It’s been over four years since The Pretty Reckless released their last album, 2016’s Who You Selling For, and while the pandemic can be blamed for 12 months of that delay, the band have spent most of that time unsure if they were even going to continue after a series of tragic losses.
In 2017 The Pretty Reckless were on the road supporting Nineties grunge legends Soundgarden, a teenage dream come true for band leader Taylor Momsen, but, after the last show of the run, lead singer Chris Cornell tragically took his own life. Momsen was crushed, cancelled everything in her diary, and returned home to grieve.
A year later as she was finally able to start thinking about returning to music, their producer, friend and unofficial fifth member, Kato Khandwala was killed in a motorcycle accident. “I was just extraordinarily depressed,” says Momsen who still struggles to put those losses into words. “I couldn’t get off the couch. I didn’t want to do anything.”
She did seek help: “Therapy can be really useful, but finding the right therapist can be very challenging and I don’t know if I ever did”. Instead she just “reached a point where I had to make a conscious decision to either continue sinking down this never-ending hole or attempt to fix myself. I turned to music, trying to rebuild yourself like you do after any sort of trauma, and it worked. Music was my therapy.” Starting with The Beatles, she went back and relistened to all her childhood favourites until “eventually it got to the point where I could listen to Soundgarden again and it brought me joy.”
That led to her playing her guitar for the fun of it, and then creating her new album, Death By Rock and Roll. “I wasn’t trying to write music, this record just poured out of me and I really do credit it with saving my life. Not to sound too heavy, but if I hadn’t written it, I don’t know if I would be here. I was not in a place of living but this record really brought me back to life.”
The album, a love letter to rock ’n’ roll, is the best thing The Pretty Reckless have ever done. A fiery blend of wailing guitar riffs, thunderous drums and Momsen’s fierce vocals, it’s a no-nonsense rock classic full of devil-horned ambition. Scratch beneath that leather-jacket-wearing exterior though, and you’ll find an emotionally charged record that tackles devastating loss (Only Love Can Save Me Now), self-doubt (Got So High), the chaos of the past few years (And So It Went) and eventually, celebration (Rock and Roll Heaven).
“There’s something very cathartic about knowing this record is coming out soon. I can almost breathe again, let it go and move forward,” she tells me over the phone, friendly and engaging despite a gruelling press schedule that’s seen her trauma regularly turned into headlines. “Some days I break down, some days I’m alright. I wouldn’t say I’m completely healed from those losses but I don’t know if you ever are. It’s a wound that you’re going to forever carry with you, but it’s how you move forward that defines you.”
Like anyone that deals with anxiety and depression, Momsen still struggles. “But I’m in a much better place and I hope this record can give solace to people who may need that. Even though this album is called Death By Rock and Roll, and it does deal with a lot of heavy subject matter, it’s also a very hopeful record which is something the world could use right now; a little more hope and a little more rock and roll.”
Formed in 2008, while the then 15-year-old Momsen was better known to the world as Jenny Humphrey in teen drama Gossip Girl, The Pretty Reckless were initially dismissed as a vanity project.
People were more concerned about what Momsen was wearing than the music she was making, she apparently struggled to get people to take her seriously as a musician. Even the network that broadcast Gossip Girl, The CW, released a public statement explaining: “The show will support Taylor and her music when the time is right, but her music is not ready yet,” in response to fans asking why The Pretty Reckless hadn’t been used on the show’s soundtrack. Ouch.
However, Momsen “never considered myself an actress, it was just something that I did. I started so young that I didn’t really know any different.” She’d always wanted to be in a band. “It started when I was very young, I was blessed to be born into a household that revered rock ’n’ roll.”
Momsen worked her way through her dad’s vinyl collection, falling in love with Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and David Bowie. By the time she was 13, she discovered the Seattle grunge scene for herself and added Nirvana and Pearl Jam to her lists of favourites. It was Soundgarden who “really struck a chord” with her. “Those songs connected with me in a way that no band has done since The Beatles. They’re my desert island bands, they’ve both had an immense influence on me.”
