Interview with The Pretty Reckless — “I didn’t write this album, the album wrote itself.”

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After a tumultuous couple of years, where loss and grief took over, vocalist Taylor Momsen of THE PRETTY RECKLESS starting writing new music. As a result, the band released “Death By Rock and Roll,” in February 2021. We had the opportunity to chat with Taylor Momsen about the release. Read the complete interview below…

Hi Taylor! First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about the new record. How have you been?

Thank you for taking the time! It’s been crazy. It’s been kind of a whirlwind. I keep making the joke that I never knew I could be so busy without leaving my house (laughs). Promoting an album through your living room is certainly a new experience but it’s been interesting. All things considered, I’ve been really excited that the album is finally out and everyone can listen to it because we poured so much of ourselves into this record, we worked so incredibly hard on it and I’m so proud of it. I’m so happy everyone can finally share in that and hear the final result.

Yeah, it’s been out for about a week now I guess. How have the reactions been so far, have you been following that a bit?

A little bit, yeah, and everything I’ve seen has just been incredible. It’s been kind of mind-blowingly amazing. Everyone seems to really get it and connect to it on a deep level, which is the highest compliment you can get as a songwriter; it’s been amazing, it’s been absolutely incredible. It’s very weird that we can’t play it, it almost doesn’t feel real in one way, like because we’re not being able to play it live, the circle doesn’t feel complete. It’s kind of this very strange thing to put out an album and not know when you will be able to play it. The world will come back around and we just have got to play the waiting game until everything is safe and kind of back to normal and then we’ll be out there playing it. This way, maybe fans will actually have had the time to delve into the material and maybe know it all, which will be also kind of a new experience when we get back out there on the road where they actually know the new record and we don’t have to introduce it to them live for the first time, you know?

Yeah, I think once bands get to go back to the road, it’s going to be really insane because people are stuck at home right now. So, I can only imagine that your first shows are going to be totally crazy.

Oh yeah, I certainly hope so. I can’t imagine it being any other way. Everyone’s itching for live music, from musicians and myself – I’m missing playing – to the fans as well, going to shows. We are all missing that kind of symbiotic in-person relationship that you get from a live show that you can’t get virtually, that has to be in real life, in real-time. One day, soon… (laughs)

So, considering this album felt like it’s one of your most personal records to date, were you nervous at all about releasing it?

Well, I don’t think nervous is the right word. I don’t think I’m ever nervous about putting out a record, just because I put it through a ringer, I’m not gonna release something, unless I’m 1000% behind it and confident. You know, I don’t make music for the public, I make music for myself. Once I make something that I’m extraordinarily proud of, that’s when I decide to release it to the world. So, nervous isn’t the right word but you know, it still comes with a little bit of anxiety, not knowing… Because the songs are like my children, I raise them and I gave birth to them. I always say that putting out an album is like sending your child off to college and going well I hope I did a good job, do me proud (laughs) because you never know what to expect. It always is such a heartwarming moment when the fans really connect to something that I poured so much of myself into. Yeah, it adds this other element of why it makes this all worth it, given that music has such a human quality in it that is unlike any other art form.

That’s a nice way to dive into my next question. Would you say that writing this album was for you some kind of necessary therapy to go through the grief you were feeling and the pain and do you feel like in the end writing this was cathartic to you?

I do. I think that we lost a lot of people very close to each other. Starting with Chris Cornell – we were on the tour with SOUNDGARDEN at the time and he was a huge influence on me and SOUNDGARDEN is one of my favorite bands in the world, so that hit me very hard. Shortly after that, we lost our producer and my best friend and essentially the fifth member of the band Kato and that was just… that was this kind of the nail in the coffin for me, where I went very downhill into this dark, black hole of just depression and substance abuse, this thing that comes along with loss, grief, and trauma that I then… I didn’t really know how to get out of it. I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to, I was very content kind of to fade into nothingness and I had kind of given up on life, I was at a very low point in my life. When I finally got to a place where I needed music, the same way I need oxygen or water to survive, I needed rock ‘n’ roll, so I finally picked up a guitar again, out of desperation, and it kind of opened up my mind to the idea of writing about everything that I had been going through and had been repressing for months and months and months. Just as soon as I opened, I cracked that door open, the flood gates just poured out and this album was there. I feel like in one way I feel like I didn’t write this album, the album wrote itself. I didn’t have to try to write it, it just poured out of me whether I wanted it to or not. It was this very kind of cathartic moment that was certainly the first step towards me really healing myself and getting myself back on the right track. So quite literally, rock ‘n’ roll and this album saved my life, as cliché as that may sound, that is the truth.

