Local music hounds can be forgiven for not recalling Mackenzie Scott’s formative Macon years—unless they resided in assisted living.
“The only performing I did while in Macon is I would go with my guitar to a nursing home on Saturdays and play for the residents,” Scott explains by phone from her newly adopted Brooklyn home. “I mainly played hymns they might recognize from church—the goal was to do something nostalgic for them.”
Growing up in Macon, music for Scott “was a very private thing—I was writing songs but just playing them for close friends and family. I knew I wasn’t ready for a record or anything like that.” She was still years away from adopting her stage moniker. TORRES—in all caps, please—preserves the banner of her maternal grandfather. “I wouldn’t say we were especially close, but of course I loved him and after he passed on a couple years ago, I loved the idea of carrying on another family name. I’ve got the Scott name on my dad’s side, so it’s nice to carry on both.”
A relatively late musical bloomer—basketball was her main extracurricular outlet through her sophomore year of high school—Scott burst onto the scene in a big way in 2013 with her remarkably fully formed self-titled debut, released mere weeks after she graduated from college. This May TORRES takes another bold step forward with the brand new Sprinter, out on Partisan Records.
“I wanted the record to be more of an accurate depiction of what my live show has become. Very quickly after I released the first album, it became louder and more… just more than people anticipated. I quickly realized that I love turning up my amp, I love screaming into the mic and throwing myself around the stage. And I think a lot of people came expecting to see some dainty twenty-something female wistfully whispering songs and it didn’t match up—a lot liked that and others were confused when it was pretty wildly different. So I want to put something out there that’s an accurate representation of what I’m doing onstage. It’s gonna be loud, it’s gonna be aggressive. Everything on this record is pushing it more—sometimes that means louder, sometimes it means more intricacies.”
That’s not to say TORRES was the work of a shrinking violet, or that Sprinter is all bombast. “Strange Hellos,” the impossible-to-ignore opening track from Sprinter offers ample opportunity for her screaming and stage flailing, and also exposes a heretofore unseen venomous side. But beyond another pair of standout rave-ups, the balance of TORRES’ sophomore release again delivers on mid-tempo, lyrics-forward character sketches you’d expect from a songwriter with years more hard-won experience than a “dainty twenty-something.”
TORRES’ debut, a frequent occupant of 2013 Best-Of-lists, left me hoping Scott was a convincing actress rather than someone who’d already endured such a litany of harrowing romantic travails. “This was more than I had bargained for/They struck gold and beelined for the door” she intoned on the sparse and captivating “Chains.” “Go find someplace warm, I’ll still be here when winter’s over,” she advised a lover with an unsettling blend of desperation and fortitude on “When Winter’s Over.” Was an intervention in order?
“I just read a conversation between Tennessee Williams and William S. Burroughs, and I think it was Tennessee who said ‘it’s all autobiographical and none of it is. It’s all fiction and none of it is.’ I think he said it better than I could,” Scott explains. As for her persona, she adds, “I definitely have fun with it—everyone does, even if they say they’re not. It’s me, but an amplified version of me, one facet that I’m having fun exploring and tampering with the levels.”
Scott’s lyrics bear the mark of a skilled writer, and sure enough she double majored in English literature and songwriting—the latter being the hook that brought her to Belmont University in Nashville. “It wasn’t so much that they’d teach me how to write songs—I was already doing that,” she reasons. “It just made sense to me if that’s what I wanted to spend my time on, I ought to get credit for it.”
Belmont’s songwriting major is housed within the Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business, named for the Savannah native, musician and record company impresario. That training likely explains how the self-released TORRES arrived positioned for a breakout. Other than a few shows in Texas, most of Scott’s prior performance experience—still under her given name- came at DIY coffeehouse shows on or near campus. “I had all the other stuff in place though—manager, publicist, booking agent. I’m a long-term planner—I’m in the future in my head a lot of the time. And the past. I love the present, but I have a hard time staying there.”
Scott wrote TORRES throughout her college years, recording it in a five-day stretch the summer following her junior year. While its release wasn’t initially intended to coincide with graduation, “when it became clear the record was coming out, I decided to pile some more classes on and get my degree in December so I could go on tour in January.”
Things moved quickly from there—the influential music website Pitchfork premiered “Honey,” “and all of a sudden I had shows to play,” Scott marvels. Still, she pushes back on the notion that her breakout was pure happenstance. “It’s not out of nowhere—I had three-and-a-half years of school training myself to be a full time songwriter, to have a work ethic without a significant payoff for it.” And it wouldn’t have happened without the chops, either. “Honey” is among the most arresting new artist introductions in recent memory, a showcase of remarkable emotional range and sonic dynamics that—along with the uncharacteristic twang in her voice and the cowboy hat she donned in the video—perhaps tagged her as more of a Music City product that she would have preferred.
The attention afforded TORRES set the wheels in motion for the next step. On a tip from his manager, Rob Ellis, the noted producer and longtime PJ Harvey collaborator, came to TORRES’ first London show. “We hit it off. The next time I came through London he was there again,” heading in from his seaside home in Dorset a couple hours outside London. “There was a nice connection—it was strange how comfortable I was opening up to him. It became apparent we have a pretty similar worldview. He’s a very proper British man- very posh,” she giggles. “Then about a year ago, I cold emailed him. 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?’” In a perfect storybook ending, Scott would have departed the stage to find a happy response. The reality isn’t quite that tidy—time zones threw a slight spanner in the works—but by the morning she was greeted with a simple “Hey Mack—sounds great, let’s try to work it out.” From there things proceeded quickly, by necessity. “(Ellis) had a small window of time before he was going on the road playing drums for Marianne Faithfull.”
