For some, rock and roll is a genre of music. For others, it’s an ethos; a lifestyle. For Taylor Momsen – frontwoman of The Pretty Reckless and former Gossip Girl star – rock and roll is freedom. “It can be anything and everything you want it to be,” she enthuses. “As a writer, and as a person, it’s the most freeing thing to know that the world is at your disposal.”
‘Death By Rock and Roll’ might seem like a morbid title for The Pretty Reckless’ fourth studio album, but after over a decade in the game, it is rooted in Momsen’s attempt to regain control over the oubliette of the mind that she found herself in while grieving for both her partner-in-crime, Kato Khandwala and her muse, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell.
Both visionaries were instrumental in Momsen’s creativity over the years, and if it wasn’t for Kato, The Pretty Reckless wouldn’t even exist. “We met and there was this kind of otherworldly kismet spark where we all just felt like we’d known each other, not just our whole lives, but past lives,” she reveals. Along with guitarist Ben Phillips, the pair bonded over Soundgarden and The Beatles – both of whom Momsen credits as being the reason she fell in love with music.
When asked if she recalls the initial moment she’d heard Soundgarden, Momsen sighs with the weight of someone being asked to quantify grief, and proceeds to embark on a panegyric about music from the 60s to the 90s. Describing the 80s as a moment that pushed pop music back into the world after the rock renaissance of the 60s and 70s, Momsen says: “It became more about the image than it did the actual substance of the music. There were still guitars, but I think the lyrical content got a little fluffier.” She believes that the 90s were a transformative period that essentially wiped the slate clean and allowed music to be emotive again.
“It was so raw, honest and aggressive in a way that made everything else look stupid, simply by how pure and real it was,” she says. “That’s what I’ve always connected to from those 90s sounds of Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Mother Love Bone – but Soundgarden in particular – Jesus Christ, what a voice Chris Cornell has. When you listen to a Soundgarden song, you sit there and it baffles you for a minute.”
As somebody who idolised the band from the age of 12, it was beyond her wildest dreams to be supporting Soundgarden on tour in 2017. With Kato flying to every show as honorary member of the band, it felt like The Pretty Reckless were experiencing the highest of highs.
Following the “extraordinarily crushing” experience of Cornell’s passing in May 2017, after their show at The Fox Theatre in Detroit, Momsen had reached her lowest point and realised that it was detrimental to her health to be in the public eye despite the band touring in support of their third album ‘Who You Selling For?’.
After succumbing to the black hole of substance abuse and the darkest depths of depression, Momsen decided it was time to choose life; that the only way to bring herself out of despair was to throw herself into the one thing that truly gave her fulfilment – writing music. “I was at a transitory state in my life where I had to make a very conscious decision — because I was in such a dark place — to either make the decision of death, as in I’m gonna die with what I’m doing to myself right now, or I have to change and I have to move forward,” she says contemplatively.
“I didn’t know if I ever would [get out of it], and I really didn’t know if I wanted to,” Momsen recalls. Shortly after reaching out to Kato to get the wheels in motion and return to the studio, she got the call that he had been killed in a motorcycle crash. Describing this as the “nail in the coffin”, Momsen chokes up as she reveals that the world turned on its head and she wondered if she could continue living.
Kato and Cornell both passed within a year of each other and the effects were devastating: “I had given up on everything. I gave up on life. I looked around and thought: ‘Everything I love is dead. What’s the fucking point?’”
‘Death By Rock and Roll’ is therefore a eulogy for the ones she has loved and lost. It was a phrase that Kato had used time and time again, holding a distinct resonance with her as she embraced the freedom of his rock and roll ethos to “live life your own way; go out your own way”. In a sense, this is the mantra that has followed Momsen around her entire career, and even helped pave her own path as she tried to shed the image of her Gossip Girl character, Little Jenny Humphrey.
Back in 2010, after the release of The Pretty Reckless’ debut album ‘Light Me Up’, 17-year-old Momsen felt resistance from the outside world who were hesitant to take her seriously as a musician, and separate Taylor Momsen from her on-screen character. Adamant that acting was merely a day job in order to help fund her musical endeavours, Momsen held true to her passions and continued to look to rock and roll for freedom.
