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Will the real Taylor Momsen please stand up?

A portrait of Taylor Momsen
(Image credit: Century Media)

On the cover of The Pretty Reckless’ upcoming album Death By Rock And Roll, lead singer Taylor Momsen lies naked on a grave. White hair flowing beneath her, gone are the eyeliner-rimmed raccoon eyes. Instead, it’s a stripped back image, one that radiates vulnerability rather than her usual defiance. 

Shot by Danny Hastings, who was also responsible for 2013 album Going To Hell's more provocative cover, Momsen is proud of what it communicates. “It’s an untouched photograph," she tells Louder over the phone from her home in Maine. 

"That was my intent, trying to show complete purity and baring myself. I wanted to express that you come into this world with nothing but your soul and that’s all you leave with, too.” She pauses. “I’m pretty proud of it, if I’m being honest.”

That vulnerability seems to be something Momsen is starting to feel comfortable with after a lifetime in the spotlight. Now just 27, she started a modelling career aged just two. She later became known as Jenny Humphrey, the Gossip Girl character audiences loved to hate, before leaving to focus on her music career, forming The Pretty Reckless and releasing their first album in 2010. She must be exhausted, we motion. “I don’t know if I feel older or younger," she replies. "I have experienced a lot. I feel like I have lived a billion lives. Some days I feel like I’m two years old and sometimes I’m 107. It depends on the day."

Speaking carefully but freely, Momsen’s answers are peppered with small, shy laughs. She’s spent the last several months locked down, leaving only briefly to film a music video for recent single 25. “I feel like I’ve been handling it relatively well, but I’ve certainly had my moments. I think everyone has their breaking point. It’s a lot! It’s a really fucked up year!” She pauses, before finding her way to a bright side. “I think this is a really humanising time. 

"Everyone’s lifestyle is different, and where you come from and how you’re handling the situation is different, but we are still all in essentially the same space and point in time together.”

The peace in Momsen’s voice is hard won after a painful couple of years for her and her band. The first blow came in 2017, when The Pretty Reckless landed a spot supporting childhood hero Chris Cornell. He died by suicide on the tour, shaking Momsen to the core: “After we were on that Soundgarden tour and we played the last show – when I woke up to the news the next morning I was beyond devastated. I still don’t have words to express how crushing that was. I couldn’t handle it. I wasn’t in a good place to be public. I removed myself from the public eye. I cancelled everything. I needed to go home and reflect on what had happened.” 

She fell into a deep hole, spiralling and cancelling any upcoming shows. In 2018, feeling ready to rebuild her life, the band started speaking to their friend and longtime producer Kato about the next step. Just as they had pulled themselves together, they got another tragic phonecall: “He’d died in a motorcycle accident. That was the fucking nail in the coffin I guess, for lack of a better term."

“I just went so, so down into this hole of depression and substance abuse. I was a train-wreck and I didn’t know how to get out of it, I didn’t know if I would get out of it. I didn’t care. I had kinda given up on everything. I was like, I don’t even know if I want to do anything ever again.”

Death By Rock And Roll cover art

(Image credit: Century Media)

Eventually, Momsen had to make a decision: “It was either death or move forward. Luckily I chose to move forward, but it was tough there for a while.” She’s candid about how much she struggled: “I was not well. I returned to music because it was the only thing I knew how to do. It’s the only thing in my entire life that’s always been there and supported me. I started listening to records that I love and started from the beginning again.” She sat down to write, finding that it took no effort – Death By Rock And Roll poured out of her, in part inspired by Kato.

The album is named for a song, the first single, that Kato suggested ten years ago: “He said “write a song called ‘Death By Rock and Roll,’” and we started it and never finished it and nothing came of it. When he passed it became very relevant again, and so we finished it.” 

The song starts with his footsteps walking down the hall. She’s insistent that it isn’t morbid, but an homage and an optimistic battlecry: “I have one life and I’ll live it the way I want.”

The band wondered whether they could even work without Kato – “the hole and loss was so grand”. They chose to, eventually finding a kindred spirit in the producer Jonathan Wyman. “He is the sweetest, kindest soul on the planet, a great engineer and producer, an amazing friend. We called him up and made the record in Maine,” she says, adding that it was the first album she and bandmate Ben co-produced. “He allowed us to be the train-wrecks that we were at the time and let us go through all the range of all the emotions and was so supportive throughout the entire thing. He really helped us to accomplish something.”

The album itself is classic Pretty Reckless: big guitars, old school rock'n'roll influences, with touches of jukebox Americana. But there’s something different, too, and maybe it’s the feeling of “complete rebirth” that she wanted to imbue it with. Around the middle there’s a turning point, with more vulnerable, personal touches. On 25, Momsen breathily sings of her disbelief that she made it this far: 'and all through my teens, I screamed that I may not live much past 21, 22, 23, 24.' 

It’s an honest declaration: “We recorded it right as I turned 25. It’s very much just an autobiographical song of me at my lowest reflecting on my life and trying to put that into music somehow. I’m really proud of that song. I’m proud of the whole record, but I think that song was a shift in my writing.” She calls 25 the first “stepping stone towards that light.”

