In the Studio: Torres on Her Second Album In Progress, Writer’s Block, and Reading Her Own Press
Sep 29, 2014
In 2013, Mackenzie Scott (aka Torres) released her debut album. Torres was a fantastic introduction to a talented artist, a singer/songwriter adept at both the furious and the calm, the soul-baring and the storytelling, the dark and the light. The poetry of her writing proved Torres an album as lyrically deep as an ocean and one which reveals more with each listen, the intensity of her delivery lending the songs a weight, an importance, an inimitable spirit.
Torres was a remarkable start for the Macon, GA-born Scott, who recorded the album while still a student at Belmont University in Nashville. Having recently moved to Brooklyn, Scott is getting ready to record the follow up to Torres. She sat down with Under the Radar in a hip bar in Bushwick to discuss her debut, her current inspirations, and the new album she hopes to release in the New Year.
Frank Valish (Under the Radar): What was the transition like for you when you moved to New York?
Mackenzie Scott: It was pretty difficult for me; I can't lie. The initial move wasn't that difficult, because it was summer, but then I kind of immediately went on tour. When I came back and had my first time to actually be still, it was winter and it was, as you know, a really, really cold, bitter winter. I feel like that was really the beginning of the transition for me.
I couldn't imagine living here. I think I'd have daily panic attacks.
I know what you mean. It's easier if you have stepping stones like I did. I went from the suburbs of Georgia to Nashville, which is still not really a big city, but it was enough of a stepping stone to not feel like such a drastic shift when I moved to Brooklyn.
Were there fewer opportunities in Nashville than here?
Not fewer opportunities. There are a lot of similarities, which I think is why people move to Nashville from Brooklyn and vice versa. But there were different opportunities here that I didn't really have in Nashville. More of the music that I really dig comes from the New York area. I love the South and I love country music and all of that, but the Music Row thing kind of bummed me out, and I just wanted a change of scenery, as far as the industry goes.
Had you been writing on the road?
I pick up bits and pieces from things that happen on the road. I'll jot down little lines here and there that stick out to me, and then I'll piece them together when I get home. But for the most part, I don't really write on the road. As of right now, I'm not really good at it. When I'm on the road, I'm in tour headspace and when I'm at home writing, I'm in a completely different world. It's that extroverted headspace versus the really, really introverted, isolated headspace that comes from writing at home.
When did you start writing for the new record in earnest?
I think the first song I started writing pretty much was actually before I put my first record out. I had one or two that I was working on, but I didn't actually set my mind to starting to write a second record until around Christmas time or the beginning of the year. Then it was a very intentional, like, "Okay, I have to sit down now and really think about making a second record."
Is writing an intentional process?
I think that it is. I think that there are a lot of ideas. Actually most of the ideas for me formulate in my subconscious, when I'm not being intentional about writing and when I'm actually not even thinking about writing at all. But the writing part of it, not just having the ideas, but bringing them to fruition, I think that part of it is very intentional.
How much do you have written?
At this point, I think I have a record that is ready to be made. It's been my mode since January.
What's the most immediate next step?
At this point, just getting into the studio and staring to make the record and finding someone to put it out. I almost feel like I'm starting at the beginning. I sort of feel like I'm in the same place I was before I made my first record.
Is that because your situation is different?
Yeah, it kind of feels like a whole new ball game. The first time around, it felt very similar in terms of the creative aspect of it: I have all of these songs I just need to record them now. It's a really urgent feeling, that I need to put all my ideas down on tape. I felt that way the first time and I feel that way now. I thought maybe it would be a little different my second time around, having more of a team of people helping me out, and in that aspect, yes it's different and awesome and easier in a lot of ways, but the creative aspect of it feels very much the same as the first time around.
Do you have that feeling, like the saying: You have your whole life to write your fist record and six months to write your next?
It totally applies. And I don't think that was to my detriment at all. I actually think that forced me to more quickly decide what matters and what doesn't matter as much. My process didn't really change. It allowed me to be very, very conscious right from the get go of what I'm writing about, and it allowed me much more quickly, say halfway through a song, to just be able to throw it out and say, "This is shit and it's not even worth it." I'm having to make decisions a lot more quickly.
Were there things you knew you wanted to do differently or be different this time around?
Do you mean as far as the writing goes or the recording, the finished product?
Innately, I think the writing is going to be more, I don't even want to use the word mature, because I don't think that's it, I'm just kind of a different person than I was when I wrote the first album. The actual songs themselves will always be a reflection of where I am at whatever point I am in life when I'm writing them, which I think is to be expected. But as far as the recording and the new album goes, the way it's going to sound and all of that, I have been thinking a lot more about production and weird sounds that I never even would have considered for the first album.