I was actually planning to ask you about that moment you were at your lowest, if there was a specific moment you decided to do something about it and start writing this album, but in your case, it was then picking up the guitar, so that’s actually really cool.

Yeah, it started with… where I went through a period where I didn’t listen to music at all. That has never happened to me in my life before. Anything I listened to and anything I put on just brought back some sort of memory that I wasn’t ready to handle or ready to deal with, but everything – even if it was a happy memory – brought me a lot of sadness. So I couldn’t listen to music for a long time and I finally go to the point where I realized I was depriving myself of something that has provided me so much solace and hope and life throughout the years and so when I finally kind of let music back into my life, just by starting my listening to the records I grew up with. I started listening to THE BEATLES and kind of asking myself, what made you fell in love with music in the first place, Taylor, what was the thing that made you want to do this and assessing my life, assessing where I was at and so I started at the beginning. I started with the first thing I ever heard, which was THE BEATLES and listening to every album they put out and all the demos and the anthology, watching every documentary and from that, I kind of just went down the line of all the bands that I love from LED ZEPPELIN, THE WHO, to PINK FLOYD and Bob Dylan, to Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, and CREAM, to OASIS and eventually getting to a place where I could listen to SOUNDGARDEN again and have it bring me joy instead of sadness and that was a turning point. That led to me picking up the guitar and just playing again and as soon as I let music come back into my life, that’s when the flood gates kind of went open and the record just poured out of me, whether I wanted it to or not, I didn’t really have a choice in the matter (laughs).

Do you think that listening to SOUNDGARDEN again sparked “Only Love Can Save Me Now” specifically, or was that just during the process that it came up?

That was just kind of during the process that that came up. “Only Love Can Save Me Now” is one of those songs that has come very quickly and for that one, in particular, I reached out to Matt [Cameron] and Kim [Thayil] when I finished writing it and recorded kind of a quick demo of this; the overall message and just vibe to the song dare I say it, had a very SOUNDGARDEN-esque feel. I thought that Matt and Kim are two of my favorite musicians in the world and they have such a unique and unparalleled voice and weight and power to what they do that is unlike anyone else and I just thought they would really take that song and elevate it to its whole potential. I sent them a demo and asked if you guys would maybe like to be a part of this and collaborate with me on this and here’s the song, I think you guys would really do this justice and take it to where it really deserves to go and they said yes and it was incredible. So it actually became – it was one of the first songs written for the album – but it actually became the last song to be recorded. Just because of the fact that I really wanted to record it in Seattle, so we actually flew to Seattle and we went to London Bridge Studios, which is where you know SOUNDGARDEN recorded the album “Louder Than Love,” where PEARL JAM recorded “Ten,” and ALICE IN CHAINS recorded “Dirt,” you know the list goes on and on of the iconic records that were made in that space. So you know to be there, not only be there, but also being there with Matt and Kim creating something new after all this kind of tragedy and loss and pain was just, it was just this very beautiful full circle moment that really kind of just hammered to the point that music has this incredible healing power to it unlike anything else in the world and it was absolutely incredible. Then on a light note, I love them so much as musicians, obviously, but also as people, they’re so awesome, they’re everything you want them to be and more. They’re just the kindest-souled people and just the most down-to-earth nice guys you ever met in your life and hearing the song come to life in real-time for the first time was just mind-blowing. The first time Matt hits his snare and the first note that Kim places on the guitar like the speakers just exploded, (laughs) it was phenomenal and the song really illuminated, we all kind of looked to each other, well this works. It’s one of those magical moments that happen very rarely in music and I’m just so grateful and thankful that they were a part of that, it wouldn’t be the song that it is right now without them.

Do you think that when you know the situation clears out a bit, you will ever share the stage with them to play that song live?

