Torres on perceptions of time and crafting her most joyful music yet
In the latest episode of The FADER Interview podcast, Alex Robert Ross talks to Mackenzie Scott about her new album Thirstier.
Torres on perceptions of time and crafting her most joyful music yet Shervin Lainez
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The FADER Interview is a brand new podcast series in which the world’s most exciting musicians talk with the staff of The FADER about their latest projects. We’ll hear from emerging pop artists on the verge of mainstream breakthroughs, underground rappers pushing boundaries, and icons from across the world who laid the foundations for today’s thriving scenes. Listen to this week’s episode of the podcast below, read a full transcript of this week’s episode after the jump, and subscribe to The FADER Interview wherever you listen to podcasts.

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Last March, when the world looked down, Mackenzie Scott was two weeks into the European tour behind Silver Tongue, her fourth album as Torres. She and her band was suddenly faced with the prospect of being stranded on the other side of the world. And, out of options, Scott asked her fans to donate money for emergency flights home. The response was overwhelming. By Saturday, March 15, she was back in Brooklyn, grateful, exhausted, and apprehensive. Torres' new album, Thirstier, is by design Scott's most joyful yet bold, grungy, and melodic, focused intently on light and not shade. It reflects the outlook that Scott worked hard to develop in the months that followed lockdown.

Without a major project to work on, or a tour on the horizon, Scott adjusted to domestic life with the person she loves, in the home she loves, in the city she loves. She wondered what point there was in conjuring up a new fantasy of the future when she seemed to be living in a fantasy already. She perhaps wouldn't think of the chain of events so straightforwardly. On Silver Tongue she sang wide-eyed about falling in love with her now fiance, the artist Jenna Gribbon, in a past life. On Thirstier's "Hug From a Dinosaur" she goes even further singing about dissolving clocks and vivid memories of a future that might've happened already. Scott was taught as a kid growing up in a devout Christian household in Macon, Georgia, that existence was linear and that heaven was only open to those who followed a narrow path. Her albums have increasingly ecstatically rejected that notion.

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Earlier this week, I spoke to Scott about that canceled tour and the struggle to be creative in lockdown. But mostly we talked about time, space, past lives, and the joy she wanted to express on Thirstier.

The Fader: So congratulations on Thirstier. It's a really amazing listen. I guess I wanted to start with the immediate aftermath of the last record with you in Berlin. You seem to be at the eye of the storm in a lot of ways. I mean, a lot of musicians were going through similar things, but you were trapped in Berlin effectively and without the means to get home. I know you've spoken a little bit about it already, but now looking back now 16 months later, what was that experience like?

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Torres: I mean, I think it's so surreal that that even happened. But also when I think about it, it's immediately grounding to think about the fact that the people that I asked to help me helped me, and they did it very quickly. Literally I asked for financial help from fans to get my band mates and I home, and they did it so quickly. I don't know what I would have done otherwise, so it's very surreal and blurry and all of those things, but it's also just like, damn, people are so great. That's what's at the heart of that story is how wonderful people are in a real time of crisis.

Yeah, you get home... I guess that would have been three, four days after. I consider the day the NBA shut down to be the day that things kind of really were real. And then it was like, 'Oh shit, this is happening.' So you got home that Saturday. What were those first few days after being home like? Were you just sitting around and coming to terms with... I assume you were sitting in Brooklyn and coming to terms with the fact we were going to be shut down.

I was so depressed, but also it was so nuts because I had been traveling for 72 hours or something insane. And then within 45 minutes of getting home my girlfriend just randomly passed out in the shower and busted her head open. So we ended up in the emergency room for hours that night after I got back from Russia. So I was depressed later in the week, but for most of that week I wasn't even... I mean, it was so confusing. It was like, what's happening? We have to stay in our houses? What, we can't go outside without a mask? What's going on? And then my girlfriend, she has stitches in her head with a concussion, and she's so out of it. I mean, it was nuts. All we could do is just lay in bed and watch movies for not just a week, but probably a month we did that.

I hate when anybody ever said anything about any sort of silver lining with COVID, but you had been pretty steadily working, recording, touring, lurching from one thing to the next for years and also for a huge part of your life with Jenna. Was there something sort of nice about being in bed for a month and watching movies?

