Mackenzie Scott’s 2012 debut, the self-titled Torres, was one of those records that impressed, despite it being clear that what laid within may not quite be the finished product. It was recorded in five days while Scott was a 22-year-old student, in a Tennessee studio owned by Tony Joe White – a veteran Louisiana musician who last year jammed with Foo Fighters on Letterman, but may be best remembered for writing Tina Turner’s “Steamy Windows”. Torres had the feel of a record made quickly and on the cheap, all emotional purge, bare electric guitar and raw emotion. The final track, “Waterfall”, found her contemplating a suicide plunge. “The rocks beneath they bare their teeth/They all conspire to set me free…” Morbid, perhaps; but what was interesting is that it felt more like a beginning than an ending.
Torres’ second album follows a process of maturing and uprooting. There was graduation from university, in English and songwriting; tours with Sharon Van Etten and Strands Of Oak; then a move from Nashville to Brooklyn. But Sprinter was made even further from home. Specifically, Bridport, Dorset, where she holed up in the studio of Rob Ellis, producer and sometime drummer for PJ Harvey. Sprinter also features bass from original PJ Harvey bassist Ian Olliver – which constitutes his and Ellis’ first studio work together since 1992’s Dry – not to mention guitar and synth from Portishead’s Adrian Utley, in whose Bristol studio the record was completed. If Torres felt naked and pared back, this record is ambitious and multi-faceted, sometimes a thing of quiet, folksy restraint, but as likely to dive into a watery sonic netherworld, or strap on some grungy dynamics to get its kicks.
Not to dwell on PJ Harvey, but Sprinter shares some things with the oeuvre of Polly Jean. At first glance, it has the ring of a raw confessional, but on closer inspection, is plainly the result of some fastidious authorship, crammed with vivid vignettes surely rooted in life experience, but ringing like the best fiction. Standout is “New Skin”, a ragged, theatric guitar lament that vacillates between exhaustion, guilt and steely resolve, and rallies with a repeated entreaty: “But if you’ve never known the darkness/Then you’re the one who fears the most.” Too many good lines here, though, from the bleary-eyed southern states hedonism of “Cowboy Guilt” (“You had us in stitches/With your George W impressions/You sang of reparations/With the Native Americans”) to “Ferris Wheel”, in which a wallow in unrequited affection becomes a lonely visit to the fairground: “My friends just laugh and roll their eyes/When I tell them I don’t mind the way it feels/To ride an empty Ferris wheel.”
The weight of a religious upbringing hangs heavy, leaving a sense of issues unresolved. On “The Harshest Light” she quotes the Yahweh of the Old Testament, while the title track contemplates a pastor who preaches to his students of Zacchaeus, the hated tax collector redeemed by Jesus; but the man of God receives no such redemption, sent down “for pornography”. Such tantalising narrative glimpses nudge up against blasts of raw feeling. “Strange Hellos” is an explosive Nirvana lope that shoves its chorus in your face like a scarred wrist: “I was all for being real/But if I don’t believe then no-one will…” “Son You Are No Island”, meanwhile, channels romantic revenge into audacious sonics. To a creeped-out drone, Scott multitracks her voice into eerie chorus, and at the denouement – “Son, you’re not a man yet/You fucked with a woman who would know” – the voices suddenly scatter, like a flock of admonishing harpies.
An album that frequently feels to be about growing pains, Sprinter may, like its predecessor, not quite be Mackenzie Scott’s defining moment. All the same, it shows enough promise that we should take that as a profound positive. Like Torres, it ends on a note of watery despair, albeit one so beautifully rendered it feels almost triumphant. Across its eight minutes, “The Exchange” contemplates the uncomfortable feeling of watching our heroes age, why lost souls choose the touring life, her mother’s adoption, and a family tree severed at the bough. “I pray to Jesus Christ/Incessantly/I shine my shoes for the/Fat Lady” she sings, and at the end she’s imagining herself underwater, calling out to her parents, sinking deeper and deeper into the murk. A certain morbidity may become a hallmark of Torres’ writing; but then, it’s in the darkness that she finds herself.
You lived in Nashville, which is commonly thought of as a big music city – but recently moved to New York. Why the change of scene?
I love Nashville, and it is a big music city. It just isn’t a big city. At least, it isn’t the big city. I’ve wanted to live in New York City since I was 14 years old. It was always my plan to move here once I’d earned my degree in Tennessee.
Many of your songs have an almost fictive but there’s a strong sense of autobiography that runs through Sprinter, too.
I’m dependent on my life experience. It provides a foundation for the writing. If I didn’t have experience to speak of then I wouldn’t be a credible source. I try to try out different interpretive lenses in viewing my experiences, though, because otherwise I think the writing would get stale. I really love this Sylvia Plath quote from an interview she did with Peter Orr in 1962: “I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathise with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences […] with an informed and an intelligent mind.”
Dorset is a long way from home. Why did you decide to come to the UK to record Sprinter? Was it recommended to you, or was it an idea you’d always had in your head?
Rob Ellis lives in Bridport. We’ve known each other for a couple of years and I was willing to do almost anything to work with him on this record. So I traveled to him!
There seems to be more emphasis on musical atmosphere-building than on your debut – and of course you have figures like Adrian Utley, Robert Ellis and Ian Olliver on board. How did you envisage it sounding? Did you succeed?
I got exactly what I wanted out of those handsome Brits! Seriously. I kept telling Rob (when we were talking pre-production) that I wanted the record to have a distinct (albeit nebulous when I tried to articulate my vision to him) atmosphere, and he kept assuring me that the friends he’d asked to play on the record were right for the job. All of the musicians who played on the record took direction really well; I actually had chills listening to Olly and Adrian play their bass and guitar parts, respectively. Also, Rob’s drum work is phenomenal. He’s one of those rare drummers that you just watch and become mesmerized. He uses his entire body when he plays.
INTERVIEW: LOUIS PATTISON