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Torres and Her Cowboy Guilt: "I’ve Had to Turn My Pointed Finger Around on Myself"

With her second record 'Sprinter,' the now 24-year-old songwriter delivers a proper rock album that grapples with God, ancestry, forgiveness, and mortality. How did she get here?
May 7, 2015, 3:59pm

Photo credit: Shawn Brackbill

OK, it wasn’t that complicated, Mackenzie Scott would like to clarify. She makes air quotes and repeats the word she used to describe the way her first album approached its big themes of jealousy and depression: “explored,” she laughs, with the incredulous tone that comes with looking back on being 22. As one does over the course of two years, she’s grown up. She has a new album. It’s called Sprinter, and it’s a change in tone from her eponymous debut as Torres.

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“I just had to dig a lot deeper for these songs, and it wasn’t so easy as just pinpointing ‘I’m jealous’ or ‘I feel like killing myself,’” she explains. “It wasn’t that easy this time around because there was a lot of examining my past.” Torres may have been remarkably perceptive in its songwriting and adept in its composition, but it was, for the most part, an intimate album even when it dug into its electric side and got a little loud. Sprinter is something darker and more titanic, a proper rock album in a grand, classic artistic tradition. It wrestles with God and ancestry and forgiveness and mortality. It finds Scott grappling with her place in the world and accepting that her moral authority may not be absolute, even within her own songs.

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“I’ve had to turn my pointed finger around on myself in a lot of ways and expose myself for being guilty of doing a lot of the same things that people that I’ve essentially judged for being immoral,” she tells me. She adds, “I’ve had to expose myself in a sense for being guilty for a lot of those behaviors. And also do some acknowledging that maybe behaviors that I saw in other people, you know, they may be off-putting or very specifically hurtful to me. But ultimately I’ve had to question: Was that person, are those people—were they objectively wrong?”

Sprinter contains no easy answers and little interest in a single objective truth. Even its cover, which shows Scott posed starkly and confrontationally in a tank top with stringy hair, is half shaded and half brightly lit. It whirs with bouncy, electronic energy and explodes into foreboding squalls of guitar fuzz. Sharply drawn character vignettes—a preacher addicted to porn, a friend with a hilarious George W. Bush impression and a passion for Native American reparations—crop up, but they are instruments in a larger vision. Certain phrases ring out like inescapable proclamations: "There’s freedom to and freedom from / and freedom to run from everyone”; “I am afraid to see my heroes age / I am afraid of disintegration.”

The opening song, “Strange Hellos,” contemplates the complex moral calculus of hating someone without simply dismissing them as a bad person, while the closing song, “The Exchange,” explores the possibilities of Scott’s parents’ mortality and examines the family saga of adoption (her own adoptive mother was also adopted). True to her word, these songs are more personal yet less solipsistic than her first album. They are portentous and occasionally devastating but never particularly dark. They are the sound of someone finishing the sprint (oh shit! Is this where the title comes from?) through youth, arriving at adulthood, and taking a deep breath to figure out where they are and how they got there.

Scott’s youth went like this: She grew up in the small town of Macon, Georgia, the youngest of three siblings by almost a decade. She was an avid reader with a big imagination, and she loved to play in the woods, where she would pretend she was searching for buried treasure “somewhere deep in the creeks of Georgia.” Her family was religious—Baptist—and she describes growing up with her own form of deep-seated conviction, not so much religious as morally absolute, an attitude with which her college experience and especially her current music has been in many ways an attempt to come to terms.

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“I think that more than anything I believed that if I just did things by the books and I was a good person and I didn’t drink alcohol and—I didn’t really date in high school—if I was chaste and I was sober and I was going to church and I just believed that everything, that the stars would align for me,” she explains. “That just wasn’t true.”

A lot of that progression from an absolute, black-and-white worldview to one more tolerant of the gray areas in life happened in college. Scott went to Belmont University, in Nashville, which has a popular and respected songwriting program: Graduates are groomed to be Music Row songwriters, and alumni include Brad Paisley and the members of Florida Georgia Line. She was less interested in this formal industry side, though, seeing the program more as a chance to spend four years getting academic credit for her personal passion. She was quickly drawn off-campus to the then-burgeoning Nashville underground that included now-acclaimed acts like Diarrhea Planet and Natalie Prass playing in basements.

“I was so inspired, and I had the distinct impression that it was all going to catch on very soon,” she remembers, adding that she was more a fan than an active participant, her own sound still very much in formation. “I think I always kind of felt like I didn’t get the chance to prove myself,” she says, adding. “I spent a lot of time feeling a bit inferior. Maybe a little resentful.”

A lot of her own gigs were with an acoustic guitar in coffee shops, where “people just talked the whole time,” which became “pretty demoralizing.” But it also helped her latch onto the stripped-down electric guitar approach that has since become the source of much of Torres's emotional heft and distinctive sound. “It was partially that I just loved the electric guitar and partially that I had realized that it was just so much easier for those people to command a room with a louder instrument,” she says.

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Torres came out just a month after Scott finished her degree, to critical acclaim, showcasing a talent that went pretty far beyond what most college kids are cooking up in their dorm rooms. Its best single, “Honey,” is a charcoal-brushed portrait of a lover struggling to confront her partner over some unspoken breach of trust. Although it's, by Scott's description, one of the songs most evocatively tied to her own life, it's devastating, ageless—when I first heard it I imagined a couple in their 60s—and, to me, impressively subtle. Still, it's clear how its tone of moral conviction might grate a little on a slightly older, more evolved Torres.

Among the changes that have occurred for Scott since that album came out—extensive touring, a new deal with Partisan Records, and a move to Brooklyn, with its corresponding increase in obsessive personality tics and organizational skills—the most significant and obvious is a general sense of becoming an adult, with the increased awareness of life's uncertainties that that entails. There's been a lot more existing in the “gray areas” for Scott, along with a softening of tone and a lessening of judgment, that has come with recognizing certain beliefs may be less final and definitive than they once seemed. While on one hand there's a clear religious undertone of going from yesterday's ardent churchgoer to today's “Christian mystic,” that shift is also what it means to grow up. You realize that yesterday's unassailable truths maybe deserve to be assailed. You turn 24 and cringe at the arrogant certain you had at 22.

“I think there was a sense for me that I was maybe a bit untouchable, that I had it all together because I knew what I believed and I just knew,” Scott says. “I just knew everything. And I’ve just done a lot of backtracking since, and that’s ultimately what I’m exploring on this record.” That's it. This time the exploration doesn't need air quotes. It's gotten a little more complicated. Growing up is about just trying out something new, just trying to, as Torres sings at one point, “take this new skin for a spin.” The answers aren't always clear, and that's OK.

Kyle Kramer sprints when he plays soccer. Follow him on Twitter.