“If somebody believes something wholeheartedly, you’re not going to be able to change their mind, you’re just going to get into an argument,” she says. “I realised quickly that I wasn’t going to be able to convince people that I wasn’t a character on television by telling them I’m not a character on television; I simply had to not be that character and just be myself – I had to do the work and let go of trying to prove myself. I really found freedom in not listening to what other people say or think because it’s just an opinion that doesn’t hold any weight.”
While people resonated with Little J for her coming-of-age transformation from meek teen to Queen Bee, Momsen is personally inspired by a different Queen B: Buffy Summers. “She’s so strong physically and emotionally, with everything that she goes through in her life, yet she’s still so vulnerable… he [Joss Whedon] really captured humanising a superhero,” she says with fervour. “She’s extraordinarily relatable and this iconic idol that I look up to. I want to be Buffy! Doesn’t everybody want to be Buffy!?”
With that segue comes a snippet of the human behind the personae. Despite the warmth she exudes in conversation, there’s a subtle guard to Momsen. As a self-confessed “meticulous and calculated person”, it’s unsurprising that the woman who grew up in the public eye carefully chooses the parts of herself that she wants to reveal. This is why ‘Death By Rock and Roll’ is an unforeseen chapter in the world of The Pretty Reckless.
Denuding herself in the most vulnerable way, Momsen unravels and leaves no crevasse of the mind unexplored as she unconsciously reflects on suppressing her emotions in order to avoid reality: “I didn’t have to try to write this album; it just poured out of me,” she says. “If anything, I was probably trying not to write it and I got to a place where I just couldn’t hold it in anymore. It kind of overflowed.”
Rooted in the emotional density of trying to rebuild all parts of yourself no matter how ruinous, Momsen fleets between mourning (“All hope has died” – ‘25’), moral culpability (“We all sin, so why am I so guilty?” – ‘My Bones’), and sanctity (“I want to be saved” – ‘Only Love Can Save Me Now’). Despite the solemn and wistful undertones in ‘Death By Rock and Roll’, it is wholly imbued with survival, rebirth, and free spirit. In Taylor’s own words: it is a battle cry for life.
‘And So It Went’ – a collaboration with Audioslave/Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello – speaks to the notion of fighting to be heard after being misguided and mistreated, and ‘Witches Burn’ alludes that there was a sacrifice to be made in order to keep up with the boys’ club. Did Momsen ever look back on certain situations as a young woman, sharing stages with Marilyn Manson, Guns N’ Roses and Aerosmith, and wish that there were situations she could have changed? “I’ve certainly had my fair share of fucked-up encounters, but I wouldn’t generalise it as ‘that’s the way it is’,” she begins.
“People have been telling me for years that there is misogyny and sexism in music. I think the older I’ve gotten, the more I can look back on certain situations… Maybe someone said something to me that I took as a compliment at the time, and I look back and realise that it was a misogynistic comment that wouldn’t be considered PC now, but I never felt that in an aggressive way,” she continues before putting on her best Bob Dylan voice and admitting that times are a-changing.
If anything, being surrounded by a close-knit band of brothers, and being able to have a seat at the table with classic rock heavyweights, has meant that Momsen rarely feels the confines of gender when it comes to music, and in turn doesn’t want the responsibility of being a role model. “I’m a fucking nutcase – I don’t know what I’m doing half the time!” she chuckles. “My idols were men, and it’s not because they were men; it’s just because they wrote the best songs. I grew up worshipping John Lennon and The Beatles, and Chris Cornell and Soundgarden – it’s not because of what was going on in their pants, it’s because I connected to what they were saying and what they were emoting.”
Aware that there’s more female-identifying musicians than when The Pretty Reckless started out almost twelve years ago, Momsen is of course happy about progression towards equality, but she doesn’t believe that you should judge music based on gender: “You should judge music simply on what’s the best song/who’s the best singer. That should have nothing to do with your sex or gender… Good people are good people, and good musicians are good musicians — it’s as basic as that.”
By eulogising Kato and Cornell in ‘Death By Rock and Roll’, Momsen has achieved the pinnacle of what fuels her own listening desires – to create something that is complex and multifaceted enough that you might not understand it on first listen. Its secrets revealed little by little so you grow with it as a person; finding freedom in its message – much like the serendipitous way that she fell in love with Soundgarden.
‘Death By Rock And Roll’ by The Pretty Reckless is out February 12 2021
Like what we do? Support The Forty-Five’s original editorial with a monthly Patreon subscription. It gets you early access to our Cover Story and lots of other goodies – and crucially, helps fund our writers and photographers.Become a Patron!