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Photo by Ebru Yildiz
For the better part of a decade, Mackenzie Scott, who records and releases music using their family name of TORRES, has been forging a unique musical identity utilizing both real instruments and programming to create indie guitar-rock with electronic elements. With each passing release, Scott pushes new territory, opens new doors while maintaining a level of consistency that connects the decade-deep library of output. Their latest album, What an enormous room, out now on Merge Records, is a blend of cinematic fantasy soundtrack music (“Happy man’s shoes”), dark clubs with pulsating neon lights (“Life as we don’t know it”), hauntingly beautiful ballads (“Ugly mystery”), and cold and noisy battle anthems (“Collect”).
An enigmatic performer, whether it’s headlining sold-out shows or opening for the likes of Garbage, Brandi Carlisle or Tegan and Sara, Scott is known for leaving everything on the stage as evidenced by the early tour stop for What an enormous room that I witnessed in Columbus, Ohio a week before the album’s release. On a blistering cold evening in Ohio’s capital city, Scott commanded the stage, playfully interacted with the audience and grabbing the spotlight as they showcased their guitar prowess throughout the set.
Just a few hours before hopping on a flight to Cleveland to meet up with their tour manager for the start of the tour, Scott joined me from their home in New York for an insightful conversation.
If What an enormous room was a person, would your previous albums be siblings, cousins, casual friends, or strangers?
TORRES: It’s sort of like the grandmother. My feeling about What an enormous room is that there’s a strong thread from my other albums to this new one. I think maybe it’s like a little more, omniscient might not be the right word, it sounds pretentious, but I think it’s maybe less concerned with self and personal experience, even though it’s a very personal album to me. It all comes from my life, but I try to look outside myself a little bit more and go bigger picture on this one
Is that hard to do?
TORRES: Not necessarily, not if that’s what you’re angling for. I don’t know what’s hard and what’s not, I just do it.
When writing songs for an album, do you always start the same way? Do you start with a kernel and grow it from there or do you have stuff laying around that you think, “Let me pull this out and see what I can make out of it”?
TORRES: I try to always be making something. I’ve got scraps of lyrics and notebooks. I’ve got voice memos in my phone with just me humming silently in a corner of a room somewhere. Almost every day, I like to come down into my studio, it’s in my basement, and take those pieces and try to fit them together, see what works with what. Maybe I’ll build a drum loop on GarageBand or maybe I’ll start with the guitar and try to sing a melody over it. The process is very piecemeal and then usually when the time rolls around to go into the recording studio to make another album, I have the bulk of the material demoed and just have to figure out what works together.
You mentioned GarageBand. Is that something that you were using even at the start of your career?
TORRES: I’ve always used GarageBand.
Do you ever feel like there’s too much of a reliance on that stuff? Are there times where you’re like, “I need to be a little bit more organic and bring a friend in to do this as opposed to being able to create it on a computer”?
TORRES: No, I’m not really precious about process. As often as I’ll be tinkering in GarageBand and doing the techie stuff, I’ll just as often take my acoustic guitar and do a Nick Drake-style vocal/ guitar take and plop it down. So, no. I’m not precious about all that stuff.
Physical fitness is important to you. How do you manage that on the road? And also how do you manage your mental fitness on the road?
TORRES: No matter what, I just block out an hour for it. I make the time. If it’s possible, I like to wake up in the morning before we head out for the next venue, it could be 8am the morning after playing a show, and try to get my three mile run in, lift some weights, do some some mobility, some ab exercises, just anything to sweat. That makes me feel really good.
I make sure that my routines are solid where I can make that happen, even morning coffee, just the things that make me happy and keep me feeling like I’m on somewhat of a schedule. If I don’t have time to do physical fitness in the morning, I take time between sound check and the show to do it. That’s a huge portion of my mental fitness right there, making sure I have the time to exercise.
I try to make sure to do things that make me feel good when I’m on the road, which is sometimes hard. The impulse is not usually to do things that are gonna make me feel good in the long run. The greatest challenge is trying to not start drinking the moment I get to the venue, like, “Oh yeah, let’s have some vodka, let’s have some beer, let’s get ourselves amped up for the show.” Trying to make sure that I moderate myself is probably the biggest challenge. I’ll listen to an audio book, take a hot shower, eat healthy food, all those types of things, to stay mentally healthy.
When you need to escape while in the van, or shut yourself off from your surroundings, is listening to an audio book good for that?
TORRES: It can be, especially in the van when we’re in tight spaces together. For my bandmates, my tour manager and me, I know that everybody’s instinct in those moments is to carve out some isolated space for themselves. I’m not different. I’m a huge introvert actually. I know it’s kind of unbelievable coming from a performer, but I’m not comfortable being around people all the time. I love touring with my friends. I love my bandmates, but I definitely do like to feel like I’m alone when I’m in the van.
You mostly write songs for, or about, your wife, Jenna. Have you hidden anything in the lyrics for family and friends, things that, when they hear, they’ll go, “Oh yeah, I know exactly what this means”?
TORRES: For sure. I do things like add idioms from my childhood, for example, that are from my southern family members, things that would catch in the lyrics. Or, I’ll include something that my grandfather used to say.
When you’re working on music, is there somebody that you’ll share the demos with and ask for their feedback?