Yeah. I have a really hard time not moving all the time, just moving around constantly. I feel like half the time I eat my meals standing up, and I just have a lot of kinetic energy to use, I guess, is what it really is. And so I struggle with that, just sitting down or laying down in the middle of the day and just relaxing and doing something fun like watching a movie. But then once I decided to just lean into it, I found it to be pretty easy actually. It took me a few days to lean into it. I guess I never felt like I had an excuse to just lay in bed with my girlfriend for days on end watching the Criterion Channel, just eating and drinking and smoking weed. It was great. I mean, it ended up being great in that way.

We've had conversations before about you coming off a really difficult run after an album with label complications and coping with depression and anxiety. Last time we spoke, you had sort of considered quitting music altogether before writing an album. How quickly this time did you come around to the idea or get that first creative spark with Thirstier that you wanted to sit down and write again?

I think it was probably almost two months after getting home from that tour. It was maybe a month until I was like, "All right, I have to start thinking about it." And then it was maybe two months before I was like, "And I'm going to stop thinking about it and start doing it." I was slow moving there for the beginning part. It was a choice. I made a decision. For one, I just got so tired of being in my brain. I'm naturally a depressive/anxious person. The anxiety was really winning out more than anything at that time, and I just got so tired of being in my brain, sitting with myself, and not doing anything. I was like, "Mackenzie, you have to go make something or else you are just useless. You're not contributing anything." So I just made a choice to make a new album, but it wasn't like, "Oh, I have so much to say, I'm going to just pour out my heart and just see what happens." It was very intentionally a choice to just make something again.

On Three Futures, and I know this was a fairly long time ago now, but you were really in love with New York and you'd really found something spiritually about New York that you'd fallen in love with. New York was obviously a very different place this time last year, 15 months ago. That must have felt like quite a loss to be mostly inside and not engaging with things. You've spoken before about falling in love with people on the subway, having this immediate empathy with people. You feel that you've really come to love crowds and the busy-ness, and that just all sort of evaporated.

Yeah. And I feel so extra grateful for that reason that Jenna, my partner, that we live together and that I got to spend all this time with her because you're right. Being in New York, I naturally self-isolate, but the thing that I've always loved about New York is that it feels like you've got all these friends around. Even if you're not actually talking to anybody or sitting with anybody, actually actively engaging, people bustling all around, it always feels like you got somebody. There's always somebody on the other side of the wall, you know? And I think that if I had lived alone, like I did for such a long time before living with Jenna, this would have been a totally different...

Before living with Jenna, this would have been a totally different album. If I even made a new album. I don't know what would have happened, so... I mean, I missed it on the one hand, but then on the other hand, there was no FOMO. I wasn't like, "Oh man, everybody's doing stuff without me." Because, they weren't. They were gone, or just gone, I mean, upstate in their getaway mentions, or whatever. Their escape home.

I want to get deep into the album. But, obviously, it's a very joyful album and I know that's a very deliberate move on your part. There must be something about the domesticity of living at home with your partner for six months. And that shift that we talked about, you've been on the road a lot. You hadn't really had this prolonged period where you could be a live-in partner with somebody. How much of an adjustment was that for you mentally? I can say from firsthand experience, I went to live with my girlfriend in Toronto. And the first couple of months were like, "Oh, we're extremely living on top of each other. This is it, there is nobody else."

Yeah, I learned some things about myself. I definitely felt pushed, in the sense that I recognized pretty quickly that, I had to learn how to be that person, a good domestic partner, or else I wouldn't have a domestic partner. It was challenging. I mean, to the point where it pushed Jenna and I into couples' therapy, I don't mind talking about. There were things that I needed to work through and lessons that I needed to learn. And I mean, the big thing for me is, never really having been forced to reckon with my energy, the thing that I get called all the time and have my whole life, is intense. And I've always struggled with that label, because for most of my life, I've felt like that carries a really negative connotation, intense, or aggressive, I get aggressive sometimes, which is even worse than intense.

