It's a rock 'n' roll tradition to be flippant about death. But on her sophomore effort under her Torres moniker, Mackenzie Scott fashions the subject into a revered opponent. On this month's Sprinter, the Brooklyn-via Nashville-via-Georgia singer-songwriter takes the thick-veined guitars of '90s rock and slingshots that period's typically navel-gazing worldview toward the heavens. Scott's questions are big, and there's deliberately little in the way of resolutions.
And that's OK, because Scott and the musicians at work on Sprinter made a record that's a lot more fun to hangout with than it sounds. Contributors such as Rob Ellis and Ian Olliver of PJ Harvey fame and Portishead's Adrian Utley have a history of working in the shadows of iconic female voices, and they've built a jungle gym for Scott's elastic vocal range. Catching up with Gimme Noise by phone before her show Wednesday at the Entry, Scott was equally dynamic in conversation.
So a lot of the more seasoned musicians that you worked with on Sprinter have pedigrees that are kind of built around iconic female artists. Was their involvement deliberate in that way?
Mackenzie Scott: All of it was sort of happenstance. I knew Rob and I reached out to make the record with me, and everyone else that helped with the record just sort of ended up doing Rob a favor. He was kind of like, "Well, I have some friends, and I think this would just be the most economical decision if I reached out to my friends." And some of those people just happened to be Adrian Utley and Ian Olliver.
There's a lot more play with perspective on this record. "Son, You are No Island" is a pretty striking example with the more processed vocals. Are you speaking outside of yourself a lot here on record?
I wanted that voice to be almost objective and omnipotent. I guess the way that I've been describing it to people is that I wanted it to sound like the voice of God. I thought it would be interesting to explore parenthood from kind of an objective place. I'm not a parent, but the way that I wrote that was punishing and loving like I imagine would be for a child of mine. But I wanted to explore the perspective a spiritual and transcendent being rather than a being limited by the range of human emotion. I'm not sure if that was conveyed, but that was the intention [laughs].
There are two tracks that really mirror each other with these closing refrains about death and the afterlife - "New Skin" and "The Harshest Light". It's kind of a rock cliche with death to approach it more typically as something of relief or release, but I get the impression that you really don't feel that way about it.
You're definitely right. I'm definitely working within - not all the time but a lot of the time - traditional rock song structures, but my intention was to partially subvert that idea that death is a release and death is beauty [laughs]. I don't share that mentality at all.
I know you come from a baptist upbringing, and it's something you explore in your work. Are your beliefs pretty well defined as an adult or is still a pretty nebulous thing these days?
It's a nebulous thing. I have a core center that's always been with me, but everything beyond that has evolved in some way and continues to evolve. The way that I've been describing it when asked about it, because it's not really something I actually talked about I guess before I started doing interviews like this, but what I'm learning is that it doesn't have to be reasoned out and talked out. It's nebulous for me and I'm learning that it seems to be common from a lot of people I've talked with. And that's been an eye-opening experience having people open up to me and opening up to people about being aware of the fact that we can't know anything.
The last song on the record, "The Exchange," is beautiful. Somehow, it wasn't until earlier today that I even noticed the birds in the background. Was that field recording or did you record the whole track outside?
It was recorded outside. It wasn't really intentional from the beginning to record that track outside. More than anything, that song was just such a tough one for me. There's no getting around that. It was the hardest song for me to write. It was the hardest song for me to record, and when I brought it into Rob, we tried to record it a couple of times in the room where we were recording, and it just wasn't right, because I had a couple people in the room with me. And he had brought a Zoom mic to the recording studio, and he said, "Why don't you take this little mic with you, and whenever you feel it's right, do a take." I tried that a lot of times, and the one we finally used was one that I recorded, and I think I just needed to record that in solitude.
You started working under the Torres moniker when you were still a student in Nashville, and now you're in Brooklyn. Is that because you want to live there or because you need to live there?
Well, I want to be living in Manhattan [laughs]. I love Brooklyn, and I love where I live. I didn't dream of moving to Brooklyn someday, but I love it works for me right now.
I just ask because a lot of the bands I talk to seem either happy to sort of start anew when they move there, or they're kind of sad that they've left a scene behind.
I definitely have my friends in Nashville that are part of the local scene and everything. But honestly, the world I left behind in Nashville is almost non-existent now. Everyone's kind of moved on. It was some of the best times of my life and very formative for me, but I don't necessarily long for a local scene. I don't wish I was back in college. It all kind of depresses me to be honest.The tour's just starting this week for you guys. I'm curious about what sort of relationship you have with playing these songs night in and night out. They all seem like they could be pretty emotionally taxing. For the live show now, I do try to keep my focus more on the musical aspect of it than the lyrical aspect. I'm not one to need to draw on that emotion over and over night after night in order to get the performance that I want. I imagine that that would all become really tiresome, and so what I try to do is have a lot of fun with the music.
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