October has had its ups and downs, but a rock and roll high point will forever be chatting comfortably and closely with The Pretty Reckless’ Taylor Momsen. In actuality, there isn’t a better way to wrap up the month, with the band’s vinyl records on the way, a few NYC shows on the horizon, and a song on the top of the charts.
In 1973, David Bowie released the song “Sorrow,” which was originally performed by The McCoys in 1965, for his critically-acclaimed covers album, Pin-Ups. What the Thin White Duke did to the hit from middle America was expand on it, taking it from a barely two-minute-long folk pop track and turning it into a damning rock chart-topper. A string section and a horn section wonderfully illuminate the lyrical depth of the song while Bowie’s eccentric baritone voice sets the tone of the song. Creative, jarring, and exposing, the song is a vivid look into the importance of communicating with yourself as much as those closest to you.
“Sorrow,” as the title states, is a song about intense emotion and misfortune, but it is simply a blanket statement covering up the fact that there is beauty to be found within pain, inspiration gathered from struggles, and hope buried deep in distress. The late, great rockstar adds buoyancy to that sentiment through his effervescent crooning, but it truly highlights the fact that there is both worth and warmth in everybody, in our ever-changing society, and in this all-too-permeable world. It takes personal growth to find that in ourselves and in others. This track, in it’s 50-some aught years of being around, has never been more pertinent than when talking about (and to) Taylor Momsen. A one-of-a-kind artist, Momsen is a rockstar for the ages. She is a bit more metal than Bowie and certainly more vivacious than The McCoys, but the 28-year-old is the complete embodiment of everything the former sings about in “Sorrow.”
Using the opening line of the song to make said comparison is a cheap shot if you haven’t gotten to know Momsen and her artistry alongside The Pretty Reckless. “With your long blonde hair and your eyes of blue, the only thing I ever got from you was sorrow.” Yes, TPR’s front woman is bewitching to both see and hear with her own blonde locks and blue eyes, but it’s the overarching essence of the track that wholeheartedly explains the passion, prowess, and power of what Momsen has been striving to do since the beginning of her music career… something that makes the musician proud to see her own records in its physical, vinyl glory sitting in the crates at her local record store.
Raised on everything from Judas Priest to Lennon/McCartney, it was guitar-wielding musicians and head-banging performances that stirred the soul of a young Momsen. Good rock songs do that to a person. Great rock songs awaken something in you, though, no matter the level of skill, context of the track, or subject at hand. And, in reality, great rock songs are made by the great artists behind it – the ones who can convey their pain, their desire, and their truth through melody and harmony (and maybe a mosh pit or two).
Taylor Momsen makes great rock songs. She is one of those intimate, confessional, bold artists that the world needs to know. As evidently human as she is, she is also someone who you wouldn’t be surprised to hear has a Marshall amp for a heart. Like an amp, her heart beats fiercely and loudly, consuming her work in unimaginable ways. As David Bowie sings on the aforementioned “Sorrow,” “I never knew just how much I missed her,” which is exactly how we felt when The Pretty Reckless returned to the scene with Death by Rock and Roll this past winter.
This fourth album from the hard rock group stunned in more ways than one. Aptly dubbed by both the media and fans as ‘the album that keeps on giving,’ Death by Rock and Roll quickly rose to the top of the charts (brushing shoulders with Foo Fighters’ Medicine at Midnight), took over streaming services’ curated rock and rock adjacent playlists, and became an almost instant success for the band who were already a decade plus into their career. It wasn’t the easiest road to get to that point, though. If anything, it was the most harrowing and haunting highway, and, for better or for worse, one that needed to be driven all the way through before coming out the other side. Like”Sorrow” explains, a lot of soul searching is needed to come to terms with the most stunning, realistic qualities of life.
As a master reinventor, David Bowie continues to teach all of us that there is possibility to start anew – whether it be through cover songs, costume changes, or consciousness. Although Taylor Momsen never really changes her look (the black eyeliner is a TPR staple) and only performs songs that mean something to her (Bowie’s “Quicksand,” you’ll find), it is that idea of consciousness that brought the blonde haired, blue-eyed, sorrow-filled rock queen back to reality, back down to Earth, and – most importantly – back to music. Our heartfelt conversation with The Pretty Reckless’ lead vocalist, songwriter, producer, rhythm guitarist, and all around gracious woman of many talents gave us a chance to unpack that in a cathartic manner. It also showed that letting your guard down and finding your passion, no matter how big or small, can do nothing more than shine a light on your purpose in life. We were honored to relate to the sentimental and influential artistry found on Death by Rock and Roll and discuss the hard rock meets post-grunge musicality that will never not be goosebump-inducing when coming from the hands of one Taylor Momsen – of whom is a fan of The Aquarian, by the way.
