picture via Paper Mag
“It’s kind of a relief, now that it’s out. Because now I can stop talking about it and stop hyping it up,” Mackenzie Scott, better known to the world as Torres, tells me about her new album, Sprinter, an album you should be familiar with now since it’s our pick of the month for the month of May. “I can let it start to speak for itself now.”
Well, after an interview with us, that is. We recently talked to Scott over the phone during a break on her recently launched tour behind Sprinter. We touched on a lot of things, from her time as a songwriting major at Belmont University, to how she got compared to PJ Harvey despite not listening to her until a year ago, to how no one can define what “indie” is supposed to mean anymore.
Vinyl Me, Please: Let’s get into the creation of Sprinter. It’s coming out kind of quick after your debut album (which came out in 2013). How long after Torres were you writing this one?
Mackenzie Scott: I guess it felt like a long time, but maybe it wasn’t a long time, since the debut album. I guess I started writing the new one about a year after the first one came out. I started writing January of last year, and I spent about eight months just writing everyday, and finished the writing before I recorded it.
VMP: You were writing everyday: Was it a clock-in, 9-to-5 type thing, where you felt like you needed to work on this album, or were you letting it come slower?
MS: I really tried to focus and write kind of in the hours of a day job. Because I’m really bad at self-imposed structure. So I needed to do that for myself to get it done.
VMP: You went to England to record this. What did you gain by going to England as opposed to recording it in Brooklyn, or wherever here?
MS: Really it was a matter of convenience and finances. The producer I wanted to work with, Rob Ellis, he was in Dorsett. It was either fly him to the states to work with me here, or for me to fly there and record kind of in his spot. We ended up going with that.
I guess the biggest benefit of that was that I got outside of my little bubble, and didn’t really have many distractions because I didn’t know anyone there and I didn’t really have anything to do or focus on there except for making the record. So it ended up being a good choice for that reason.
VMP: I know that in past interviews you’ve talked about how after your first album came out, you got a lot of comparisons to PJ Harvey, and you hadn’t really listened to her much prior to…
MS: I hadn’t listened to her at all at that point.
VMP: So, I wonder, was working with people who worked with her a way to be like, “Well, fine, you guys are comparing me to PJ Harvey, I’m gonna go record with her people.”
MS: (Laughs). The two things were mutually exclusive. It would have been badass to have chosen to work with Rob for that reason, but I just wanted to work with him. I hadn’t heard his work with PJ Harvey before I asked him to work with me.
I mean, the one PJ Harvey album I really love, Dry, I didn’t hear until we were actually recording in England already. And that was only just because I wanted to listen to what Rob had listened to in the past as a fun exercise.
It’s funny, he sent me a message and said, “Hey Mack, how fucking tired are you of the PJ Harvey comparisons?” And I said it’s pretty tiresome, to be honest. And he said back, “You know what, Polly Harvey had the same thing happen to her early on in her career with Patti Smith. That’ll go away, don’t worry about it.”
VMP: How weird is that for you–I don’t know how much of your press you’re reading– to have this artist you’ve never even listened to be the only artist anyone compares you to?
MS: (Laughs). I don’t know what the deal is, man. I couldn’t tell you. If that’s what people are hearing, that’s fine. But I set out to make a singular record, and personally I don’t hear the PJ Harvey in it.
VMP: I mean, the PJ Harvey comparison doesn’t make sense to me either, and it really feels like it’s because you’re two women who make personal, deep albums…
MS: And play guitar (laughs).
VMP: I’ve always wondered what that must be like. To be told you sound like someone you’ve never heard.
MS: It’s really bizzare. It is. I’ve tried to ignore it. But it really is everywhere.
VMP: And did you purposefully wait to listen to her? That must make a weird reaction to her music.
MS: I had a weird period where I purposefully did not check out her music for a good year at least (laughs). Because I didn’t want to hear it. I was super annoyed. I’m a huge fan now. I love the early records that I’ve heard. I think they’re really brilliant. But there was a definite waiting period where I didn’t want to check it out until recently.
VMP: Torres was self-released, and I think it was sort of a surprise for you that it got picked up by Pitchfork. So what does it feel like now that you’re the big feature interview? It feels like this one has a higher awareness of you before it came out.