Scott claims to have never heard PJ Harvey before recording TORRES, and any similarity resides in their shared emotional rawness rather than a common musical palette. Another high-profile contributor to Sprinter is guitarist Adrian Utley of the inventively eerie UK band Portishead. If anything I’d suggest TORRES shares more DNA with the latter, as Scott’s voice conveys a sublime blend of frailty and foreboding that can recall Portishead vocalist Beth Gibbons. “Rob has a lot of legendary buddies. When I got there he had lined up Adrian and these other wonderful musicians.” The final puzzle pieces were added in Utley’s Bristol studio, where he contributed “dreamy guitar and some synths.” Scott prefers to keep mum on which songs he graced, but more extroverted works like Sprinter’s title track bear the marks of later-era Portishead atmospherics.
Polly Harvey has long demurred from claiming autobiographical connection to her first person material. While Scott may be “tampering with the levels,” she’s also open about the fact that she’s at least in part writing from experience, and from the gut. On “New Skin,” which builds from a whisper to a maelstrom she sings “I am a tired woman/In January I will just be twenty-three.” This much is straight fact- Scott wrote the song some eighteen months ago, and is now 24.
Three songs in TORRES’ still nascent catalog address the topic of adoption, from various perspectives. “That is a part of my family history and my present,” Scott freely acknowledges. “My mother was adopted, and I was as well.” “The Exchange,” the seven-minute track that closes Sprinter, broaches Scott’s mother’s experience and the resulting sense of rootlessness. Scott confirms the lyrics serve up a factual recounting:
My mother lost her mother twice
Once in ’54, then later in life
The exchange was quick and quiet
The records sealed, the names made private
Her search began and ended with a judge
Her records had been claimed in a freak basement flood
An entire family tree
An eternal privacy
“Moon & Back,” from the debut, takes the perspective of a birthmother writing a time-capsule letter explaining the decision to relinquish her child. Both songs are on the quieter end of the TORRES spectrum, though not at all serene, befitting the complex subject matter- and Scott skillfully balances the conflicting emotions.
Belmont describes itself as a Christian college—“That was definitely a big selling point for my parents,” she deadpans. Scott had a conservative Baptist upbringing and there are religious overtones—both positive and negative—to a healthy subset of 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,” Scott stresses, adding that she’s in no way resentful of her background. “I’ve been burned by people from the church—not by God. My parents are still in the Baptist church—our worldviews don’t intersect as much as they once did—I went off and I asked a lot of questions. They encouraged me to try a lot of things, which was why I was into sports but was also in band (she played the flute) and theater.”
Scott did not grow up in a musical household. “This is all completely foreign to them. No other person in my family has this sort of an aspiration—my brother and sister (each about a decade her senior) are both living in the south with their families, with careers that have nothing to do with the arts. But I think they all enjoy watching me—they want me to be happy, and this clearly brings me joy more than anything else. My parents have steadily supported my aspirations to have a career in music—which I think has scared them along the way.”
Scott describes her youth as typical, musically speaking. “I had a pretty limited catalog—90s country, super into Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Faith Hill, Shania Twain. By high school I was finding stuff on iTunes through TV shows, but there was no musical indoctrination. I wasn’t raised on any of the greats.” She attended Presbyterian grammar and high schools. “When you’re in Macon, everything has some sort of church affiliation, you know?”
Although there had never been a parental musical embargo, her move to Belmont prompted a major shift. “It was music overload. My freshman year I became aware of how much I didn’t know, how much music I hadn’t heard. I didn’t get any references—I mean, none. I didn’t even know who Nirvana was until my freshman year of college. It was the first time I’d been exposed to intellectual conversations about the arts. I discovered Joan Jett my freshman year. My parents didn’t listen to a lot of music so it wasn’t on my radar either, and I didn’t seek it out. There’s so much history I’m still catching up on—I just went out and bought my first Steely Dan record—on vinyl.”
Mackenzie’s parents brought her to New York City as a 14th birthday present, another case of exposing her to experiences outside their own wheelhouse. “It really occurs to me now how amazing that was— they didn’t realize how much it would stick.” The film version of Phantom of the Opera was newly released and the young Scott, then discovering theater, recalls being enraptured. “We were definitely Times Square tourists, maybe saw the West Village. Brooklyn wasn’t even on the radar then. All of it was overwhelming in the best way, and made me want to be here.”
According to this self-described long term planner, “Even before I moved to Nashville my plan had always been to get to New York; I just didn’t know how long it would take me to get there.” Scott expected to stay in Nashville a bit longer but when she’d return from a stretch of touring and find herself in a funk, she knew it was time to leave.
Scott still talks almost daily with her parents, who are still acclimating to their daughter’s itinerant lifestyle blending the road and Brooklyn’s gentrifying Bushwick neighborhood. “I think they worry—I know they do. I’m not sure what worries them more—traveling in vans and staying in hotels around the world, or living in Bushwick. They’re proud and excited, but I don’t think they know what to make of it. My dad worries a lot about Bushwick and my mom worries about me traveling.”
TORRES’ lyrical themes can be cause for worry—they also mean Mackenzie Scott can make you care. Here’s hoping the shadows and light that bathe her face on the cover of Sprinter are reflective of her artistic and private personae.