The absolutely stunning and intimate and harrowing acoustic take on “Only Love Can Save Me Now” just came out and I’d love to know what made you strip this song down, specifically, for an acoustic release. [Author’s Note: It reached No. 1 on the Active Rock charts in the U.S. after this.]
Well, thank you. Every song we’ve ever written stems from and starts on an acoustic. I don’t really write with electrics or anything, so the core of everything comes from acoustic. The song has to be a really good song on that first and then it develops from there.
I’ve always kind of gravitated towards stripping back the songs after the full versions have been released for a while, just because I think it gives new insight into the song itself. It really lets you hear the song at its most intimate, at its core, and “Only Love Can Save Me Now” is such a emotional rollercoaster. At least, it is for me [Laughs]. It’s certainly one of my proudest accomplishments as a songwriter and as an artist, so I really wanted to kind of give the listener a different look into the song.
I definitely think that it pulls back another layer. It gives the lyrical aspect another chance to tickle listeners. I think the musicality this time around is all encompassing of what the song I think is trying to convey, as well.
Thank you. Thank you. I think it turned out well, but it’s always a bit of a challenge (to a degree) to take full-fledged rock songs and then strip them back to it’s core, especially riff-rock songs that we have going on now. We have to make it still have that fullness that the electric versions do, but I think we pulled it off. The 12 string certainly came in handy!
[Laughs] Oh, it’s very robust for an acoustic, for sure.
Ben [Phillips, lead guitar] certainly pulled that little trick out of his hat!
Amazingly, too! Now, I already know that Death by Rock and Roll is going to be my most listened to album of 2021. This album and its singles and its videos and its different renditions… all of it sort of has become a soundtrack for this moment in time of tension, confusion, and personal evolution. The album got pushed back a bit due to the pandemic, so how do you feel about this record coming out at the time that it did this past winter? Because intentionally or not, it’s become something bigger than itself because of the world we’re living in.
It has. I mean, I think that’s kind of the lifelong question: does art imitate life or does life imitate art? I think with this record in particular, it was written from a very personal perspective of everything that I was going through at the time. Having it come out into the world now with what the world is going through – such global hardship and such a difficult time – I think that it hopefully can provide a bit of solace to people who might need it right now, you know? We’re all in such a state of turmoil and confusion that having music that kind of expresses that in some way makes you not feel so lonely. I hope that it can do that to the listener and for me, as a writer, it’s almost strange to listen to the record in the context of what’s going on in the world now, because there are some lyrics in particular that really stand out like I could have written them yesterday. A lot of the songs are like that really, they fit into the context of what’s going on and its it’s very surreal to look at it like that.
When the album dropped back in February, I remember one of my very first thoughts was that it was surprisingly comforting. I’ve always found The Pretty Reckless and all of the music that you’ve released to have a level of comfort, but in this time period, I didn’t realize how much I needed that from an artist like you and from a band like this one.
Thank you. That is something we always strive for, because all the bands that I love and the music that I listen to, it feeds me in a way, unlike anything else, where it really gets inside your soul and can help you escape. It can help you ground you. It can take you to all these different places. That’s what I love about music so much. I always think about that when conceiving a record or writing songs. You want it to have lots of layers and depth to it. You want to write songs that can last the test of time – and that’s not always easy, but it’s certainly a goal of mine. To write something that can connect to people around the world going through different things and have it mean something to them and touch them in a real way? That’s it.
You’re doing just that – trust me. If you didn’t know, you’ve made fans out of the member of Judas Priest. I bonded with them over the mesmerizing magic that is the closing number on Death by Rock and Roll, and also my very favorite, “Harley Darling.”
That’s amazing. That song is a very emotional one to record. It was one of the first songs written for the record and one of the last songs recorded because I kept trying it and trying it, but everyday I ended up saying, “Nope, not today. It’s too much to record today.” Just on the light note of recording, the motorcycle tracks were actually really fun. We brought a real Harley in so when we pulled up the studio, we brought all the microphones out, we had cords weaving in and out to record it. We timed it with the track, too. We had the song recorded without the motorcycle, obviously, so we played the song out and we had it going through headphones with cords to go through speakers. From room to room we recorded the reving of the Harley in time with the song to have it build properly. That was actually a really a fun thing to do.