Okay, if this makes any sense, my brain has gotten a lot more cosmic in the last couple years, and I mean that in a very grand sense. For example, I'm lying in bed at midnight and I'm hearing the production on a song that I just wrote. I'm hearing it futuristically in the studio, how do I want this to sound, and all of a sudden I'll get a vision of floating through space. Like, I want this song to sound like a very direct pink line through space or something. Really synesthetic sort of imagery. I'm thinking a lot more abstractly than I did the first time around. The first time, I was thinking more like I have these songs, let's just put them out like I wrote them. Which is exactly what the first record needed. I wouldn't do it any differently. But this time I'm thinking about how I can make it not only more musically interesting. Beyond just the songwriting, I want to put certain soundscapes behind what I'm doing that I didn't have the first time around. And I'm also thinking about the live show, making it more interesting, and making it a more all-encompassing experience, just visually stimulating. It needs to sound great, but it also needs to look cool. It needs to be more of a 360 experience.
Is there any worry that those words that have been frequently used to describe you on your first album—cathartic, honest—could create a pigeonhole for you?
I try not to let myself take those reviews, those things that people say, as anything that could be considered pejorative. That being said, when people say things like that, that's their impression of it, and everyone is entitled to their words that they want to use. But absolutely. Cathartic. Emotional. Honest. Those are all words that are...
Yeah, it's art. Sure there's certainly that fear of getting compared exclusively with female singer/songwriters for the rest of my career.
Did those words feel like pejoratives?
Not in and of themselves, but when it's all I hear, it gets to be a little monotonous. I don't mean to sound like a snob. "No, use different words when reviewing my music." But I think about it sometimes. Sometimes I wish I would get maybe a Kurt Cobain or Johnny Cash or even Stephin Merritt comparison. There are all of these incredible musicians who I do consider to be influences, and I get compared to a lot of people who, honestly, I've never even listened to. To be perfectly frank, I've never heard a Cat Power song all the way through, and I didn't even know who PJ Harvey was before I put out my album. And of course they're incredible. I love PJ Harvey now.
Kurt Cobain and Johnny Cash and Stephin Merritt are also honest and emotional.
Sure. But why are those words never put on them.
Well, we know why.
We know why. And I'm not complaining. We're just talking.
It's an interesting topic to think about and talk about because it's something you have to live with.
I hate that "confessional" has become such a four-letter word in this industry for a lot of women, but it has.
Certainly all the songs on the first album wouldn't be described as confessional.
I wouldn't think so either. But I guess everyone's got their impression that they take from it.
Does that, or can that, influence the songwriting process?
I think that it can, and I think that it all depends on the writer. For myself, everyone said, "Don't read the reviews, don't read the comments." And I'm learning more and more that they're right. With someone starting out, sure, I'm going to read the Pitchfork review...
Especially when it's good.
Yeah, and of course I'm going to read The Guardian or whatever. These are exciting things. But at some point, I'm going to have to stop reading the comments and reading the reviews, because whether I like it or not, I think about it, when I'm trying to be in that headspace where I just want to make my art, where I just want to write. I didn't have all of that to go on the first time around.
Do you end up second guessing?
I do. I second guess almost everything I do now, and it's a pain. And at the end of it all, I always go with my gut.
So how many songs do you have?
Uh, enough for an album. [Laughs]
When you were writing this record, putting those ideas together that you compiled, did you see themes emerging?
Absolutely. Even more so than with the last album. [Pause] You want to know the themes? [Laughs] The themes that have been emerging are things that are being pulled from certain literature that I have been reading. And films. I pulled a lot from literature the first time around, but this time around I'm having a little bit more fun with my influences and my references. The themes, to be honest, have been very Biblical thus far, and apocalyptic. And I guess very alpha and omega. And very cosmic. I think that this record is going to feel just a lot grander in the scheme of things. I think that the first record was very grounded, and I was very proud of that record, but this one is going to be a bit different.
Bigger ideas. More existential ideas. Fears. Existential fears. Bigger themes in general, yeah.
What were you reading when you were writing these songs?
Around the time I started writing the album, I was reading The Stranger by Camus. And I read a lot of Joan Didion around the time I started writing as well; I was reading Slouching Toward Bethlehem, which is an amazing collection of essays. It's just incredible. And a lot of Cormac McCarthy. I just finished Child of God and moved on to Blood Meridian. Super, super dark. Oh, I got into Ray Bradbury for the first time; it is kind of shameful that I only just now am getting into Ray Bradbury. Sharon [Van Etten] actually gave me a copy of Zen in the Art of Writing because I was having a terrible time with writer's block. I was at this huge hump in the road and was absolutely desperate to start writing again. It totally just opened the floodgates, and then I read Fahrenheit 451 immediately following. Again, I can't believe I didn't read that in middle or high school or something, but I just didn't.
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