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…

Taylor Momsen: My life in 10 songs
Steve Beebee

Taylor Momsen has been facing the cameras since the age of two. A child model turned actress, she found her true calling on discovering Soundgarden in her teens. It was a road to Damascus moment, a crossroads where she chose to walk away from a successful career to pursue the thing that made her heart sing: rock’n’roll.

Though embraced by an ardent fanbase almost immediately with hits like Make Me Wanna Die, Taylor’s path with The Pretty Reckless hasn’t always been smooth. The band almost derailed in 2012 when a hurricane destroyed their studio, and – worse – Taylor sank into depression when her long-time collaborator Kato Khandwala died in a motorcycle accident in 2018. But through all the heartache, it has always been her own music that pulled her back to the light.

This is how...

Make Me Wanna Die(Light Me Up, 2010)

Taylor was just 17 when The Pretty Reckless released their debut album. This first single and video was so impactful that it’s now racked up nearly 113 million views on YouTube.

“It was the first burst of inspiration for this band and I still feel that every night onstage. It’s strange because sometimes you can play songs for 10 years and they start to feel old, but Make Me Wanna Die isn’t like that. It feels fresh every time. It has probably changed over the years, but only because it seems to renew itself. There’s a different kind of energy brought to it, depending on what show it is.”

Miss Nothing(Light Me Up, 2010)

The core of the song is about losing your identity – easy enough to do, you might think, when you’ve been modelling for photoshoots since you were a toddler…

“That’s still what it’s about but, again, songs tend to transform over the years, especially when you’re playing live. When you’re making a record you’re almost living inside the song – inside those emotions. It then goes further and you put it into a live setting. It’s not necessarily about the thing that I was initially writing about; it has become a more fun take on that. Of course it’s still very much about that feeling of losing your mind, but as time goes on it gets almost grander, if that’s the right word.”

Going To Hell(Going To Hell, 2014)

Title-tracking their crucial second album, this anthem was written in the wake of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, which effectively destroyed the band’s New York studio.

“We lost everything. All the recordings, and all the gear. The studio was literally underwater. I’ll never forget writing this song – I spent 12 days sitting in my little shithole of an apartment with no power and freezing cold. I had just 12 candles – 12 days and 12 candles – and the song was written during that blackout. When it was finished it truly tied the album together. It was the title and the song that suddenly made all the other songs make sense, a fortunate burst of inspiration at a time that was otherwise tumultuous.”

House On A Hill(Going To Hell, 2014)

A more sensitive track and an epic departure for the band, here was a song that captured the political fire of its day.

“The world felt like it was in a chaotic place, and House On A Hill came from living in New York and feeding off the vibe and the energy of the people. There was a feeling of a great imbalance of power – you could almost sense that a revolt of some sort was going to happen. It felt like there was a weight on the world. The song is based on how people deal with inequality – and where that takes us in our lives.”

Take Me Down(Who You Selling For, 2016)

This organic blues and gospel-fuelled number revisits rock’s age-old story of making a deal with the Devil at a crossroads…

“I didn’t actually sell my soul to the Devil, but I definitely did give my life to rock’n’roll. I love the video for this – it was directed by Meiert Avis, a dear friend who also directed the video for Audioslave’s Like A Stone. This song was a departure for us – we wanted to create more of a band dynamic. A lot of it was recorded live. On Take Me Down we all just jammed it out in one room, kinda what rock’n’roll should be. It captures a mood that can’t be imitated. That vocal is actually just my demo. I was sitting in the studio just singing along – I tried it later but I couldn’t beat that initial take.”

Oh My God(Who You Selling For, 2016)

With Soundgarden and Nirvana clear in its genes, a bottle of pure rage and self-doubt gets uncorked in spectacular, stress-relieving fashion...

“I was lashing out in frustration, and songs that come this easily are few. It was like a journal entry where I was clearly in a state of some sort. I gave the words to the band and we worked on making a song that sounded how I felt. It has a lot of different emotions – anger, aggression, confusion and self-doubt. But it’s also a fun song to play live because I just get to scream it all out.”

We Will Rock You (with In This Moment and Lzzy Hale)(Mother by In This Moment, 2020)

There’s a Queen influence evident in The Pretty Reckless hit Heaven Knows, so when Taylor was offered a chance to sing on this cover of a classic, she didn’t have to think for long...

“I’ve known Maria [Brink] and Lzzy for a long time. Maria told me they were doing this cover for their new record and would I wanna sing on it. I was like, ‘Err, it’s fuckin’ Queen, of course I wanna sing on it!’ Do I like We Will Rock You by Queen? Of course! So I went into the studio, sang my part and sent it over to In This Moment. They then transformed it into the total gem that it is now. It has a different kind of sound for sure, and it was really fun for me to jump into their world for a short time.”

Death By Rock And Roll(Death By Rock And Roll, 2021)

The death of producer Kato Khandwala pushed Taylor to the brink of despair. The album that eventually resulted – and this title-track – was pure catharsis.

“When Kato passed I fell heavily into depression and substance abuse. To be bleakly honest about it, I gave up on life. The scariest part was that I was content to fade into nothing, but clichéd as it might sound, music saved my life. Writing is the place where I feel most free, and this song and album pulled me through into wanting to live again. The title Death By Rock And Roll is a phrase that Kato often used, and we ended up all saying it as a kind of motto – like a battle cry for life. When he died, that phrase resonated with me in a new way. And the first thing you hear when you push play – those footsteps – those are Kato’s.”

And So It Went(Death By Rock And Roll, 2021)

While the album also featured Kim Thayil and Matt Cameron from Soundgarden, on this belligerent firestarter no less a guitarist than Rage Against The Machine legend Tom Morello stepped up...

“You can tell it’s Tom – that unique sound. I felt this song was crying out for a solo by Tom – the voice he has through his guitar is so distinctive – and we were thrilled by what he did. Having grown up with a father who’d make me mixtapes, I then discovered bands like Soundgarden and RATM in my teens. It was pure and emotive and aggressive and sensitive all at the same time. The song is partly about young people taking a stand – it’s a different time period to House On A Hill, but history tends to repeat itself, and that’s also what made me think of Tom. You can sense that edge of revolt starting to happen again. I stay away from the word ‘political’, but it’s certainly social commentary.”

Harley Darling (acoustic)(Other Worlds, 2022)

There is beauty and humanity in imperfection, as this raw take on a song originally recorded for Death By Rock And Roll proves. It’s the most sensitive of tributes to Kato…

“It’s very much my love letter to Kato. We made it more of a duet, with me and Ben [Phillips, guitar] singing dual harmonies. It was done in one take, so what you’re hearing is essentially fully live. There’s also a new part in this version, because emotions are ever-evolving. Bereavement is something you never get over, but your feelings are continually transforming. The first time I ever sang that new part is on this very recording, and you can hear my voice crack. I bawled my eyes out after it was done.”

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