And energetically, I realized that I take so much space up in a room and my girlfriend, she's so porous and any over-the-top energy, no matter what it was, she was feeling all the time. And so, she was like, "Ah, I've got to get out of here. I'm going to go paint now, I'm going to go to my studio. You enjoy your day." And I just had to learn how to really reign that in and channel it. And I think it's what started my desire to channel that intensity into making this record. Like, "Okay, what if I forced this, to just mold to my will. And make it something that feels good, so that when I'm in a room with people, they feel good."

You've spoken about the fact that this is very intentionally, a joyful record. Is that what you mean about molding it to your will?

Yes, it is. Making a very conscious choice to, not just lyrically and musically, but just energetically, choosing to infuse the new record with that life that I was trying to mimic in my home situation.

How difficult was that as a writer? Was there a real change in process that you had to go through there? Were you thinking about your writing in a different way?

I think that I do have a tendency to expose darkness, or talk about things that are maybe a little disturbing. As a kid, I would always want to look up serial killers and stuff. Yeah, I have a natural tendency to be curious about the underbelly of human nature. But, I think maybe, that just became, at least for the time being, a little played out in my work. The course that, that took was that I maybe, became somebody who didn't necessarily write about things that are uplifting, or the things that make you feel good, or wonder and joy. And all of these things that we deem cheesy, in the abstract. Which is what I did, I was like, "Oh, that sounds corny."

But, then when I really thought about it and focused on the specifics of, what that might look like as an album, it felt like maybe, something that I should try and pursue, maybe just as an experiment at first. "What happens if I write about love in this way, and it doesn't take a dark left turn? And what happens if I sing something really earnestly, and don't try and make it too clever? Or, throw a joke in there, or something, like a wink and a smile. What if I just, am super earnest? And the life will come through and people will feel that." So, that's what I tried to do.

The first song, "Are You Sleepwalking? I don't want to misread the record, or put two and two together and make five. But, it's a pretty bold statement, sonically and lyrically, to open a record with. I mean, your vocals come in pretty much straight away at the start of the album, there's no messing around. It seems, one way to read that might be that you're asking yourself that question and that this focus on joy and positivity, that it really opened something up to you quite quickly, within a pretty short span of time. That, this sleepwalking through maybe, fixating on darkness. It seems like you maybe just remove obstacles for yourself by doing this.

Yeah. I mean, removing obstacles is actually a great way of looking at it. I think a lot of times, maybe I've had the opportunity to play to certain strengths of mine, as a singer, as a writer. And rather than play to those strengths, maybe it was my age, or just being defiant and wanting to skirt expectations. Which is, something that young people like to do. I maybe, didn't play to those strengths in the way that I could have, because of those obstacles. And there was a slight fear that I had, going into making Thirstier that, doing the "easy thing." That, I might get laughed at, or like, "Wow, can I really just come in with these power chords and sing this melody over and over and not, I don't know, obscure it somehow. Will people be into that?" I think that I had some mental blocks there, but then once I made that decision to just go with my instinct, which that right there always ends up serving me, just going with my gut.

You've recorded in England a handful of times. What is it that keeps taking you back across the ocean? To increasingly unlikely places as well. You've recorded in Stockport before, this time you're in Devon. What keeps driving you back to England to record?

It's Rob, it's my dear Rob Ellis, my beloved friend. He's so special. I don't know, I just can't quit him. We really love working together and he always makes it work. Whenever I want to work with him, he's like, "All right, let's figure this out." He's just so willing to really bend over backwards to make records with me whenever it feels like, it's not going to be doable for whatever reason. Because, of time, or funds, or whatever it may be. And specifically this time around, it was like, "Okay, well, it's super not safe to fly you over here to record with me, at the height of this thing." So, I doubled up on my N-95s and got on an airplane and went to him. Did a two week self-quarantine before recording. And that quarantine ended up being during the US election. So, that was super fun and lighthearted in that little stint in isolation. And yeah, then, we went to Devon and it was actually amazing to be there.

There's a confidence on this album, it's been present in flashes before, but you do seem a lot free. It's been present in flashes before, but you do seem a lot freer in places. And as you were saying melodic leading with power chords a lot of the time, how confident were you in that from the get-go, that this was going to be sonically just a more ... maybe louder, maybe more open more welcoming and joyful sounding album?

