The Pretty Reckless: Transforming Pain, Moving Forward

When Taylor Momsen opened her bleary eyes in Columbus, Ohio on the morning of the massive Rock on the Range Festival, she felt like she had woken up from a dream come true. The night before, The Pretty Reckless had wrapped up a run sharing festival stages with iconic Seattle post-grunge icons Soundgarden.

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In Detroit the night before, as gear was being torn down and loaded into trucks, the lithe rocker had gone over to Chris Cornell’s car to say goodnight and thank him for the opportunity to open for one of her biggest influences. The sold-out show at the Fox Theater before 5,000 shrieking Soundgarden fans served as a crescendo for the seasoned opening band. Momsen, lead guitarist Ben Phillips, drummer Jamie Perkins and bassist Mark Damon had spent weeks witnessing Cornell & Co. create new heights almost every night and were thrilled to watch from the wings.

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It doesn’t get any better than that, especially for a young woman determined to make her way in rock & roll on her own, not because of the sizzle of her role on Gossip Girl or her career as a (super) model and muse to Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld. Intent on taking her visceral squall into arenas by virtue of velocity, songcraft and a raging yowl, The Pretty Reckless had sidestepped the obvious on-ramps and built their career the old-fashioned way: playing to the people out on the road.

That morning in Columbus, however, everything changed.

“When I got out of my bunk, opened the door to the front lounge, everyone was staring at their phones with tears running down their faces,” Momsen remembers of the harsh light of that morning after. “Then they all looked at me and realized I didn’t know.”

What she didn’t know was devastating. The night before, Cornell, rock’s greatest modern era vocalist and songwriter, had left the Fox Theater and returned to his Detroit hotel. Shortly after his arrival, his bodyguard discovered Cornell unresponsive on the floor of the bathroom. Ultimately ruled suicide, Cornell was pronounced dead at the scene.

“Ben was the one who told me,” she says, her tone growing strained. “But I couldn’t accept it. I remember saying, ‘Prove this is real.’ We’d all been together a few hours ago. This couldn’t be true.”

Two nights later in Philadelphia, The Pretty Reckless would honor Cornell with a cover of Audioslave’s “Like A Stone” for WMMR’s MMR-B-Q. Ultimately, the loss proved too much. Their Who You Selling For yielded commercial and radio success, and “Take Me Down” became their fourth No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock chart. However, after touring hard since its August release, grief and exhaustion soon engulfed them. Taylor Momsen, then 24, and her guys came to a crossroads and made the critical decision to shut it all down.

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“Watching their soundchecks—two hours of new material and jamming every day, even knowing what they were doing, they were playing. It was just amazing,” Momsen reflects. “Just hanging out with them, watching their genius and mastery… Soundgarden is very rare. There are so few bands that if they didn’t exist, the world would be different. 

“Sitting there side stage in Indianapolis, Chris dedicated ‘Crooked Steps’ to us. He did that. They  were all so kind and sweet to us. From the very first meeting, they were all exactly who you wanted them to be: the kindest, sweetest souls. Hanging out with them every night was awesome. We learned so much.” 

Her voice falls off. A few moments, and quite possibly a few tears, pass. “It’s still very sensitive to talk about,” concedes the rocker. “I still get choked up.”

The Pretty Reckless reeled after losing Cornell, a friend and mentor. They put their own futures on pause and reflected on the past, on their roots. An unlikely mixture of ages and personalities, the band itself came together because of the keen instincts of one man, producer Kato Khandwala.

Phillips, a flash-playing guitarist, had given up touring to focus on writing when Khandwala, a friend, called about meeting a new, up-and-coming female vocalist. A 14-year-old TV star didn’t sound promising to Phillips, but he showed up to talk with her anyway because of Khandwala’s recommendation. “She talked about Nirvana and Jack White, which was intriguing. She hands me a notebook of her lyrics, which I took back to Harlem… and I started to work.

“First time I heard her on a mic, I realized she was better than all of us,” he continues, still startled by her hunger. Before too long, he was in the band with a feral 15-year-old platinum blond who was consumed by rock & roll. Pretty Reckless soon played Japan, Rio, all over Europe and every major rock festival, including the Warped Tour. He’s watched Momsen grow up, and as hard as Cornell’s death hit him, he was especially worried about her. “She’s at her prime in terms of youth. The 24, 25 years really shape you—and you’re hit with this?”

