Step Right Up: Torres
Interview with Mackenzie Scott.
“I fall in love with people instantly. That particular song is about one such instance. It’s my most fervent attempt at a heartsick love song, and its subject will never know it’s about them.”
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
Torres is the moniker for Mackenzie Scott, the Georgia-native whose singular voice represents one of the most poignant and unique voices in song-writing today. Still only in her early twenties, Scott’s songbook comes from the heart of darkness, where a flood of feelings – sorrow, longing, pain, hope, survival – diffuses through the artist’s works. The self-titled debut album’s ten utterly shape-shifting creations seeps into each and every pore of one’s heart and mind, as the deeply touching songs remain with you long after the journey reaches its end. The likes of ‘Tramp’ by Sharon Van Etten and Cat Power’s ‘Moon Pix’ albums can be reference points to the trajectory of Torres’s captivating music.
Armed with her beloved Gibson guitar – whom Scott’s family pooled together to buy – the songs are diverse, ranging from raw, sparse folk ballads (Come To Terms’), achingly beautiful love songs (‘November Baby’, ‘Don’t Run Away, Emilie’), cathartic indie-rock gems (‘When Winter’s Over’, ‘Honey’) and one of the most saddest songs in the world (‘Moon & Back’). The debut record – the culmination of a life’s work – is a stunning achievement from a young artist who will undoubtedly create many masterpieces in the coming years. Upon listening to Torres, I am reminded of first hearing New York-based singer-songwriter Nina Nastasia’s debut record ‘Dogs’ many years ago. The dark production and striking vocals share parallels to the sprawling canvas of Torres’s similarly affecting music and tower of song.
The record was recorded live to tape over the course of five days with a resulting immediacy apparent throughout. ‘Honey’ builds into a sprawling rock opus where the refrain of “Heavy are you on my mind” is delivered upon a frenzy of guitars and drums. Reverb drenched guitar notes penetrate the atmosphere of ‘Jealousy and I’. The vocals of Scott are nothing short of breathtaking, particularly on the song’s rise where Scott sings “I’ll never let her go”. ‘November Baby’ – the longest cut on the album – contains dream-like guitar whose clean tones wavers delicately beneath Scott’s heartfelt words of longing. The opening lyric sets the tone for this tender ballad: “This skin hangs on me like a lampshade / Keeping all my light at bay.” I feel the magical presence of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ close by as Scott’s lyrics are sheer poetry, conveying moments of decadence: “But Summer takes you far from me / So just for now I’ll place an angel / Atop an early Christmas tree.” ‘November Baby’ could be a distant relative to Tom Waits’ ‘Coney Island Baby’ – both steeped in fragile beauty – as Waits sings “All the stars make their wishes on her eyes.”
The achingly beautiful lament ‘Don’t Run Away, Emilie’ is one of the many heart-warming and empowering moments of the debut record. The openness and directness of Scott’s song-writing is something to behold as she sings softly “I’ll be the truest one you know if you’ll stay awhile” on the song’s close. A gorgeous delicacy breathes from the softly spoken voice of Scott – that feels almost a whisper – which touches you profoundly; whose words of longing elicits vivid emotion: “Don’t run away Emilie / Please don’t try and get out now / Dream of angels Emile / I need you cause you see me somehow”. The instrumentation is immaculate. A violin melody rises and falls magnificently beneath the deeply powerful chorus refrain. Moments later, warm percussion, clean guitar tones, hypnotic bassline and infectious keys provides the ideal backdrop to the dream-like ballad. I think immediately of Bob Dylan’s ‘I Was Young When I Left Home’ as Scott sings “this place felt like home” on a later verse; the sound of something familiar, warm and vital all at once.
‘Moon & Back’ is a sparse lament that graces the second half of Torres’s soul journey. A beautiful pop symphony is in full-bloom here as a river of tears and sadness flows from the poignant and ever-pristine song-writing of Scott: “I’m writing to you from 1991 / The year I gave you to / A momma with a girl and son.” Kindred spirits such as Elliott Smith, Nina Nastasia and Angel Olsen grace the song’s sphere as a sense of painful hurt is released. The dynamic range inherent in ‘Moon & Back’ creates a beguiling atmosphere, as the chorus forms an empowering climax, of anthemic proportions (think PJ Harvey) where soaring strings, rampant drums and raging guitars fills the surrounding void. Rarely does a song possess the power to melt a heart in one fleeting moment as when the final verse arrives: “Your new family knows I did this all for you / Maybe one day you’ll believe it too.”