I have a lot of fun making the demos at home when I was writing it after I heard what those were shaping up to be. I think the melodies on this one just naturally lend themselves to being sonically more open and all of the things that you just described. So yeah, I guess as soon as the melodies were born and I heard the demos back, I was like, "Wow, this really sounds like something could be made of it." These demos are not amazing, but I think that these songs could be amazing. They were recorded the way that I'm really wanting to record them and which is where Rob came in. I was like, "If Rob plays drums on these songs and he helps me just blast these songs into outer space, they'll soar, they'll totally soar."

So there's a moment on "Hug From a Dinosaur," well, I mean the whole song, which seems to be something that you've been playing with for a while and other times like even quite openly expressed. Back on "Last Forest" from the last record, you say "something jogs a memory that I've loved you repeatedly," that this idea of time being, not even circular, but maybe more of a spiral, that it doesn't move in a straight line. How conscious were you when you were making it, that you were picking up on a couple of old threads like that, particularly with the songs about love and expanding on them and building on them and maybe revising or clarifying thoughts that you've expressed pretty clearly already?

We have talked about this and I wasn't always a person who thought like that about time, but my perception of time has been totally changed in the last, I would say 10 years or something like that. Well, I guess I could say my perception of time has become kind of diametrically opposed at this point to the perception of time that I was raised to think of like time, that you're born, you die. And then if you're a Christian, you go to heaven forever. Pretty cut and dry and obviously gotten away from that. We don't have to get too deeply it, but just on that thread, I'm someone who has had periods of having dreams that to me felt like they were past life memories or perhaps memories of a future that hasn't happened yet or even a deja vu from a parallel dimension that's running alongside simultaneously, something like that.

I just have had dreams where I just felt like they were not just dreams, but actually tied to a reality somewhere. And again, that's super abstract. But then when I met Jenna, my girlfriend, I had just the week before been to see a hypnotherapist who specializes in past life regression. I know that to many that will sound totally bonkers, but I was really struggling at the time, because I was having these very real visions that it was really interfering with my ability to perceive my waking life from all of the rest of it. The short story is that I saw this past life regression hypnotherapist, and I did this whole session. I have a recording of it. And he was asking me about my most recent vision or whatever you want to call it. And I said that there was this person, she was this woman and she was my lover. And I told him this whole thing.

And after I told him about her, he was like, "Do you know this person in your current life? Is this somebody that you know right now or not?" And I wanted to say yes so badly ... Yeah, I wanted it to be the person that I was currently seeing. I was like, "No, actually. I got to be honest. This is not someone I feel I know." And then it wasn't five or six days later that I met Jenna. I was like, "Holy shit, you are this woman that I dreamed about." And it was insane. It was like what I described in this recording. I went back and listened to this recording from this session that I had. And I described the apartment that I didn't even live in yet. I described the curtains that I didn't own yet. I described an outfit that I would be wearing.

And then, sure enough, this whole scene that I had envisioned thinking it was a past life vision, it ended up actually being something that happened in this life just a couple of years later with Jenna, this whole scene that I had described, and I was wearing the exact outfit that I had described and everything. And the white curtains that I described were blowing behind. And it was really, really surreal. So all of that, it just contributes to this continuation of this idea that I have that time. We know nothing about the reality of time. This is just the one dimension that we're aware of, the one timeline that we're aware of. But I just like playing with the unseen, I guess, in the lyrics. I like playing with the idea of the unseen and giving it a grounding and reality in the same way that we consider ourselves to be grounded in this reality.

This is a very important part of this record and seems to be naturally bound up with that, the way that you've talked about fantasy in the lead up to the record and what makes it onto the lyric sheet about fantasy. I mean, correct me if I'm wrong on any of this, but it seems like the standard way that we deal with time or have dealt with time is you fantasize about something and then you get there and then you want to move on to the next fantasy. Okay, cool. This is great. But now I'm going to need ... on just a really basic superficial level it's like, "Cool. I have a two bedroom house. Now, I need a three bedroom house with a backyard." But obviously, there's a spiritual component to that as well. And it seems like something quite remarkable to have been able to effectively once you've achieved that fantasy or in your case realized this vision that sort of came to you quite naturally, that you can just continue to exist in this loop of this vision, that you don't need to chase the next thing. Is that as much to do with the passage of time and our lack of understanding of time as everything else?