Rolling up the tents, they went home to regroup. Sorrow. Grief. Agony. Even rage. All the darkest feelings that result from untimely death. When the darkness threatened to consume them, Momsen and Phillips knew they needed to change course. They then began doing what musicians do: poking at songs and trading ideas, licks and lines.

“I feel like everyone connects through music,” she explains. “Anyone you feel musically connected to, the bond is so deep. It’s so past a friend. It’s a soul bond.”

Rockers through and through, they decided to let the music save them, to channel their shock, pain, and anger into their songs. Though Khandwala had moved to Los Angeles, they decided it was time to book a studio, plunge into the music and create a project that reflected this moment in their lives.

After she turned 25, Momsen hit a pivot point as a vocalist and a fully formed adult, and all three members of the band knew something transformative would emerge once they started the process of moving forward. They just needed to get into a room and let the songs come together.

And then, tragedy struck again. 

Khandwala—whom Momsen calls “essentially the fifth member of the band”—was killed in a motorcycle accident in North Hollywood. The buoyant, happy, creative spirit who’d produced Blondie, Papa Roach, Red Jumpsuit Apparatus and Breaking Benjamins was gone. Just like Cornell—POOF! —Khandwala was gone. So suddenly, so unexpectedly, so brutally. Trauma compounding trauma. 

For The Pretty Reckless, who had just started to emerge from Cornell’s passing, it was almost too much.

“As soon as I attempted to get my feet back on the ground, I’d been calling Kato, going, ‘We have to move forward.’ Our band came together over our love for the Beatles, Nirvana, Soundgarden,” Momsen remembers. “We’d been talking about dates for the studio. We were getting dates on the books. 

“A few days later, I got the call. He was killed.”

Like Alice behind the looking glass, they all shut up like telescopes. The lifting darkness became black once again, and the will to rock dampened. The band had built their career on gleaming shafts of jagged electric guitar and Momsen’s girlish coo, creating unique rock tracks like “Make Me Wanna Die,” “Zombie,” “Hit Me Like A Man” and “Fucked Up World/Messed Up World,” but grief and loss shattered this visceral smash and spark. 

It became hard to hold each other up when everyone had sustained the same losses. Losing Cornell was a gut punch, but Khandwala was an amputation. 

When Kato, Phillips and Momsen sat down all those years ago, the two guys didn’t see Momsen as the fallen Jenny Humphrey of Gossip Girl, but as a believer in what makes rock & roll hit so hard. Before the release of Light Me Up on Interscope Records in 2010, Khandwala explained his reason for treating a teenage girl as an equal in the studio: “She’s seen a lot.” 

“Way more than most grown-ups. It’s a youthful worldliness, but she’s seen it—and she knows,” the producer continued. “When one is working with Taylor, all the age stuff, the preconceived notions go out the window. She’s so articulate. She knows what she wants, and she will not rest until she gets it!”

That was a bold endorsement for a girl who was more Perez Hilton than Metal Edge. As years passed, the bond between Khandwala and Momsen only strengthened.

“Kato was the embodiment of rock & roll,” Momsen raves. “From the moment I met him, there was this kismet, an undeniable connection that was immediate. Essentially he was the fifth member of the band.”

The loss of Kato led to more disorientation, pain and confusion. It’s one thing to write about nihilism. It’s another to be engulfed in despondency. Phillips discusses the initial paralysis caused by so much emptiness.

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“We had quit touring, stopped the cycle around the record ‘cause we didn’t know,” Phillips says. “But as soon as we decided to use the music to see how it could heal us, we’d literally booked the studio. Within a week of booking the studio, to get that call June 4. The guy who was literally the starting line, the finish line, who was in the vehicle with us, was gone.”

