Taylor Momsen has been through the wringer. The Pretty Reckless frontwoman and former Gossip Girl star just released her most viscerally personal record yet. Death By Rock and Roll might be stacked with hard rock songs and bangers. But it also comes from a place of deep pain, healing and grief.
“It was a very scary time for me” said Momsen in a recent interview with Metal Injection, “I was content to fade away into nothing.”
It started, ironically, with one of the best moments in Momsen’s life. The Pretty Reckless got the call that they booked to be the opening band on Soundgarden’s 2017 North American tour. Describing Soundgarden as “one of my desert island bands”, Momsen says the experience was “absolutely amazing…surreal. They always say don’t meet your idols, but then they exceeded my expectations in every way.” But things ended in tragedy after Chris Cornell’s suicide in Detroit on the last day of the tour. “It was the highest of highs to lowest of lows in the snap of a finger. It was such a shock.”
There was another year-long tour for The Pretty Reckless already booked. But Momsen soon realized this was not the right time. “I quickly came to the conclusion that I was not in a great place to be in public," she says, "I wasn’t handling it well. Just getting on stage and feigning my way through this entertaining show, it didn’t feel fair to the fans. It meant that I needed to take a step back, go home and get my feet back on the ground.”
The Pretty Reckless cancelled the rest of their shows and, after several months, began to work on their new record. But then, tragedy struck again. Kato Khandwala, the band’s producer since their debut, died in a motorcycle accident at the age of 47.
“That was the nail in the coffin," says Momsen, "I went downhill, into this dark hole of depression and substance abuse and everything that comes along with grief and loss and trauma…I went through a period when I felt that couldn’t listen to music. Anything. It all brought back these memories that I wasn’t ready to handle. And I stayed in that dark space where I was content with fading into nothing. I just didn’t see a future. Not in music. Not in life."
She continued "As cliche as it may sound, it was music that brought a light back in my eye…I (asked) myself ‘where did this start for you?’ The simple answer was The Beatles. So I listened to all The Beatles records back to front. Then I got into Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Cream, Neil Young, Oasis. It was at this point I realized I could listen to Soundgarden and have it bring me joy again. That was a big turning point. And naturally, the next step in that process was to pick up a guitar. After that, this record just kind of poured out of me whether I wanted it to or not. I didn’t try to write this album. This album wrote itself.”
In the middle of all this, Taylor Momsen sang at the “I Am The Highway” tribute concert, fronting Soundgarden for three songs. It was originally only one, but at the last moment Momsen stepped up to sing “Drawing Flies” and “Rusty Cage”. “There was no rehearsal,” she says, laughing, “We had jsut finished soundcheck. Then someone ran out and tapped on the car as we were leaving. He said “You’re singing ‘Rusty Cage’ tonight”. It’s very different knowing a song inside and out on record and actually singing it.”
Death By Rock n’ Roll was released this February, two years after Kato’s death and nearly four-and-a-half after Chris Cornell's. Soundgarden members Kim Thayil and Matt Cameron leant their talents to the song “Only Love Can Save Me Now” at Seattle’s legendary London Bridge Studios. This meant Taylor was writing side by side with her heroes in the same studio where grunge classics Louder Than Love, Dirt and Ten were recorded. The sessions were “the highlight of my musical life” for Momsen. She admits that “Only Love Can Save Me Now” is her favorite track off the new album, and that she felt it was a “cathartic healing moment.” that "helped close the circle of grief."
Soundgarden’s members give the track their all. Kim Thayil’s snarly squelching sound remains recognizable and unique. Matt Cameron (who has also been behind Pearl Jam's kit since 1998) is there to remind us why he’s one of the most respected drummers in the game. Momsen's songwriting and youthful energy bring the song to life. "The first time we heard it come out of the speakers, Kim's guitar and that first snare hit Matt does, it was unbelievable" says Momsen. This is no one-off. It is a stunning tribute from one of Cornell’s biggest fans and his most famous collaborators.
Death By Rock and Roll is out now via Fearless Records