It’s my favorite part of the song, but my God, that is intense.
It was a fun thing to do for a very heavy song! [Laughs]
Definitely gives a little levity to the process, as both a distraction of the subject at hand and as a way to deepen the meaning.
For sure, for sure. It was really important to me that that was the real sound of a Harley and not just a sound effect or something from a different motorcycle. It had to be that, because Harleys have a very specific sound.
They do. I had to take a step back when I first noted it within the song. It’s insane to think that a motorcycle of any kind could be harmonious or melodic in any way because they’re pretty brash vehicles, but yet this was beautiful.
If you rev them in certain way or a little harder that usual, you’ll find that there’s actually different pitches to them. It took a little bit of practice to get it right, but I think it turned out pretty cool.
It absolutely, positively did – especially for a closing track. You know, Taylor, I was wondering if that was something that you really paid attention to going into this record, because it flows in the most cohesive, and yet like you said, rollercoaster type of way.
1,000% percent. I always put a lot of attention to track listing because to me records encapsulate a time of your life. I think that each track is a moment, so the track listening is important ’cause it takes you on a journey. It takes you inside of the story. I think with this record, the first half of Death by Rock and Roll is very aggressive and heavy and almost bleak. The second half, however, right about halfway through, there’s this kind of musical shift that shows that there hope and there is light at the end of this very dark tunnel… if you’re willing to see it. Even though the titles, you know? The record is titled Death by Rock and Roll, which, depending on how you want to look at it, could be very ominous. It actually is at its core, but it’s actually a very hopeful record, showing that things do get better even in the darkest periods of your life. That is, if you are willing to wait it out.
That is so prolific. This is a very immersive record, so it elevates the importance as you bring it to a close. Listening to it cover to cover allows you to get that whole package and that full experience. Sure, you can see that if you were to shuffle it, and I think you’d still enjoy the music, but you’re not going to maybe get the whole message – the truth behind the closure and warmth of the record.
Yeah, and I think it kind of encapsulates what life is like. The story itself, starting with “Death by Rock and Roll” and ending with “Harley Darling” is this very full circle moment of how life just keeps going. “Harley Darling,” when I’ve been asked before about why I chose to end this with that song instead of a big song or a different song, and it’s like, “Well, because that’s what life is like. After this whole roller coaster ride, you’re still back at the start. What happens next?” You see that what happens next is that you start it all over again. You restart the record and restart life.
Thinking about full circle moments for you and the band, I found that this album kind of it goes back to the roots of TPR and everything I fell in love with back on Light Me Up. At the same time, it also has a sort of modernity that comes with life experiences and living in the moment. For you, though, reflecting on your teenage self and the earliest days of your career, did you ever think you would make an album such as this one? One that feels just as freeing and vulnerable as it is fierce and vivacious?
Well, I don’t know. I don’t think we think that far ahead. With every release and with every record we make, we’re just simply trying to write the best songs we can. That’s the base of it. I mean, I certainly didn’t think the life experiences and all the tragedy that happened would have happened. That never occurred to me that that was going to happen and so it hit me like a ton of bricks. I think that with any record, the hardest thing about writing is that you’re constantly searching for inspiration – that’s what makes writing so rewarding. It is also what makes it so torturous. You never know where that inspiration is going come from or, frankly, if it’s going to come at all, and that can be a very scary thing.
We lost Chris Cornell and we lost Kato [Khandwala, producer]. I was in such a low place in my life and I had kind of given up on everything. I didn’t know if I was gonna make music anymore. I was just very lost as a person. I went downward into a very dark hole with depression and substance abuse and everything that comes along with that. Then I finally got to a place where I needed music. Music is this thing that keeps me alive. I need it the same way I need like food and water and oxygen. I just need it to survive. I had deprived myself of it for a long time, because I was in a very dark place where I couldn’t listen to music. It didn’t matter what it was; just anything I put on brought back some sort of memory that I wasn’t ready to deal with or handle.
I finally hit a place where I needed it again so badly that I picked up a guitar. I started by listening to records again, which was very cathartic, but that led to me picking up a guitar. The universe kind of got going and was like “Here, you wanted something to write about, so I smacked you in the face with it. What are you going to do with it, Taylor?” This record kind of just poured out of me whether I wanted it to or not. I think that anytime that happens, it’s a very strange thing because it is lucky. It’s a very lucky thing, but it’s hard to say lucky when it’s coming from such terrible circumstances. Still, it’s a very lucky thing when something is so inspired that you almost don’t have a choice in the matter. I think that makes this a very special record.