Death By Rock & Roll arrives almost four years after the shocking loss of Chris Cornell and three years after the death of Khandwala. With a muscular swagger, puncturing beats and a menace that softens into both acceptance and ascendence, this latest album from The Pretty Reckless reflects their attempt to transform their pain into something meaningful. The traditional goth and metal themes of the album—death, destruction, a world suffocating you, the hungers that ravage and the occasional misogyny that Momsen skewers over and over again—also embrace the inevitable, celebrate life and purge the agony of loss with an unrepentant strut. Weighing her grief now, Momsen recognizes a watershed moment.

“I certainly hit the point where I had to make a decision,” she begins. “It was death or move forward. It got to that point. I had to make this decision. I hadto actively decide and make that choice.

“I lost myself,” she continues quietly. “The overall scope, it all came at once: the flux of emotions around all of it. So, this record was me trying to find myself again.”

The songs of Death By Rock & Roll are more born than written. They’re a linear autobiography. The ambling “Rock & Roll Heaven” traces Momsen’s journey into music and the influences that inspired her, while the edgy “25” pays tribute to moments from each year of her life. Nearly all of them demonstrate music’s power to save.

“As I’ve gotten older,” she acknowledges, “the depth of what I’ve wanted to convey has deepened. I’d kind of hit rock bottom. I didn’t see a future and didn’t care, having fallen into this hole of depression and abuse. I didn’t know how to pull myself out of it, as cliché as that sounds.

“But, you know, I didn’t have to try to write this record. It just kind of flowed out of me, whether I wanted it to or not. It was a blessing and a curse. I had to get it out of me, get that kind of purity and honesty put into words. That lightning in a bottle of inspiration, you can’t pay for it or buy it, but man, the cost…”

“Thank God, when you’re pushed to the limit,” Phillips says, “it can take you down to nothing, to the dirt, or it pours out of you. You never know where it’s going to go, but you know this woman’s baring her soul. We can’t do tricks with that… But the adultness of it, her control and the deepness of it, you know this tone is real.”

The process was neither smooth nor easy. With Khandwala gone, they had to find a new way to record, and they needed someone who could take four shell-shocked musicians, a band that had been forged on the road, and allow them to process their reactions and feelings on their own terms. 

“I knew one other person,” Momsen says of their ultimate choice. “Jonathan Wyman, in Maine. I remember calling him, saying, ‘I have these songs. We wanna start recording. Do you wanna help us?’ 

“We were way too invested. The songs were way too personal. But he allowed us to be these trainwrecks in the studio. There were a lot of ups and downs, a lot of ‘Could we do this?’ and ‘Were we able to do this?’

“That vulnerable place we were in, we couldn’t hide it. And there was no getting around it.”

From the opening echo of Khandwala’s footsteps walking down the hall at the House of Loud Studios to the full-tilt surrender of “Only Love Can Save Me Now,” recorded with Soundgarden’s Kim Thayill and Matt Cameron, to the propulsive rejection anthem “And So It Goes” with Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello, to the silken drift of “I Got So High” and the reflective lullaby “Standing At The Wall,” The Pretty Reckless creates the kind of hard rock that exists in its own frame. 

“There’s no shortcuts in rock & roll. You have to tour for ten years, to go out there night after night and play,” Momsen says of life as a musician. “We weren’t looking for shortcuts. We wanted to put the work in to do it right, to try to be great, to attempt to get as close to that as possible.”

Because of that knowledge, she understood The Pretty Reckless wasn’t a curiosity. Nor were their hits or live shows a fluke. As a solid band, they had earned their place at the table.

“When I wrote ‘Only Love,’ I sent it to Matt and Kim because I couldn’t hear it being done without them,” Momsen admits. “I asked, ‘Do you wanna play on this? ‘Cause if you don’t, we’re just gonna sound like we’re ripping you off.’”

Laughing, Momsen merges “aw shucks” fan girl with true delight. She may see the remaining members of Soundgarden as her heroes, but they’re also her peers. When music means so much, it’s not about names used as marketing hooks, but true convergence in the name of something sacred. 

For Momsen, going to Seattle’s London Bridge Studio, where Soundgarden’s seminal Louder Than Love was recorded, offered a painful but hopeful experience. “The walls themselves just bleed inspiration and the magic of those albums (that were recorded there). Mother Lovebone, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains… Just to be there was charged, but to be there with Matt and Kim? To record something that was so alive, and so shared by all of us?”