Who knows… I mean I would love to, by all means, I think that would be a really fun moment, you know they obviously play on the album, so I’m sure at some point, hopefully, depending on how the world goes at some point in time, we will all be on that stage playing that song one way or the other. I’m sure we would all love that.

In some interviews I watched, you also mention how the order of the album goes from dark to light. I remember somewhere that it was mentioned that “25” was one of the first songs you wrote, but I was wondering, during the process itself, do you feel like you first wrote the kind of darker songs and then as you started to progress the lighter songs came or how do you think it went?

Not really. I don’t think it went like that. They weren’t written in the order that the album is tracklisted, but they were written in a semblance of kind of how my brain works and that’s why the tracklisting is so important as it kind of takes you on this full circle journey that starts very dark and very bleak and very heavy and about halfway through there’s this kind of musical shift that shows that there is light at the end of the tunnel and there is hope if you are willing to see it. That was something that was important to me to convey on this record. It really tells a story and it takes you on a journey if you are willing to go on that ride with me. I think that at the end of the day, this record is actually a hopeful album and I hope that it can provide some solace to people who might need that in the same way the records that I loved have provided to me, you know, especially right now in these crazy times we are living in right now, everyone can use a little bit more hope and I always think that everyone can always use a little more rock ‘n’ roll, right? So, why not put out an album even though we can’t tour it and we don’t exactly know what the future holds, like I think people need music now more than ever.

Yeah, that’s true. So, what I also thought was really interesting in the album was the way it opens, you hear footsteps. I read that it’s Kato’s footsteps. How did you come up with that idea?

Well, I mean, it came from a lot of places, but we had to do some digging to find out those were actually his footsteps. We recorded them way back in 2008-2009 from when we were recording the first album “Light Me Up,” but it was very important to me that the line “Death By Rock and Roll” that was Kato‘s line, that was Kato‘s phrase, it was this ethic that we lived our life by that death by rock ‘n’ roll is the ultimate freedom, live life your own way, go out your own way, don’t let anyone make you do otherwise. It’s pretty much a battle cry for life and so when he passed, that phrase resonated with me in a whole new way and it was very important to me that he’s still part of this record, you know, he’s a part of this band even though he’s no longer with us, I refuse to let his memory die. Having the record open with his footsteps… and not only his foosteps, if you turn that shit up really loud, you can hear him breathing in it, it’s just very important that he was a part of it even if he wasn’t physically here for it.

Okay, yeah, I need to blast it louder, I didn’t hear the breathing, but I’m really interested to go back now. Anyway, there were also some other songs that really spoke to me in a way. I felt like… not that they were inspired by movies, but they had this kind of atmosphere to it… for instance, “25” could be like this James Bond song, in my opinion, and also the shortest song, “Broomsticks,” felt like this kind of Tim Burton kind of song. What are your thoughts on that and do you feel like movies, in general, inspire you?

I think, you know, inspiration comes from so many spaces, all forms of art whether that be film or music or books or poetry or paintings or sculptures. Any form of art is art inspires art, so of course, I think that film has had an impact on me. Not even an impact, but of course, it’s a part of my artistic repertoire, so I don’t think that those, none of them were intentionally written through film, but adding a cinematic aspect to music is always something that I really appreciate and really love. It probably stems from THE BEATLES. If you listen to THE BEATLES‘ records, the songs and the production alone, it’s so cinematic and it takes you on this ride and this journey, just within one song in itself, like “A Day In The Life,” it goes in seventeen billion different directions and you’re constantly on your toes. That’s something that I really love, with music, yet it also has a very distinct and a solid story, and a solid point behind it and so that’s something that I like to explore with sonic landscapes, delving into a more cinematic universe, I guess for a lack of a better term, but still remaining very rock ‘n’ roll at its roots.

Yeah, I guess I can also see that a little bit in your music videos, because it feels like you’re this kind of band that spends a lot of attention to that as well.