After years of balancing Gossip Girl with trying to start a band, Momsen eventually met guitarist Ben Phillips and producer Kato. “We all knew it was the start of something special.” Drummer Jamie Perkins and bassist Mark Damon joined soon after (the lineup remains the same to this day) and once she’d written “an album’s worth of material I actually wanted the word to hear, it was a simple decision to quit acting.” Fans of the show were shocked with rumours quickly spreading about bad behaviour, feuds with castmates and a brutal firing. Apart from a cameo appearance in the Gossip Girl finale, Momsen hasn’t acted since.
To this day, Momsen is thankful that the producers Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz were supportive of her teenage dreams, amicably releasing her from her contract so she could go and tour the world. Her character Jenny had been central to the show’s first three seasons, evolving from precocious outsider to rebellious High School Queen Bee, but was downgraded to a guest star for the fourth season before being written out completely by way of a placement at London’s Central Saint Martins art school.
After six seasons, Gossip Girl finished in 2012, but there’s a reboot in the works focusing on “a new generation of New York private school teens”. Schwartz has apparently been in contact with every original cast member though, leaving the door open for them all to return. It’s not an invitation Momsen has been waiting for, but recently she’s learned to “never say never. We’re living in the weirdest time right now, so who knows where life’s going to take any of us at this point. Acting is not something that I’m pursuing, I haven’t for over a decade now, but I do love Stephanie and Josh and I’ve remained very close to them. I probably do owe them a favour at some point.”
And as for the people that dismissed the band? “I learned very quickly to ignore the outside world. Instead, I put my head down and focused on being the best at what I was trying to do. That’s still the goal. The only thing that’s gonna bring you joy in life and happiness is trying to better yourself as a person. Other people’s opinions be damned.”
Recently, actress Evan Rachel Wood claimed that the abuser at the core of her 2018 Testimonial to Congress about surviving sexual assault was Marilyn Manson. Similar allegations of sexism, abuse and assault at his hands were shared by numerous people, including Phoebe Bridgers, Wolf Alice’s Ellie Roswell and photographer Ashley Walters. Manson has denied all allegations.
Some corners of The Internet have used a 2012 performance Taylor Momsen did with Manson as an example of his alleged behaviour, with the 43-year old spending the majority of ‘The Dope Show’ allegedly groping the then 18-year old Momsen as she apparently tries to keep her distance but keep the show going. “She looks so uncomfortable,” reads one of several YouTube comments about how uneasy the whole performance looks. “He’s such a creep,” reads another.
Momsen doesn’t feel it’s her place to comment on the allegations: “I’ve been in a promo bubble, I’ve not read anything about it so I’m not informed enough.” But she is adamant that you can’t judge a person by their art. “Those stories people are sharing may have happened but they’re very different to me performing with Manson. That was entertainment. Music and sexuality go hand in hand and you can’t judge a performance like it’s reality.” Cancelling art, she explains, “would be the death of society”.
Momsen knows that the rock scene has a real issue with sexism and misogyny “but that sadly exists everywhere. It’s an unfortunate truth, but I can ask any one of my girlfriends if they’ve been in a precarious position with a man at some point in their life, and 99 per cent of them are going to say yes.” She believes it’s getting better though, comparing the ongoing discussions about sexual assault and mental health to the social awakening of the 1960s.
“Any revolution is going to come with a lot of pain but hopefully we will come out of this having grown as a society. It’s very easy to get drawn into the negative side of everything, especially with this cancel culture you find on social media… There’s a fine line between revolution and anarchy.”
Perhaps put off by those early years under the constant gaze of tabloid papers, Momsen has no desire for celebrity and rarely uses her social media for anything other than talking music. “I’m a very private person. I’m actually quite shy, which people probably think I’m lying about because of how I am on stage. I’m not playing a character but there’s an element of performance that is very different to how I am now, sitting at home talking to you.”
Because of this, Momsen “puts everything in the music. That’s the thing that’s going to last forever. Twitter comments might stir up controversy or discussion for a minute, but I’d rather write a meaningful song than preach opinions online. I’m very fortunate to be in a position where my art can affect people and I want it to inspire something good, even if that’s as simple as picking up a guitar or expressing how they’re feeling. I would like to be an inspiration but I don’t know if I want to be a role model.”
As for being a rock star, “I don’t know what that even means anymore. I consider myself a musician and a songwriter. If other people want to call me a rock star, I’ll take it but I’m not arrogant enough to give myself that title.”