‘Come To Terms’ is a sparse lament containing softly strummed acoustic guitar and soothing percussion. The intimacy created conjures up the sound – and subsequent feeling – of witnessing Angel Olsen’s live performance. A sensation that remains with you now and forever-more. The closing lyrics resonate powerfully as Scott sings “I’ll never know if looking out the window is what brings me to my knees / Or if it’s what’s inside that’s killing me.” Album closer ‘Waterfall’ centres on the meditation of ending one’s life and the contemplation of possibilities. The hard-hitting themes may be the subject matter yet the song becomes a source of hope and survival from the depths of despair. Scott sings “Do you ever make it halfway down and think God / I never meant to jump at all”. The sonic backdrop shines forth light that embodies the will for survival. ‘Waterfall’ – and the record as a whole – is a stunning achievement in conjuring up the darkest of places that in turn, becomes a portrait of the human condition. Scott’s voice leaves “like the setting sun” but like the imminent sunrise, will return once again, and illuminate us with her formidable presence.
Interview with Mackenzie Scott.
Firstly, congratulations on your stunning debut album. I’ve been living inside the world of these songs for the past few months. It’s rare to find an album of such deeply affecting music and songs of such raw emotion to truly captivate your heart. I feel the spirit of songwriters such as Sharon Van Etten, Cat Power and Nina Nastasia grace the album’s stratosphere. I would love to gain an insight into the space and time in which this collection of beguiling songs were created?
I wrote all of these songs in Nashville when I was attending college at Belmont University. In total, the album took about 3.5 years to write. Some of the songs were class assignments that I ended up writing in the stairwells of the dormitories at 4 AM. I think I shaved about twenty years off of my life just by staying up all night writing songs for almost the entirely of my college career. HA.
The intimacy of the songs immediately struck me when listening to songs such as ‘Moon & Back’ and ‘November Baby’. I was very interested to read that the album was recorded live to tape over the course of five days. I love how that special spark of creativity and a sense of wonder is captured in these recordings. Can you please recount those five days of recording and how the journey felt for you during those days?
Those five days were low-key and relaxed. There was lots of sitting around in the house where we recorded and just discussing beforehand what I wanted each song to sound like. For example, before we recorded “When Winter’s Over”, I played Ryan Adams’ “It’s Starting to Hurt” over the speakers and told Ryan McFadden (my producer) and the band, “this song gives me the same feeling I want people to get when they listen to my song.” And we’d go from there. There was lots of coffee and whiskey involved. It’s an experience I’d gladly have all over again, if the opportunity were to come my way.
The lyrics and subject matter on the album encompass the spectrum of human emotion; pain, longing, loss, love, innocence, despair, hope are etched on the canvas of sound. Can you please discuss the songwriters who have made the biggest impact on you and who, in turn has shaped your music?
Brandi Carlile is my hero. I’m obsessed with Johnny Cash and Kurt Cobain. I’m a few decades behind on the Talking Heads train, but I love David Byrne. Sufjan Stevens, Matthew Berninger (The National), Stephin Merritt (Magnetic Fields), and Tori Amos are all geniuses in my book. And St. Vincent. Ugh, she gets me. She’s so good.
My current favourite is the dream-like ballad ‘November Baby’. The song is achingly beautiful evoking the power of ‘River’ by Joni Mitchell, particularly with the Christmas setting reference. Your vocal is fragile that seeps beautifully into your consciousness. Can you discuss this song for me?
I fall in love with people instantly. That particular song is about one such instance. It’s my most fervent attempt at a heartsick love song, and its subject will never know it’s about them.
Your family pooled together to buy your beloved Gibson guitar. Describe your love for this particular instrument. The guitar sound brings me back to albums such as ‘Moon Pix’ by Cat Power or more recently, ‘Half Way Home’ by Angel Olsen. I love how the guitar is central to each and every song.
I’ve never listened to Cat Power, but I love that Angel Olsen record. People like Joan Jett, Lindsey Buckingham, and Annie Clark (St. Vincent) made me want to play the electric guitar. They play with a hunger that I find to be violent and sexy. It’s an instrument I fall for more and more every day.
Music must have always been important for you, especially as you are a native of Nashville. This place must have been a constant source of inspiration for you growing up?
I’m not actually from Nashville. I lived there for four years when I was going to college, but I’m originally from Macon, Georgia. I was always involved in some realm of musicality growing up, but it was always musicals and church choirs and piano lessons. I was never involved in what you’d call the secular world of music; I wasn’t raised on the “classics”. I listened to audio books instead.
What path do you think you will venture down on the next record, Mackenzie? Are there new songs already formed for this follow-up record?
I’m currently in the process of writing the new record. I’ve really been in the process since before the last record was released, actually. Writing an entire body of work is a sporadic, spaced out thing for me. I haven’t done enough writing to have a clear idea of what this next album will sound like, but I imagine it’ll be a darker one than the first.
What are the albums you are currently listening to?
I’ve been on what seems like a music hiatus for a few months. I’ve had to keep myself almost entirely removed from it since the beginning of the year. I am listening to a couple of things, namely the new Diarrhea Planet record, “I’m Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams”, as well as Anna Calvi’s self-titled record.
What books are you currently reading? Any favourite authors?
I’m reading JD Salinger’s Nine Stories currently. I just finished The Stranger by Albert Camus and Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem. I really love Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath, and Joan Didion.
Torres’ self-released debut album ‘Torres’ is out now.