“Healing Is Fun for Me”: Torres on Her Raw New Album and Why SXSW Is Still Worth It for Artists

Torres. (photo by Shawn Brackbill/courtesy of Partisan Records)
Mackenzie Scott, aka Torres. (photo by Shawn Brackbill/courtesy of Partisan Records)

AUSTIN, TX: Mackenzie Scott is having a moment, in more ways than one. When I meet up with the 24-year-old indie-rock singer-songwriter known as Torres outside a cafe called Cenote on Austin’s east side on Friday, the second to last day of SXSW, she’s just had to beg the employees working a private event to let her use their bathroom so she can have the decency of vomiting in private. “I haven’t been sleeping or resting or eating like I normally do when I’m at home, so I think it just took a toll on my body,” she says.

In two hours she will play another show, this one for Dr. Martens, and no one will have any idea that she’s been feeling under the weather. They’ll just be focusing on Scott’s intense, intimate new songs, brought to life through a new band she’s been getting into shape over the last few months. Which brings us to the other way in which the 24-year-old musician is having A Moment, this one in a positive sense.

On May 5th, Scott will release Sprinter, her second album and what I imagine will become the emotional climax of her career. I spoke to her about being nervous for her family to hear the album, her relationship with God, and teaming up with alt-rock staples (PJ Harvey producer Rob Ellis, Portishead’s Adrian Utley) in the studio.

Flavorwire: This is your third year in a row playing South By Southwest. Much has been said about SXSW losing its relevancy. At this point, what do you think you think young musicians get out of the experience?

Mackenzie Scott: I think it depends on a few factors. Last year was different than this year for me. 2014 was a transition year for me — I didn’t have a record out that was even remotely new, or coming out. I think that maybe that wasn’t worth it, because really I was just in the red financially after coming here.

I’m conflicted because I always have such a good time. But I know what it’s like to work, and work, and work, and still not get the attention that you want, not get people out to shows. It’s just a struggle for everyone. I’ve been on both sides of it. So, I can’t speak to everyone’s experience, but for me it’s been most worth it to come play shows during SXSW when I have things lined up, when I have a new record coming out, when things are relevant.

I saw you play last SXSW, at the Misra showcase. A lot has changed for you this last year. Walk me through these last 12 months.

At that point last year, I had already begun to write the new record [Sprinter]. But it was very much a transition year, as I’m sure you could tell. I began really intentionally writing the new record, maybe a month or two before last year’s South By Southwest, like January maybe. And I spent all the way through July writing the record. I recorded it at the end of August and the beginning of September in Dorset, in the UK. And then I started rehearsing with this new band at the end of the year, and we’ve just been practicing nonstop since, for the last few months. That’s where I am now.

Sprinter, while deeply intimate, feels like you really played with character and point of view. How important was it to you that the perspectives of your loved ones be represented by the album alongside your own?

It’s my perspective of their perspective, if that makes sense. I think my main concern has always been, when I’m doing that, to make sure I’m not overstepping any boundaries, or being too revealing about somebody else’s life. Trying to be considerate of and respectful of privacy. I played more in the writing this time, like you said, with characters. I had a little bit more fun this time.

Really? It’s such a heavy record, I’m a little surprised to hear you say that.

There was a lot of healing with this writing process, and that’s what I mean by “fun.” Healing is fun for me. It’s like a birthing process while it’s happening, not that I’ve given birth, but it’s an emotional birthing process for me. I got so much out of it, and I learned a lot about myself. Plus I’m writing about this stuff as it’s happening. When I’m writing retrospectively, there’s a lot more clarity there, but I’m also writing about the present and about the future, which is more grey and indefinable. I’m still in the process of learning and healing.

Are you nervous at all for the album to come out, to have some of these private things out in the open?

I am. It’s weird to talk about it on this platform, but I’m really only nervous for my family to hear it.

Have you talked to them about it?

They’ve heard the song that’s come out [“Strange Hellos”] and “New Skin,” and I might have played one for my mom, an unmastered track or something. But the rest of the record, no, we haven’t really spoken about it and they haven’t heard the songs. They ask more general questions.

