‘I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to make music again’.
The Pretty Reckless lead singer Taylor Momsen is admirably open about the loss and pain she’s suffered over the past few years.
Quite literally pouring ‘blood, sweat and tears’ into their new album Death By Rock And Roll, she’s been able to bring herself back from the edge and move forward in a way she was never sure she could after the loss of her best friend and producer Kato Khandwala, and her close friend, Soundgarden guitarist Chris Cornell.
‘We went through a lot of loss and a lot of tragedy over the past few years in The Pretty Reckless world,’ Taylor told Metro.co.uk. ‘A lot of deaths, a lot of hits. And I won’t speak for everyone, but I went very, very down. We were on tour with Soundgarden. If you know anything about me you know how much the Beatles and Soundgarden are my favourite bands in the world, so to be opening for them was the highest of possible highs. I couldn’t believe it.’
However, she added of one day during the tour: ‘I woke up to the most, I don’t even have words, devastating news that Chris had passed and it crushed me in a way that I can’t explain and I was not prepared for as a person.
‘I wasn’t in a good place mentally to be public. I cancelled touring, I went home. I needed to attempt to process what had happened and kind of get my s**t together, and as soon as I started to heal from that a little bit and do that – I was starting to write again, we were talking about going into the studio […] as soon as we started to get those plans rolling, I got the phone call that Kato had died in a motorcycle accident.
‘It was the nail in the coffin for me, for lack of a better term. He was so much more than a producer. He was a fifth member of the band and my best friend in the world. I can’t explain our relationship but it was so immensely close.
‘That was it, my life felt like it was over and I went very down to this utterly dark hole of depression and substance abuse and I was a mess. I was living in this hole of darkness that I was not sure I would ever get out of. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to. I had kind of given up on life, I’d given up on everything at that point – I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make music again. I’d given up as a person. It was very dark.’
‘It was music that saved me,’ Taylor continued. ‘I know it sounds really cliche but it was rock and roll and music that pulled me out of it and I eventually got to a place where I could start listening to records again.
‘I just started listening to bands that have pulled me through my whole life, and and that eventually led to me writing the album, which is different than our other records in a lot of ways, but one of them being that I really didn’t have to try to write this record, it just poured out of me. It was where I was at in life and everything that had happened, it was so ingrained in me and it’s so overtaken me that it was who I’d become. So this record really just almost the flow of consciousness. That’s what saved me.’
Aside from the tragic losses they had to come to terms with, Taylor and her bandmates Ben Phillips, Mark Damon, and Jamie Perkins faced the very real problem of making their first ever album without Kato. Taylor and Ben co-produced, pouring everything they had into it. While it was created after his death, Kato is everywhere on the album, most notably in the name, ‘Death By Rock And Roll,’ which was a mantra, or ‘battle cry’ of his, and at the very beginning of the record, which starts with the sound of his footsteps.
‘I poured everything I had into this album. It sounds cliche but blood, sweat, tears. I was at the brink of death, and I had to make a decision at some point, which was death or move forward,’ Taylor said. ‘And because of music I chose to move forward so this album very much feels like a rebirth.’
Two years on, Taylor says she’s ‘better’ but disagrees with the notion that you can ever ‘get over’ or ‘move on’ from such a profound loss.
‘Those are wounds and those are scars that are going to live with me for the rest of my life,’ she reflected. ‘I’m never going to get over it. It’s never going to go away. As time goes on, and as you start to heal, you learn how to live with those wounds and how to live with that pain, and it just becomes a part of who you are.’
Music has always been Taylor’s biggest passion and saviour, even when she was starting out in the industry as an actress.
One of her first ever roles was as Cindy Lou Who in 2000 festive film How The Grinch Stole Christmas, while she also saw success years later as Jenny Humphrey in Gossip Girl.
Although she doesn’t look back on it as an ‘unpleasurable’ career, the now 27-year-old describes quitting acting as the best decision she’s ever made for herself, after she initially had to ‘split her brain’ between making The Pretty Reckless’s first album, Light Me Up, and filming Gossip Girl.
‘The thing that made me the happiest is when I finally quit and I could focus on my true passion, and the thing I really always wanted to do with my life,’ she recalled.
