Taylor Momsen: My life in 10 songs
Songwriting kept The Pretty Reckless’ Taylor Momsen sane through even the most chaotic of times. Here, she guides us through the tracks that waymarked her journey…
After losing Chris Cornell and her producer Kato Khandwala in the same year, Taylor Momsen was done. But though she tried to run from it, The Pretty Reckless' new album is the story of how music ultimately saved her...
When Taylor Momsen turned 25, she knew she had a lot to unpack. Most people do. As the first landmark age after properly becoming an adult, the quarter-century is a point in life where one is expected to know – or at least have a decent idea of – who they are, where they are, what they’re doing and where they’re going. Take stock, see how you’re doing, ask yourself if you’re happy with what you have – and how you can change what you’re not.
But for Taylor, the question that she had been putting to herself recently, not always in the most constructive manner, was an altogether darker one: “What’s the fucking point?”
Under more normal circumstances, Taylor and The Pretty Reckless would have been on tour at this point, playing music, doing what she loves, what she calls “the thing that centres me”, marking this milestone in a more joyful manner. Tragically, the last time any of this happened in any normal way was brought to a cruel, heartbreaking halt on the morning of May 18, 2017. The night before, the band had opened for Soundgarden at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, part of a “dream come true” tour with a band irremovable from Taylor’s own musical journey.
And then everyone got the news: Chris Cornell had died by suicide just hours after a show at which there was no clue anything was wrong; where everyone on the tour had said ‘goodbye’ expecting to see one another again in a few hours. Like you do. Like normal.
“We’d played the show with them, it was great, and then to wake up to the news the next morning that he was no longer with us was absolutely devastating to me,” she says today. “That’s an understatement of a sentiment.”
Through the grief and shock, The Pretty Reckless continued with their own touring plans, with a summer spent on the festival circuit, before rounding out 2017 with a European jaunt with Stone Sour. But although Taylor tried to play through the pain, it wasn’t working. She needed to go away.
“I came to the conclusion that I was not in a good place to be in public and I couldn’t get onstage every night and put on an entertaining rock show,” she says. “I was not handling it well, I was in too much shock.”
Heading home, Taylor took an extended break, to “process and get my feet back on the ground”. With the chance to stop and decompress and heal and allow herself to take time to deal with things, with no real deadline set for when she had to return, she quietly worked through everything. After a few months, she began “moving forward”, even starting to write some music. Eventually she called Kato Khandwala, the producer who had recorded every Pretty Reckless album since 2010’s self-titled EP, almost an extra member of the band, to say she had something, and that they should get into the studio.
This would never happen. Just as it seemed as the sun was coming up again and she could move forward with her life, Taylor got another phone call: Kato had been killed in a motorcycle accident. As the world suddenly went dark again, hit with a second devastating loss in the space of a year, Taylor Momsen was done. That was it.
“That was the nail in the coffin for me. I spiralled downward very quickly into this dark hole of depression, and I was a mess,” she recalls. “I got to a place where I kind of gave up. I gave up on everything – on life, on music, I was looking at everything and going, ‘What’s the fucking point? Everything I love is dead. What’s the point of anything?’ And eventually, I kind of put myself into my own isolation, which maybe was not the best idea.”
This wasn’t like she planned to retire, or think about doing something else; she just gave up. Neither able to play nor listen to music – something she calls “simply part of who I am” – she retreated into herself, alone. While her normal home temperament is like that of a hermit, here, it was almost a search for oblivion.
“I didn’t think about quitting,” she says. “I just quit. It wasn’t a thought, like, ‘I don’t want to be an artist anymore.’ I didn’t think, ‘I’m done with this and I wanna go do something else.’ It was like, ‘I don’t want to do anything.’ I quit life. I didn’t leave my house, didn’t leave the couch, didn’t talk to anyone. I quit life – I can’t think of a better way to say it.”
Alone in her home, Taylor did nothing, save for dropping into grief and darkness and confusion like a stone, sinking, without a thought for what to do next. But in doing so, what she found, eventually, was that through all the pain, there is a bottom to these things. When you reach it, you don't stay there forever; there’s invariably something that happens next. And, even more eventually, something began to stir in her again.