It’s strange because a good deal of the record is me exposing myself to my family in ways that I have not been able to up until this point in my life. I’ve never been able to have certain conversations with my parents or my siblings or even certain friends. In that regard, this record is for them. So, it is a little nerve-wracking, because it feels like I’m revealing myself. But I’m strangely not nervous to put it out into the world.

When you write so autobiographically about your past, I feel like it’s easy for journalists or even fans to misconstrue your origin story. Have you noticed that little parts of your backstory end up inaccurate?

Oh, it’s happened since the beginning, to be perfectly honest. And it continues to happen, more and more and more. And I expect that it will continue to happen. I’ve had to train myself to let that go, in most cases, where I can. There have been a couple instances where the facts have been so skewed where I’ve had to get in touch with the writer and have them change information — for the sake of my family. Because my writing is so personal, and having people write about my personal writing can get very misconstrued very easily. I have loved ones to protect, and feelings to protect. That has been one interesting element of this world to navigate, is just knowing when to let it go and to really make sure that the facts are right.

I saw you your set at Central Presbyterian Church the other night. Since you write about your upbringing in the church on Sprinter, I found myself wondering what might have been running through your mind at that moment — if you were thinking about all that.

I thought a lot about it. I actually really loved it. I loved the opportunity to play in a place that feels like home in a sense. Because I was raised in a church, and I haven’t removed myself completely from that world. I mean, I don’t attend church currently, but I still am a Christ follower. I consider myself to be a God-fearing person, and I don’t often get the opportunity to play my songs, as I wrote them, in that sort of a setting. It felt, more than anything, like an opportunity — one that I might not get again. I got to sing about God as I’m experiencing God, and I got to do that in a church. In a way, that experience the other night felt like the most honest I’ve ever been able to be in a church. To get to sing those words under a giant cross, it may be sacrilege!

You also played with Brandi Carlile that night, whom I know you’re a big fan of.

Since I was 18 or 19 years old, Brandi Carlile has been my primary influence. I went to six, seven, eight shows over the last few years. I’m a massive fan. The way she sings about her history with religion and God struck me because of my own upbringing. She articulated something that I think I wasn’t able to articulate yet, about ostracization, isolation, internalizing a lot of ache that you can’t talk about. There were just so many emotions that she touched on lyrically on her earlier records that I didn’t feel like many records.

The other night was a really full-circle experience for me, because the first time I met her, I thanked her profusely for her music. I told her that I was a songwriter, and that I looked up to her. I was 18, very geeky, in Nashville. And she told me that she couldn’t wait to hear me someday. I very highly doubt she remembers that — I’m sure she has a hundred encounters a day like that one. But, to me, it was everything. So, to be able to come here and play on a stage in the same building before her, it was massive for me.

Rob Ellis, who’s worked with everyone from PJ Harvey to Scott Walker, produced Sprinter. Why did you think he was the right collaborator?

Rob and I have just been friends for a couple of years. I met him in London a couple of years ago, when I played there for the first time. We kept in touch, and we met up again the next time I came through. After talking with him a few times, we just had a really special connection. It isn’t often that I meet a 52-year-old British man that I feel like could be a best friend, but Rob and I had a very unique connection. We got drunk in a pub one night in London and just talked about music and life. We have a pretty similar worldview, and I really love his drumming. I think he’s one of the best drummers I’ve ever heard.

I started to think about how dreamy it would be to work with him. I had the thought, “If he could play drums on this record, too, that would be perfect.” So I reached out to him. It felt right from the beginning, and we didn’t have any disagreements.

You also worked with Adrian Utley from Portishead on the album. Tell me about that experience.

With Adrian specifically, he was the last musician to play on the record. After we recorded, we traveled to Bristol, to Adrian’s studio, and he put his guitar parts down. Rob and I had a pretty clear idea going into it of what we wanted Adrian to bring to the record: really atmospheric guitar parts with feeling. He has this incredible studio. There’s some vintage Moogs that you didn’t even know existed, and he’s got them signed by Robert Moog.

We just went there for a day and it was fun. He tried a few things and did a lot of layering, and really just went on feeling. He just listened. We presented him with a few songs that we thought his guitar playing would really better. I was hearing these parts in my head, and a lot of times Rob or myself would give Adrian a very specific instruction. But, then, on one or two songs, we kind of just said, “Here’s the song, it’s very simple, and we just want you to do something very simple. And just feel it. Don’t overdo it.”