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Cover Story: The Pretty Reckless

| February 28, 2021

The Pretty Reckless

You’ve got to hand it to perfectionist Pretty Reckless anchor Taylor Momsen. Aesthetically, the 27-year-old knows exactly what she wants, down to the smallest accent — the minute, meticulous attention to detail you rarely experience these haphazard, slapdash days. To summarize her quartet’s mortality-themed new album (now #1 on Billboard‘s Album Chart) Death By Rock and Roll, its fourth, she decided she wanted a single cover photograph. And not just some random one, but a Helmut Newton-edgy portrait of herself nude, recumbent over an actual grave, with her Rapunzel-length blonde tresses tastefully draped across any risque bits. To shoot the exotic picture, she chose classy shutterbug Danny Hastings, whom she’d worked with before on 2014’s steamy Going to Hell frontispiece. Then she laid out just what she demanded of the artwork.

“I took a lot of time conceiving this album cover,” says the ex-Gossip Girl star, who admits that her horizons clouded over after the 2017 death of Chris Cornell, who had just invited her group to open a Soundgarden tour when he passed, and the 2019 motorcycle accident of her longtime friend and producer Kato Khandwala, who first introduced her to band guitarist/co-writer Ben Phillips when she was still acting on TV in her teens. In mourning their loss, she sank into clinical depression, substance abuse, and lethargy so consuming that she could have easily joined the notorious 27 Club of dead rock stars herself.; She’s grateful that she’s survived to tell the tale. “But record covers are tricky in one way because you spend so long writing and recording a new album, so how do you sum up this whole elaborate journey that it took you a really long time to make in one photograph? It’s nearly impossible.

“So there are a lot of layers to this photo,” she continues, phoning from her hideaway in Maine. “Visually, I wanted it to be very raw and very pure and very vulnerable, but also very aggressive. I wanted it to show all the dynamics of the album itself in simply one photograph. I wanted to sum up all these things, but the word ‘rebirth’ kept entering my mind because this record feels like a rebirth in so many ways.” Then she got to thinking about how you’re born into this world naked, with nothing but your soul, and that’s how you depart it, as well — could that be encapsulated in Hastings’ frame, too? Along with the lighting, carefully morphing from shadow to candle-bright as it flickers across Momsen’s face? That would represent the dark to the uplifting lyrical arc of “Death,” from the title track (which opens with a recording of Khandwala’s footsteps) to the epic power ballad “25,” the gear-grinding grunge of “Only Love Can Save Me Now” (featuring cameos from Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil and Matt Cameron), the squealing Tom Morello-assisted, “And So it Went,” to the reverent coda “Harley Darling” (Momsen’s farewell tribute to Khandwala). And the photographer dutifully ticked off every request box.

“I loved working with him because he’s such an artist’s artist,” the singer purrs of Hastings, a successful video director who has shot everyone from the Wu-Tang Clan to Jay-Z, Eminem, and P. Diddy. “His whole goal is to see your vision through and not get in the way of it. So that’s a real grave that we built on a real set, and those leaves are real leaves. Granted, we did it inside a studio, so I wasn’t freezing my tits off, but it was all very real.” And if you thought that photograph was racy, she teases, wait ’til you get a glimpse of the one inside the vinyl gatefold. “That was the one that I really wanted to be on the cover, but for, umm, obvious reasons, we couldn’t do it, so we put it inside the vinyl edition.”

And if you don’t sense the sheer life-or-death gravity of what Momsen endured from either visual, read on. She’ll spell it out for you.

IE: Let’s fast-forward here for a second. Given that you’re entering your Renaissance period, and with all the streaming outlets like Hulu and Netflix out there looking for new content, have you considered going back into acting lately?

TAYLOR MOMSEN: Ummm, no. Sadly, no. That was such a past life of mine, and it was never even a true passion of mine by any means. It was just something that I did when I was younger, so it’s not something that I see myself ever really pursuing again. But — having said that — we live in really strange times right now, so you should never actually say never, because who knows what the future will hold in the long run of my life. But no, it’s not something I’m actively pursuing. I like watching TV — I don’t want actually to be ON it. I like watching the shows.

IE: What have you found yourself watching?