Those moments of tenderness and reflection are wrapped up, of course, in the in-your-face rock and roll that Taylor Momsen has always loved. Cynics and critics have questioned her authenticity, and that of The Pretty Reckless. But ten years into her music career, it’s pretty clear rock runs through her veins. She’s dorky and obsessive, running through rock'n'roll history from the 60s through the 90s, sheepishly apologising when she hasn’t heard of a newer artist I mention. “I don’t pay attention to new stuff. It’s bad, I should,” she laughs. She references music with an ease that only comes to a true nerd, gushing about rock: “It’s ballsy and cooler than everything else. If you’re not afraid of it, you find the freeing aspect of it. Nothing beats it.” True to its word, Death By Rock And Roll is full of heavy guitars and snarling vocals. A true catharsis. 

In the last two years, Momsen feels like she’s aged ten. “They were extraordinarily hard. To the point where I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through them. I think there’s no way to go through that tragedy and trauma and not come out, if you make it through, not as a different person but with a new perspective,” she tells me. Her fight with her mental health is ongoing, but she’s learned to manage it: “If you don’t, it’s very easy to take a wrong turn and that can be hard to come back from.” 

She’s found that music has been her one grounding stone, holding her down to earth: “I can listen to music and it brings me back, almost like meditation. It brings me to reality and completely takes me away, too.”

Momsen is reflective, reckoning with thoughts she had long held. Starting her music career as a 17-year-old girl, she was often indignant about the idea that misogyny impacted her possibilities. With time, though, she’s reconsidered: “I was so in denial for so long about sexism, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realised it exists. Misogyny is a real thing, and it’s unfortunate that it is, but it is. There are a lot of shitty things in life but we have to deal with them, and hopefully we progress as a society and this becomes a topic we don’t ever have to discuss again,” she laughs. 

“I’ve recognised it more as I’ve gotten older that there is a boys’ club when it comes to rock'n'roll and it is a struggle to break into that and be accepted and treated with the same respect as if you were a man.” 

A portrait of The Pretty Reckless

(Image credit: Century Media)

Recently, Momsen appeared on Evanescence’s Use My Voice, a song Amy Lee wrote when inspired by assault victim Chanel Miller. Momsen is open in her adoration of Lee, who took The Pretty Reckless’ on their first big tour, telling me that Amy’s perspective on misogyny in rock is far “more developed” than hers. “I love Amy, she’s just the kindest person and so talented. We really learned a lot from that experience in so many ways. I have the utmost respect for her, I love her.” She adds that she was impacted by seeing Evanescence when she was nine: “It was very cool to have that be our first proper tour, suddenly I was opening for a band that I had gone to see with my dad. It was very full circle.” 

Understandably, after a lifetime of scrutiny, Momsen is at times reticent to answer certain questions, aware of how things can get twisted. She avoids the internet, finding that, “maybe it’s because of how I grew up, but it can get very toxic very quickly.” But she indulges more annoying questions with patience and grace. I ask her, is the 'Jenny died by suicide' line in Death By Rock and Roll a sly reference to her Gossip Girl character Jenny Humphrey? She laughs: “I’ll leave that to the listener’s interpretation.” 

She’s willing to explain, however, in far greater depth, why she feels that way: “I think it’s unfair to the listener when the artist explains things directly, I think it takes away from the magic.”

“Once you put the music out into the world, it’s so exciting, but on the other hand it’s almost sad. The body of work you’ve been slaving over is so precious and it’s so yours and so intimate, and suddenly it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It belongs to everyone else,” she pauses, “I think that’s the beauty of music but it’s a strange thing because it doesn’t matter what the song means to me, it matters how it connects to you and whatever you relate to it." She says that hearing Roger Waters elaborate on Pink Floyd lyrics that meant a lot to her once spoiled the magic: “Since then I’ve been very cautious to not over-explain. I really do think that it’s unfair to the listener. It’s not about me, it’s about you, it’s about the audience.”

A portrait of Taylor Momsen

(Image credit: Century Media)

Death By Rock and Roll is, conversely, a commitment to life. After a year relaxing at home and three years attempting to recover from a constant succession of blows, Momsen is aching to get back out on the road and see her fans again. “I get to go on stage every night in front of an audience who care and connect to music that I slaved over and worked over and hypothetically move them and give them the experience of a lifetime,” she laughs, calling it the “greatest job on the planet.” 

“I really miss it. There’s nothing else like it, that high that you get from playing a show, that adrenaline, that feeling. It’s the best drug on the planet. I feel like an addict and I’m going through withdrawal.”

The last few years have taken it out of Momsen, but she has come out of the other side with peace and an enriched perspective. That growth is audible as she speaks, and it’s woven into the fabric of Death By Rock And Roll. 

“You can’t beat that feeling of complete rebirth,” she tells me. Maybe for once, she doesn’t seem either two years old or 107, but a very wise 27. 

Death By Rock And Roll is out on 12 February via Century Media Records and is available for pre-order now