The Pretty Reckless frontwoman tells PEOPLE that she was in a "very unhealthy space" after the deaths of Chris Cornell and her producer, Kato Khandwala

By Brianne Tracy
February 17, 2021 08:30 AM
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Taylor momsen
| Credit: Indira Cesarine

When the coronavirus pandemic sent the country into lockdown a year ago, Taylor Momsen felt oddly prepared.

"Before quarantine started, I'd intentionally spent the past few years isolated," the Pretty Reckless front woman tells PEOPLE in this week's issue, on newsstands Friday. "In a way, it feels like just an extension of what I was already doing. I'm used to being alone, and I'm good with it."

Momsen, 27, first made the decision to step away from the spotlight in May 2017, after Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell died by suicide at the age of 52 while she was out on tour with him.

"Opening for Soundgarden was the highest of highs for me," she says. "So to have it end so tragically was crushing. We were there that night in Detroit [when Chris died] and spoke that evening. To wake up to the news that he had passed was such a shock. I was not equipped to handle that."

Momsen canceled the rest of the shows The Pretty Reckless had planned and headed home to process her grief. But just 11 months later, she got a call saying that her longtime producer and close friend, Kato Khandwala, had died at the age of 47 following a motorcycle accident.

"When I got that phone call that he died, that was the nail in the coffin for me," she says. "I went into this hole of just utter depression and substance abuse. I was in a very unhealthy space."

Momsen credits the writing and making of The Pretty Reckless' new album, Death by Rock and Roll, with her bandmates Ben Phillips, Mark Damon and Jamie Perkins for pulling her out of that dark place.

"I'd given up on life, but then I turned to music," she says. "It saved me. I am very lucky that I had my best friends by my side, pushing me in the new direction. Music has always been the constant."

Taylor Momsen
| Credit: Jeff Hahne/Getty

That's rung true for Momsen ever since she was a child. After booking her first national commercial for Shake 'n Bake at 3 years old, she had trouble making friends during her childhood because she often had to move around for work.

"I was never in one place long enough to really make deep connections, so my notebook became my best friend," she says. "It became the place where I could express myself honestly without any judgment. I started writing songs, and that's really where I fell in love with music on a deeper level."

In the meantime, her acting career took off as she landed the role of Cindy Lou Who in the 2000 adaption of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas and later Jenny Humphrey in the CW hit teen drama Gossip Girl.

"Acting was a job that I enjoyed," she says. "But I was never in love with it. With music, I wouldn't know who I am without it. When I got to an age where I could make my own decisions, I quit all my other jobs to just focus on music."

In 2009, Momsen formed The Pretty Reckless, trading in the preppy beret and plaid school skirt that were once synonymous with her Gossip Girl character for a smokey eye and fishnets. At the time, she says people thought that the band was just a phase.

"That wasn't the phase," she says. "The phase was the stripper heels and the outrageous outfits, but that's who I was as a person at that time. Like anyone, I grew and I matured. Rock and roll was not a phase at all."

Momsen proves just that on Death by Rock and Roll, which she calls her proudest accomplishment to date.

"I would consider this a rebirth in my life right now," she says. "I really do. My band and I have been through so much, and the healing process is not over by any means, but we're certainly well on our way. I want people to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and there is a reason to keep moving forward."

The Pretty Reckless' Death by Rock and Roll cover

On Death by Rock and Roll, Momsen and her bandmates pay homage to the special people they've lost over the past few years. The album's title, for instance, is a phrase Khandwala said "all the time" before his death.

"It was like a code that we lived our life by, and that I still live my life by," Momsen says. "It might sound really morbid to some people, but that is not its intention. It's very much a battle cry for life: live life your own way. So, when Kato passed, that phrase became very relevant to me again."

Khandwala's footsteps are also the very first sounds that can be heard on the album's title track, and the last track on the album, "Harley Darling," is about his death.

"'Harley Darling' is very much my love song to Kato," Momsen says. "This record is very much an homage to Kato. Even though he's no longer with us, I refuse to let his legacy die."

Taylor Momsen; Chris Cornell

In homage to Cornell, Momsen recorded the song "Only Love Can Save Me Now" with his Soungarden bandmates Matt Cameron and Kim Thayil. Additionally, she enlisted Tom Morello (who played with Cornell in Audioslave) for "And So It Went."

"Getting to work with Matt and Kim was just incredible," Momsen says. "We flew to Seattle, and we recorded the song there. We got to work at the amazing London Bridge Studios, which is where Soundgarden had made the record Louder Than Love, Pearl Jam made Ten, Alice in Chains made Dirt ... I mean, just so many iconic albums have been made in this space. So to be there with Matt and Kim, creating something new after so much loss, was a very full-circle moment. It was very beautiful."

"Then there's Tom Morello, which is a totally different song," she continues. "I've known Tom for a few years now, but we really reconnected at the Chris Cornell 'I Am the Highway' tribute show in Los Angeles in 2019 because we both played with Soundgarden on the song 'Loud Love' at that show."

With Death by Rock and Roll, Momsen hopes to help people in the same "way that music has helped me."

"I think that music has such a healing quality that is overlooked a lot of the times, especially in rock and roll," she says. "Rock and roll, it's food for your soul. It connects you in a way that nothing else in the world can, and it is the only thing that fills me up when I'm running on empty. I hope that people can find some solace in this record."

For all the details on Taylor Momsen's life now and new album, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.