Interview by Brandi Carlile
Images by Bella Newman
“I’ve spent a long time unlearning, and not just with music and with writing.
I’m in a constant state of unlearning everything I thought I knew
about reality and about the kind of life that I should be living both
professionally and personally.”
— Mackenzie Scott
TORRES is the pseudonym of singer, songwriter and artist Mackenzie Scott. Raised in Macon, Georgia, Scott received her degree in songwriting from Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee and currently lives in New York City. She recorded her debut album TORRES (2013) while still a student and her second album Sprinter (2015) was released to critical acclaim. Scott has opened for the likes of Sharon Van Etten, Hamilton Leithauser, Brandi Carlile and Tegan and Sara. Her third album, Three Futures, releases this fall.
Grammy nominated folk singer-songwriter and activist Brandi Carlile grew up in Ravensdale, Washington before dropping out of high school to pursue a career as a musician. Her second album The Story (2007) turned gold this year, and her album The Firewatcher’s Daughter (2015) earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album. Carlile’s critically acclaimed album Cover Stories (2017) benefits nonprofit War Child and features 14 artists covering tracks from Carlile’s The Story album, including Adele, Pearl Jam, Dolly Parton and TORRES.
Established musician Mackenzie Scott, known by her stage name TORRES, and Grammy nominated folk musician Brandi Carlile first became acquainted when Scott was the opening act for Carlile in 2015. Their paths crossed again recently when Scott recorded a track for Carlile’s newest album and collaboration, Cover Stories (2017), celebrating the 10 year anniversary of her gold album The Story and benefiting the nonprofit War Child. Scott is releasing her third album this fall, Three Futures, two years after her critically acclaimed album Sprinter (2015). Co-produced by Scott and longtime collaborator and producer Rob Ellis, Three Futures delves deeper into Scott’s personal and sexual identity while exploring new sonic terrain. Her provocative music video for album track “Skim” features the familiar face of lesbian fashion powerhouse and former Creative Director of J.Crew, Jenna Lyons. Scott and Carlile reconnected to discuss the new TORRES album, her artistic vision and the balance between activism and personal creativity.
Mackenzie Scott: I want to hear what you’re up to and what your life looks like on and off the road. What are you into right now?
Originally founded in the United Kingdom in 1993, War Child is a non-governmental organization providing assistance to children in areas experiencing conflict or its aftermath. With branches in seven countries including the US and Canada, War Child collectively reaches millions of children and adults a year in countries affected by armed conflict. Since its inception, famous artists including Brian Eno, David Bowie and Bono have backed War Child by hosting and performing in charity events, and many other well-known musicians such as Paul McCartney, Radiohead and Brandi Carlile have since joined its cause.
Brandi Carlile: Don’t think you’re going to get away with not talking about your record! I just made a new record I’m really excited about, and I’m still working on behalf of War Child and just hanging around at home being a family.
MS: Can you tell me anything about the new record? Is it super top-secret?
Based in Nashville, Tennessee, Dave Cobb is a producer most known for producing the work of Shooter Jennings, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell and Brandi Carlile. He owns Low Country Sound, a record label imprint via Elektric Records and Atlantic Records.
The son of country music royalty, Waylon Jennings, Shooter Jennings is an American singer-songwriter whose music is most often classified as outlaw country and Southern rock. Jennings has produced a total of seven studio albums, in addition to a live album, a compilation and numerous EPs.
BC: I get told that it is, but I don’t think so. I made a really special record in Nashville with Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings and my band. Have you ever met Shooter Jennings? He’s like my spirit animal. It’s a special record with some special music on it, and it’s bigger than anything we ever done before. It’s a total departure into the world that we are heading into musically from now on.
Our first three records were heavily guided producer projects where we were kind of in school learning how to make records. Then we produced Bear Creek and Firewatcher on our own. And then we went back in with a producer who was even more vibrant, and instead of feeling heavy-handed, it felt like being given permission to do something that we always wanted to do. Like when it came time for a song to end, he would say, “Why can’t this have a four minute outro?” We never would have ever given ourselves permission to do that. So we went into a vein along the lines of a nod to Led Zeppelin and the band—a 1970s Elton John sound that we never intended to go into, and now we’re just that band. So this record’s been completely transformative for me in every way, and I’m really excited about it.
Your record though! I’ve been checking it out, and it’s so cool because I got the idea you were headed in this direction when you came out and did the War Child track. And I think you have it in you to be a massively great producer, as well. Why don’t you tell me about how that collaboration kind of panned out with your record. Did you end up producing or coproducing, or was it just a place that was really conducive to your ideas?
