Talking with Bushwick-based singer and guitarist Mackenzie Scott, who goes by Torres, it’s hard to reconcile her outgoing, funny personality with her serious, tumultuous music. Her latest album, Sprinter, is a jarring and atmospheric collision between hard-hitting noisy rock songs and somber meditative numbers–which collectively draw on personal themes of alienation, faith, loss, yearning, anger and regret. One listen to the album’s devastating and stark closing track, “The Exchange” and you can sense how that song sums up the record, with lines like, “I am afraid to see my heroes age/I am afraid of disintegration,” and “I’m underwater/And I don’t think you can pull me out of it this.”
There’s an unsettling primal quality to Torres’ music in the same vein as Patti Smith and PJ Harvey, both thematically and sonically. Her new album has won praise from Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, NPR, The New York Times and other outlets, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Sprinter ends up on many best-of lists at year’s end. Meanwhile, Torres will be performing shows that include three local dates in the coming months, starting with a sold-out gig at Mercury Lounge this Friday.
Originally from Macon, Georgia, and raised a Baptist, Scott (who was adopted as a child, a strong theme in her songs) took up guitar at the age of 15. She lived in Nashville when she was starting out in music, before moving to New York City. Her self-titled debut album was released in 2013, which yielded the popular track “Honey.” For Sprinter, Scott collaborated with producer/drummer Rob Ellis (PJ Harvey, Marianne Faithfull) and spent time in England to make the album with Ellis, bassist Ian Olliver, and Portishead musician Adrian Utley.
Brooklyn Based recently spoke with the 24-year-old Scott over the phone to talk about the story behind her turbulent, arresting music.
It’s been a very busy time for you with the press acclaim you’ve been getting for Sprinter. What do you make of everything?
I love it. This is the goal, you know, to be busy and to be able to tour. It’s really exciting. When I’m able to be able to tour and meet people all over the world, it’s the best feeling.
Was there anything you wanted to do differently in the recording of Sprinter compared to your self-titled debut album?
I guess more than anything I just wanted there to be more of a sonic world. I hadn’t really sought after a sonic world on the first record. It was music, but it was very minimal. There weren’t a lot of intricacies and sounds. I really wanted to focus on making a lyrically strong record and telling stories, but also to focus on instrumentation a lot more and creating otherworldly sounds. You know, just prioritizing the music just as much as the songwriting this time.
Your producer on Sprinter is Rob Ellis, who has also worked with PJ Harvey. How did you hook up with him? And did recording in the U.K. had any effect on the music?
Rob and I met about two years ago now in London. He was at my very first show that I played in London. We just liked each other. So we emailed back and forth the next few months. Last year, when I was in the middle of writing and starting to seriously consider finding someone to help me make the record–at that point, I didn’t have a label or a band or really anything, I kind of felt like I was starting over and I was nervous. I was just worried that I wasn’t going to be able to even make another record. So I emailed him and I asked him if he would help me make my new record. It turned out he had this three-week window of opportunity for me at the beginning of September, before he went on tour with Marianne Faithfull.
So I went to England. Bridport is this really cozy gorgeous village in Dorset. It’s really laid back, low-key beautiful countryside/seaside. It’s got everything. It gave me the space to just breathe and focus on making a record. I didn’t have the daily stressors or distractions of being here in Brooklyn. It freed me up mentally. I guess that’s the biggest influence that just going somewhere else to record had. It gave me freedom to be lonely and to focus on what we were doing and nothing else.
Sprinter covers a wide range of emotional terrain. Is there one song or two that perhaps encapsulates the record? I’m thinking the album’s final track, “The Exchange.”
You’re right about that. “The Exchange” was definitely the song that took me the longest to write. I think I spent more on that song than any other song–at least about what I’ve been grappling with over the last few years. It was the one that I started it before any other songs and I finished it last. I think I finished writing a month that I went to record.
Another track that grabbed me was the title song. What inspired it?
That song is kind of about my previous affiliation with the Baptist church in Georgia. I was raised in the deep South and went to church my whole life. I wanted to tell a story of judgement and being judged. I wanted to tell a story from both sides of that proverbial coin and speak a little bit about my own struggle with being a judgmental person at a young age because of religion. It’s an apology for being judgmental, because I do know how it feels like to be judged as well at this point. It’s about grace and backtracking and trying to make amends for a lot of hurt that I caused, that was caused by the church.
About your songwriting process, do you write the music first and then the lyrics, or the other way around?
I’ve always been pretty much a lyrics-first person, It’s not super intentional. It’s just that I don’t really feel the need to write a song until I have some sort of word or phrase to give it direction. My starting point is always lyrical because the lyrics whatever they may be are usually what dictate the melody. I never tried it the other way around–and I do think it would be interesting as a sort of exercise or challenge to try and start music first at some point. But my natural inclination is to always start with the lyric.
There’s definitely a dynamic sonic shift within the album, balancing between fiery and intimate songs.
I wanted the record to feel like an actual sprint. I ran track in high school, and my endurance is terrible. I absolutely have no stamina. I was very good at the sprint. You’ve got this starting point and when they fire that gun and tell you to go, you launch and you’re in a fury. By the end of it…I just remember feeling every time that I was about to drop dead when I was crossing that finish line. And so I wanted the movement and track listing to feel like that, I wanted it to feel like I was beginning in a fury and then I wanted it to end very softly and slowly and exhausted. That’s the reason for the dynamic drop toward the end of the record.
Had you always wanted to become a musician?
I always knew I’d be doing something in the entertainment industry, some sort of performance. I did theater, especially musical theater in high school. I thought for a while I would try to move to New York to purse Broadway or something or like that. But then I had a pretty quick shift of direction when I was 16 or 17, I started playing guitar. Shortly after I went to visit Belmont University in Nashville and discovered that they had a songwriting program. I had just started playing guitar and only been writing songs for a little while, but I switched gears and went to school for songwriting. From then on, I was pretty determined to take this direction.
What drew you to New York City, particularly Brooklyn? It must seem like a 180-degree experience compared to living in the South?
It is. I visited New York for the first time when I was 14 with my parents and I was just so in love in it. I know that it’s the classic story–everyone falls in love with it when they visit. I just knew I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I spent all four years in Nashville pining over New York. It was always my goal to move to Manhattan, but it’s an expensive endeavor, and so I decided to move to Bushwick instead. Hopefully I’ll make it over the bridge at some point in the next decade. (laughs).
Having recently performed in Europe, are there any other places you’d love to visit?
I want to go everywhere. I want to see it all. I’m taking my band with me in September and we’re doing a proper European tour. That’s going to be great. I’m really dreaming big for Australia and Japan. I want to go to Japan. (laughs). You got to have goals.
Torres will be performing Friday at Mercury Lounge, 217 E. Houston St., Manhattan, 10:30pm, sold out; July 22 at Terminal 5, opening for Courtney Barnett, 610 W. 56th St., Manhattan, 7pm, $25; and October 24 at the Kings Theatre, opening for Garbage, 1027 Flatbush Ave., 8pm, $41.50-$71.50. Torres’ latest album, ‘Sprinter,’ via Partisan Records, is available now.