MS: It’s definitely been a shift. It’s all obviously really cool, I’m definitely very grateful for it all, but it seems like the natural trajectory. It doesn’t feel like things took off over night. I’ve been pacing myself for this for the last few years. It’s all really cool, but it’s all relative too, you know?
VMP: Yeah, I understand. You majored in songwriting at Belmont University before you released Torres. What does that program look like? I think people would be surprised that it’s possible to major in that, you know?
MS: I would say it’s more of a well-rounded program than you’d think. Belmont is known for its music business program, and rightfully so. In addition to songwriting classes, the major encompasses theory, music history classes, copyright law, all sorts of law stuff. It’s not just songwriting. It’s a lot more than you’d think it would be.
I actually got a few years of building that foundation before I ever really tried to break into this industry myself. It’s prepared me for a lot, with the law and business stuff. I don’t think you can be taught to write songs, but it definitely taught me a lot about work ethic.
I didn’t have any grandiose ideas when I started as a musician because I had taken the business classes (laughs). I knew what to expect and what was realistic.
picture via Convozine
VMP: So were there classes that were like, Bob Dylan Lyrics?
MS: There were certainly those niche classes. I did get to take one class that was just a Beatles History class. Our homework was just listening to all of the Beatles’ records and reading a Beatles biography and talking about their songs. But that was not the majority of it.
VMP: Oh man that sounds cool. I wanted to talk to you about something you Tweeted a while back about not being able to define “indie” anymore. As someone who is classified as an “indie artist” can you try to do it for me?
MS: Oh man, I’m not going to do that. (Laughs). I think it’s such a gross word.
VMP: OK, why do you think it’s a gross word?
MS: I think that it doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t say anything when people use it as a descriptor. I said the word “hipster” in the same breath, because maybe both of those words were accurate descriptors at one point, but at this point, it really is a question. What does “indie” mean to you? I don’t think there’s an answer to it. If you call Imagine Dragons “indie” and then you also call Laura Marling “indie,” it’s like, what does that even mean to you when you call both of those things indie?
It’s just a sweeping term. I just wish people would be more articulate. I’m just generally disgruntled with people who can’t expand their vocabulary. (Laughs).
VMP: I think when you could start using “indie” to describe stuff like a coffee house, like a coffee house is now “indie,” then “indie” doesn’t mean anything at all for music anymore, you know?
MS: Yeah. I don’t get irked about a lot of words, but that “indie.” I get worked up about it.
VMP: It does feel like that that’s the next word where everyone will be arguing about what it means now, and what it used to mean, just like “hipster” was a couple years ago.
MS: If it hasn’t already happened, American Apparel and Urban Outfitters are probably close to slapping “Indie” on T-shirts. What the fuck does that even mean? (Laughs).
Use your words. Use your descriptors. It’s just gross.
VMP: (Laughs). I agree. Speaking of something, like PJ Harvey, that you probably get a lot in interviews, how many times do you think you’ve been asked, “Why is your performing name Torres?”
MS: (Laughs). That’s really funny. I mean, that information is out there if people want to find out.
VMP: I was looking through some of your old interviews, and seriously, there must have been 10 or 11 in a row that asked that. At a point, you can Google that information.
MS: Man, I don’t know. I feel like bands don’t get asked what their name is. But I think it’s because I chose a moniker instead of performing under my own name. I’ll say the same thing that the National say: “It doesn’t really mean anything.”
I got it from my grandfather. It’s his surname. It was a way of distinguishing what I do as Mackenzie Scott from what I do as an artist. It’s not super interesting. I’m surprised people keep asking the question.
VMP: It’s not like David Bowie got, “Why don’t your perform under your real name” all the time, you know?
MS: It’s interesting that still people ask it. And that it wouldn’t just make sense to people why I’d want to perform under a different name. I still just answer the question any time it comes up. (Laughs).
VMP: Ok, last question. Best-case scenario, what happens in the rest of 2015 for Torres?
MS: Best-case scenario I tour with my band all year. I would like to make it overseas and play some places I haven’t played before. That’s really all that’s on my radar at this point. And maybe hopefully start writing and thinking about my next record.
Andrew Winistorfer tried to define “indie” once, and he’s never recovered. He’s on Twitter at @thestorfer.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.