“I got to the place where I needed music,” she says. “At first I couldn’t listen to music, I was too upset – everything brought back a memory to me that I wasn’t ready to handle. I finally got to a place where I could listen to music, and I went back to the beginning again. I started listening to The Beatles. I thought, ‘I’ll start with the first band I fell in love with, where it all started for me.’ I listened to all the Beatles albums, all the demos, all the anthologies, and from that I went into Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and The Who and Oasis and AC/DC. Finally, I was able to listen to Soundgarden again. And that led to me finally being able to pick up a guitar and to write.”
The first song she wrote was 25. Into it, she put all her reflections on her life, starting as a child, to the trauma of the previous 12 months, as she approached that milestone age. As she says now: “I looked at my life and went, ‘I’m still here!’”
And this is how The Pretty Reckless’ new album, Death By Rock And Roll, helped Taylor Momsen find herself again.
“When I finally started to put pen to paper and write about everything I was feeling and thinking and going through, that became this very cathartic outlet,” she continues. “It’s always been a cathartic outlet, but I didn’t think it was something I could turn to because I was very lost. I was so lost.”
The amount of herself that Taylor Momsen has put into Death By Rock And Roll is self-evident. But just as this story is of a person surviving a truly horrible trauma and rediscovering themselves, the record is one of two halves. She calls it “a journey”, and stresses that the ordering of the tracks is important, being that the first half of the record is notably dark, while towards the conclusion of its second, there is something approaching a redemptive quality. One of the words that comes up frequently when she talks about it is “celebration”. Even the title, one that initially seems uncomfortably blunt and on-the-nose, is actually a tribute to Kato, a phrase he would use for going all-in, fucking the rules, having it large.
“I know that can sound very morbid to people – ‘Death? Ooh, scary’ – but it’s a very positive statement of live life your own way,” she says. “It’s like saying: ‘Rock’n’roll ’til I die, don’t let anyone tell me different.’ It’s very much a battle cry for life. I think that sums up the record in a lot of ways. It delves into some very dark subject matter, but overall the message of this record that there is hope. Things do get better.”
This is very true. The other point here is that grief often hits so hard because it takes away something that brought us so much happiness. The death of Chris Cornell dealt a heavy blow, but part of the reason for that is because of what his music brought while he was alive. It may have gone from “the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in the snap of a finger”, but it’s just as vital to remember the joy of the first half of that statement as the sadness of the second. And until that fateful day, things could not have been better, or happier.
“It was a dream tour,” she smiles. “It was something I never would have thought in my wildest dreams would come to fruition, and then suddenly here we were, opening for my idols. It was insane. They were unbelievably kind people who are obviously magnificent musicians – god like! To get to know them and watch them every night was… I was elated.
“I think one of my favourite things was getting to listen to their soundcheck,” she continues. “They would soundcheck for hours, sometimes longer than the show, and they would just play and work out new things and jam. It wasn’t a setup show where they did the set from that night. It was more like a free-for-all jam session for hours and hours ’til they felt like stopping. It was almost better than the show. As a fan, seeing that and being that close to it was indescribably amazing.”
The tour also gave Taylor something else important: friendship with her heroes, one that has only strengthened with time. Upon the announcement of a tribute concert to celebrate the life and music of Chris Cornell at the Los Angeles Forum, Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd invited Taylor to come and sing a song with them. On a bill that included turns from Metallica, Foo Fighters, Miley Cyrus, Queens Of The Stone Age frontman Josh Homme and more, it was decided that Taylor would do Loud Love, alongside the band and Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello and Wayne Kramer of MC5.
Arriving at the Forum for rehearsal on January 15, the day before the show, Matt Cameron suddenly asked if she could do another. With one day’s notice. No pressure. So Taylor picked Drawing Flies, ran through it, nailed it, got in her car to her hotel with even more nerves than she started. Before she could get out of the car park, however, her car was stopped, and she was told to get back onstage as quick as possible. No biggie, she was told, but we need you to do Rusty Cage as well, the song that would be opening the final part of the show. She calls the build-up “nerve wracking”, but in the event, she says, “Beautiful is the only word that seems appropriate.”
