On the pocket of her thrift store denim jacket, Mackenzie Scott wears a collection of buttons. One reps New Jersey–based rockers Screaming Females. Another, Nashville label Spaghetti Spaghetti Records. There’s an oversized close-up of a Persian cat’s fuzzy scowl (she says that’s her favorite) and a gold enamel pin emblazoned with “President’s Award,” the kind they give top students in middle school for perfect attendance or good grades. These pins aren’t just flair: They’re representative of the many aspects that make up Scott’s personality — the overachiever, the Southern punk, the crazy cat lady, and a woman who can let loose an unearthly moan.
Lately, she’s gotten a lot of recognition for doing that last one under the moniker Torres, a family surname from her mother’s side that she took on to keep a layer of separation between herself as a person and herself as a performer. “Mackenzie Scott is the name that comes on my receipts when I buy cat litter,” she explains. “It’s not very romantic or mysterious.”
We meet at a Bushwick coffee shop close to her apartment, two days before the release of Sprinter, her sophomore album; her tour, which includes headlining shows, festival dates, and support for performers like Jenny Lewis and Courtney Barnett, kicks off that same day.
Sprinter is already gaining major momentum, and reviews often marvel at Scott’s youth — she’s only 24 — and note her intensity as a female performer, which she has mixed feelings about. “It’s OK when people reference my age, but the gender thing irks me,” she confesses. “I feel especially non-gendered [or] androgynous and try to write in a way that transcends social constructs such as gender.” Though her album examines her relationship with her family, her religious upbringing, and her Southern roots, she relates these experiences with a bigger picture in mind. “My brain has undergone some significant expansion,” she laughs. “Thematically, I think this record…feels a bit more cosmic. I guess what I was trying to achieve with this one was making it somehow so hyper-personal that it was universal.”
Another thing Scott sees as a significant difference between Sprinter and her 2013 self-titled debut came from the proving ground of being on tour. “I didn’t even touch that first record for the last couple years, and then recently tried to listen to a couple of the songs. I didn’t even recognize my voice,” she says. “I hadn’t performed live a lot. I hadn’t toured at that point, and I didn’t even realize how much my vocal performance has changed.” Her ferocious, full-throated wail is indeed singular, all the more startling when it unfurls alongside smoky, quieter confessions that are somehow no less intense. Her delivery, regardless of how raw her subject matter can be, is always unflinching.
Capturing Scott’s unprecedented emotional and sonic range with a careful ear was no small task, and she couldn’t have made a more perfect choice than enlisting Rob Ellis for help with production. Known for his work with PJ Harvey, Marianne Faithfull, and Scott Walker, among others, Ellis might have been a difficult get for a new artist, but this particular partnership happened casually.
“[Ellis] came to the first show that I played in London and he introduced himself….We kept in touch, and last year when I was looking for help to make this record I had all these demos, and I didn’t have a label yet. I felt like I was back to the beginning. But I emailed him…and miraculously he said yes,” Scott recalls. “I know that in retrospect it kind of seems like this massive thing. When it was happening, I was so focused on making this record I couldn’t think about the other stuff — couldn’t think about the fact that Rob Ellis was playing drums on my record, or I would’ve had a panic attack.”
On the next page: “I know that the record is not exactly the picture of a woman full of joy and comedy…”
Ellis and Scott Skyped a lot before she flew to his studio in the U.K. to record. Scott sent him references from other songs, literature, and film, charging Ellis with constructing a collage including everything from Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life to Nirvana’s “Scentless Apprentice.” Says Scott, “I think that one of his major roles in the process was just looking at all of this shit that I sent him and trying to pick out the parts we could make into something concrete, sonically. My goal there was to not be derivative, but to actually use all these things to make something new that had never been made before, because of all of the places that I was pulling from.”
Lyrically, Sprinter is Scott’s breadcrumb trail along her path to self-actualization. On contemplative acoustic number “Ferris Wheel,” Scott is attracted to another’s sadness because it’s something she sees in herself. Meanwhile, explosive album opener “Strange Hellos” and the caustic, spidery “Son, You Are No Island” offer up an almost combustible anger. The album’s stunning closer, “The Exchange,” is a stark and breathtaking portrait of Scott’s vulnerability. Though it can feel overwhelmingly dark and heavy, Scott doesn’t want anyone to worry. “I know that the record is not exactly the picture of a woman full of joy and comedy,” she observes. “I love to laugh and I’m not a morose person. It’s just one facet of me.”
Scott’s imagery draws heavily on biblical metaphor, a move that references her religious upbringing and relationship with her family. “These [songs] are basically conversations that I never had with them,” she admits. “[Now] it’s out there; I think they’ve heard it. We do talk a lot and they always emphasize how proud of me they are and how much they support me. That gave me a bit of freedom, I guess, for the rest.”
The “rest” refers to songs like “New Skin,” “The Harshest Light,” and the album’s title track, which chart Scott’s move away from organized religion to minting her own personal brand of faith. “The teachings of Jesus Christ are it for me — love your neighbor as yourself, those universal truths,” she says. “But organized religion, no more. It only ever did more harm than good. It’s all about what people are adding to it that messes it up.” She adds, “I’m at a place where I recognize and acknowledge that we, as humans, can’t comprehend most of the things that exist in the grand scheme. I don’t have any answers and I think that’s just where I am right now. That’s where I was when I wrote this record and it’s still where I am. [Sprinter is] not a statement, it’s a question.”
Asking those questions has been cathartic for Scott. “Getting these things onto paper, the bulk of which I have never spoken about in conversation, is really healing for me,” she says. In “The Exchange,” Scott sings, “I’m just afraid to see my heroes age.” It’s not hard to imagine that Torres might represent a different kind of heroism, one that says to others from a background similar to Scott’s that it’s OK to question things, it’s OK to be angry, and it’s OK to push boundaries and find oneself in the margins of them.
“I certainly write in hopes that what I’m putting out there will connect,” she says. “I am always thinking about kids like me in the South feeling a little bit lost or oppressed in some way. I guess the reason I wrote it is to help myself, and the reason I put it out there is it might help other people.”
Torres plays Baby’s All Right on May 27. The performance has sold out, but tickets are available on the secondary market.