TM: I feel like I hit the wall a while ago, where I hit the end of Netflix, and I didn’t think that was possible. I’ve watched everything. I was really into Ozark when that was on — I love Jason Bateman, and I thought that show was just fantastically well done. Currently, I’m obsessed with WandaVision on Disney+ right now — I think it’s immaculate, and it’s something I look forward to every week. And I’m a huge Law & Order: SVU fan, and they’re finally starting to air new episodes — a new one comes out this Thursday, so I’m looking forward to that. But honestly, I’ve kind of hit the point now in COVID where — if I watch television at all — I’m kind of going back to comfort shows and a lot of comedy, things I’ve seen a billion times. Like, I’m a huge Larry David fan, so I’ve been watching a lot of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Seinfeld, Friends, all those Judd Apatow movies, like 40-Year-Old Virgin, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek. Just kind of what I consider to be comfort TV, I guess. And I recently rewatched The Wizard of Oz, which was my favorite movie when I was a kid. I loved it. I wore out the tape. I broke it; I watched it so many times. And Buffy the Vampire Slayer — I’ve been watching that again, and I’ve seen it so many times I have it memorized. It’s something that I can put on in the background while I’m making dinner, and I’ll know everything that’s happening, so I don’t even have to look at the TV.

IE: I’ve been fortunate enough to interview the late Chris Cornell several times over the years, and I have nothing but fond memories of that guy.

TM: That’s amazing. And you’re so fortunate to have those. Life is so precious, and the memories that you do have? You’ve got to hold onto them. And I feel like this record is such an homage to all the people that we’ve lost, and even if they’re no longer here, I refuse to let their memory die. That’s not how life should work. Especially when you’re dealing with music — music lives on for an eternity, and that’s your legacy. And God knows, Chris certainly left a powerful one.

IE: His gaze might have appeared downturned, but he was always watching, alert, and aware of his surroundings. Once in Seattle, he jumped up mid-interview, pointed out the window, and shouted, “Bald eagle!” And sure enough, there was our national symbol, regally soaring past in the distance.

TM: He was just wonderful. And he didn’t give me advice, per se, because I’m not one to walk up to anyone and go, “Do you have advice for me?” But we certainly had some very meaningful conversations. It wasn’t the first time I met him, but the first time I saw him on the leg of that tour, we were playing Indianapolis, I think, and I was sitting outside the dressing room with the band, and we were all just kind of hanging out, waiting for soundcheck or whatever. And it was outside, and the sun was blazing and beating down, and I saw this tall, shadowy figure start to approach, and I was sitting on the ground and looking up, but I couldn’t see who it was. And someone tapped me on the arm and said, “Taylor, sand up! It’s Chris! Chris Cornell!” And sure enough, it was him, and he looked like Jesus with the way the sun was illuminating him from behind. And he was just the sweetest, nicest, kindest guy I’d ever met, and we had a long discussion about music, and we were talking about Soundgarden’s new record, “King Animal,” and how much I loved it and appreciated it. He was just awesome. A once-in-a-lifetime artist and person — there will never be another Chris Cornell. Before we actually started that tour, we had the pleasure of playing with Soundgarden once before, when we opened for them in Quebec City to 90,000 people, which was just insane. But that was the first time I had a real discussion with him — it was brief, and I was probably too giddy. I felt like a schoolgirl, and I almost ran away, thinking, “Ah! I don’t want to get to know you too well!” Because you always hear stuff about making the mistake of meeting your idols. But once we got on tour together, not just Chris, but Matt and Ben and Kim were all just so incredible. Like, obviously, they were incredible musicians — they don’t need to tout their abilities or what they’ve brought to music which is just unparalleled because I think everyone knows. But as people, they exceeded my expectations of what I could ever have imagined, in my wildest dreams. They were the nicest, most genuine, down-to-Earth cool dudes, and we got along immediately, very, very well. And Matt and Kim and Ben and I have remained fairly close throughout the years now.

IE: You can never really predict the effect someone’s death will ultimately have on you. Compounded with Kato’s fatal motorcycle accident, Cornell’s passing pushed you right over the edge, right?

TM: It really did. Chris Cornell’s passing obviously was a tremendous shock. It hit me extraordinarily hard, in a way that I was not emotionally equipped or prepared to handle. I’d never experienced anything like that. And we were in the middle of a touring cycle at the time, so we played a few shows after he passed. But I came very quickly to the realization that I was not in a good place to be public, and I kind of needed to take a step back. I thought it was very unfair to the fans to have me get on stage every night and try to put on this entertaining show; when I wasn’t into it, I wasn’t all there. I felt like I was cheating them out of an experience that they deserve. So I got to a place where I went, “You know what? I need some time.” So I canceled everything, and I went home so I could process and grieve in my own time. And as soon as I started to get my feet back on the ground — I had written a couple of songs. I was calling Kato, saying we ought to get in the studio, that I had to record something to get me out of this funk — but as soon as I started to get those plans in motion, I got the call saying that Kato had died in a motorcycle accident. And that hit me in a completely different way, where I spiraled down so fast and so quickly that it was just a wall of blackness, depression, and substance abuse — everything that comes with grief and trauma and loss. And I didn’t know how to get out of it. I sank so far down so fast. But I think the scarier part was that I didn’t know if I really wanted to — I had kind of hit a point where I had just given up on life. Like, “Everything I love is dead, so what’s the fucking point?” Then I kind of threw my hands up in the air, and I quit. I quit life. And the scary part was that I got very content with just fading into nothing. I was very comfortable with that being my future.