Producer, instrumentalist and composer Rob Ellis is best known for his work with PJ Harvey, for whom he has produced, arranged and played since 1990. He has also worked with a plethora of musicians including Marianne Faithfull, Bat for Lashes and TORRES.
MS: Rob [Ellis] and I co-produced. We’ve been collaborating for a few years now, and he did my last record Sprinter with me.
The last time around, I don’t think I had any idea what I wanted sonically, so I ended up playing a bunch of power chords and finger-picking the guitar the way that I do and then strumming big chords. But I didn’t want to do that this time. I wanted to leave space for other things.
BC: That’s a recurring theme. The big open spaces.
MS: Just sprawling space, maybe too much. So I went to the studio with Rob, and I was like, “I want this to be cold and industrial, but also very palatial. I want it to feel like we just showed up to a party in a Masonic temple, but everybody who used to live here died a thousand years ago.”
BC: He’s like, “No problem, I’ve got an input for that.”
MS: What’s crazy is he is like that. Super translative.
“I’ve gotten to a point where all I want to do is listen and observe, and the opinions that are truths to me, like basic human rights, I’m not going to change my mind on. The statements that I’m making are very significant ones to me for a reason.”
— Mackenzie Scott
BC: Did that set the stage for you being able to integrate your ideas, and would it be a collaborative production issue at that point?
MS: It did. We’re generally very good communicators with one another, and I also had a lot more parameters for what I didn’t want sonically this time around. I didn’t want any cymbals on the record, so I straight-up said, “No cymbals, no metal. We’re not going to fuck with the metal and try to manipulate the sound. We’re just going to leave it out.” And I didn’t want acoustic instruments at all.
BC: Did anybody raise opposition? Or did they all say, “Great, no cymbals. Great idea.”
MS: Rob didn’t fight me on the cymbal thing. And interestingly, my drummer, who I thought was going to be taken aback by that, was super into it. He’s super into krautrock. I was listening to a lot of Can and Kraftwerk, and so were he and Rob. So the cymbals thing was a non-issue. I think the thing that Rob fought me a little more on was he wanted to make it a bit more lush, a little warmer, and I wanted it to feel like an ice palace.
BC: When we worked together in Seattle on “Until I Die,” it was definitely evident that you were headed in a direction of autonomy and being recognizable by a sound. It’s to the point where I know in the first 30 seconds, whether you’re singing or not, if it’s a TORRES song I’m listening to, which I think is a sign and hallmark of a career artist.
I was really impressed with the album and you in general, and I felt like your presence in the studio when we were together was, “Mackenzie’s ready for a serious twist and turn into total autonomy.” I’ve noticed that you did the same thing with your artwork and your video. What’s the catalyst for you making these really big statements. Is it New York? Is it just where you’re at in your life right now?
MS: I think I’ve spent a long time unlearning, and not just with music and with writing. I’m in a constant state of unlearning everything I thought I knew about reality and about the kind of life that I should be living both professionally and personally.
BC: Is that because you lived in the South for so long then moved to the city?
MS: That’s a huge part of it.
BC: It sounds cliché, but I know that’s impactful.
“The call-to-arms and defense of refugees is so much more important that you wind up talking only about your activism because it’s so much easier to promote something that’s a just cause than to promote the feelings of your own heart.”
— Brandi Carlile
Written by Chilean-French director, producer, screenwriter, playwright, actor, author, poet, musician and spiritual guru Alejandro Jodorowsky, Psychomagic: The Transformative Power of Shamanic Psychotherapy discusses how concrete poetic acts can manifest psychological realizations leading to true transformation. Enlightened by his observation of Mexican folk healers, Jodorowsky discusses a healing therapy which harnesses the powers of dreams, art and theater, including examples from his own practice.
MS: Do you remember me telling you about the book Psychomagic by Alejandro Jodorowsky? I’ve mentioned it several times, so I should just send you the fucking book. But basically from the time I moved to New York, I started this significant — “transformation” isn’t even a large enough word for what started to happen — “unlearn” is the best way that I can describe it. I simply didn’t know who I was anymore, and everyone I’ve talked to says that especially late 20s, early 30s you start to realize that maybe you aren’t exactly who you thought you were. I’m 26. It’s not that I thought I had everything figured out, but I didn’t expect that I was going to be as malleable.
BC: Really? I’m surprised you said that because to me you seem less malleable, but in a good way. You seem a lot more aware.
MS: I think what I mean by “malleable” is that I’ve gotten to a point where all I want to do is listen and observe, and the opinions that are truths to me, like basic human rights, I’m not going to change my mind on. The statements that I’m making are very significant ones to me for a reason.
BC: Be an activist.
MS: I don’t know if I’m going to be an activist. I have the platform I have, and I’m trying to figure out the best way to use it.