Momsen’s reverence is palpable: “To hear Matt hit that snare drum and to hear Kim put whatever he does to this song, to just hear it? There are magic moments you can’t describe—even after the fact, after it’s all done.

“You know, we all felt the song deeply, were all connected to the song itself and everything we’d been through. We played it through twice, and it all came together harmonically. To have it come out so organically right like that, it felt strangely—to me, at least—seamless. It was one of those magical moments where everything just worked.”

That synergy seeped into everything on Death By Rock & Roll. Early on, Phillips recalls, “Coming out of all this tragedy, the lyrics just flowed. It was as pure an outpouring of emotion as we’ve ever come close to. Writing music became our savior, to where it almost felt like we had no part in the writing, that it was just coming through from somewhere else.

“Instead of commanding the songs, we were learning from them. Learning how to live with what had happened, learning to find hope. These songs guided all of us, and so far has proven to be the best medicine.”

Appearing halfway through the album, “Turning Gold” suggests that even the unthinkable can be healed. Sifting through the simplicities of life and pain endured, the singer professes, Through the burning, the bleeding, the itch of the healing/ The screams carry on through the night/ But I know that somehow I’ll be alright.

“That song was the turning point,” she says. “The lyrics are very seriously true, and it means accepting this reality, life, death—and this weird thing we’re all in called living. Seeing the other side of this very dark thing through the music, it took all of these experiences, good and bad, and culminated them into something positive.

 “Out of all this tragedy and loss, out of the ashes, I think we’ve emerged. At the end of it, there is hope. That is what ultimately matters, and we tried to get that. 

“This record starts very heavy, very dark and very bleak, but halfway through, it shifts. There’s this light at the end of the tunnel, a sense of hope. I had to realize that for myself, to know it, but once you do…”

Once you do, you can brandish a song like the title track with a sense of liberation—and not just wanton “live fast, die young” recklessness. You can also write a yearning love song like “Harley Darling,” a caressing homage to the bike that killed your friend with a sweeping acoustic guitar and a vocal that’s all musk, velvet and shadow. There’s no rage at all.

As a motorcycle idles, Momsen waves good-bye, singing dreamily “Ride away…” over and over the way someone would soothe a crying baby to sleep. Phillips marvels at the performance: “It’s a slow blues, and that kind of pain is just insane, but it sums up everything we all were feeling. 

“But more than the pain, I felt this celebration of a life that had so much value to so many.

“Listening, I felt an actual sense of honoring that life, and it just supersedes all of the trauma. Kato touched so many people and so many things. He was very underground, but every band who worked with him just loved him. You can feel all that in her vocals.”

Rather than wearing his memory like a shroud, they chose to keep Kato’s memory alive with more uplifting reminders. The band insisted on having his guitars present in the Maine studio where they holed up to make Death By Rock & Roll. Indeed, the project’s title was chosen as an homage to their producer’s favorite battle cry.

“It was a phrase Kato said all the time,” Momsen laughs. “It was an ethos we all lived by. It’s about life—even though it doesn’t feel that way. It’s a battle cry for life… for living it to the hilt, without reservation or reserve. Just throw yourself at it, live for every moment with everything you’ve got.

“Even though he’s no longer with us, he’s so much a part of my life. The band’s lives… This record is about all that passion, all that rock & roll he gave us.”

Though the world is shut down for COVID and the band has not properly toured in years, they are ready and excited to take this music to the people. What was born of extreme loss has turned into something beyond healing. As she says, “It’s like a rebirth almost.

“When I’m creating music, I’m not even in this world. But when you put a record out, you hope it can connect you (to everyone else). You hope it can give them some solace and some hope. Give them back something they might not be able to put into words, but gives them a light.

“I’m so excited to have people hear this because it takes something so internal, so personal and it opens up these wells. To me, it’s the punch in the face our first album without Kato should be. How do we do this? Where do we start? But mostly, how do you make something that hits as hard and makes us more forward. That’s the truth. You never truly heal or get over it, but you can go forward.”

Photos by Indira Cesarin

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