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Taylor Momsen: “While grieving, I was depriving myself of what I loved most. When I picked up a guitar and started writing, the floodgates opened up”

[L-R] Taylor Momsen and Ben Phillips of The Pretty Reckless
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Few fans of The Pretty Reckless were surprised when the band’s first album in five years, Death by Rock and Roll, debuted at Number 28 on the Billboard Hot 200 in February 2021 (the top-charting rock album that week). Anything less would have been a disappointment. 

Since releasing their first album, Light Me Up, in 2010, The Pretty Reckless have been on a steadily upward trajectory. They’ve scored four Number 1’s on the Mainstream Rock Songs chart, the most ever by a female-fronted band, and played high-profile tours with Soundgarden, Fall Out Boy, Halestorm, Evanescence and others. 

So the continued success of The Pretty Reckless is hardly a shock. What’s practically a miracle is that the band was able to survive a tsunami of tragedy and instability over the last few years and clamber back with their most personal, powerful album to date.

The flood of misfortune that threw The Pretty Reckless off course started after their highly successful and exhilarating 2017 tour with their heroes, Soundgarden. The last night of the run was in Detroit on May 17. After the show, frontwoman Taylor Momsen wanted to say goodbye to vocalist Chris Cornell. 

She knew Cornell didn’t hang out after shows and usually left immediately after Soundgarden’s set. So at the end of the concert, Momsen headed to the back door of the venue to greet the singer on his way out.

“I caught him before he left,” says Momsen over a Zoom interview. “We had a little conversation and he said, ‘It was fun touring with you guys. Let's do it again sometime.’ And then I gave him a big hug.”

Momsen pauses for a moment and softly coughs. “I still get shaky talking about it,” she says. “It was… It was all very normal. Then, I went to the parking lot and hung out with [Soundgarden guitarist] Kim [Thayil] and [drummer] Matt [Cameron] and had a normal, fun night. 

“We rolled out to the next city and when I woke up the next morning I went to the front lounge and everyone had their heads in their hands crying and they were looking at their phones in disbelief. That’s when I learned that Chris was gone.”

Momsen and her bandmates – guitarist Ben Phillips, bassist Mark Damon and drummer Jamie Perkins – did their best to bury their grief and continue touring for their third album, 2016’s Who You Selling For

They played summer radio shows in the U.S. and major festivals in Europe and wrapped up the year with a tour opening for Stone Sour. The Pretty Reckless took a break for the holidays and were looking forward to getting back into the rehearsal room when tragedy struck again – twice.

In January 2018, Perkins’ brother died in a car accident. But it was the death of the band’s longtime studio guitarist and producer Kato Khandwala (who also worked with Blondie, Paramore, Pop Evil and My Chemical Romance) that slammed the brakes on The Pretty Reckless’s career and led to Momsen’s three-month-long self-imposed exile from music and reality.

Khandwala, 47, had been like a fifth member of the band and played a major role in shaping their sound. He was also a close personal friend and his death from a motorcycle accident on April 25, 2018, shattered The Pretty Reckless, especially Phillips and Momsen. 

Phillips, who had worked on songs with Khandwala before meeting Momsen in 2009, felt lost and was unsure he would still be able to write without Khandwala’s guidance and friendship. 

Kato and I always shared guitar jobs in this band; he was the second guitarist. It was very much an Angus/Malcolm Young situation

Ben Phillips

“We really didn’t know if we could continue as a band,” Phillips says. “Kato and I always shared guitar jobs in this band; he was the second guitarist. It was very much an Angus/Malcolm Young situation. 

“I moved into songwriting so quickly when I was younger, and guitar became more of a vehicle for me to write than an instrument to really learn. And then I got into lead guitar and that became more important for me as a vehicle for creativity. Kato was totally supportive of whatever I wanted to do and always complimented that. For a while, I couldn’t believe he was gone. I still can’t.”

Momsen was equally devastated. Having left a career as a successful child actor to chase her dream of being a professional musician – trading in Hollywood sets for rock ’n’ roll stages – the instability and danger of rock was suddenly no longer alluring, exciting or escapist. It was real, raw and inescapably painful.

Even though Phillips is generally quiet and laconic and Momsen much more of an extrovert, the two have always been close. Yet after Khandwala died they separated for a while and dealt with their loss in different ways. 

Phillips tried to stabilize his environment by spending time with friends and family and regularly picking up his guitar to try out new ideas. By contrast, Momsen turned away from music, becoming unstable and self-destructive to try to obliterate the pain.

“I fell into this extraordinarily dark hole of depression for a long time,” she says. “I was devastated by loss and grief and trauma, so I just checked out. Even thinking about music caused too many painful memories. Everything brought up something that I wasn't ready to deal with, and things turned dark very quickly.”