Yeah, to me, the rock music video used to be something that was great and then I think that kind of dwindled over the years and I’m attempting to… Music videos are always a bit of a challenge because you spend so much time writing the song and conceiving of the lyrics and the melody and the production, all of that, and that takes years and then you have a music video which essentially happens all in one day and you have to somehow visually express everything that you have conveyed in the song and have it make sense and have it accentuate the song and not the track from the music itself but kind of embellish it. That’s always kind of a tricky thing to accomplish, especially with rock music because there’s so much movement in rock music, it’s not one stagnant thing. So, to get a video to flow with the song itself is always a bit of a challenge. That’s something that I spent a lot of time conceiving of all the ideas, how I want it to look and how I want it to feel, the emotions I want it to evoke, which is really just the song, so how do you do that visually. That’s always something that has been a challenge but it’s also a lot of fun. So at the end of the day, it’s also a music video and it just has to be entertaining. That’s what they’re there for, it’s there for entertainment. So that’s something that I spend a lot of time working on and working towards and you know, one of my goals is kind of to make the rock music video relevant again and bring it back to the mainstream of something that is not so niched anymore and something that everyone can understand and relate to and be entertained by.

Yeah, talking about that kind of sense of entertainment, I noticed in the lyric video for “Death by Rock and Roll,” there is a small reference to your character in “Gossip Girl” and I was wondering whether it was intentional to tease your fans a little bit, or was that something the video artist came up with?

That was actually something the video artist came up with (laughs). The “Death By Rock and Roll” lyric video was done by an amazing artist named Lucas David who we actually discovered on Instagram over 10 years ago at this point because he used to draw me all the time. I really liked his art. So, you know when the lockdown started and we couldn’t make music videos because no one could leave their house, it made a lot of sense to me, so I reached out to him and I was like would you want to, would you put your own spin on one of our songs? He did and it turned out very cool. That was all him, but the nod… I think some of the fans appreciated the nod, but I have got to give him full credit for that one (laughs).

It’s been actually 10 years more or less since you decided to put a hold on your acting career and pursue a career in music. Are you still very positive about that decision?

Hell yeah! I don’t think I was an actress, it was just something I always did, it was something I started doing when I was only like 2-3 years old, so it wasn’t something that I ever chose for myself. It was something that was just a part of my life and when I got to an age where I could make my own decisions you know, I was always personally and internally and privately working on music and working towards finding and writing the songs, writing the records, work with material that I actually wanted to hear, honing my craft and my art, and finding the right band members and meeting the right people. That’s a very rare thing to meet four or five people that you all immediately kind of click and there is this kismet symbiotic relationship and that feeling of I’ve known you my whole life and we just met and we musically understand each other and we personally understand each other and we’re best friends and that’s something you can’t force and you can’t pay for and it takes time. So when I finally found that – it started by meeting Ben and Kato and shortly after that I met Mark and Jamie – and it just kind of all fell into place. You know, once that happened, it was a very simple decision for me, of like I’m going to stroke this on this which is my passion and leave my other jobs behind and we’ll see where that takes me. To this day, it was the best decision I ever made for myself, I have been the happiest I have ever been. I am the happiest when I’m expressing myself and I can only really truly do that in music.

Yeah, I guess it’s been 10 incredible years for you. You also haven’t been on tour anymore since 2017 and I guess because of COVID-19, that became quite a long time now, are you looking forward to that moment when you’re finally going to be on stage again?

Oh absolutely! I don’t even know the penned-up energy of not being able to play live is like I dunno, I feel like a superhero that has a power inside of me that is just waiting to explode (laughs). Not being able to play live is just the strangest thing in the world, it’s like we can’t… it’s like being neutered or something, like we’re a rock ‘n’ roll band. We play music and we can’t play music right now and it’s very very bizarre, especially with releasing a new album and you know, “Death By Rock and Roll” was the number one song and we’ve never played it in front of a live audience before so how crazy is that. I still don’t know how to wrap my head around it. Absolutely, we’re looking forward to the day that live music is back in full force and as soon as it’s safe, everything is all good again, we will be out there and everywhere. As soon as we can, because we miss it desperately, we miss the fans, we miss everything about it.

Yeah, let’s hope we can go to shows soon again. Anyway, those are my questions. Do you have any last thoughts you want to share?

Just, thank you! Thank you for the support, we couldn’t do this without you guys so really thank you so much, for everything you have given us. If you haven’t heard the new album, please check it out and see if some of it or something on there touches you cause you might be surprised so give it a chance.

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