Light Me Up, and all of our records to a degree, have that. It’s true, though, Light Me Up did have that because it was our first record and I was just revving to go. This record is from a different perspective – obviously a much more mature perspective and older perspective of life – but it kind of has that same energy and that same feeling of ‘this just needs to be made.’
I’m glad you made all of it, because I really wouldn’t be here without the music that you brought into the world, so I’m really appreciative – not of the negatives and the whirlwind, but the comfort and excitement it has brought me. Still, you and the band have clearly evolved and it’s seen and heard in the music. There has, though, always been a confidence and an identity that embodies The Pretty Reckless and is so wholly Taylor. Do you ever listen to a song or album of yours and go back to the place of when you wrote it? Because I feel like with this album, in particular, that would probably be very draining.
Well, yes and no. When recording it, you absolutely do. It is then that you are creating something from nothing, so even though the song is written, you’re fully entrenched in what you’re doing. That’s kind of what I referenced with “Harley Darling.” That song was written early on, but I attempted to sing it many times and just couldn’t do it. Because it’s such an emotional song, you have to find the right day where you can go, “Ok, I can handle this today.” It can be very draining, but I think that’s necessary. I think that that’s super necessary in order to capture that realness and that rawness and that honesty on record. It is a challenging thing to do, but if you’re living it, it’s very simple. You just have to allow yourself to go there. With Death by Rock and Roll, I was so entrenched in the world of it. Those wounds were still very fresh and very open, so there was no getting around that. That’s part of the reason I think this record is so special: you’re hearing a broken person put herself back together in a way.
In the recording of it, you’re very much inside of the song and you have to be in that place, but once you finish the recording and the record is out into the world, it’s different and it’s a strange feeling. I always kind of compare it to having children, even though I don’t have children. Parents can tell me I’m incorrect, but I feel like it’s probably a similar feeling of how you’ve raised kids and you’ve love them. You’ve held them dear and they’re yours, but then you are sending them off to college. With songs, that’s what it is like, it is really what releasing a record feels like. It’s like, “Ok, you’re out in the world now! Do me proud!” [Laughs] It’s out of your control at that point, so it’s always kind of a bittersweet moment to release a record because it suddenly it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It belongs to the listener. Once that happens, you can almost kind of breathe in a new and different way.
We’re in rehearsals right now, playing these songs live, and you see that they take on a new form once again where you don’t have to go so deeply into the emotion of the song. It’s still there, but you’re thinking of other things, too. There’s a performance element. There’s a stage element. There are other things going on in your head. It’s not so heavy all the time, I guess, is the right way to say it. Then it becomes more about the camaraderie of the band and the flame of the show. That is just always fun – no matter what the subject matter of the song is. Although, on certain days, songs hit you differently. That’s just part of the course; some days are harder than others.
That’s a good way to look at it. You have to get into it as an artist, but you’re also expressing yourself at the end of the day, which people can absorb and take from on their own accord… however that may be percieved.
Exactly. They transform. It becomes different. It becomes about entertaining. It is not always this therapy that I do for myself, because writing is this cathartic thing. When you write songs, it’s very cathartic. You’re letting out something that you’ve been holding inside and that’s a very cathartic process, but once that’s completed, you’re just kind of repeating these songs in different ways. It’s still cathartic, but it’s a different kind, a more peaceful one where you’re more steady on your feet or found your footing or however you want to phrase it.
Right, you’ve grounded yourself in the reality of the song, so you can kind of reflect on it differently.
Something I am so inclined to ask you is about your place on this year’s Bowie Celebration lineup. Even though it was performed virtually and experienced through a screen, your cover of “Quicksand” was goosebump-raising and hypnotizing to say the very least. When it comes to covering songs, though, by David Bowie or otherwise, how do you go about paying homage to the original while still bringing your own finesse to the table?
Thank you. That was a very cool thing to be a part of. I’m a huge Bowie fan. My dad’s a massive Bowie fan, so I was surrounded by Bowie’s music growing up and “Quicksand” is a song that’s always really resonated with me. When Mike Garson asked me to be a part of the tribute show, that was the first song that came to mind. In particular, that rendition is based off… I’m not sure where I first I heard it, actually. My dad used to make me mixtapes of things and stuff when I was a kid, so I probably heard it from him and I’m not actually sure where it was released. Obviously it was off of Hunky Dory, but it might have been a demo, which is just Bowie and an acoustic guitar. It’s not a full on production version, but that was the version of the song has always really resonated with me so that was the direction for that take on that song.