IE: Were you living alone in Maine? With nobody there to notice your descent?

TM: No, I was living alone at my house. I mean, granted, the band lives fairly close — we’re all in New England. But I had isolated myself. I was in a place where I didn’t want to talk to anyone; I didn’t want to see anyone. I didn’t want help — I wanted to, not wallow, but just be alone. So anything from the outside world was too much for me to handle, and I got to a point where I couldn’t listen to music, and that was really sad for me. That was a bad place. And I mean anything — from Soundgarden to The Beatles to Led Zeppelin to whoever, everything I loved. If I put on any music — which has always brought me such solace and hope and light — it would bring back some sort of memory which was too much for me to handle, or too painful, so I didn’t have my outlet which had always been there for me. I just couldn’t face it. And I think I finally hit rock bottom of sorts where I found myself really needing music, in the same way, that I need food and water and oxygen. I needed rock and roll in my life again. So I started at the beginning, and it was kind of a slow process. But I started by listening to the first band I fell in love with, which was The Beatles, and listening to everything they ever recorded — all the records, then the demos, then the anthology, everything I could get my hands, and from there just going down the line of my musical history of all the bands I fell in love with. Like I said, Led Zeppelin, and then Pink Floyd and The Who, AC/DC and Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and The Doors, and Oasis and Bob Dylan and Neil Young. And eventually Soundgarden. I got to a place where I could listen to Soundgarden again and have it bring me joy. And that was the first little turning point, where I could pick up the guitar, which was the next natural step. I picked up the guitar and started playing music again, and as I started to play music again, unintentionally, this record just kind of…poured out of me. I don’t think I even had an intention of writing this album — it was like the floodgates opened, whether I wanted them to or not with this record. I didn’t have to try to write it — it was like a stream of consciousness that just flowed out of me, of everything that I had been repressing and holding inside, things I’d been denying that I was holding inside for months and months until they finally just overflowed. That’s really where this album was born. And when I finished writing the record, that was the big leap and huge step forward for me, where I really started to feel like myself because I turned back to what I know — writing songs has always been the place where I found catharsis. It’s always been the place that I can turn to to find my center and my balance. And without that, I was just very lost. But as soon as I went back to my roots and returned to that again, this friend in music that I had in music that had always been there, that’s when I started to see the light come back into my eyes again. So this record quite literally saved my life in many ways. And I think that one of the reasons that rock and roll is such a forever art form and it can never die is because it delves into subject matter and territory that other music doesn’t always do. It deals with things that are uncomfortable to speak about and maybe taboo to talk about and confronts them head-on in a way that can be very healing for the listener and really make you not feel alone in the struggle of life.

IE: Well, you’ve touched on this thematically and metaphorically, but have you ever gotten into Wicca or any kind of white witchcraft?

TM: Not really. I mean, I’ve got my candles and stuff. But I wish that shit was real. I watch Buffy all the time, and I wish I could be Willow. That would be awesome. If I could actually be a witch, by all means, I would be floating pencils left and right. But when I was a kid, I had sleepovers and stuff, and of course, you played all those games, and when we lost people, I certainly dabbled in ouija boards and all the spirit boxes and everything. But I never really got a response, so I kind of gave up on that side of things. But I do think the memory and the spirit of people live on in a way that we don’t understand. And I don’t consider myself a religious person by any means, but I think that we’d be remiss to say that we know ANYTHING. That’s why it’s so important to focus on the memory of people who are no longer here, because by talking about them and saying their name, you’re keeping their spirit alive, somewhere.

IE: And you get visited by them in dreams.

TM: That happens way too much. I’m kind of an insomniac, and I can’t sleep because I just…I have very, very vivid dreams that leave me in really weird moods when I wake up. And sometimes they’re great, sometimes they’re awful, and sometimes it’s way too much. Like, I’ve dreamt very vividly since I was a young child, and I used to keep a notebook by my bed because I would write songs in my sleep. I would just jot them down while I was still asleep and then wake up, and they didn’t make any sense to me at all.

IE: Like Seinfeld’s Flaming orbs of Sigmund?

TM: Exactly. And that’s something that I still do, and usually, nothing comes of it, except that it leaves you in some sort of weird mood that you can’t get out of until you fall back asleep again and then re-wake up for the day.

IE: You’ve always said that you’ve carried notebooks ever since you were a little kid. Have you actually kept all the notebooks? And how many are there?

