Taylor Momsen: "Guitars are like people. The longer they've been in your life the better"

(L-R) Taylor Momsen and Ben Phillips of The Pretty Reckless
(Image credit: David Wolff - Patrick/Getty Images)

“This had to be guitar-driven,” explains Taylor Momsen, when asked about the lead single and title track from The Pretty Reckless’ fourth full-length, Death By Rock And Roll. “You can’t have a song called that without a huge riff and big solo!” 

The new album will arrive in 2021, the New York City rock quartet having signed new deals with Fearless on home soil and Century Media for all other territories.

The singer/guitarist describes this latest release as something of a rebirth, following times of abject depression and soul-searching in the aftermath of losing heroes and loved ones.

First came the passing of Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell - who The Pretty Reckless were touring with at the time – and not long after that, a motorcycle accident taking the life of close friend/producer Kato Khandwala. After cancelling tours and spiraling into some dark places, it was music that saved Taylor Momsen... 

“I’d never felt like that before,” she admits. “I didn’t know how to process that grief and that loss. It took a long time. To make a long story short, it took music. Not even trying to write but just letting the feels flow out of me. I couldn’t hide from what happened, it was so ingrained into who I had become. I had to write about it, which is how this album began…

“I hate to sound cliché, but music really saved my life. I didn’t have where to turn or anyone to turn to and felt very alone, so I turned to music. It’s the one thing that hasn’t let me down. It’s my best friend, always supporting me. And Death By Rock And Roll was born. It’s paying homage to the loved ones and fallen heroes, taking listeners on a journey.”

What do you remember about that tour with Soundgarden?

“I still get choked up about it. When we got the phone call that we would be supporting Soundgarden, it felt like the highest of highs. We couldn’t have been in a better place, it was the coolest phone call you could ever get. And the tour was amazing - the shows were fantastic and the guys were amazing. 

"I’ve become close to them now, it was fun getting to know them. Chris wasn’t around a lot, he had his own rituals I guess, in the way he’d come in for soundcheck, leave, come back for the show and leave right away. He was in and out of the car and the venue. I didn’t really get to talk to him much, I had a couple of nice conversations with him…”

And you spoke with him on that final night…

I couldn’t get on stage and pretend I was okay or happy enough to be entertaining people. So I cancelled everything and went home

“It was the last show of the tour, I kinda knew his pattern by that point so waited by the back door to thank him and say whatever I was going to say. And I did! I caught him right before he got in the car, we exchanged some very nice words, I gave him a hug, he got in the car. 

"And the next morning I woke up to what everyone else in the world did and it crushed me. It really had an impact on my life. It devastated me.

“We had touring plans to go on and I couldn’t do it, I wasn’t in a good place. I couldn’t get on stage and pretend I was okay or happy enough to be entertaining people. So I cancelled everything and went home, needing time to process it all and decompress and try to figure what the fuck had happened. 

"Not to continue with the morbidness, shortly after that I was starting to get back on my feet and we were talking to Kato about going back into the studio. Then I got the phone call Kato had passed in a motorcycle accident. That felt like the nail in the coffin. I went way the fuck down into a hole of depression I didn’t really know how to get out of.”

(L-R) Soundgarden's Kim Thayil and Taylor Momsen

Soundgarden's Kim Thayil and Momsen (Image credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Chris Cornell Estate)

You were invited to perform on the Chris Cornell tribute night, fronting Soundgarden and other guests for Rusty Cage, Drawing Flies and Loud Love. What do you remember about that night?

“Oh man. It was an extraordinarily emotional night. There was a lot of weight in the room. I was so honored to have been asked to sing at all. Originally it was just going to be Loud Love, I flew to Los Angeles and that’s all I had to do. But there were some complications, a couple of people dropped out… I can’t remember exactly what happened. 

"The night before the show during rehearsals at the venue, Matt turned around to me with a list and goes, ‘Do you know any of these songs?’ And I said that I knew all of them - it’s Soundgarden - but performing them would be a completely different animal.

“There’s so much complexity in Chris’ voice… he’s unmatched! So he said it would be Drawing Flies and Rusty Cage. Bear in mind this is the night before the show! 

"We had one quick run-through and then it was time for the show.  I was a bit nervous I guess, to say the least [laughs]! But I was honored to be part of it and gave it my best in that timeframe. It was a very emotional night altogether. Lots of elements happening mentally.”

What else do you think made his voice so unique?

One thing people forget with great singers like Chris Cornell or Jeff Buckley is that no matter technique they chose to use, it still always came down to the song

“I spent my youth attempting to emulate Chris in so many ways. I really learned a lot just by listening to those songs, singing along and studying them. I don’t really think about technique so much. I’ve never taken vocal lessons or anything like that, so I don’t pick apart voices in that way. 

"But he had this way of crooning certain notes. There was this unbelievable presence and weight to it. It’s unparalleled… he was a god. He could do anything in the split of a second, it was always mind-blowing. I would try singing and thinking to myself, ‘How can I get even remotely close to that?!’ 

"One thing people forget with great singers like Chris Cornell or Jeff Buckley is that no matter technique they chose to use, it still always came down to the song. You can go up and down as much as you want with your voice or on your fretboard, it doesn’t matter without a song.”

Taylor Momsen and Ben Shepherd

Momsen performs with Soundgarden's Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd at the Chris Cornell tribute concert (Image credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

The Soundgarden connection doesn’t end there - you have Kim Thayil and Matt Cameron guesting on your new album…

“Only Love Can Save Me Now features Kim and Matt. We developed quite a friendship and became quite close after everything that happened. It felt like a natural collaboration. I had this song and called them up saying it was begging for them to play on it, sounding very much in their vein. Basically I told them, ‘If you’re not on it, we’ll just sound like we’re ripping you off [laughs]!’ It was really cool. 

