Taylor Momsen has been missing New York. Right now, in the midst of a snowstorm at her home in Maine, she's without heat and water and anticipating her power going out. In short, she's really feeling it. "I'm sitting in a winter coat and gloves and a hat and scarf right now inside," Momsen laughs. "With the stove open and the burners on."
Momsen, the bandleader of hard-rock outfit The Pretty Reckless, has been out of the spotlight for a bit. It's been five years since the hard rock band's last record Who You Selling For. But that's about to change: In February, the four-piece will release its fourth studio album, Death By Rock and Roll, culminating a cycle of loss and despair, and a light at the end of the tunnel.
Once pursuing a career as an actress, Momsen shifted fully to music after 2010 after leaving the CW series Gossip Girl, where she played Jenny Humphrey. Thereafter she dove head-first into music, playing shows with The Veronicas and touring with Evanescence and Soundgarden.
And after years of writing and self-reflection, Momsen, now 27, is ready to share music with the world again. In November, The Pretty Reckless made its return with "25," an autobiographical track written from "a place of despair" and flanked by Momsen's soaring vocals.
Below PAPER is exclusively premiering the music video for "25," which is a love letter to New York City where Momsen paints a haunting portrait of glamour and grit while sporting gowns of chiffon and glitter.
Alongside the video, Momsen spoke to PAPER about grief, the Gossip Girl reboot and the new album from The Pretty Reckless.
We're premiering the video for "25." What's the story behind the song?
"25 "is one of the first songs we recorded, I think it was the first song we recorded for the album. I wrote that song when I was 25, [and] we recorded it right after I turned 25. It's very autobiographical, in a lot of ways. I thought it would be an interesting idea to figure out a way to go through all the years of my life and somehow calculate that and have it end with 25. But the inspiration was really drawn from me just reflecting on my life up until that point, writing this autobiographical song from a place of despair. When I finished writing "25," it was a moment where I noticed the shift in my writing. I took a bit of a turn, and I think that I got better.
On the record, it's kind of the first musical shift. If you listen to the album from front-to-back, it starts very heavy and very dark and bleak, and about halfway through the album, it takes a musical shift. There is hope and there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that's all very intentional with the tracklisting. "25" is kind of the first indication that there is hope. It was certainly a growing point for me as a songwriter, where I took a step forward.
Out of curiosity, was being a part of the "27 Club" of musicians a fear of yours, and did you reference it in the song?
Not in that song in particular, and I wouldn't say that it was a fear of mine. Obviously, there is some lore, and rightfully so, due to the history of musicians that have not had the best luck around that age. I wouldn't say that that was necessarily something that was in the forefront of my mind, but I was certainly in a very low spot in my life, and I wasn't entirely sure where my life was going to go, or if it would continue to go...Twenty-five is a very powerful age where you're in a very transitory state, I think, for anyone. We had experienced so much loss, and I was down and in this hole of darkness as a person after everything we've been through. Twenty-five was the number I was focused on, because I was like, "I made it. I made it to 25." And I wasn't sure I was going to make it to 25. Like, "I'm 25 and I'm still alive." I'm still here, I'm still doing this. Life throws you curveballs. I feel like I'm in a much better place than I was.
Were you struggling with your mental health at the time?
Absolutely. We took quite a few hits [with] the loss of Chris Cornell; we were opening for Soundgarden on that last tour. It was the highest of highs for me. The Beatles and Soundgarden are my favorite bands in the world, so to be opening for them, I couldn't express that into words how elated I was and honored I was to be on that tour and then to have it end so tragically. We were there in Detroit that night [before he passed]. I talked to Chris and I hugged him goodbye; it was the last show of the tour, and to wake up to the news the next morning was just so unbelievably shocking and crushing. As it was for millions of people around the world and the music community, it was just a massive loss. I didn't exactly know how to process that. It stunned me in a way that I was not prepared for.