TM: Oh, yeah. And at this point, I don’t even know where everything is — my life is such a clusterfuck of crap that I’ve held onto through the years, just boxes and boxes of notebooks somewhere. But generally, that’s not something I ever revisit. I always think that I write everything down, but if an idea is worth remembering, you’ll revisit it. You may have to go back and look for it, but that’s a good, steadfast kind of rule.

IE: There’s one thing I can’t discern because you’ve toyed with the imagery — what’s your take on motorcycles? Do you ride yourself, or do you avoid them like the plague after what happened to Kato?

TM: I don’t ride. But I don’t have a license, so that’s part of the picture, too. I’m working on it. But who needs a license when you can’t leave the house? But I grew up around that. My dad rides motorcycles, a lot of my friends ride motorcycles, so I grew up on the BACK of motorcycles my whole life. And they obviously come with a little bit of pain now, but Kato loved riding his motorcycle — that was something that brought him so much joy. So using that kind of imagery — especially for the single — I really wanted to capture that. Like, Kato loved AC/DC, and he loved some of that ‘80s rock, which isn’t really my thing. But he loved it, so the single cover for “Death By Rock and Roll” was very much an homage to him, where it’s a little glammy, and it’s a little outside something I would normally do. That’s where that image came from. But as far as the music, the whole record is an homage to him — it starts with his footsteps, it’s titled after a phrase he used to say — an ethic and code that we lived our life by — ‘Death by rock and roll,’ which is this battle cry for freedom, a battle cry for life. Just live life your own way, go out your own way, and don’t let anyone tell you differently. And then the record takes you on this whole journey, and then it ends with “Harley Darling,” which is very much my love song to him. It’s a very full-circle, full-story journey of a record if you take the time to listen to it from front to back, which I feel is very important. It certainly encapsulates a time in my life, from front to back, even in the way that it starts out very dark and heavy and almost bleak. And then, halfway through the album, there’s this kind of musical shift, where it starts to get a little lighter, and it starts to open up until you see that there is light at the end of this very dark tunnel and that there is hope. And that’s something that I hope people see and understand in this record — at the end of the day, I think this record is a very hopeful album, at its core. And I think that’s something that everyone could use more of right now, especially in these crazy times we’re all living in. Everyone could use a little more hope. And couldn’t we all use a little more rock and roll?

IE: You’ve said that your image has gradually changed from the stripper heels you used to wear as a teenager. Where is it now?

TM: Does anyone have a sense of fashion right now? Right now, my style consists of black tank tops, sweatshirts, sweatpants, socks, and slippers. But what I’ve been wearing recently when I feel a little bit more like a human being is, I’ll put on my boots and add a leather jacket and call it a day. But my style is always ever-evolving, just like I am as a person. And I think fashion and the way you present yourself is simply that — it’s a physical expression of how you feel, so I don’t ever really dress with any intent, other than that being how I feel that day. So my wardrobe consists of a lot of black, but that’s just because I never really have to think about it, especially on tour — everything matches. It’s all good! So I dunno. It’ll be interesting to see how my style evolves going forward. We just filmed three videos back to back, so that was a lot of fun — I got to play with fashion in a real way.

IE: That red dress was awesome — it twirled like a flower.

TM: Christian Siriano makes gorgeous gowns – he’s a really cool designer. And that was the perfect one. I tried on a billion dresses for that, but I put that one on, and I was like, “That’s it! There’s the magic dress! There’s the magic moment!” So filming those videos was a lot of fun, because that was kind of the first step back into the fashion world, for lack of a better term. It’s been a long time since I could finally get out of my sweatpants and into some glamorous wardrobe to accompany the story of these songs!

IE: Final comment on all of this: Having talked to you since the first album, when you already seemed like an old soul, if that was truly the case, this album and circumstances surrounding it are your midlife crisis, right?

TM: I mean, it’s definitely a quarter-life crisis. Do I believe in past lives? I don’t know what I believe. But I know that there are things out there that I don’t know, and knowledge comes in knowing that you know nothing. And I know that there have been certain meetings of minds and certain experiences that have happened in my life that are just too kismet and too weird not to have been predestined, where something magical has happened that is otherworldly. Like, when I first met Ben and Kato, that was an incredible moment for all of us, where we all felt like, “How is that I feel like I’ve known you forever? We’ve just met, and this makes no sense on paper, but we’ve all known each other, and we immediately had this bond and connection, like I’ve known you for ten lifetimes over.” And those kinds of moments are things that stick with you, and you have to recognize them and roll with them. I feel like if you don’t pay attention, they’ll float right by you, and you might have missed something really important.

Something that will change your life forever you know?

-=Tom Lanham

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