Last year, Taylor Momsen tackled our Aftershow feature to reflect on her life and times in music. It has now been over a decade since the star decided to leave acting behind and devote her career to her band, The Pretty Reckless.
In the feature, Momsen talked about everything from the emotional trauma that inspired their new material to industry double standards and the importance of artists taking full creative control of their careers.
“It’s everything to me,” she told Music Week. “I’ve tried very hard to separate the business and the art because they’re not the same. They really have almost nothing to do with each other. It’s a constant struggle to find that fine line.”
Today (February 12) the group are celebrating the release of their brilliant – and cathartic – fourth album Death By Rock And Roll via Century Media, which features guest appearances from Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello and Soundgarden's Matt Cameron and Kim Thayil. Here, Taylor Momsen takes us deeper inside its creation…
What can you tell us about Death By Rock And Roll?
“I'm very excited for people to hear it because I really think it's the best record we've ever made. Honestly. I say that every time we put out a record, but I really think that we turned a new leaf on this album and it's something really special. I'm really excited to share it with the world.”
You have described the album as a rebirth. In what way specifically are you being reborn?
“Honestly? In every way. To give you like a little bit of a brief history, we went through a lot of tragedy, a lot of loss, a lot of trauma in the past few years. I don't even know where to start. Every time I do interviews now I feel like I'm in some sort of therapy session. We were on the last tour with Soundgarden [in 2017]. We were opening for them and so I was there that night in Detroit [when Chris Cornell died by suicide]. Soundgarden are one of my favourite bands in the entire world so it started with the highest of highs being on that tour. To be opening for Soundgarden? There was nothing greater than that. And to have it end so tragically… I spoke to [Chris] that last night, you know? It was the last night of the tour, I gave him a hug said goodbye and then got the phone call a couple of hours later and was just… Devastated is an understatement. I still don't have a good enough adjective to describe it. I'd never experienced anything like that before. It crushed me to the point where I cancelled the rest of touring. I wasn't in a good place to be public. That was just crushing on so many levels. I retreated home, I went, ‘I have to focus inward, I have to start writing’. It takes a while to process things, I needed space away. As soon as I started writing, we were talking to our producer Kato [Khandwala], who was very much more than a producer, he was my best friend in the entire world, a confidant and, essentially, the fifth member of the band. When we first met, we bonded over our love of The Beatles and Soundgarden. We were like, ‘OK, we have to keep moving forward.’ I started to write and finally had a couple songs and we were talking about getting back in the studio, and as soon as we got to a place of like, ‘Let's do this again!’ I got a phone call that Kato had passed away in a motorcycle accident. That was the fucking nail in the coffin. I went very down into a hole of just utter depression and darkness. And I had no idea how I was going to crawl out of it, or if I ever would. I didn't even really have an intention to… I gave up and I went, ‘You know what, I’m out – I don't know how to process or handle this.’”
How did you even begin to get out of that?
“There is no answer, but I realised that there's a lot of baby steps. I went so far down a rabbit hole of depression and darkness and substance abuse and all the things that come along with that; I didn't know how to get out of it. I was so down that I just went, well, 'I've given up at this point, so I'm just going to turn to music' – not with any intention of making it, I just listened to records. Music has always been there for me. It's my best friend because, in times of happiness and times of strife I can turn to music and it fulfills me in some way. I started to listen to records that I loved and that gave me some comfort and eventually that turned into me just writing. Not intentionally, but it did. That's how this record came to be. I just poured myself into music with no intention, other than, ‘It’s either death or go forward’. I chose go forward. It was not easy; to say I'm out of it at this point is incorrect. There are very open wounds that I still deal with on a daily basis. I know it sounds super-cliched, but rock and roll is really the thing that saved my life, literally and figuratively and all the ways that you can possibly say that. It is the thing that I turned to. And it's the thing that gave me hope and made me want to wake up in the morning. We had never made an album without Kato before. That was a big learning lesson for all of us to do this without our partner who had helped us for the past 10 years. Sorry, I still get choked up talking about it. I just think it really turned into something special. And that's why I said this is very much a rebirth for the band, because in a lot of ways it feels like the first record where we really had to learn to do this all over again. I'm very, very proud of how it turned out.”