“We flew to Seattle and recorded at London Bridge Studio, which is where so many iconic records were made like Louder Than Love, Pearl Jam’s Ten. I think it was their first time back since Louder Than Love so it was a cool moment for them to reflect on everything and amazing for me to see this song coming to life. 

"They’re so great, they elevate everything they touch. Kim is a master, there’s no one else like him. It’s quite an epic song, nearly six minutes long.”

There’s also another rock legend guesting on one of the tracks…

A lot of modern solos end up sounding, not to insult anyone, like practicing scales. How fast people can shred or sweep arpeggios can get a little redundant

“Yes, there’s a song called And So It Went with Tom Morello. I’ve known him for a while now but we reconnected at the Chris Cornell tribute – he also played on Loud Love and a few other things. Me and Ben [Philips, lead guitar] were talking saying he could play another solo… or we could call up Tom Morello and get that wizardry on there. 

"He is unlike anyone else. Like Kim, he has such a unique voice on guitar. You know immediately when it’s him playing. And he didn’t disappoint, it was everything you could want from a Tom Morello solo (laughs)!

“Both me and Ben love guitar playing when you can really hear the person behind it. A lot of modern solos end up sounding, not to insult anyone, like practicing scales. How fast people can shred or sweep arpeggios can get a little redundant. I like to hear people singing over their song, turning the guitar into another voice. Ben’s solos are not in there for no reason… they embellish what’s happening in the song.”

(L-R) Mark Damon and Taylor Momsen of The Pretty Reckless

(Image credit: Scott Legato/Getty Images)

What kind of gear did you use on the new recordings?

“I believe the title track solo was played on one of Kato’s guitars, a custom-built Telecaster which was really heavy. That said, we tried a billion things in the studio so maybe even Ben doesn’t know for sure. 

"We kept always going back to our main things - on tour we use Wizard amps made by Rick St Pierre, who builds amps for AC/DC and Jimmy Page. They’re basically the loudest amps you’ve ever heard in your life. You can barely turn them above three and can overwhelm any PA in about two seconds. There’s some Mesa/Boogie on there, plus a Naylor and a Carr.”

What do you look for out of a guitar?

“My main go-to’s tend to depend on the song. I usually go back to guitars I’ve had for a really long time. I feel like guitars are like people. The ones that have been in your life the longer, the better… because they are worth keeping around. 

"I’m kinda basic, I have my main guitar which I call The Punisher because it has a massive Punisher sticker. It’s an early 2000s Korean neck-through Tele that’s been really beaten up and the tone knob has broken off. It’s blend in really well with the rest of the band, it isn’t too overpowering. I’m also a little bit of a collector…”

(L-R) Taylor Momsen and Ben Phillips of The Pretty Reckless

(Image credit: Future)

Oh, do spill the beans…

“Obviously, I’m a huge Soundgarden fan, so for my 24th birthday my band got me the #24 model of Chris Cornell’s signature 335, which is an incredible-sounding guitar. 

"For my 26th birthday, Gibson were kind enough to send the new reissue, so I actually have a number 26 of that too! Both sound fantastic. I have a beautiful Rickenbacker which I love, I think it’s the 350V63 Liverpool in MapleGlo. 

"As for acoustics, I have a Guild that I love but I tend to use more beaten-up instruments for songwriting. I don’t want anything too fancy just in case I kick it over and smash it.

“For one of my recent videos I covered (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding using my beaten old piece of shit Ibanez from the local music store. It feels like a toy but I like it and it has a nice character. 

Music keeps the world turning… without live music, you need to fill it up with something else whether it’s recorded music or covers

"Music keeps the world turning… without live music, you need to fill it up with something else whether it’s recorded music or covers. I’ve been passing the time [over lockdown] by playing guitar. That’s been it really - watching TV, doing interviews and playing covers for fun.”

There’s a killer version of Halfway There you did with Matt Cameron…

“That came about because me and Matt had been talking about doing something to honor Chris. I love the King Animal - I love all of their records so when a new one came out I was very excited about some new Soundgarden. 

"It’s such a powerful song, the lyrics are beautiful and very fitting. Through lack of a better term, it was also my first attempt at a ‘quarantine video’ recording at home by myself and then sending it back and forth. To do one of their more simple and stripped back songs made sense. My approach with singing that one was, ‘Try not to fuck it up!’”

And how would you describe your approach to guitar?

“I don’t really analyze myself at all… maybe I should! I guess I try to let music flow naturally. I started out using guitar as a tool to write songs. I would hear things in my head and could sing them but needed something to express them. 

"That’s how it got started and just like anything, you grow and grow and start finding yourself doing things that you never thought you could. I really try to blend as a guitar player - it’s all about embellishing the song. I’m not into tricks or loads of pedals or crazy-technical parts.”

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Amit Sharma

Amit has been writing for titles like Total GuitarMusicRadar and Guitar World for over a decade and counts Richie Kotzen, Guthrie Govan and Jeff Beck among his primary influences as a guitar player. He's worked for magazines like Kerrang!Metal HammerClassic RockProgRecord CollectorPlanet RockRhythm and Bass Player, as well as newspapers like Metro and The Independent, interviewing everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy to Slash and Jimmy Page, and once even traded solos with a member of Slayer on a track released internationally. As a session guitarist, he's played alongside members of Judas Priest and Uriah Heep in London ensemble Metalworks, as well as handled lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).