Is it too early to start thinking about Christmas? With their brilliant new album pretty much finished at the start of last year but with no touring to back it up, The Pretty Reckless had to look elsewhere to stay excited. "I've been trying to use this weird, horrible time to inspire something different," says Taylor Momsen, speaking over the phone from her snow-covered home in Maine. Instead of dwelling on how weird it is to have released a chart-topping single that they still haven't played live, Taylor has released acoustic versions of their own songs alongside collaborations with Alain Johannes (covering Chris Cornell's 'The Keeper') and Pearl Jam's Matt Cameron (reworking Soundgarden's 'Halfway There'). There are still plenty more surprises to come, though.
"I don't want to spill the beans," starts Taylor before spilling them anyway. "But we've been talking about covering 'Where Are You Christmas?' [the song Taylor sang as Cindy Lou in the 2000 live-action film, How The Grinch Stole Christmas] in The Pretty Reckless style for years. It might be something that's in the works. Again, I'm not confirming or denying anything, but I'm putting it out there - 2021 is going to be a fun year." Here's hoping.
Her attitude of "in times of strife and struggle, you just have to find the positives of the situation you're in," wasn't just a lesson learned through lockdown anxiety though.
In 2017 The Pretty Reckless were on tour supporting Taylor's childhood heroes Soundgarden when Chris Cornell took his own life ("I'd hugged him the night before, it was devastating and crushing in ways I can't put into words"). Less than a year later the band's unofficial fifth member, producer and Taylor's best friend Kato Khandwala died following a motorcycle accident. "Those hits took me into a very dark downward spiral of depression, substance abuse and all the shit that comes with that," says Taylor. "I didn't know how to handle anything, I couldn't see a light at the end of the tunnel, and it felt like there was no hope. I'd given up on life."
"As cliché as it sounds, it really was rock and roll that saved me." Her ongoing recovery started when she began to listen to music and that slowly "brought the spark back to my eye". Eventually, Taylor picked up her guitar and after a while, started writing songs again. "Music has always been my salvation. In times of great joy and great struggle, It's the one thing I've always turned to. To this day, it's never let me down."
Making a new record "was the farthest thing from my mind," she says, as Taylor still wasn't sure if she had the emotional energy to continue with The Pretty Reckless, so she wrote for herself. "I had all these things in my head, and all these things I needed to get out." The catharsis worked though, and by the time she'd put her feelings to paper, she was ready to put the work in and make them into the best The Pretty Reckless record possible.
"I put everything I had into this album – emotionally, physically and mentally, so there's no way I was going to keep that to myself. Music has such a healing power. If making an album can save my life, then why would I not put it out in the hope that it will do something similar for other people. It seems selfish to keep it private."
Taylor is doing better now but knows "mental health is a lifelong struggle. It's something you have to consistently work on," which is why she was so keen to share those cathartic songs of death, life and rebirth. "I hope people can connect to it in some way."
Despite the circumstances surrounding the record and its oh-so-morbid name, 'Death By Rock and Roll' is actually a celebratory album. The tracklisting takes you on a journey from defeat to hope, and the title is something Kato used to say all the time, quickly becoming the mantra behind The Pretty Reckless - "I'm going to live my life my own way, I'm going to go out my own way, and I'm not going to let anyone tell me differently. Rock and roll till I die." As Taylor explains, "This record is very much an homage to him."
Despite her doubts about the future of the band and the painful losses now attached to it, at no point did Taylor think about going it alone, though admits that "maybe one day I'll do a solo record, but I'm not there yet. I never wanted to be Elvis Presley, I wanted to be The Beatles. You want those kindred spirits, that camaraderie and people to share it with. Ben, Mark, Jamie, we're such a family that if we weren't making music together, it would feel like a death."
After feeling like it was the end of an era and perhaps the end of the band itself, 'Death By Rock and Roll' is proof that The Pretty Reckless can endure. "We came out the other side of it all, stronger and closer than we were before," with their best record to date. "It does feel good to feel alive again. There are certainly moments in the past few years where we did not."
Ten years ago, The Pretty Reckless burst onto the scene with debut single 'Make Me Wanna Die'. In some ways, "so much has changed since then that I don't know where to begin and yet, nothing has really changed. The strange thing about rock and roll is that it keeps you young." The band's ambitions remain the same as they always have done: "continue to push yourself to be better than you are. Do that forever", and their desire to show, not tell, remains paramount to what they do.
"When we first formed, I was coming off of Gossip Girl and that tabloid fame. There were certainly a lot of misconceptions about me, the music and the authenticity of it all. There were a lot of people who doubted it, thinking this was some sort of fleeting vanity project." Taylor knows how it must have looked but also "the older I get, the more I look back on it and realise there's definitely sexism in rock and roll and there was definitely some misogyny involved in that stuff."
"There's no way to explain to people that it is a real deal, the only way to do it is to do it." So instead of arguing her case to people who'd already made their mind up about the former actress fronting a rock band, The Pretty Reckless recorded albums, toured the world, worked hard and proved the doubters wrong along the way. "There are no shortcuts in rock," she promises.
Despite a decade of unwanted opinions, Taylor's never felt like she's had to prove things to other people. More confident than she's ever been ("There's nothing more empowering than fronting a rock band"), she's still her "own worst critic, which is tough when you're constantly trying to push yourself and be better. You can't control what people are gonna say, or what people are gonna think so if you like my band, fantastic. If you don't, then there's probably something else out there for you. I don't do this for people to like me, I do this because I need to. It's who I am. If it connects to you in some way, fantastic, I did my job well, and that's the highest compliment you can get as an artist, but as far as proving myself goes, I just have to keep proving myself to myself."
Taken from the February 2021 issue of Upset. The Pretty Reckless's album 'Death By Rock and Roll' is out 12th February.
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