TORRES Demonstrates the Not-So-Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance
Mackenzie Scott’s career arc doesn’t follow the typical trajectory of an indie rock breakthrough. It’s not every day you hear about an artist accelerating her graduation so she can hit the road as soon as her debut album drops. It’s even more unusual when the school in question is a Christian college and the artist has precious few live dates under her belt.
It’s probably best that these facts weren’t widely known at the time of TORRES’ early 2013 release – there could easily have been a rush to the “who does this woman think she is?” stance of the sort taken by the jaded New York theater critic in the film Birdman, or a tendency to pigeonhole Scott as a Danielson Famile-type secular curiosity. Instead her music was allowed to speak for itself – which it did very, very well. Sometimes operating from passion rather than experience can be the best strategy.
With Scott’s new sophomore album Sprinter, TORRES embarks on a somewhat more traditional – yet no less audacious – trip to the rodeo. The songwriting is clearly the product of the same fertile mind, but the radio-ready presentation of its most prominent songs is far more aggressive, and the collaborators A-list caliber. How many young artists travel to the UK to record with key players from monoliths like PJ Harvey and Portishead? “The first time I intentionally set out to make a sonically minimal record,” Scott explains by phone from her newly adopted Brooklyn home. “This time I had a clearer picture of what I wanted it to sound like going into the writing process,” thanks to her discovery of the joys of volume as the compositions from her debut album found new life and abandon onstage.
Scott was raised in Macon, but her debut originated from Nashville while she was attending Belmont College. That locale, combined with the occasional twang in her voice (eradicated by the time of Sprinter) and the cowboy hat she donned in several early videos also courted typecasting. But what hits hardest from TORRES are the harrowing romantic travails – mostly delivered from the perspective of a doormat – that sound unsettlingly knowing coming from someone so young (“Go find someplace warm, I’ll still be here when winter’s over;” “I’m suffocating you, I know, it’s just the only way I know to love.”) While Scott won’t disavow an autobiographical component, she also invokes poetic license. “It’s me, but an amplified version of me, one facet that I’m having fun exploring and tampering with the levels.”
On Sprinter, however, Scott gives as good as she gets. “I hate you all the same,” she shrieks on “Strange Hellos,” and she snipes, “If you do not know the darkness/ Then you’re the one I fear the most” on “New Skin.” There’s one interesting exception, though – Scott spent a chunk of 2013 touring with Aly Spaltro (better known as Lady Lamb the Beekeeper), who also released a precociously superb debut in an almost identical timeframe. While the two artists share many traits, Scott insists the Sprinter track “Ferris Wheel” was not inspired by the opening track of the same name on Lady Lamb’s first album. “I’ve actually had that song for quite some time – it was the only Sprinter song I wrote pre-TORRES,” she says. And sure enough, on closer inspection its tale of unrequited love hews closer to the debut’s themes of victimization; “You borrowed my car a couple times/ You don’t like me – you just like my ride.”
Belmont describes itself as a Christian college, and Scott grew up in a conservative Baptist family. While popular music was never placed off limits, neither was it on her parents’ radar and Scott was relatively late to the alt culture party. “I never considered myself a singer growing up. I did sports for most of my life,” before switching from basketball to theater in her sophomore year of high school, according to Scott. Eventually she started playing hymns on her guitar at a Macon nursing home, but “music was a very private thing then – I was writing songs but just playing them for close friends and family.” I’m reminded of Sharon Van Etten’s lyrical rumination “Alone in this basement where I will write these songs…” and Van Etten – now a Brooklyn neighborly acquaintance – is a decent reference point, although TORRES’ work tends to be more angst-ridden.
Religion continues to play a central role in Scott’s life, and her writing. “I’ve moved away from the politics and the dogma but, that said, I’m still a fervent believer in Jesus Christ and I don’t shy away from that,” she stresses. “I’ve been burned by people from the church – not by God.” She remains very close with her parents, speaking with them daily, although “ our worldviews don’t intersect as much as they once did – I went off and I asked a lot of questions.“
“I didn’t even know who Nirvana was until my freshman year of college,” Scott claims, and her untainted perspective may help explain the freshness of her sound, which is familiar enough to be approachable without overtly imitating any specific predecessor. She also maintains that she’d never heard PJ Harvey before recording TORRES. Nonetheless, the manager of noted producer and longtime Polly Harvey collaborator Rob Ellis noted a similar intensity in Scott’s debut and tipped him off to TORRES’ first London show. “We hit it off –there was a nice connection,” Scott recalls. “It became apparent we have a pretty similar worldview. The next time I came through London he was there again.” Several months later, back in Brooklyn, Mackenzie decided to go for broke. “I was about to play a show, I had had a shot of whiskey – I was on fire,” she laughs. “I shot him an email right before I walked on stage; ‘Hey Rob – was wondering if there’s any possibility you’d want to record and produce my next album with me.’” By the next morning she was greeted with a simple “Hey Mack – sounds great, let’s try to work it out.”
Scott traveled to Ellis’ seaside UK home base in Dorset to record, after writing Sprinter in a burst in early 2014. “I guess that’s the way my writer brain works – I have to let things fester, then lock myself in a room for three to six months to work it out. Rob has a lot of legendary buddies. When I got there he had lined up Adrian and these other wonderful musicians.” The Adrian in question is Adrian Utley of Portishead, who provided “dreamy guitar and some synths” on a handful of tracks. And aside from the fiery guitar that amps up “Strange Hellos” and the title track, Sprinter has more in common with Portishead’s eerie vibe. Like Beth Gibbons, Scott’s voice can thread the needle between desolation and disgust.
Another emotionally raw topic Scott has repeatedly explored is adoption. “That is a part of my family history and my present,” Scott freely acknowledges. “My mother was adopted, and I was as well.” “November Baby” and “Moon & Back,” both from the first album, approach the topic from the perspective of a mother giving up her daughter. “The Exchange,” the seven-minute track that closes Sprinter, recounts Scott’s mother’s search for her own birthmother, only to return to her own plea, “Mother, father, I’m underwater and I don’t think you can pull me out of this.” In other words, the occasional blaring guitar hasn’t exactly lightened the mood. Scott’s ruminations on connectedness and sense of place help explain her selection of the TORRES moniker, in honor of her maternal grandfather.
It’s shocking that TORRES arrived so fully formed with the benefit of such limited live experience. Scott made one brief sojourn into Texas while still playing under her own name. “I played some stuff on the Belmont campus, a cafeteria-type thing with a little stage setup that I was really excited to play a couple of times. Plus there was a little black box theater upstairs at my regular coffee shop on the main drag where my friends would book me sometime.” But for whatever reason, the Nashville scene never clicked for her. “I tried – I really, really tried. The bands I was looking up to in Nashville were playing house shows. But I never really made it there – it’s a pretty tight circle of royalty and to be honest it’s a bit of a boy’s club.”
Scott plans to continually up her touring regimen over the coming months, but she’s not ready to call herself a road warrior. “I know how a lot of people tour, and it makes it look like I haven’t even begun.” But she’s off to a darn good sprint.
Photo by Shawn Brackbill.
An expanded version of this article appears at georgiamusic.org