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In “New Skin,” the second track off of Torres’ sublime second album “Sprinter,” the singer-songwriter Mackenzie Scott describes a rebirth: “Lay off me, would you/ I’m just trying to take this new skin for a spin/ Pray for me, would you/ I’m just nervous ‘bout my family filing in.” Scott, who performs as Torres at Great Scott on June 25, was raised in a devout Christian household in Macon, Georgia, and “New Skin” is rife with references to her faith. At the start, the song is marked by a certain ambivalence. Scott sings softly, yearningly.
That tentativeness disintegrates when the drums kick in and her voice moves from trembling to vehement: “Who’s that trying to speak for me?/ What is it that they claim to be?/ A child of God much like yourself/ You will find me right where I fell.”
Though “New Skin” can be read through many lenses, it has obvious resonances with Scott’s own political awakening. Raised in a small town and a conservative church, she says she began questioning her beliefs after she moved to Nashville for college. “I took sociology classes, and feminist lit classes, and all these classes that I think my parents would rather I not take,” she says, laughing. “I think that a portal was sort of opened. ...There was never a loss of faith. It was more like, ‘Oh shit, I’m a Democrat.’ ”
Throughout “Sprinter,” as on “New Skin,” feelings of ambivalence merge with a sense of resolve. The album is characterized by a sensibility that might be easily dismissed as melancholy but is really better described as grief: Even when she is not singing directly about loss, Scott’s voice aches with it.
Scott is helped immensely in her quest for emotional immediacy by producer Rob Ellis, who is best known for his work with PJ Harvey. The songs on “Sprinter” are dynamic and unhurried, content to build with finely calibrated intensity and collapse back into languorous repose. The electric guitar behaves as another voice, providing an iridescent, ever-shifting backdrop to Scott’s sorrow.
“I am not a great musical intellect at all,” she says. “I only create music based on feeling. And when I close my eyes at night, I’m not thinking, ‘How can I compose and make this as genius as possible.’ I’m thinking, ‘How can I make somebody feel something?’”
That impulse emerged out of another awakening, one spurred by Scott’s discovery of local Nashville musicians like singer-songwriter Natalie Prass and Evan P. Donohue of the punk band Diarrhea Planet. She remembers going to her first underground indie shows as a college student and falling utterly in love.
“I didn’t go to concerts in my hometown, and all of a sudden I was in basements every night with a Coke and whiskey in my hand, you know, watching bands play house shows,” she says. “And it was honestly some of the best times that I think I’ll ever have in my life. It’s a first. I’ll never get to do that again, be that excited about music for the first time. I’ll never get that specific experience again. All of a sudden all I wanted to do was go see shows. I was following these local artists to every little thing that they played. ... I was just excited. It’s crazy that that feeling is so foreign to me now, that feeling of going to a small show and being such a massive fan and feeling nothing but joy. You’re not jaded, you’re not being critical in any way, there’s nothing you’re comparing it to. It’s just the pure joy of going to see a band in a basement.”
Scott’s previous songwriting attempts had been quiet affairs, marked by the warbling cadences of an acoustic guitar. Inspired, she switched over to electric and turned up the fuzz.
Her songs, says Scott, function as a form of therapy. “It does seem that there’s some sort of mental block with certain conversations. Things that I just, for whatever reason, end up not wanting to talk about. I would rather, if I’m going to have coffee with you, talk about a book that I love rather than my unexplainable aches, you know?” She laughs. “And I guess writing acts as somewhat of a sounding board for me. The pen and paper and the guitar and all of that that I’m using to get a song out—it’s that detached listener that you’re paying to be your sounding board. Except I’m not paying, I’m just sitting there. It’s self help, is what it is.”
The album’s seven-minute closer, “The Exchange,” delves into one of Scott’s deepest aches: Her experience as the child of adoptive parents. Oddly, it is an identity she also shares with her adopted mother. “My mother lost her mother twice/ Once in ’54, then later in life,” she sings in the song’s opening. “The exchange was quick and quiet/ The records sealed, the names made private/ Her search began and ended with a judge/ Her papers had been claimed in a freak basement flood/ An entire family tree/ An eternal privacy.”
“I think that it’s inevitable to any adopted child,” says Scott. “The sense of alienation is quite intrinsic and I think it actually comes built-in from the beginning. And I really do believe that you can’t remove that, no matter how good the upbringing is, how much you love your adopted family. There’s a hole, a pit of emptiness that it’s impossible to fill.”
“I’m underwater,” Scott sings in the refrain, voice quavering. “I’m underwater.” Yet there is something bracing about her willingness to submerge herself so completely in regret. Her words brim with sharp clarity, like a cold breeze on wet, new skin.
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