The Pretty Reckless: Tragedy and trauma, and the making of Death By Rock And Roll

A portrait of The Pretty Reckless
(Image credit: Century Media)

At just 27 years of age, Taylor Momsen is a rock’n’roll veteran. Her band The Pretty Reckless have released their fourth album, Death By Rock And Roll, a bold alignment of grunge riffs and classic-rock choruses that tackles grief, depression and survival with a clarity reaped by hard-earned experience. It’s the pinnacle so far of a music career stretching back to 2008, when singer Momsen formed the band as a 14-year-old. But she’s been in the limelight for a lifetime. 

Momsen was born in St Louis, Missouri in 1993, just down the road from the famous Blueberry Hill club. In her infancy her father Michael, a former Aerosmith roadie and Beatles nut, and mother Colette took her to see Chuck Berry on home ground. As well as inspiring her love of music, they also had ambitions for their daughter – at the age of two she was modelling professionally, and a year later, barely out of nappies, the toddler’s acting career began in earnest. 

“One of the things I am so grateful for is that it taught me to have a very strong work ethic,” she says. “I’m not sure I would have that if I did not start working at such a young age.” 

In conversation Momsen is bright, breezy and matter-of-fact, her voice low and measured with a hint of huskiness, often punctuating her thoughts with a quick, self-deprecating laugh. Today she’s talking from her home in rural Maine, on an island facing the Atlantic Ocean. There she is entirely isolated save for her dog and the local wildlife – she’s spotted seals, eagles, ospreys, foxes and skunks nearby. 

The remoteness suits her, allowing her to focus on writing songs. It’s something she’s always done, even when her acting career took off. One of her fondest memories of being on a film set was playing Cindy Lou in How The Grinch Stole Christmas when she was six, which gave her the chance to go into a recording studio for the first time, to sing Where Are You Christmas?

“My intention was never to be an actress,” she says. “It was just something I did.” 

A role as Jenny Humphrey in teen drama Gossip Girl followed. For wannabe starlets everywhere, she had it made. But for Momsen, she was betraying her true nature and at 14 she gave up the glamour of TV stardom for the grit of life on the road with a rock band. 

“My bank account didn’t thank me for it!” she says with a laugh. “But it wasn’t even a thought. When it clicked in my brain that I didn’t have to be in a television show, I didn’t think twice about it. I just followed my passion.”

Taylor Momsen on stage at Brixton Academy on November 26, 2014 in London

(Image credit: Christie Goodwin/Getty Images)

Producer Kato Khandwala was the key to getting The Pretty Reckless off the ground. A creative foil who introduced Momsen to guitarist Ben Phillips, he was “essentially the fifth member of the band [completed by bassist Mark Damon and drummer Jamie Perkins] and my best friend on the planet”, and also the person who encouraged her to take the leap of faith. 

Three hit albums followed. Then, in 2017, Momsen’s world fell apart. Touring supporting Soundgarden – her favourite band, alongside The Beatles – she found herself bonding with her heroes, thrilled to play for their audiences every night and to witness the Seattle legends in action. 

On May 17, after their show in Detroit, she hugged frontman Chris Cornell goodbye, ready to do it all again in the next city. By morning the news that he had taken his own life had broken. Devastated, and “not okay mentally”, Momsen immediately quit touring and headed home to try to make sense of it all. 

Eventually, after coming to terms with the loss, she started writing again. She called Khandwala and began to look ahead to working on new material for what would become Death By Rock And Roll (the title a mantra and running joke the producer lived by). But there was further tragedy to come. Shortly after their conversation, Khandwala died in a motorcycle accident. 

“I was done,” Momsen admits, her voice cracking slightly. “I fell into such a hole of darkness, depression and substance abuse. Essentially I gave up on life. I was so entrenched in all this sadness I didn’t know how to get out of it, I didn’t know if I would get out of it. And if I’m being frank, I didn’t care if I ever did. I quit life.” 

Retreating from the outside world, and in a dangerously bleak place, it was months before Momsen could even listen to music, let alone write. But when she did, the floodgates opened, letting out all that fear and anger, and the eventual search for hope. 

“I poured everything I had left into this album. I’d hit the point where it was either death or move forward, and I credit music to moving forward, because it was all I had.”

Those who are lost are honoured on the album, the sound of Kato’s footsteps introducing the title track, and Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil and Matt Cameron lending their unmistakable style to Only Love Can Save Me Now, recorded at Seattle’s London Bridge studio where they made Soundgarden’s major-label debut Louder Than Love

Artistic control over the record is something Momsen treasures, even down to the cover artwork, which includes a photo of her naked in a foetal position on a real grave strewn with moss and leaves. Far from being the idea of shady puppet masters looking to cash in on sexualised imagery, it was, says the singer, entirely her own vision for representing the songs she wrote while at her lowest point. 

“It’s really about rebirth,” she says. “The concept was: how do you represent all of this emotion and trauma and loss and everything that we’ve gone through in a photograph, and at the same time represent hope? And to me it’s rebirth. The nudity is one thing, but I’m nude for a reason. 

"When you’re born you come into this world with nothing but your soul, and when you leave you leave with nothing but your soul. I really wanted to represent that on the album cover, and create a visual that describes this record.” 

The meltdown of a former child star is one of entertainment’s greatest clichés – the tragic Britney Spears narrative the tabloids love so much. But there’s a sense that Momsen survived her darkest hour because she turned her back on it all in favour of the band. And while rock folklore dictates that 27 is the most dangerous age, it’s a year that’s given her a chance to make the decision to live, to thrive, and to follow her instinct in pursuit of happiness. 

“I turn to music and it’s almost like meditation,” she says. “Playing music for a living? That is not a job, that is a joy and a pleasure.”

Death By Rock And Roll is available now via  Century Media Records.

Emma has been writing about music for 25 years, and is a regular contributor to Classic Rock, Metal Hammer, Prog and Louder. During that time her words have also appeared in publications including Kerrang!, Melody Maker, Select, The Blues Magazine and many more. She is also a professional pedant and grammar nerd and has worked as a copy editor on everything from film titles through to high-end property magazines. In her spare time, when not at gigs, you’ll find her at her local stables hanging out with a bunch of extremely characterful horses.