The Art Rock Rebellion of Torres
On her third LP, 'Three Futures,' Mackenzie Scott lets go of her fears, celebrates the body, and finds comfort in acceptance. She tells us that she's just making up for lost time.
All photos by Jessica Lehrman
During Torres's set at Brooklyn Steel in May, Mackenzie Scott seemed possessed. At the top of every crescendo, her voice spiralled out into a wild grunt or wail; she attacked her guitar like it was an industrial tool. She closed her set that night with "Strange Hellos," a vengeful song of ominous non-apologies, a one-sided argument backed by clattering grunge guitars. She towered over the microphone, curling her lip, barely blinking except to wink at someone in the front row during the guitar solo. She twisted the song into knots, replacing the word "hate" with "love" in the introduction, but growling "fuck you" when the solo gave way. When the song fell into chaos and feedback at the end, Scott threw herself to her knees, cracked her guitar onto the floor on the way down, and crawled across the stage on all fours through the noise. Her knees and palms smacked the ground at uncomfortable rhythms, eyes wide while white-blonde hair snapped across her face.
This is the next step in the evolution of Torres. In the four years since she released her debut LP and moved to Brooklyn, Mackenzie Scott has turned from a raw singer-songwriter into a confounding art rock force, embracing a God-tinged mysticism. Three Futures, her third LP—out September 29 on 4AD—sets out a new worldview. It's the sound of Scott moving further away from the strictures of the Baptist Church in which she was raised and with which she grappled on her her first two albums, Torres and Sprinter. Through a combination of industrial clatter and warm tones, Three Futures lays out a new spirituality, with the body as a conduit for the soul.
When we meet on the back patio of a Brooklyn coffee shop in the middle of June, the 26-year-old Scott is disarmingly placid, her ice-blue eyes beneath a black Planet Hollywood dad hat. She's explaining her new philosophy by way of the title track of her new album, where she sings to a lover, "You didn't know I saw three futures: One alone, and one with you / And one with the love I knew I'd choose."
"What I want, what will happen, what should happen—I've given you three examples right there of options, paths," she says, referring to the idea of fatalism she embraced in the space between Sprinter and Three Futures. "And what is the most right thing, what is the best thing, is not always the thing that is going to happen. The thing that I want is not always going to be the best thing. Or the thing that I want may be the best thing. It might not be what's going to happen. Ultimately, we can't control things."
Adopted at birth by her birth mother's bible studies teacher, Scott was raised in Macon, Georgia from the age of three, and the more conservative strictures of the Baptist Church she attended governed her life and thoughts into her late teens. She repeats some old mantras now, wearily: "Deny the flesh and focus on the spirit. Focus on feeding the soul. You know, be modest. These were truths that I was never really given the opportunity to question or reshape for myself." In 2009, aged 19, Scott moved to Belmont University in Nashville, where she was enrolled on the same songwriting course that country luminaries like Brad Paisley and Lee Ann Womack had graduated from before. At Belmont—300 miles from home, writing constantly, trying to get a foothold in the Nashville underground scene—things started to open up. The experience wasn't ideal—"I spent a lot of time feeling a bit inferior. Maybe a little resentful," she told Noisey of the experience in 2015—but her absolutism began to crumble.
"The thing that I want is not always going to be the best thing. Or the thing that I want may be the best thing. It might not be what's going to happen. Ultimately, we can't control things."
There were marks of a spiritual rebellion all over her debut LP, Torres, released in 2013, a month after Scott graduated from Belmont. It was an album consumed by biblical cadence and treachery. It opened with "Mother Earth, Father God," Scott singing about "demons" betting on her "fall," "hands lifted to heaven" and "toes dipped in hell," kisses of betrayal. She believed in God, but she wasn't making praise music.
Still, Torres was marked as much by what went unsaid. On "Honey," she was "thinking about telling you what you've done to me"; on "Don't Run Away, Emilie," she sang over a lone overdriven guitar and a plucked violin: "I want to tell you everything." Her voice flew between a haunted falsetto and a raw macabre, tapping into lingering anxieties; but lyrically, Scott was holding something back.
She moved from Nashville to Brooklyn soon after the album's release. At the time, she talked about the way that New York had made her "a little harsh" as a person—not necessarily for the worse. It gave Scott the ability to confront her past and present more directly. Sprinter, released in 2015, was a darker, more frayed record, built around overdriven guitars and, occasionally, distant, electronic pulses. Scott explicitly lashed out at the hypocrisy of the clergy in Macon while fighting for her own space. The vicious "Strange Hellos" gave way to "New Skin" where Scott undid her debut LP's reticence. "Who's that trying to speak for me? / What is it that they claim to be?" she asked, before spitting out the answer herself: "A child of God much like yourself." Over the loose distortion of "Sprinter," after detailing her memories of the Church, she was clear and decisive: "There's freedom to and freedom from / The Baptist in me chose to run."
But, Scott says, for all of Sprinter's boldness, she was still thinking in the Church's binaries. "My lens at that time was far more permeated by a sense of duality: Darkness versus light; Good versus evil; Known versus unknown; Life versus death," she tells me. "I don't think at the time I was leaving myself a lot of room for much else, or a more expansive perspective. I was trying to figure it out. And I never figured it out, of course."
Things are different now. The harshening effects of the city have grown into something else. "I think that New York has made me more of a mystic actually," she says. In Brooklyn, she is "always observing. And what I observe is life being celebrated in every way imaginable, in ways that I had never imagined prior to observing. Ways unimaginable. Life as being celebrated. Life as being fought for."
