In May 2017, the Pretty Reckless were riding the crest of a wave. In celebration of their third album, Who You Selling For, the New York rockers landed an opening slot for their musical inspirations and friends Soundgarden on their U.S. leg. Just hours after their show at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, the band awoke to the news of Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell’s passing. Time stood still for singer-songwriter Taylor Momsen.
“Opening for them was the highest of highs for me, but it all ended so tragically,” Momsen recounts. “It was such a shock, and nobody was prepared for it. The passing of Chris Cornell was a very traumatic experience for myself and the world. I wasn’t in a good place to be public, so I said, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t get onstage every night and put on this entertaining rock show and pretend to be OK when I’m not.’ So I canceled everything. I left tour and went home because I needed to figure this out and grieve in my own time.”
Momsen retreated to process the loss of an idol she had shared the stage with the night before. When finding her feet again months later, Momsen contacted best friend Kato Khandwala, the band’s long-term producer and fondly recognized as the unofficial fifth member of the Pretty Reckless. Armed with a handful of song ideas to shape a future record, she aimed to return to the studio and create once again. As the plans for album No. 4 were set into motion, Momsen received the call that Khandwala was killed in a motorcycle accident.
“That was the nail in the coffin for me,” she says. “I went down into this spiral of extreme depression and substance abuse, and I was in a very unhealthy, dark space. I was in a hole that I didn’t know how to get out of, and the scary part was that I had no intention of getting out of it. I didn’t care. I’d given up on everything because if everything I love is dead, what’s the point?”
A domino effect of loss influenced Momsen’s inspiration not only to create music but to even consume it for a time. Rediscovering her love for music was the only way out.
The rejuvenation of Momsen’s inspiration resulted in the birth of the Pretty Reckless’ fourth album, Death By Rock And Roll. An existential contemplation and an immersive experience beyond their previous capabilities, the band discovered that the record—one they believe to be their greatest achievement to date—came to them quite naturally, often against their will, in the shadow of tragedy.
This is the longest break you’ve had between albums. Does that reflect in the music? Did that change your dynamic as a songwriter?
It took so long because I was dealing with my own personal shit that was no one’s business but mine. We really wanted to make something great and figure this out by getting through it physically and emotionally without dying. I personally hit a point in my life where I had to make a conscious decision between death and moving forward. I was in a very dark place, but I chose to move forward. I chose music, and I chose life. This record pushed my limits in every way possible. I put everything I had on tape physically, emotionally and mentally, so I hope people can hear that. It’s simply that life threw me a bunch of curveballs, and I had to decide whether to take them and run with them or let them destroy me. I chose to put it all into the songs because I went back to the only thing I knew how to do, and that’s the only way I knew how to find my center again.
The album features a touching collaboration with Matt Cameron and Kim Thayil from Soundgarden for the song “Only Love Can Save Me Now.” Did the loss of Chris Cornell forge a special connection between you?
I love them so much that I don’t even know how to express how much I care for them. They’ve been idols of mine for years, and Soundgarden are one of my favorite bands in the world, but we became very good friends on that tour. After we lost Chris, our relationship continued in a different way, and in one way, it brought us closer. Speaking from my perspective, getting to work with them again and record it in London Bridge Studio in Seattle, where they made Louder Than Love and Pearl Jam made Ten, to go into that place and feel the energy of the albums bleeding out of the walls, was immediately inspiring. Walking in with a song I wrote, hearing them play it for the first time and hearing it come to life out of the speakers was more than I could ever have imagined, and it’s one of the greatest experiences of my life. For me, it felt like a very healing moment that we came full circle out of all this tragedy, creating something brand new and very beautiful together. I think that’s a healthy way to handle loss and tragedy, to take something so awful and turn it into something beautiful. It’s certainly one of my favorite songs on the record, and I owe them the world for that. It would not be the song it is without them. When Kim played his solo, I don’t even know what he’s doing. He’s a wizard alien from another planet.
Speaking of collaborations and epic solos, you worked with Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello on “And So It Went.” Was that experience a dream come true?
Tom Morello is just awesome. We’ve known each other for quite a few years, but we lost touch. We rekindled our friendship at the Chris Cornell “I Am The Highway” tribute in Los Angeles a few years back. We were both performing with Soundgarden on the song “Loud Love.” When we were making this record, I knew this one song needed a solo, and I couldn’t for the life of me hear anybody but Tom Morello playing it. I’d heard him in my head for months and months because it felt very fitting for him. He has such a unique voice as a guitar player, and I couldn’t hear anyone but him. We demoed it and sent it to him saying, “Is this something you’d like to lend your magic to?” He agreed and recorded it at a distance, and he really did not disappoint. When he comes in wailing, he really elevates the song to the level it needed to be at. As a Tom Morello fan, it’s everything you want from a Tom Morello guitar solo.
You mentioned album artwork, and this is one of your most iconic covers to date: You’re as exposed as you can possibly get, laid bare on a gravestone. Does that soul-baring quality reflect in the music? What’s the story behind that image?
Album art has always been very important to me. I take all our record covers very seriously because it’s not just a photograph in a magazine—it’s a piece of art that’s going to last forever. It has to use one photograph to visually express everything you’re trying to say on the album and also has to make sense at the same time. You’re trying to connect the visual and aural emotional responses. My concept with the album cover was that I wanted it to be as pure as possible, as honest, raw and bare as possible, both literally and figuratively. The whole concept of this album was rebirth, so the concept of the album cover is that you come into this world with nothing but your soul, and you leave this world with nothing but yourself. It’s just a photograph, and that’s my favorite thing about it: It’s untouched. That was a real grave that was built as a whole production to get one perfect picture that encapsulated everything I’m trying to say on the record. The left side of the photo is a little darker than the right side, kind of representing the flow of the record where it starts very heavy and dark. But then as I’m turning my face toward the light, there is hope and light at the end of the tunnel. Everything’s very thoughtful, not calculated, but everything has an extreme intent behind it. I know sometimes in this crazy, fast-paced world we’re living in, those things can get lost, but to me, they are very important because that’s what’s going to last forever. I could die tomorrow, but the album’s going to be there for eternity.