So, I was not in a great place to be public. We were in the middle of a tour, of a record cycle, at that time, and I stepped out and canceled everything and went home because I needed time to process what had happened. And as soon as I started to get back on my feet again and wrap my head around it, I was talking to Kato [Khandwala], our producer and my best friend, and going "Let's move forward, let's make something new, let's start working on the next album." And as soon as we started talking about getting plans in motion, I got the phone call that Kato had passed in a motorcycle accident, and that was just the nail in the coffin for me, for lack of a better term. I sunk down into this very dark hole of depression and substance abuse and everything that comes with that. I kind of gave up as a person. I went, "I don't see light at the end of this tunnel, I don't see hope, I don't see the point."
What helped you get out of that depression?
The thing that pulled me out of all that was, as cliché as it sounds, was music: It was rock 'n' roll. It was the thing that really saved my life. I started by just listening to albums that have always given me solace. I went back to the beginning: I started listening to the Beatles from front-to-back. Record after record after record of all the artists that I've grown up loving and listening to and worshiping, and that eventually kind of started to bring a spark back to my eye, which led to me picking up a guitar and led to me writing this album.
How did the loss you experienced translate into your new album?
It's very much a rebirth for this band. It feels like the first record in so many ways of just that pure, raw inspiration that you can't control, and in the sense that we had to learn to do everything from the beginning again. We had to completely start from scratch because it was the first album we've ever made without Kato. So it was a lot of learning, a lot of growing, a lot of pain, a lot of struggle, but I think at the end of it, we really did create something extraordinarily special that I'm so proud of.
I'm so sorry for your losses. Did your personal struggles account for the five-year gap between albums?
Certainly. That was a huge part of it. But also, it takes a long time to write songs, and I work very hard on all of our albums. It's easy to write songs. It's not easy to write really great songs, and I pride myself on trying to write really great songs. Every time we make an album, the next album has to be better than the last album and so on and so forth. You have to just kind of wait for something to strike you. And life kind of threw me a whole bunch of curveballs that I couldn't deny, so I think the inspiration was just pouring out of me for this album, whether I wanted it or not.
Tell me about the concept behind the video for "25." Did you film it during the pandemic?
It was filmed in COVID, which was a bit terrifying since I have not left the [house]. I'm a bit of a hypochondriac, to say the least. I think it stems from being a singer and touring the world and just being so afraid of getting sick. But for the videos, it was kind of crunch time. It's very important to me to have visual representations of these songs that are coming out into the world. We had to bite the bullet, close our eyes and jump, and go, "Okay, we're going to New York City." I've lived in New York City for over 10 years, and I've been in Maine during quarantine, but I miss New York like mad. And so it was like, "Okay, here we go. We're jumping, we're going. We're filming three videos back to back." "25" was the first one. We were shooting with Jon J again, who did the "Fucked Up World" video and "Heaven Knows," so it was great to work with him again.
We took literally all the safety protocols you could possibly take. I had to force all of those fears out of my head and shift modes. As far as the video treatment, like the song, I wanted to tell a story in an honest way. I think that the video is a glamorous depiction of despair in one way, with a lot of raw grit kind of thrown in. I wanted to represent glamour, but I also wanted to represent the passion that the song is trying to convey, of this despair and hope. Stephen King has always been a huge inspiration to me as a writer, but especially visually. I'm a huge fan of his. It's why I have a house in Maine. "25" really came from a place of a glamorous depiction of despair and showing a jazz singer telling her story to a ghostly and absent audience, a woman at a bar telling her story to a ghostly bartender, a woman on a rooftop waiting for her lover, which in this case, my lover is New York City.
Why is New York your "lover" in the video?
