More than a decade ago, Taylor Momsen shocked fans when she traded in her Gossip Girl character Jenny Humphrey's signature preppy beret and plaid school skirt for a smoky eye and fishnets as she started her band, The Pretty Reckless.
Her new look and rock and roll attitude led some to call her a wild child — a label Momsen, 27, now admits wasn't too far off from the truth.
"I was a little wild," Momsen tells PEOPLE in this week's issue, on newsstands Friday. "But I don't think I was the ass—- that everyone made me out to be. I was young, and I was going through my rebellious teenage years."
At the time, people thought the band was just a phase for Momsen, who had spent much of her early life onscreen, gaining recognition for roles like Cindy Lou Who in the 2000 adaptation of Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
"The phase was the stripper heels and the outrageous outfits," she says. "But at the time, that didn't feel like a phase. That was very much who I was and how I was comfortable dressing. Like anyone, I grew and I matured. But rock and roll was never a phase."
Momsen says rock and roll music was "ingrained" in her when she was just a child.
"I always wanted to be in a band," she says. "I never wanted to be a solo artist because I wanted to be The Beatles. I didn't want to be Elvis Presley. I mean, Elvis Presley is great, but I wanted to be The Beatles because who wants to do this alone? Life is lonely in general, and I always wanted to have my best friends on my side. I'm really lucky that I found that."
Though she secured her first national commercial at 3 years old and her role in How the Grinch Stole Christmas at 7, her heart was always in music.
"I started writing songs when I was really young," she says. "I could hum melodies before I could speak sentences, or so my mom tells me. When I did the Grinch, I went into a recording studio for the first time [to record 'Where Are You Christmas?'] It was an experience that I'll never forget, and I remember not wanting to leave the studio. When I finally did, I said, 'I just want to go back.'"
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In the years that followed, she put music on the back burner as she continued to find success as an actor, especially when she landed her role on Gossip Girl in 2007 and "tabloids came into play."
"I was very sheltered from that when I was younger," she says. "But once there was paparazzi outside my door, I learned very quickly to ignore all of it. Fame is a fleeting thing, just something that you have to deal with. It's not real. I don't think I'd be the person I am today if I didn't have those experiences, so I don't regret any of it."
While acting was a job Momsen "enjoyed," she admits she was "never in love with it."
"With music, I wouldn't know who I am without it," she says. "When I got to an age where I could make my own decisions, I quit all my other jobs to just focus on music."
Momsen has been rocking ever since she formed The Pretty Reckless in 2009, and she shows just how far she's come on their new album, Death by Rock and Roll, which was born out of a difficult few years defined by loss.
"I 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."
In 2017 Momsen was "crushed" when Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell died by suicide while she was out on tour with him. Then just 11 months later, her close friend, the band's producer Kato Khandwala, died after a motorcycle accident.
"I went into this hole of utter depression and substance abuse," Momsen says. "I was in a very unhealthy space."
Momsen credits the writing and making of her new album 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. Rock and roll connects you in away that nothing else in the world can. I hope this record will help people the way that music has helped me."
For all the details on Taylor Momsen's life now and new album, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.
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