Mackenzie Scott speaks softly, in a thoughtful, candid manner, on the phone from her Brooklyn apartment. But when she performs under the moniker Torres, her voice swells in dark, cathartic ruminations on fears, faith and family.
“I tend to be quiet in my day-to-day and not express what I’m thinking about and what I’m feeling,” says Scott, 24, who was raised Baptist in Macon, Ga. “I have a hard time communicating in conversation with friends and people that I love, ironically. [When I’m] writing about my familial relationships and my religious upbringing, it’s ultimately just helping me make sense of it all.”
As Torres, an old family surname, Scott tackles those topics more boldly—if still enigmatically—on her sophomore release, Sprinter. One of 2015’s best albums, it’s bolstered by sonic muscle from producer/drummer Rob Ellis and bassist Ian Olliver (both from PJ Harvey’s original trio) and Portishead’s Adrian Utley.
Aging, mortality and loss, in particular, consume her. “Even as a really young kid, my biggest fear was losing my parents in some freak fire or car accident or some tragedy,” says Scott, who was adopted by her birth mother’s Bible-study teacher. “They were not fantasies. They were huge fears. They would keep me awake at night and give me panic attacks.”
That weight culminates in Sprinter’s slow, haunting closer, “The Exchange,” which begins with the story of Scott’s mother—who was also adopted—learning that her birth records were lost in a flood. “An entire family tree, an eternal privacy,” Scott sings with hushed deliberation. “Mother, father, I’m underwater, and I don’t think you can pull me out of this.”
There are other references to water and drowning, from “Waterfall” on her 2013 debut Torres to Sprinter’s spooky “Son, You Are No Island,” which features the lyric “You drowned to save yourself.”
“I’m a melancholy person by nature,” Scott says. “I’ve always had a mental image of water in some capacity when I’m thinking of suffocation or the idea of rebirth or renewal. Even that is a very melancholy idea. It’s death before life.”
Yet “The Exchange” remains the most intimate, harrowing listen. Starker than the rest of Sprinter, it also proved the hardest song to write and record. Scott says she finished the lyrics just before going to England to work with producer Ellis at a nursery-turned-studio, and she was “a bit self-conscious” to record it around the equipment and engineer. So Ellis gave Scott a portable Zoom recorder to carry around and record the song wherever she felt at ease. “I recorded outside, on the property,” she says. “Under a canopy of trees. Actually devastatingly gorgeous.”
She’d met Ellis when he came to Torres’ first show in London in 2013. “He was very easy to talk to,” Scott says. “It was surprising that I would hit it off so well with a 50-something-year-old British gentleman, but we totally did.”
Their collaboration was risky, since Scott was dogged by PJ Harvey comparisons even before drafting the rhythm section from Harvey’s Dry, an album that Scott says she first heard in her room one night after sessions for Sprinter. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m working with this guy.’ ” At least a few songs on Sprinter cast similar shadows.
“It’s a totally flattering comparison, but it irritates me that that’s where everybody’s mind goes,” says Scott, who cites Nirvana and St. Vincent as her inspirations, along with the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and The Phantom of the Opera that she heard in her youth. And she gives more credit to authors like Joan Didion and Ray Bradbury, whose Zen in the Art of Writing lent two lessons. Get both your loves and hates onto the page, she says, and “Write with passion, because whatever it is, you should be excited about what you’re writing.”
Scott finds passion in sharing her songs live as well. “I feel like I’m a character onstage, or an amplified version of myself,” says Scott, who leads her touring quartet at Great Scott on Jan. 22. “It makes me feel alive.”