If you sign an act, you're signing them for a reason, don't completely try to change that
Taylor Momsen, The Pretty Reckless
Only Love Can Save Me Now features Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron and Kim Thayil. That must have been a powerful moment for you…
“It was very full circle, very surreal. First of all, I love them so much. I loved them before I knew them, but now I know them very dearly. I'd written the song and I called Matt and I was like, ‘This song's begging for you guys to play on – it really needs you guys, your voices.’ We did it at [Seattle’s] London Bridge Studios, which is where Soundgarden made Louder Than Love. It was just a fantastic experience and it's one of my favourite songs on the record. I'm glad that through all this tragedy we've been able to create something new and beautiful.”
It was the 10th anniversary of your debut album last year. How do you look back on that record now?
“It's funny you ask that, I just listened to the first record Light Me Up recently actually and I love it. I really do. Because Kato is no longer with us, it's still a little difficult for me to go back because you have all the little memories that aren't good stories, but they're like flashes of images in your brain of remembering that time. Really, when I look back at making the first album, it's nothing but the most fond memory. It was so much fun. I was working on the show Gossip Girl at the time. I have no ill will or ill feelings towards it, but acting was never something I chose, it was something that I got put into at a very young age and then just became a part of my life. Whereas music was something that I had been working on since I was five years old. Like, the first time I went into a recording studio was with James Horner for How The Grinch Stole Christmas and I got the bug and was like, ‘This is what I'm doing!’ Music was always this thing that I was striving towards: to create the best album I could. You write a lot of bad songs before you write good ones, it's a lot of growing pain. When I finally wrote a record’s worth of material that I wanted people to hear and I met the right people it felt so natural.”
You spoke a lot about people's misconceptions of you when you made the switch from acting to music. How well understood do you feel as an artist at this point in your career?
“It's a good question. I don't know if you're ever understood the way you want to be understood, because no one's going to understand you the same way that you understand yourself – they're only going to get the perception of what you put out into the world, and a lot of that is skewed by the internet and by the twist of the headline or whatever. Especially in the beginning on the first album, there were a lot of misconceptions about me. My internet persona was not exactly representative of who I was as a person. It was very outrageous. Not that I wasn't a little outrageous [laughs], but I think I got a little bit of a bad rep. And really what I was trying to put out was, ‘Rock and roll's awesome! I think that there's a lot of preconceived notions about an actress trying to make a record, like, ‘Oh, now she thinks she's rock and roll and has a band’ and whatever. I learned very quickly to just tune out the internet and the million voices that have an opinion, because they don't know. I get questions all the time of, ‘Who is Taylor Momsen? Who are you deep down?’ Honestly, I pour my heart and soul into these albums, if you want to get to know me, it's all right there, it is an open book. Listen to the music and you'll know my whole life story. There's nothing fabricated about it.”
Finally, what's one thing the music business needs to remember more often?
“I want to word this correctly, I think that you have to remember that art is precious. It's sacred and you don't know where it's going to come from, or how it's going to come out, or what it's going to be. The industry can very easily look at it so much from a commercial standpoint of, ‘How can I sell, sell, sell, money, money, money?’ That angle of it is necessary; but you have to remember the artists it's stemming from. I'm not saying this is for every pop star on the planet, because everyone has a different career path, but at least for what I do, you have to remember that this is coming solely from a human being. And so remember the reality and try to stay in touch with humanity, because if you try to push an artist in a direction that isn't correct, whether that's left, right or whatever, and that isn't in tune with who they are, you're just going to come out with a shittier product. It's not going to actually affect anything. Work with the artists, not against them. If you sign an act, you're signing them for a reason, don't completely try to change that. What I would say to another artist is it will take everything you have, but stay true to yourself. And that will get lost sometimes; you'll lose yourself and be confused and not know where you're going. But really, when that happens, try to focus inward and hone what you're doing because if you're happy with what you're making, and it fulfills you, then however it's put out into the world, however it's received, however big it is, or small it is or whatever, you can look back and go, ‘I'm proud of that.’ The ethic I try to live by anytime something gets overwhelming is to focus inward and go, ‘What is the reason I'm doing this?’ The reason isn't for success, it isn't for fame, it isn't for any of that; it's because it's this primal core need to express myself in the most honest, creative, blatant way that I know how, and that's going to change over time. So I think what I'd say to the industry is work with your artists, and what I'd say to an artist is to work with your labels and work with the industry, but really stay true to you. I know that it's very easy to get lost in the sea of madness that we live in, but if you stay true to who you are, you'll always be fulfilled. And that's really that's all art is: it’s filling up these holes inside of you that can't come from you superficial things, they can't come from money, they can't come from clothes, they can't come from a big house, they can't come from materialistic things. It's deeper than that. It's soul. So just don't lose your soul, I guess.”
Subscribers can read Taylor Momsen's 2020 Aftershow interview in full here.