I have a love affair with New York, and I really wanted New York to be represented in this. So, it's a woman on a rooftop waiting for her lover, which is New York. New York is a very big character in this video to me, which was very important, where it shows the glamor of New York, but also the pain and the suffering that New York is, and what being a New Yorker is. Because it's my favorite place in the world because it has everything: It has the juxtaposition of the glamour and the pain and the suffering. I think anyone who lives there or anyone who's even visited can understand that, especially with the hard times that we've all been living in, everyone is suffering the same battle. New York City has always been a place that I feel like I can hide, and I can fully be myself. There's no place like it in the rest of the world, and it was very important to me that New York City was the lover of this video.
You've obviously been very focused on music the past several years at this point. Do you still have the acting bug at all?
No. I don't know if I ever really had it, to be honest. Acting was something I started when I was very young, not necessarily by choice. I started at three, so I wasn't exactly making my own decisions at that point. But it's not something I regret by any means. It taught me a lot of lessons, and it taught me a lot about the entertainment industry. It gave me a very strong work ethic, which I will never take for granted because I don't know that I would have that if I hadn't started working at such a young age. But as far as the acting goes, I don't consider myself an actress—I don't think I ever was one. I think I just got lucky with some opportunities, but music was always the thing that I was striving for and always the thing that I was working towards.
Would you ever act again?
As far as acting goes, I have no plans. It feels like a past life at this point. But again, I never want to say, "Never," because if someone calls me up and wants me to cameo as Chris Cornell in Singles or something, that could be fun. I'm not going to say "no" to fun opportunities, but it's certainly not something I'm pursuing.
That leads to my next question. There's obviously a Gossip Girl reboot coming out in 2021. Would you be open to guest-starring on it?
I haven't really thought about it. I don't know. It would be interesting. I do have a very good relationship with the creators and the producers of that show. I credit them quite a bit for the career I have now because I asked them to write me off that show so that I was able to tour and pursue my real passion in life, and they so graciously did. They didn't have to at all. And so, I thank them from the deepest part of my heart for allowing a young girl to pursue her actual dream in life. And so, if they asked for something, it wouldn't be a harsh "no," it would be a conversation. But again, not something that I'm pursuing by any means, but never say, "never," in life.
How do you feel about the reboot?
I am very curious to see how the reboot is going to turn out because I don't think I realized at the time how influential that show was and how on the forefront it was of technology. When we started the show, we had flip phones and the Blackberry was a big thing. We got new phones every season, and it was a huge deal. Just the way that the internet and social media has completely exploded and changed since the end of the show, we're living in a new era, a new world now. So I'm very curious to see how they take the new world we're living in and transform it into the new Gossip Girl era.
"25" is definitely hard rock-driven, but there's also a softer element to it. With the new record, what were you sonically inspired by?
[My inspiration] stems from the core of the music that I grew up loving and still love to this day. I mean, the Beatles is the first band I have to credit. And I think that any musician who doesn't credit the Beatles is lying to you. So the Beatles, but, I mean, but Soundgarden is obviously a huge influence, and we have Matt [Cameron] and Kim [Thayli] on a song [ on the record], "Only Love Can Save Me Now."
What was it like collaborating with them after everything that happened with Chris Cornell?
We became very close and they're very dear friends of mine and I just cannot speak highly enough of them as people, let alone musicianship. They've been idols of mine for years, so to collaborate with them on "Only Love Can Save Me Now," it was just the highlight of my life. We flew to Seattle and we went to London Bridge Studios in Seattle, which is where Soundgarden recorded Louder Than Love, Pearl Jam recorded Ten and Alice In Chains recorded a ton of their stuff there. Walking into that studio alone, you could feel just the energy in the walls. The studio, the walls, just bled life and passion, and you could feel how all those records were made there. The song just came to life in a way that I could imagine but didn't realize until I was actually there. It's one of my favorite songs on the album. I'm very, very proud of it, and I'm so glad that we got to do that together.
Why did you end up titling the album Death By Rock and Roll?
Death By Rock and Roll was a line that Kato used to say all the time. It was an ethic and a motto that we lived our lives by, and that I still live my life by to this day. It's very much a battle cry for life, and I think this album actually has a lot of hope in it.