TORRES: It depends. If I really like something, or if I’m questioning something, I do have four or five close friends that I might send a demo to and say, “This is what I’m working on.” I’m just trying to take the temperature, see how the songs are landing.
Have you ever changed anything based on feedback?
TORRES: Hard to say. I get a little bit resistant but maybe I have. When my wife, Jenna, has suggestions, I try to really take them to heart because she has really good instincts.
What comes first, lyrics or song titles?
TORRES: I think it really varies from song to song. An example is the second song on the new album. It’s called “Life As We Don’t Know It” and I had the title a while before the lyrics. And then something happened and the event that inspired the song took place and I was like, “Here comes life as we don’t know it.” Then I wrote the song. The same thing happened with “Jerk Into Joy” where the title came first. Often, I’ll write the song and then the title will be the last thing that comes.
I’m so happy you mentioned “Life As We Don’t Know It” because it’s such a great title and a twist on a common saying. Do you have a list of other potential titles that twist common words or phrases?
TORRES: Really what it is is a country music sensibility.. I do have a lot of that in me and I do have a few titles or ideas like that that I’ve definitely worked into songs. It’s the country music twist. It’s a cornball move but it’s effective.
In “Happy Man’s Shoes,” there’s a lyric that goes, “I have a way of not seeing the dead.” Is there a story behind that lyric?
TORRES: It’s not a story so much as it is a way of seeing the world. I was told when I was younger by a mental health professional that I suffer from delusions of grandeur. I might have been 19 when I was told that. I guess delusional is what inspired that lyric. I feel like maybe I’m delusional, but the flip side of that is success and hope. Delusional is a negative way of looking at it. When I say that I’ve got a way of not seeing the dead, it could refer to trying for the hardest thing and believing that it will work out. Sometimes it does work out.
I thought maybe it had something to do with avoidance, like “I have a way of ignoring things that won’t benefit me.”
TORRES: I mean, you’re not wrong. I like that interpretation.
“Jerk Into Joy” contains the lyrics that give the album its title. When you say, “What an enormous room,” is that based on walking into a room that you thought was massive?
TORRES: I think the first time I had the thought was when I was walking outside. I want to say I was recording Three Futures, which would have been like 2016. I was in England and I remember just looking around and seeing this rolling field. I was probably in Dorset. It’s so green and so expansive. And I think I was like, “what an enormous room,” but I was outside. And then I ran with it. I’ve had the idea for a very long time but I didn’t really know what I was getting at. I had to figure out why I had the idea and I had to figure out how to write around it, like figure out what I was drilling away at. An enormous room to me is just a feeling. It’s like, “I have so much space to think and to imagine.” The second part of that lyrics is “look at all the dancing I can do.” It could mean physical dancing but it could also be like “Look at all the possibilities I can imagine.”
There’s also a song called “I Got the Fear.” From what I can tell, you seem to be pretty fearless. You mentioned you’re an introvert off the stage, but you’re certainly not an introvert on stage. You’re very vocal about things, whatever the topic might be. Are there any fears that you have in real life?
TORRES: Totally, yeah. And thank you for saying that I appear fearless. I certainly try to project fearlessness and sometimes I feel fearless but I also have to deal with a lot of anxiety
You also seem more like a leader than a follower.
TORRES: I’m comfortable in that role. I’m comfortable being confrontational if that’s what’s necessary. I’m happy to do the hardest thing but I will say that I think anxiety is a lot of what drives that because so much of my anxiety is centered around not being fearless and not having a fulfilling life and not getting what I want.
Have you been able to tell any of your friends, your peers, your influences what an impact they’ve had on your life and how they’ve influenced or inspired you? On the flip side of that, how does it feel to have people come up to you after you get off the stage after performing and have them tell you what an inspiration or influence you’ve been?
TORRES: Any time I get a chance to tell somebody whose work has in some way helped or made its way into my own life, I absolutely like to take the opportunity to tell them that. And it’s because I know what it’s like to be on that side of things. It means so much to me when other people say that to me because I know what it feels like to be moved by other people’s art. I know what it feels like to be a fan. I know what it’s like to be quite literally saved, like my life, by music, by art. So it means a lot to hear from other people.
With all the touring you’ve done around the world, if you could bottle up just one of those tours and hang onto it forever, what tour comes to mind right away?
TORRES: One of the big ones was opening for Garbage. We got to open a big tour for them several years ago. That was really fun and the crowds were very energetic.
For the Garbage tour, you were playing some pretty big venues. Do you enjoy that as much, if not more, as headlining a small club? Are those types of shows just as good as the big ones?
TORRES: The small club can be as good as a huge show for sure. The crowd energy has everything to do with it. But what I love about getting to play a festival specifically is my bandmates and I just really love turning up the amps and blowing it out. I love the feeling of getting to be as loud as I want. It’s doesn’t hurt anybody’s ears because it’s a festival stage and we’re outside, I also love a small venue show, like a 1200 cap.
You don’t seem to have a problem selling out headlining gigs. There has to be some comfort knowing that when you show up, the venue won’t be empty.
TORRES: You’d be amazed. Showing up to an empty venue usually doesn’t happen. I think that only happened in Detroit the last time we played there. I think there were eight people in a 500-cap room. It was kind of nuts. But, you’re right, I’m really lucky to get to show up to all kinds of places and have people meet me there and surprise me not just in number but energetically too. I appreciate it so much. I feel good about touring and I always get excited about it.
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