Violent Joys, Violent Loneliness: A Chat With Torres’s Mackenzie Scott

Mackenzie Scott discusses the passion and loneliness behind her masterful new album, 'Sprinter.' Shawn Brackbill/Partisan Records

Last year, in a converted children’s nursery tucked into the sleepy English market town of Bridport, 24-year-old Mackenzie Scott recorded one of the best albums of 2015.

Sprinter—the second release from Scott, who records under the name Torres—is a stunner. By turns slow and volatile, its songs stretch confidently from hoarse, grunge-inspired outbursts to sparse balladry and Scott’s singular brand of “cowboy pop,” which takes root in the artist’s Southern Baptist upbringing. Scott sings of adoption (“The Exchange”) and heartbreak (“Ferris Wheel”) and weighty questions of family and identity, all in a stark voice that carries the ferocious conviction of every word.

It’s heavy stuff. But in conversation, Scott is amiable and chatty. Speaking from her apartment in Brooklyn, New York, the songwriter spoke about recording in England, taking inspiration high school track and getting to know the “violent loneliness” of life on tour.

Torres The year's a little more than a third over, but the second album from Scott, who records under the name Torres, is a stunner. Shawn Brackbill/Partisan Records

You moved to Brooklyn from Nashville. How has the transition been?

I'm so much better here than I've been anywhere else. As far as just my general well-being, my mental health, I definitely do better in Brooklyn. I live right off of Broadway, so there's a lot of noise outside my window. And for some reason I prefer it to everything else. I prefer the noise.

You traveled far to record Sprinter in Dorset [County in England]. Why record it there?

Rob Ellis, who produced this new record with me, actually lives in Bridport, Dorset. And he ended up finding the little space that we recorded in. It was a room that was formerly used as a children's nursery there in Dorset. And the sweet couple who owns it is renting out the space now to people who want to come and make records there. Rob found this place, and it happened to be a mile from his home. So I went there.

What was the most difficult part of recording there?

It was nice because I didn’t have any of my familiar comforts there with me. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have anything to focus on but the record we were making. Though it was slightly lonely, it was mostly pretty thrilling to be working on a record and to truly have that be what was at the forefront of my mind for almost three weeks. We didn’t even have Internet service in the recording space. So I didn’t have my usual scrolling on my Twitter feed or Instagram or whatever.

The most challenging part was the loneliness, and that also ended up being the greatest strength that we had during this recording process.

You sing a lot about religion on Sprinter. Was growing up in Georgia a source of inspiration?

My hometown? Absolutely.

You grew up religious?

Yeah, I grew up in the Baptist Church. That did play a huge role in the songs on this record. But it’s interesting. I’ve been thinking a lot about history, or rather some things that happen when you’re a child and later retrospectively looking back as an adult. You know having memories, but also there’s that sense of trying to determine, “Was it how I remember it now or was it how I saw it then?” You kind of never really know because your perspective is always changing. Memories morph. So it was interesting and kind of neat because these are my stories, but a lot of them are how I remember them or how I feel now.

How’d you wind up working with Rob Ellis?

Rob and I met a couple years ago in London, the first time I played there, and hit it off. And kept in touch... I just liked him. I hadn’t heard most of his work, actually. When we met the only thing that I had heard that he’d done was that first Anna Calvi record, which I loved. So I told him how much I loved the Anna Calvi record he’d produced. Then last year when I was looking to make my new record, I was feeling a bit stuck, and he was really my first choice as a producer. I didn’t actually think that we’d be able to make it work. But I asked him anyway.

Are you a fan of his work with PJ Harvey as well?

Recently I am, yeah. I hadn’t heard those records until—well, I heard Rid of Me early last year. But I didn’t hear [1992 debut] Dry for the first time until I was with him recording [laughs]. We were having the recording sessions. Then I would go back to my bed at night and listen to music or watch Netflix or whatever. I thought, Oh, this would be a great time for me to explore some of Rob's past work!

And I listened to Dry for the first time and then the next morning, when we met up, I just kind of mentioned it. I was like, “I really missed Dry before, and now I've heard it and it's really something!” [laughs] I totally had a weird fan moment where I sort of fell in love with him all over again.

Every review seems to mention PJ Harvey somewhere.

Yeah. I did notice that.

You don’t make much of it?

There could be worse comparisons. I appreciate it. I of course am a huge new fan of PJ Harvey’s. That being said, I realize that people are always looking to compare emerging artists to somebody else as a reference point. I guess I just want people to know that I don't want to be seen as derivative of something, especially when I hadn't even listened to that something until very recently.

Speaking of other artists, you have a St. Vincent tattoo. When or how did you get that?

That album [Strange Mercy] just means a great deal to me. I won't go too deeply into it. That record was with me when I was experiencing some significant depression. I got that tattoo on my arm right before I moved to New York.

Have you gotten to meet St. Vincent?

I met her back in 2012. It was a show that she played with David Byrne in Nashville. I'm a superfan. I  creepily waited outside of the venue to meet her. And she was kind enough to actually stop and take pictures with everyone that was waiting.

Where does the title Sprinter come from?

I was having a lot of recurring imagery happen about my days in high school track. I used to actually be a sprinter. I ran the 100-meter dash or whatever.… For some reason I was thinking about that, and it was something I hadn’t thought of in a while because I don’t run anymore—at all. Then, simultaneously I had something interesting happen where I was reading a book that Ray Bradbury wrote called Zen in the Art of Writing. And the word sprinter was used in a very interesting context in that book. He was thinking about the impatience of his youth and how when he was younger he never paced himself. He was always just barreling for the finish line, no matter what it was he was doing—writing, living.

I dunno, I liked the sound of the word sprinter and the way that it looks on paper. It has a lot of motion to it. It signifies being in the middle of something. At this point in my life, I’m in transition constantly. Emotionally, mentally, physically, I’m traveling a lot. I wanted [the title] to be representative of me where I am right now, and at this point I’m constantly in motion and evolving, adapting to adulthood.

Has this experience and touring been overwhelming? Has it taken its toll on you?

It has its overwhelming parts. Ultimately it’s been really fun. I definitely feel like I’ve grown up a lot. And it’s not something that you can really be taught to do. I went to school for songwriting. I planned for the most part a career trajectory in my head over the last few years. Let’s say I thought about my future a lot. But none of that can prepare you for real life. Especially when you’re living half of it on the road in bands and airplanes and hotel rooms. I didn’t anticipate the loneliness of all of that. It has its violent joys but also its violent loneliness.

There’s so much doomy talk about streaming services and Tidal lately. Do you feel more optimistic about making a career from making albums?

I never expected to make money off of streaming or off of album sales, necessarily. The only world I've ever known is the one where people pirate music or the one where only the 1 percent of musicians actually make a lot of money doing this. I'm of the LimeWire Generation [laughs].

And I think that the most important thing is to tour. Tour as much as possible. I think that avenues such as licensing, having songs placed in TV and film and all of that may be less than desirable for some artists, but that’s one way to make money in this industry. And I think that expectations just have to be readjusted for people in this industry. Obviously I wish that everyone would pay for the art that they enjoy, but that was never an expectation for me, and I'm not naive enough to believe that selling a few thousand copies of my record is enough to sustain myself in this industry. I went to music business school!

Have you had to work day jobs?

No. I haven't had the time. And I don't plan on it. I would rather eat less than work a day job. Because that is soul-sucking to me.