Looking back, Momsen says her gradual decline started with Cornell’s death, though, at the time, she hid her pain as best she could. “I know now that I was not emotionally prepared to handle Chris’s death and that took me into the start of a tailspin of me falling apart,” she says. 

Normally, when you write a record you're searching for inspiration and you never really know where that's going to come from, and that it can make it a very kind of torturous process because there's no real way to force it

Taylor Momsen

“The bookend of that was Kato, which was the real nail in the coffin. After that, I just said, ‘Everything I love is dead, so what's the point of anything?’ Since I was so depressed there was substance abuse, which is just a part of what came with all the loss, grief and trauma. I wasn’t suicidal. In the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to figure things out and get back out there, but I wasn’t ready yet.”

With Momsen MIA, Phillips started looking for a new producer with whom to collaborate. He immediately thought of Jonathan Wyman, a childhood friend who made records in Los Angeles and New York before giving up on the music business to move to Maine with his wife. 

Phillips had no idea if Wyman would be interested in jumping back into the fire, but when he called Wyman, the producer was intrigued about working on an album, especially with an old friend. But he wanted to work near his home, so Phillips flew to the East Coast and he and Wyman entered Halo Studios near Portland, Maine, and began to work on Death by Rock and Roll

Having plenty to express, ideas flowed like water from a stream, yet almost two years passed from the time the first drum track was recorded and the album was released.

At first, Momsen didn’t want to work with Phillips in Maine and couldn’t stand the thought of shaping songs with another producer. So she didn’t work on music at all. She didn’t even listen to it. The art form that had given her so much joy had become an unbearable source of pain, and in her hazy state, she felt betrayed and abandoned by what had formerly been her greatest passion.

“I really didn’t know how to get back to where I was, and I didn’t really know if I wanted to because I didn’t care anymore,” she says. “I had given up and become content sitting on my couch and kind of fading into nothing. And that's a very dangerous headspace to stay in for too long.”

After living in a self-imposed wasteland for a few months, Momsen inexplicably had a burning desire to listen to music again. She started where she first began – with the Beatles – and slowly evolved through Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and others. The more she listened, the more she realized how much she missed hearing great songs. She also missed writing.

“It suddenly hit me that I had been depriving myself of what I loved most and I really needed it,” she says. “That naturally led me to pick up a guitar and try writing, and, as soon as I did that, the floodgates opened up.”

The process was therapeutic, and while many of the lyrics Momsen wrote were about loss, others were about embracing life. Similarly, certain guitar parts she played sounded sad, but many were aggressive and euphoric. And they kept coming and coming.

“Normally, when you write a record you're searching for inspiration and you never really know where that's going to come from, and that it can make it a very kind of torturous process because there's no real way to force it. You kind of just have to wait and pray that something strikes you. And in this case, inspiration smacked me in the face, like a brick all the time, and it just kept coming whether I wanted it to or not.”

Mostly, Momsen wrote on her Guild acoustic guitars and after she had a pile of new material she was happy with, she went to Maine and shared her new song ideas with her bandmates and Wyman. As helpful as Wyman was, his presence reinforced Khandwala’s absence, which led to a whirlwind of emotions from the musicians. Being back together opened old wounds. 

Their close friend was gone, and yet in a way, he was still present; they were using all his old gear, including Khandwala’s custom guitars, though Phillips also played his Gibson ES-335s and Les Pauls and Momsen played her Fender Telecasters and a John Lennon-style Rickenbacker. Ironically, it was Wyman who encouraged the musicians to slow down, take deep breaths and allow their emotions to work for them musically. 

“We were still definitely feeling bummed out, and Jon was very good at keeping his distance to the sensitivity of the situation,” Phillips says.

“At the same time, being very good friends with him gave him extra sensitivity and awareness of what we needed to do, and in the end having all that time opened up so many avenues we have not explored before. So it felt like this music was a gift and it was therapeutic to do – but at the same time it was torturous.”

Although Phillips and Momsen had an abundance of riffs and hooks heading into the studio, they had trouble assembling some of the passages into complete songs, which led to a frustrating but temporary creative impasse. 

Then, in July 2018, as Momsen approached her 25th birthday, she wrote the intensely personal 25, a semi-rock ballad driven by a repeating undistorted guitar line and marching drums before evolving into a roaring, full-throated chorus. 

As they worked on the tune, Momsen locked down the heaving rhythm and sang about the turmoil of young adulthood, and Phillips punctuated her riffs with echoing picked chords and a Beatles-inspired piano-inflected mid-section. The darkened room lit up. 

