in March, I was coming back up here to rehearse. We were starting rehearsals and the pandemic hit and the lockdown hit. I just got stuck up here and decided to stay. I love Maine. Maine and New York are kind of the perfect juxtaposition of each other because one has such energy and one has such isolation – it’s great for when you just need to get inside your own head. I’m a huge Stephen King fan and it made a lot of sense for him that he had a place where he wrote all his masterpieces. And I have always loved England and have wanted to move to England, so New England is a good first step.
So you came to New York for a week or so and shot all of your videos back to back. How was that experience? Was it incredibly overwhelming to deal with that level of interaction with people and intensity? It must have been one extreme to the other to be in Maine and then to come to New York to work on all those productions.
It was like jumping into the deep end again. It was really fun though. Even though we weren’t playing a show and we were making videos – you know those drums are still real, Jamie’s still hitting the drums. The amp is still plugged in. It was almost a celebration in one way because it was the first time I’d seen the guys in over a year. That alone was just super fun. I’m such a hypochondriac, so the weeks leading up to it I was freaking out a bit about having to be around all those people. We took every safety protocol possible. We had COVID officers on set, with every test possible – 48-hour tests, 24-hour tests, 12-hour tests, and 15 minute testing on set. You were cleared before you were allowed in the building every day. It was a lot of prep work to make sure everyone was as safe as possible. Once I cleared that out of my mind, I just went into work mode. I almost got tunnel vision where I can’t see anything but what’s in front of me which is creating something amazing or at least attempting to. The fear of [Covid] kinda drifted away. My mindset went to art immediately. Once I’m in that mindset it’s hard to get me out of it. It was hard to come back to Maine afterward, I was on such an adrenaline rush. It took me two weeks to be able to calm down. To come back to complete isolation – like I was in the middle of nowhere on an island off the coast of Maine – it’s that remote. So to come back to that after all that excitement was a little like, I don’t know what to do with myself now!
Are you planning any interesting activations with the new album due to the pandemic with tours on hold? I’m assuming you can’t tour at the moment?
We can not. We keep booking tours and they keep getting postponed. So we’re kind of in the same boat as every other band right now, it’s just a waiting game. I just don’t know when it’s actually going to come back, I’m hopeful that it will be sooner than later, but who knows. I miss it desperately, so fingers crossed. it’s very strange times we’re living in and you got to ride out the storm.
Are you doing any virtual programming aside from the music videos and track releases?
It’s certainly something we’ve been talking about and depending on how the world continues to go it’s something that we’re considering at this point. But it’s not the same as singing in the room with a live show. It’s one night where your relationship with your instrument, the band, being on stage, that symbiotic relationship you get with the fans is unlike anything else. It’s like a drug, it’s like a high you can’t get anywhere else. During the lockdown, just to keep my creative juices flowing, I’ve been doing quite a few acoustic things on our own songs. I’ve done a piano version of “House On a Hill,” which is something I’ve been wanting to do for many years but had never gotten around to it. So in one way, it’s kind of a blessing in disguise where I’ve gotten to do collaborations and covers of songs which is not something I generally gravitate towards doing. I covered the “Keeper” with Alain Johannes and “Half Way There” with Matt Cameron. Most recently I was just a part of the David Bowie tribute concert. Things like that have been keeping me going. As much as I love acoustic guitar I’m desperately missing electricity! I’m looking forward to the day where I can just get back in a rehearsal space with the four of us. Let’s just start there where we can actually plugin and turn it up, because there is nothing else like it. The deprivation of that is starting to wear on me – like it is for everyone. I’m not the first person to say this. I think everyone is missing it. So fingers crossed for the future!
I’m really excited for people to hear this album. We have worked so incredibly hard on it and I’m so, so proud of it. I’m really excited for it to be out in the world and for everyone to be able to listen to it.
Interview and Photography by Indira Cesarine
Makeup by Roberto Morelli
Hair by Ricardo Rojas
Styling by Danielle Dinten