“It was unbelievable to be part of so many great artists coming together to celebrate how brilliant Chris is – I still say ‘is’, because his music is still with us,” she says. “It was beautiful, but I’m not gonna lie, I bawled my eyes out when I got offstage. It was a lot of weight, but not only in a sad capacity – there was a lot of celebration. That’s how it is with loss – all the emotions come up and explode in some way or another. And it was a way to remind everyone that music goes on forever.”
This fact was another place from which Taylor was able to create new, better memories. Noticing an overwhelming Soundgarden vibe on a new song she was working on called Only Love Can Save Me Now, Taylor felt she had to email Kim Thayil and Matt Cameron with a confession and a favour. “I really love this song,” she wrote, “But I feel like if you guys don’t play on it I’m gonna feel like I’m just ripping you off.” It was this or bin it. They said yes.
If having Kim and Matt on board was the only way Taylor could make the song happen, there was only one place in her mind to record it. As the studio in which, among others, Pearl Jam recorded Ten, Alice In Chains made Dirt, and Soundgarden did Louder Than Love, Seattle’s London Bridge studios is basically the Abbey Road of grunge. Taylor describes it as grimy, “the kind of place where you don’t have to take your shoes off,” where Kim Thayil had an amazing story to go with every picture hanging on the wall. “Just to be in that space, you could feel the energy of those albums oozing out of the walls.” And the first time her heroes played her song that she thought sounded like them, it was perfect.
“I was like, ‘That! Bring what you guys do!’” she recalls. “It was jaw-dropping. I knew it was gonna be good, but you don’t actually know until you’re in the room and doing it. The speakers just exploded with awesomeness, and it was everything I thought it was gonna be and more.
“I was like, ‘This is the coolest fucking thing I’ve ever done in my life.’”
Taylor Momsen is now 27 years old. Two years on from writing 25 and having a new album ready, she says the distance has made her realise, despite the darkness from which parts of it were born, how much positivity there actually is in it. Within the band, what felt like “a lot of one-two punches” have “strengthened a bond that didn’t need strengthening in the first place.” And having “quit life” and become completely disconnected from music, the current inability to tour has only reminded her just how important to her it is. “Fuck, I miss it!” she laughs. “I feel like I’ve passed withdrawal, and now I’m going through re-withdrawal.”
More importantly, though, for all the cruel blows and the amount that life can take away from you, not only is Taylor Momsen, as she says, “still here”, but there are some things that even the toughest of times can’t take away from us. For Taylor, she learned truly who she is, and the importance of carrying on if you want to heal. Having felt like she’d lost everything, she realised some things are fundamental.
“I have no fucking idea what I’d do without this. I wouldn’t know who I was,” she says. “It’s past my identity – it’s all I know. It’s all I am at this point. And everything else I am that is not music related is put into the music. It’s everything.”
Death By Rock And Roll wasn’t made how anyone would want to make a record. It’s also not coming out as Taylor would like, with an accompanying tour and getting to play these songs every night. But the hardships, redemption, tragedies and lessons from which it was carved are equally important. For Taylor, it feels like something that just needed to happen.
“I didn’t have to try to write this album,” she says. “As a writer, inspiration is something that you always struggle to find, whereas for this record, I had an influx of inspiration whether I wanted it or not. It was this brick that slammed me in the face and went, ‘Here. Here, Taylor. You want something to write about? Here.’ So I didn’t have to try to write it, it kind of just poured out of me in a way that I can’t really describe. We had to start from scratch again, in a way. We’d never made an album without Kato before. We lost everything, so we had to really start again from the beginning and learn how to rebuild – both as individuals and together. And I think that that is this weird blessing and curse.”
In a time where it feels like the entire world is waiting for the sun to come up, Taylor Momsen’s story is a hopeful one. Things are shit, they won’t always be. And though right now she’s currently looking for something to do while she waits, having “completed Netflix”, it’s a lesson she knows all too well, and wants to share with the world.
“As cliché as it sounds, rock’n’roll saved my life,” she says. “I don’t know where I’d be without it, or if we hadn’t made this album. I got to a place in my life where I really had to make a conscious decision: death or forward. Luckily I chose to move forward, and I credit music with that.
“The story is, things do get better. There is light at the end of the tunnel if you want to see it.”
The Pretty Reckless’ Death By Rock And Roll is out now via Century Media. Get your copy now.
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