We write songs we like and then ask ourselves, ‘Who can we take this to that will make it the best it can be?’ And if it’s someone outside of our core band I’ll make a phone call

Taylor Momsen

Around the same time, the songwriters crafted the album’s first single and title track, Death by Rock and Roll, a Zeppelin-esque tribute to Khandwala that swings like a prizefighter and features a scrappy wah-infused solo.   

“The name Death by Rock and Roll holds such weight and meaning to me that calling the song and album anything else would have felt wrong,” Momsen says. “The phrase itself comes from Kato. It was the battle cry we lived our lives by; it means live your own way and don’t let anyone tell you anything different. You know, rock ’n’ roll till I die. When Kato passed, it was something that kept ringing through my head. I couldn't get it out so I embraced it instead.”

By late summer, the band synched with Wyman (though Phillips and Momsen took co-production credit on the album) and the songs started coming more easily and sounding more natural. When nearly everything was written, The Pretty Reckless decided to bring in some guests. 

The most poignant appearances came from Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil and drummer Matt Cameron, who added their trademark playing to the rhythmically angular Only Love Can Save Me Now. For Momsen, calling the members from Soundgarden was an obvious choice.

“The way I approached them was kind of a joke,” she says. “I went, ‘Hey guys, do you want to play on this? ’Cause if you don’t, we’re just going to sound like we’re ripping you off.’ So they took a listen to it and thankfully they said they’d love to be a part of it.”

To lend a more authentic vibe to the song, The Pretty Reckless flew to Seattle to record it at London Bridge Studios, where Soundgarden tracked their 1989 major-label debut, Louder Than Love. And as soon as they started playing, the song gleamed with new life.

“You hear it and you know right away who’s playing,” Phillips says. “They come in so uniquely and so amazingly and they sound great. That, in itself, was an amazing experience. It was definitely a highlight in everyone’s life, but it was also very emotional for all of us and it was kind of a double-edged sword.”

Another highlight on Death by Rock and Roll came from Tom Morello, who had a roundabout connection with Momsen, having met her when he played with Cornell in Audioslave. The two became closer when they both performed on Soundgarden’s Loud Love at I Am the Highway: A Tribute to Chris Cornell in Los Angeles in January 2019. 

Momsen asked Morello if he would play on And So It Went, a song rooted in ’90s alternative rock that’s embellished with a lullaby melody break and chorus of singing children reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2).

“We really connected with Tom, so I wanted him involved,” Momsen says. “But we didn’t write the song thinking he would play on it. We write songs we like and then ask ourselves, ‘Who can we take this to that will make it the best it can be?’ And if it’s someone outside of our core band I’ll make a phone call. 

“Tom was so correct for that song. We did our thing, and then he came in wailing like the guitar legend that he is, and the undeniable sound that is Tom Morello came in and brought everything to its full potential.”

When The Pretty Reckless finished tracking Death by Rock and Roll, Phillips felt emotionally drained and a little hesitant to unleash the music on the public. It was such a confessional project, featuring songs like the title track and Harley Darling, which were blatantly about or based on Khandwala. Though Phillips loved the music, it was hard for him to listen to it since the songs reminded him of his deceased friend.

“It’s hard to have a record come out that's missing one of its founding members,” he says. “So dealing with that is still a process for me. If I’ve learned anything it’s that I've got to get up every day, take baby steps and just don't look too far ahead in the future. For me, that’s the best way to try to accomplish the task at hand and hopefully get to love this album.”

Momsen relates to Phillips’ “baby steps” philosophy; however, she feels Death by Rock and Roll is a great accomplishment to be cherished for its sonic qualities and its authenticity, as painful as it can be to listen to.

“Sometimes it feels like a scar that’s always going to be there but doesn’t hurt the same way anymore,” she says. “It’s a part of me. Also, I know Kato’s presence is all over this album. 

"The songs were written from a place of missing him and what he gave to me as an artist while he was still here – and what he gave me as a person. And that stuff lasts forever. His memory is still here, and I think that's part of why I love music so much. Even if the artist or the person is no longer with us, the records live on for eternity.”

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Jon is an author, journalist, and podcaster who recently wrote and hosted the first 12-episode season of the acclaimed Backstaged: The Devil in Metal, an exclusive from Diversion Podcasts/iHeart. He is also the primary author of the popular Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal and the sole author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legends. In addition, he co-wrote I'm the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax (with Scott Ian), Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen (with Al Jourgensen), and My Riot: Agnostic Front, Grit, Guts & Glory (with Roger Miret). Wiederhorn has worked on staff as an associate editor for Rolling Stone, Executive Editor of Guitar Magazine, and senior writer for MTV News. His work has also appeared in Spin, Entertainment Weekly, Yahoo.com, Revolver, Inked, Loudwire.com and other publications and websites.