However, she’s definitely taken lessons from her acting career with her.
‘Growing up in in the industry and working at such a young age, it did teach me to have a very strong work ethic, which I still value because I don’t know if that would have been instilled in me if I grew up in a different way,’ Taylor pointed out.
Although it’s taken her some years, she can also look back at Gossip Girl as the cultural phenomenon it turned out to be.
‘It’s kind of crazy to think that that was was so long ago and just to see how impactful that show was, which I don’t even think I really realised at the time, and realise what a cultural impact that show had and that I was a part of that.
‘It took till, like, now for me to now be able to look back on it and go, “That was a very unique experience.” I think it’s very cool that they’re rebooting it and I’m very curious to see what it turns into especially because the show was so based on, obviously gossip, pun intended. But the internet technology has grown and changed so much since the show last aired so it’ll be interesting to see how they take the new world that we live in, and transform it into the new Gossip Girl world.’
The Pretty Reckless formed when Taylor was just 14. From her young age spawned a fear that she wouldn’t be taken seriously in the industry, with the star even admitting that she’d struggle to take another young teen seriously if they declared they were the ‘real deal’.
However, she needn’t have worried. Over the years, they’ve built up an incredible fanbase, played all over the world, and poured their souls into their beautifully haunting discography.
But recently, artists have begun to wonder whether rock and roll is on the decline. The Prodigy’s Maxim told Metro.co.uk he ‘doesn’t know who the rule-breakers are anymore,’ while Noel Gallagher has been lamenting the lack of ‘proper rockstars’ in our day and age.
But Taylor doesn’t agree.
‘I think that we’re in a bit of a lull, but I think that, especially with everything that’s been going on in the world and stuff right now, I think that that resurgence of rock and roll is is certainly on its way,’ she explained. ‘It’s gonna come back bigger and better than ever because it always does. Rock and roll is cyclical […] I think we’re still just kind of in a transitory state of music. Rock and roll can never die. That’s what’s so great about it, because it encompasses every genre of music.
‘That’s why I love it so much. It’s the ultimate freedom as a songwriter because it’s jazz, it’s hip-hop, it’s rock obviously, it’s country, it’s soul, it’s pop. It’s all those things. And so as a songwriter, it’s the most freeing genre in the world because you have no limitations. I think that we’re in a transitory state but I certainly don’t think it’s dead. I think it’s just resting, and hopefully when it comes back, I would love to be a part of that resurgence.’
On a larger scale, the whole music industry is facing a lull in a sense, due to the complete lack of live shows resulting from coronavirus.
‘I just hope that the world comes back stronger and people continue to be more compassionate and more understanding and more open minded,’ Taylor said. ‘As far as the music industry goes, music can’t die. That’s the amazing thing about art is that people need music. You need it like you need oxygen and water and food. It feeds your soul unlike anything else.
‘There’s obviously a fiscal reaction, it’s taken some hits. But not to sound shallow or anything but that’s just money. Eventually that side of things will work itself out, because people need music. It’s a drug. It’s never going to go away.
‘Obviously I’m dying to play live shows. It’s the most bizarre thing in the world that Death By Rock And Roll is the number one rock song and we’ve never played it in front of a live audience. But when live music does come back and when everything is safe again and we have the situation in the world under control, it’s gonna come back, bigger and better than ever.
‘I keep saying it’s like tantric sex – we’re so deprived!’ she laughed. ‘Everyone wants it so badly that when it comes back it’s just going to explode.’
In the meantime, music is keeping us all going, whatever genre you’re turning to during lockdown. As it happens, plenty of artists are branching out and turning their hand to rock for the first time, most notably Miley Cyrus with her new album Plastic Hearts – and Taylor’s got some advice for anyone wanting to follow suit.
‘I think that I think that rock is the coolest thing on the planet. So if you want to pick up your guitar and write a song and crank amps and scream into a microphone, who am I to tell you not to do that?
‘The only thing I would tell you is, if you think your guitars are loud enough, they’re not. Turn them up louder.’
The Pretty Reckless’s Death By Rock And Roll is out on February 12.
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