When Scott and her band—Cameron Kapoor on guitar and synthesizers, Erin Manning on bass keys and Moog, and Dominic Cipolla on drums—returned from the European leg of the Sprinter tour in the fall of 2015, the songs had started to mutate. "We came back and it was totally new. It was the same songs—it was Sprinter—but it was far more industrial, far more stark. I think people were surprised, but I didn't exactly notice where the transition had taken place." Scott was listening to new music, for a start. She'd started immersing herself in more Can and early Kraftwerk records, and realized she wanted to "tighten up" and "suck it in" with Torres. She wanted "to make everything—not necessarily dry—but just more nuanced and surreal."
In the summer of 2016, with this new sound, Scott and her band began to put up the scaffolding of Three Futures. They recorded the "infrastructure" of the album—bass, drums, rhythm—in Stockport, England, an industrial town a few miles outside of Manchester. ("I thrive on extremes, Scott says. "It needed to be severe. It needed to be stark"). They then filled out the record in a more forgiving climate on England's south coast, in Dorset, letting some light in.
These two extremes interact everywhere on Three Futures. There's a high-pitched whirr grating on the low rumbles of opener "Tongue Slap Your Brains Out," but it opens up into a lush chorus of layered, cello-like guitars, Scott assuring her family (and perhaps herself) that "it's still the Georgia winds that move me." The twitching, gnarled keys of "Skim" dissipate when Scott sings that "there's no unlit corner of the room I'm in." "Helen in the Woods" glitches and convulses while Scott plays the narrator and actors in a harrowing story of sexual assault. It's followed by "Bad Baby Pie," one of the album's most sonically uplifting moments with it's heart-race drums and harmonic feedback. The record is immersive, just as Scott intended. She wrote each song on Three Futures as an accompaniment to a room in a ten-room house, each with its own smells, textures, tastes, and colors. There are sensuous touchstones everywhere: a peach cobbler on granite; bergamot perfume in the TV room; velvet; cutlery; the Florida June; the Myrtle Viaduct; a "Concrete Ganesha."
"We have these senses," she says. "We have our sense of smell, we have our sense of taste. We have our ears, we have our eyes, we have our hands and feet. We have—thank God—we have our orgasms." Scott smiles and her voice speeds up, a hint of her Georgia accent drifting back over her vowels. "All of these pleasures are—in my mind—tied directly to the spirit. I almost don't believe that you can detach them from the spirit. Whatever that is, wherever the soul or spirit molecule or whatever it is lies inside of it. Whatever gland it's in."
She lays this out at the end of Three Futures, on "To Be Given a Body," where she presents a snapshot of a childhood memory, sat between her mother and father on a ski lift. She alludes to scripture, paraphrasing Romans 8:22—"Though all creation groans," she sings—before hitting her thesis: "To be given a body is the greatest gift."
"We have our sense of smell, we have our sense of taste. We have our ears, we have our eyes, we have our hands and feet. We have—thank God—we have our orgasms."
On Three Futures, as she was on Sprinter, Scott's responding to her past. She's just not as bitter about it now: "My whole life, I thought that—because of the way that I was taught[...] because of where I was raised, because of my gender, it all plays into it—I thought that the body was something to be overcome. That the flesh was something to be denied."
Now, she says, she just wants to "make up for time that I lost."
New York plays its part. "I can walk over the Manhattan Bridge and I can look at the city with my eyes and I can feel the sun on my skin," she says before lifting up her left arm to reveal a scarlet mark above her left wrist. "And you know, when I burn myself with my kettle, which I did, I feel that too! My skin came off of my hand and I felt that!"
After the release of Sprinter in 2015, Scott talked in interviews about drowning. She had sung about water and death before; on "Waterfall," the last track from Torres, she asked the water itself, "Do you ever make it halfway down and think 'God, I never meant to jump at all?'" But Sprinter's "The Exchange" was even more explicit. It was a brutally beautiful song—just Scott singing half in a whisper over a barely audible acoustic guitar. It was, in part, a story from her birth mother's perspective. Scott was worried about disconnection and mortality; she was terrified that the people she loved might die.
"My crippling fear of mortality; my intense, intense love of life; my fear of losing my parents and seeing people that I love get old," she told Pitchfork. "That was my own way of saying that I'm drowning but I'm OK. But I'm drowning." When I interviewed her for The Quietus a few months later, she was still consumed by it. "I've found that I haven't been able to escape that feeling of being under water," she said. "But I'm not feeling it 24 hours a day. It comes in waves."
On Three Futures, Scott isn't overwhelmed. "Greener Stretch," the brightest song on the record, layers arpeggiated synth loops over one another while Scott sings about water at least up to her neck. She is "Camped out in your sinking house" in "a slanted kitchen," and it's no longer a nightmare: "Now that we have groped the ledge / Let's step back from it!"
Scott starts to talk as though she's reassuring herself, breaking mid-sentence, staring across the table at me but focusing her mind elsewhere. "Ultimately, we can't control things," she says. "And where I'm at now, ultimately, I don't want to control things. Because even if I had had within my power—the tiny little human that I am on the tip of a ballpoint pen—even if I had it within myself to control and manipulate events and other people, to have things align the way that I want them to, that doesn't mean that that is the most right thing. It doesn't mean that that is what should happen. It doesn't mean that that is correct."
Nothing is perfect. It's started to rain and we've moved to a high wooden bench under a corrugated iron shelter. For all of that ceded control, Scott still wishes that she could see things more clearly; herself, mostly. "I think that when I say it's my job to be an observer, I also mean to observe myself as objectively as possible," she says. "I can try to see out, but I can't put my eyeballs in your head and see the way you're seeing me now. I can't. That's frustrating. Because I wish that I could." Every philosophy has its limits.
"It is frustrating to be so stuck," she says, squinting back towards the table we just moved from as the rain picks up. I ask where, and Scott responds without hesitating: "In my own body."
Jessica Lehrman is a New York-based photographer. Follow her on Instagram.
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