Photo by Shawn Brackbill
Torres will perform at the Firebird on Sunday, January 16.
Throughout Sprinter, Torres' second and latest album, there's a recurring theme of renewal — or, more specifically, a search for clarity. Mackenzie Scott, Torres' lead signer and core member, grew up in Macon, Georgia, and comes from a Southern Baptist background. She has been outspoken in interviews about how she left the church but not Christianity itself. Sprinter seems to reflect that ongoing experience. “What's mine isn't really yours / But I hope you find what you're looking for,” she screams on “Strange Hellos,” the album's opener and most vicious track. But most of what comes afterward, in song titles like “New Skin” and “The Harshest Light,” suggests an ongoing process of reconciling past and present. Scott sings with a mixture of tenderness and assurance, even when harsh background noise permeates the tracks. On the final song, “The Exchange,” Scott directly addresses both her and her mother's adoptive status, her voice breaking as she confronts a lost history and an uncertain future. It's powerful and relatable.
On January 16, Torres comes to the Firebird as part of the Art of Live Festival. We chatted with Scott about her upbringing in Macon, how she became a songwriter, and to what extent Sprinter
reflects her own experiences.
Riverfront Times: Your new CD is a lot richer in Biblical imagery than the last.
I drew a lot on my general knowledge of scripture. I grew up in the Baptist church, and so I think part of what I was trying to do was create my own retellings of these classic Bible stories that I had heard in Sunday school. They were all stories that I knew and had heard from birth. I guess I Was a little bored with the interpretations that I had been given. I was thinking ultimately about how dark all these stories are. Like Noah's Ark — any story in the Bible is really dark, but the interpretations that I got as a child were, you know, watercolors of Jesus with children in his lap, or animals with smiles on their faces. It just isn't that way. So I went back and read the stories, and I wrote the songs in conjunction with whatever else I was writing about.
Is there an autobiographical element as well?
A lot of it was inspired by people I knew. But a lot of the Biblical imagery on the record is a result of my retelling. I was looking at these stories from the perspective of someone who had never heard or read scripture. It turns out that some of the are very scary. There's enough in there for Hollywood to have endless amounts of inspiration.
Some of the songs are also very personal. Do you feel vulnerable performing them?
I think I felt more vulnerable writing the songs then singing them. It was almost like a birthing process trying to get them onto paper. It's a really embarrassing process even though it's isolating, because you're essentially revealing your darkest thoughts that you've hidden from yourself, you're revealing them to your conscious mind for the first time. That's how this album was for me, at least. In doing so, having these revelations with myself was a very uncomfortable process. After that initial writing process was finished, and I moved on to recording and ultimately touring and singing them to other people, I think I'm more eager to do that part. The performing. It feels more extroverted. I don't think people are standing there listening to the lyrics like, “Oh, she must feel so vulnerable!” They're thinking about themselves, not what I'm singing about. It's neat, because it's more about them than me at that point.
There are a lot of references to new skin, wide eyes, a basic feeling of newness. It sounded both like someone who may have had a born-again experience, and someone who might have broken away from that. Was the ambiguity intentional?
You're right about both, and I meant both. For me, it was about breaking away from the rigid constructs of the church. But it was also about new life. It was a religious experience in itself to find God in my own way rather than under the roof of a church. After breaking away from the Baptist church, I was “reborn” in a sense. And that was a very spiritual experience for me, and I still am very spiritual. I had to get out of that church and that town to do it.
Was there music in your house growing up?
I feel bad saying it, but some of the worst music comes from the Baptist church. And it's such a massive industry! The people writing those songs are making so much money. The experience that I had musically was a lot of really self-indulgent electric guitar solos and grand statements. The songs themselves are so epic in nature, but so underwhelming.
How did you discover music in that atmosphere?
I was finding stuff on iTunes when it became something everyone used. I was in middle school. For example I really liked music I'd hear on the CW network. I would watch those shows, hear a couple of songs per episode and download them. That was my primary method of finding music for years. Before that, I grew up listening to pop-country music. My brother and sister are older than I am, so I had a lot of their records to listen to. I wasn't a huge consumer of music, a big music fan, until college. I was more interested in writing my own from the beginning.
Is that how you ended up going to college for songwriting?
When I was looking at colleges, I was really into musical theater and performing in high school shows. I had in my head that I was going to school and train for eventually being on Broadway. At the last minute, probably when I was seventeen, I just realized that the songs I had been writing were the most fulfilling thing I had ever done for myself. I decided that was something I wanted to try and do professionally, just because I was never able to see myself doing anything but performance. Writing has always been my first love. I thought it was such an incredible gift to discover something where I could write my poems, which I'd always been doing, and perform them, and sing and play an instrument at the same time. It was this incredible world of getting to write and be an actor as well.
Tell me about Macon. I know there's a rich musical history there.
Yeah, the music's mostly gone now. It's more of a musical graveyard, which is sad. There's a lot of rich, rich history, but that came before my time. It wasn't a huge part of my upbringing at all, that sense of historical importance. It's actually pretty neat to go home and rediscover Macon. The last few times I've been home, I've driven around and revisited all my old haunts, the ones that I hate now. I'm trying to go and see parts of my hometown that I've never seen before. That can be either finding a new antique shop downtown that I didn't know about, or finding a new coffee shop near the college campus, anything that will help me reinvent my Macon experience. It helps me not to have such childish associations with my hometown.
8 p.m. Sunday, January 16. The Firebird, 2706 Olive Street. $12 to $14. 314-535-0353.