Yes. I mean, I think so. And you're really astute. That's honestly, exactly what I was getting at. I find it so frustrating and that is in our nature as humans, obviously. We're very milestone-based people. And I'm certainly not impervious to those inexhaustible pursuits. It's just that actually, I don't find that to be satisfying. It's actually not satisfying to me to like we'll reach a goal, we'll accomplish a dream and then we wonder why we're like depressed after like post-coital depression essentially. And it's like, well, maybe it's because that wasn't fulfilling to just get there and then be like, "Yep. Did it." Maybe that's not actually what's fulfilling. Maybe what's fulfilling is all of the hard work that you put in to get there, all the people that you met along the way, whatever. People wonder why they're depressed and I guess I have that in myself, and I just really wanted to play up this other idea that maybe hasn't really been explored a lot in popular art, which is like, can we turn this into a sustainable idea? Let's talk about sustainability.

So you've got to the top of the mountain but you just want to enjoy the view.

Exactly. Whatever that may be. I mean, for me, it's finding this person that I love so much that I want to spend my life with and I'm in a home that I really love being in, that I don't take for granted because it's the nicest place I've ever lived. And it's like my career. It's like, obviously I'm always reaching for the next level, the next best thing. But also I want to feel good where I am and be present and be really content with where I am at the same time and enjoy the view.

This comes up on "Keep the Devil Out." You're really breaking the fourth wall a little bit. You're talking in the second person, talking about the fact that you want to externalize this. You want other people to be brought into it. You want other people to be able to feel that kind of joy and for your music to be used like that. Beyond making an album that does sound joyful and these lyrics that do sound joyful, how do you go about doing that? It seems like the route that you've taken to get here has been complex and spiritual and odd and has taken odd turns. And now there's just a okay, I'm opening this up. I want other people to be able to feel. How? How do you go about it?

You know, the music is such a reflection of the personal for me. So I guess where I am in my life right now is that I'm finally ready to be someone who connects with other people. That may sound obvious, but I simply never considered it before. I simply never thought of myself as somebody who might want to let people in or be vulnerable in any way. Like maybe with a lover or something. I'm a great lover. Anything else, I consider myself to be really terrible at it. I don't know. I used to think that was because I tend to put all my eggs in one basket, but actually I don't think that's true. I think that I really just... I told myself that, but I've just closed myself off to other types of love. And I think I just decided that I don't really want to do that anymore.

And also, it's kind of a funny thing of like when you're someone who makes things, like I make records, and for so long I was thinking I could just make things and put them out and they would be received and it would be like okay, that's it. Like I don't have to do anything in return to open myself up to receiving or anything like that. This is just like it's a one-way street.

And I think actually that people can feel that, but I didn't recognize it before. I think people can really feel when someone is like got a real wall up in that way. And it may even keep them from receiving the music in the way that it was intended, which is the last thing in the world that I want, is to actually hinder someone's ability to receive the music, because that's really the thing that I feel that I have to give. It's like my one big contribution in this life.

And so I think just recognizing that and trying to just very slowly peel back the layers and open myself up very painstakingly, I think people can feel that. And I think that it encourages more of a give and take and more empathy and more communication. And I think that it ultimately deepens fans' ability to receive the music the way that it's meant to be received.

That's a beautiful place to end, I think. Thank you so much, Mackenzie, for making time and talking to me. I think we're on a streak now of four consecutive albums I've interviewed you for, which is great. So we'll just keep this going forever. It's great.

Thank you you for always making time for me and literally always asking the best questions, the esoteric questions. I appreciate it.

Thank you for spurring those on. Your music asks interesting questions, kind of demands it. But yeah, and congratulations on everything. Are you touring this one? Do you know when you're going out on tour?

I'm supposed to be touring September and October. I have fingers crossed.

Good luck. Hopefully I'll see you at one of the shows.

Thank you very much, Alex. I appreciate it.

See you later, Mackenzie.

Bye-bye.

Torres on perceptions of time and crafting her most joyful music yet