As a music fan, I love listening to the demos of artists that I love because you can hear the base of it. It’s kind of the same reason I like putting out acoustic versions. You can hear the incarnation of the song and you can really hear where it was coming from before it gets produced and put into this other realm of releaseable music or whatever you want to call it. It is in its purest form and I always love that. That’s where that idea for “Quicksand” came from – and Mike is just obviously a master musician, so it was a pleasure to get to work with him. It’s a little different, too, with this having a piano, but it is kind of stripped back – a slower version.
It’s effective and respectful all at the same time. Wonderfully poignant and not stifled in the least, which is furthered by the Earthy video that went alongside your performance. Again, making it your own even as a cover.
I’m not a huge fan of covering songs in general just because the songs that I’d want to cover are great songs and I want to try to do a rendition that is equal or better than the original, which is always the goal, but it is challenging. In the beginning of our career, when we released Light Me Up, we were doing a lot of touring. A good example is when we opened for Guns ‘N Roses and we only had that one record out. Normally as an opening slot we got like a half hour or something, but on our set with Guns ‘N Roses it was much longer. It was like an hour and we didn’t have enough material to fill up the time [Laughs], so we had to add covers. Now that we have multiple records and we don’t need to do that, covering has kind of turned into something where if I do it, I pick songs that I really, really relate to and that I just want sing because I connect to them on a personal level. “Quicksand” is one of those songs where I feel like I can emote the song and do it justice not by imitating the original, but by bringing my own emotional take to the original.
It has to be special to me, which is why we don’t do a ton of covers. When we do do them, they’re very specifically chosen. I’ve done a couple, especially throughout the quarantine last year. I did “The Keeper” by Chris Cornell with Alain Johannes, which is just a beautiful song that I’ve always loved and had been talking about covering for years so that when the pandemic hit and we were all at home it felt like the time. I called up Alain, who was actually stuck in Chili at the time – he was there for like months and couldn’t leave. I think that one turned out really beautifully.
I also did “Halfway There” by Soundgarden with Matt Cameron. That was amazing. Like with Chris Cornell that was another song that I’ve always really connected to. […] It’s just such a poignant song. I try to pick things that I personally connect to and that go along with what’s happening in the world so that people can try to learn from it. Or, maybe they can discover a song that they might not have heard before.
I also covered “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding,” as well. That was the first one I did, which is just a fantastic song that is very fitting for what was going on… and what’s still going on. Unfortunately, these songs were all written years ago as the protest songs of a generation or piece of timely understanding, but they are forever relevant because the world never seems to fix itself.
Definitely not, but luckily we do have that kind of art to use as a pinnacle of reflection and, hopefully, growth.
That’s what art is there for: to open the minds and the eyes of the average person and make them feel and think in possibly a different way than they would naturally.
I’ve seen how much you and The Pretty Reckless have grown, shifted, and changed over the years, as well as how the media, the critics, and the fans have grown alongside you. With this record, the record that keeps on giving, you have reached the top of the charts. You are nominated for awards. You are spinning out hit after hit. You are setting up shows that are bound to sell out with your return to live, in-person stages. All of these spectacular things have come with the Death by Rock and Roll era, but as an art, where you are today, do you think you have reached your biggest creative goal? Or is it yet to come?
I don’t think so. I don’t think I’ve reached that yet. I certainly hope not! As an artist, I think that this record was something that I needed to make. I’m extraordinarily proud of it. What’s next? I’m not entirely sure. I mean, I know what’s next for the cycle – there’s going to be more singles and more videos and that type of thing. But as far as the next record or new music, that’s something that I’m always thinking of because the goal of an artist, and my own goal is, to always better yourself.
You never want to stay stagnant and you never want to regress. You always want to be moving forward in art and in life. You never know what that’s exactly going to look like, but that’s the fun part! [Laughs] You never know what tomorrow’s is going to bring and what song is going to come out of that. I certainly hope that we have not reached our pinnacle moment yet. Although I am very much enjoying where we’re at, I hope that we continue to grow and just keep getting better and better as we continue.
THE PRETTY RECKLESS ARE COMING TO THE BRAND NEW BROOKLYN MADE CONCERT HALL ON MARCH 22 AND 23, 2022! FOR TICKETS AND INFO ON THEIR RETURN TO THE STAGE, CLICK HERE!