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Mackenzie Scott vividly remembers the day she discovered her power. The Brooklyn-based musician who makes ornate indie-rock under the name Torres was a songwriting major in college, and she was once assigned to write a song about a random newspaper article and perform it for the class the next day. She doesn’t remember what the song was even about, and she recalls feeling totally indifferent to the lyrics she was singing. But after she played it for her peers, Scott’s professor approached her with oracular concern.
“If I took a look at your lyrics just by themselves,” Scott remembers him saying, “I would say ‘bullshit.’ But whenever you sing them, my fear is that you can make anybody believe what you’re singing.”
“Basically what he’s saying is that you better tell the truth,” Scott says. “Because there’s so much power in your words when they come off of your tongue.”
Understandably, the comment left quite an impact on Scott and she’s been conscious of her persuasive abilities ever since. As soon as she graduated from school she put out her self-titled Torres debut and immediately took off as a young indie-rock star in the making. Her second record, 2015’s Sprinter, was put out via Partisan Records — and was Vinyl Me, Please’s Essentials Record of the Month — and for her third album, she signed to the label she’d always dreamt of being on, 4AD, for 2017’s Three Futures.
Scott wasn’t headlining arenas or topping charts, but for roughly five years she was making a solid living off her music, and that lifestyle gave her an easy out from reigning in that silver tongue.
“I’ve been touring for many years and being a touring musician and making records is an easy thing to hide behind,” she says. “It’s easy to not really have your feet on the ground and you don’t really have to think about your character a whole lot. You don’t really have to think about who you are as a person. You can sort of just go on autopilot and do the rockstar thing.”
Suddenly, the floor caved in beneath her. In early spring of 2018, Scott’s management received an unexpected email from 4AD that they were dropping her. The label stopped promoting Three Futures just six months after its release, and Scott immediately lost her manager and both her U.S. and European booking agents
“So I literally lost my entire source of income in a matter of minutes, basically,” she says. “ The thing that income allows me to do is it allows me to sit down and write. It’s part of my job to take the time to actually write the albums, it creates the space for me to do so. Not only did I no longer have the space to do so, but I also no longer had the will to do so for a little bit. Because I believed that maybe it was true, that there was no way forward for me.”
With her entire career on the ropes, Scott took half a year off to soul search and really examine whether it was worth it for her to continue in an industry that had shattered her confidence. She found a steady job at a restaurant, exercised heavily, and took the time to carefully examine all of her relationships — romantic, platonic and familial — and make some significant personal changes.
“At least for me, it’s very easy to turn off the emotional brain and just go on autopilot when I’m in work mode and I can be, frankly, a very cold person. And I think being humbled in such a way as to be dropped by my record label and not have the solid ground on which to stand for some time, I think it made me a much warmer person and I just feel like my emotional world has opened up a lot and I think I’m better for it.”
Eventually, Scott started writing again and ultimately decided that she was going to make another album. The songs on Silver Tongue emerged from that period of intense reflection and transition, but not a single one has anything to do with her troubles in the music industry. It’s a love record about persuasion and pursuit, and the first Torres project in which Scott (who grew up in Georgia) slyly embraces her love of country music.
We talked to Scott about what it felt like to return to writing after her label tumult, her relationship with both country and gregorian chant music, and why she feels like a redneck alien.
Our conversation has been condensed and for clarity.
VMP: After those six months of consideration, what ultimately brought you to the conclusion that music is what you need to continue doing with your life?
Mackenzie Scott: I guess it’s simply that I’ve always lived with this knowledge — I don’t know where it comes from — but this knowledge that this is what I was put on the earth to do. As I started writing again, I was sort of writing myself out of a hole and I realized that they were some of the best songs I’ve ever written, and I realized I was going to make an album again. And I guess that’s just how I decided (laughs).
Did you feel a refreshed approach to writing music during that time? Like, did it feel different to write music after going through that tumultuous experience?
It actually sort of felt like how it felt doing it before I had a career. Which was actually a really prosperous time for me — not financially. But prosperous in terms of songwriting. My first album that I mentioned before came out in January 2013, which was the month after I graduated from college and I’ve had a career since. But before that album was released I was just writing songs for years and years and years with no audience, just writing. Performing them locally but not releasing them as recordings.
And it kind of felt like that. It felt empowering, actually, to have that feeling again of no one is expecting anything of me. In fact, everyone expects me to be done. Not that I’m necessarily ever really writing with an audience in mind, but this time it really was just for the sake of the song.
So did you find yourself writing about your experiences as a career musician? Or were the songs completely unrelated to what happened with 4AD?
Not at all actually, I didn’t write a single song about the music industry. Which is also something I’m relieved about. I never want to be self-referential in that way. I just think it’s boring, it’s not relatable to other people to listen to songs about, “Boo hiss, I had a hard time in the music industry.” I just see it as very self-important and not interesting.
But that’s just me, as a music fan, I would much rather someone write songs about love and anger. I guess I could’ve written an angry song about the music industry but I think that’s so boring. I wrote about my relationships, my love life. It’s a whole album about being in love.
In the first song, “Good Scare,” there’s a line that goes, “You make me want to write the country song / folks here in New York get a kick out of.” And then in “Dressing America” you’re singing about sleeping with your boots on. What’s your relationship with country music and how do you think it made it into this album?
My relationship with country music is [that] I love it. I think it’s humorous. Obviously there are two different sides of country. There’s Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams. And then there’s the silly country, the top 40 country which I also, believe it or not, love. I think it’s hilarious, I think there’s always an “a-ha” moment. By the third verse you’re like “ah, I see what you did there,” every time. And I just love it.
I don’t think I’ve made my country album yet. I’m introducing some country imagery and I’m letting it out in my voice a little bit. Believe it or not my accent is deeply southern. I went to college and I tried to get rid of it, and I kind of tamped it down for years and years, and now it’s creeping back out. So there’s a little bit of the twang in there that some will catch. But the lyrics more than anything I think is where you’re going to hear it if you’re paying attention. The sort of drink a beer, get your girl, have a good time, ride your truck kind of thing.
**I saw you once called Silver Tongue a “gregorian country record.” What does that description mean to you?
We already talked about the country but I do really love gregorian chanting. I also own many of those records. There’s this sort of holiness in some of the melodies. I love gregorian melodies, that deep monastic, cavernous melodic sensibility.
But also I’m a little bit of a redneck alien, or something. I think I’m going with that persona on this one, as redneck alien. I think of it as someone who came from another planet and they’re trying to figure out how to be a person on this earth, and they end up being a Southern woman who feels like a dude. That’s where I’m at. I feel like I've come from another planet, I feel like a man but I’m not, and I’m trying to play it off like I'm not an alien. And I’m also trying to play it off like I’m not a redneck but I am.
I feel like I get that completely from the album cover. With you standing in the woods, dressed androgynously in front of a UFO.
Yeah, I’m inviting you to come on my spaceship. But it might as well be my pickup truck.
Eli Enis is a writer and editor who lives in Pittsburgh, cares way too much about music, and drinks way too much seltzer.
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