Mackenzie Scott hates the term "indie," so she instead describes what she thinks is lacking in the "non-pop mainstream world."
"The theatrical aspects of a live performance are what keep up the suspension of disbelief," she muses, "which is why people come to a show — to escape out of something or into something."
She adds, "I just think that if people come to see a show, they should get to see a show."
That attitude helps explain why Scott performs with an uncommon gravitas as the music-maker known as Torres. Every aspect of her work is heightened by drama. Take the music video for her slow-burning single, "Three Futures," which features three versions of Torres — including one pushing a vacuum over an immaculate living-room floor and two more creepily observing from the kitchen and behind a shower door. Tension mounts with each stab of heavily effected guitar and swell of synthesizer, creating a sensual backdrop for her emotionally stark vocals.
The video's final scene is in the bedroom. Torres' voice is dry as she sings to an unnamed lover: "You didn't know I saw three futures / One alone and one with you / And one with the love I knew I'd choose." Following that refrain, she, well, goes down on herself. The imagery stays with you.
Speaking from a suburban neighborhood outside of Cleveland, Scott is touring to promote Three Futures, her 4AD debut, and is set to play Off Broadway with her backing band on October 23.
As an adopted child raised by a Southern Baptist family in Macon, Georgia, Scott learned to play piano and flute, but she didn't take to either; her first true musical love was The Phantom of the Opera. She dabbled in various musical endeavors before teaching herself acoustic guitar and writing music, mostly for herself. Scott's entry point to performing was playing hymns for nursing home residents, and in a way religious music has stayed with her as she's evolved from a finger-picking folk artist.
"I always try to incorporate a bit of holiness into whatever I do," she says. "That doesn't necessarily mean hymn-like, but I like to treat my songs with gravity."
With each album, Scott has experimented with different studio and pedalboard effects. On 2015's Sprinter, she shrouded her anguished lyrics in the distorted guitars and feedback of hard rock. Now she's leaning fully into synth-rock with Three Futures.
Throughout the album, she makes heavy use of a polyphonic octave pedal and other effects, disguising her guitar as a synthesizer to create hooks sonically inspired by Gary Numan. "A lot of times, I'm trying to create sounds he made on a Moog with my guitar," she says. "I like it when you can make one instrument reference another instrument."
As she explains it, she's taking that new approach to playing guitar not for the sake of novelty, but necessity. "The way the new album is structured, it's all laid out on a grid; it's quantized music," she says. "There's no loosey-goosey guitar strumming on this record because there can't be. The guitar playing is more nuanced and subtle and less bulky to fit the structure of this new album." Thanks in part to co-producer Rob Ellis (best known for his work with PJ Harvey) the individual instrumental elements of Three Futures sound like they were cut out with an X-Acto knife. Ellis' finely tuned ear helped Scott realize the soundscapes she was hearing in her head: "I'd describe something really nebulous, like a color scheme or a smell, or demonstrate a rhythm with my whole body and he'd say, 'OK, maybe we should try this delay [effect] on your vocals and double the drums here.' He was able to channel my manic descriptions into actual, concrete functions."
To bring the new material to life in the live setting, Scott's four-member band's stage setup is very much tech-oriented — there are lots of wires, knobs and electronic drum pads — which is ironic because Scott is more of an intuitive sort of musician.
"I never read the manual," she says. "I'm the guy who buys the guitar pedal and clicks a bunch of buttons and turns a bunch of knobs until I hear what I want, but I couldn't explain to you its functions."
But all that matters to Scott is the end game. "More than anything, what you're hearing on the record is a reflection of my interior world," she says. "My hope was to create something that sounds like nothing else, so if it sounds like a left turn it's probably because I was in an entirely different headspace."
It makes for a distinctly visceral album full of striking imagery, and you can count on Scott to play it up with dashes of theatricality.
As for that self-pleasuring scene in the music video for "Three Futures," she has a simple explanation: "At the end of the day," she says, "all I've got is me, myself and I, you know?"