You’ve gone above and beyond. It’s impressive and actually frightening. When I visited and recorded the song for Cover Stories, I watched you at the benefit show, and you were completely fearless. It’s stunning to watch you stand in a room full of people like that, and the performance is just a part of you. I’m curious to know if you’ve always been that way. Do you identify as an activist?
BC: I do. Becoming an activist is so self-defining because it’s much easier to perpetuate a just cause than it is to perpetuate just yourself. In some cases it can lack bravery, and you have to be careful to integrate who you are into your work and your music because it’s easy to just be an activist and slip into that space musically. It’s hard to self-promote; it’s hard to say, “Yeah, my love song here,” or “this thing that I wrote about my mom or my daughter.” The call-to-arms and defense of refugees is so much more important that you wind up talking only about your activism because it’s easier to promote something that’s a just cause than to promote the feelings of your own heart.
Integrating both of those things is what becoming an artist and activist is all about. The reason why I have this platform is because of the love songs, because of the song about my daughter, because of that moment of introspection and indulgence. That gave me the platform to make a difference for refugees, for immigration rights, for childhood hunger or women’s issues. If it becomes all one thing—if I’m only singing and speaking about women’s issues, childhood hunger and refugees—I lose my platform that got me the attention of the people in the first place. So integrating those two things is my challenge for the next couple years, and learning how to live in those parallel lines and letting them cross every once in awhile.
It’s interesting to start a song about something in the world that I can’t sleep at night because of, and then I end the song singing about my wife or my daughter. That’s a real career challenge: integrating that activism and autonomy with a need to expose people to my heart, my feelings, my face.
I just see the beginnings of potentially a real activist, in your music and where you’re taking your record and in that super controversial, amazing video you just did. You never would have done that video on your first record.
MS: Calling my sexy video activism? That’s pretty cool.
BC: A, It is a sexy video. And B, it’s definitely activism. Not that many people would do it, and even TORRES circa 2014 wouldn’t have done it.
When we talked in the past, I felt like you weren’t wanting to 100% confront embodying the LGBTQ culture, in your life and in a certain way in your music. And now you’re like, “Well, fuck it.” What make you slip into that phase?
MS: I think for the longest time I was trying to figure out how to do it. I was apprehensive about how to go about presenting the art in a completely inclusive way. I never want to alienate any fan base, but I also want to be a voice for people that haven’t been given a voice or have had theirs taken from them. So it’s the professional aspect of figuring out how to do that and then personal elements as well. Making a super sexy music video the way I want to is not something I ever thought I’d have the option to do, simply because of where I’m from.
BC: Even though men have been making super sexy music videos for decades.
MS: That’s what I came around to. I was like, “You know what? Who says that men are the only ones that get to make music videos like that?” And I’m not going to make a music video about being the object of a man’s desire. It’s going to be about my desire.
“I never want to alienate any fan base, but I also want to be a voice for people that haven’t been given a voice or have had theirs taken from them.”
— Mackenzie Scott
Grammy-winning folk rock duo Indigo Girls is comprised of musicians Amy Ray and Emily Saliers. Friends since elementary school, the pair began performing while high school students in Decatur, Georgia and then as students at Emory University under the name Indigo Girls. Since their first self-produced album in 1987, Indigo Girls released a total of nine studio albums made with major record labels as well as their own IG Recordings company, founded in 2007. Both Saliers and Ray identify as lesbian and are involved in political and environmental activism.
BC: If it’s ever disturbing for a second, all it does is raise thoughts of, “Why? Why does bother me? Why does this trigger something and not every single video throughout 90s MTV?”
What I thought was, “Great, she found a way! She found a way to perpetuate the forward motion, perpetuate the work.”’ It honors the work that’s been done because it’s different, it’s more risque, and it is reality. Women do interact like that, and it honors people like The Indigo Girls, for instance, who got made fun of on Saturday Night Live and in Rolling Stone because they dared to say that they were gay or looked a little bit different. It was easy for them to find a way to push the envelope because just by being honest they were pushing the envelope.
There’s a lot of us LGBTQ artists right now that don’t know how to push the envelope because the envelope has thankfully gotten so big that we can’t even get to the edges of it. I kind of can just by having a family. There’s a lot of other artists like Tegan and Sara and Courtney Barnett who are trying to find a way to push the envelope, and I feel like you did. I don’t know how many of us are brave to do something like that. So I’ve been so impressed with you for the whole concept.
I’ve been wanting to tell you that I love your record and that I’m really impressed with the way that you pushed the gender envelope in that video. I always watch your trajectory with affection and support.
MS: Thank you, that’s extremely heartwarming. Obviously, you are always my hero. I can’t wait to hear what you’re doing. Send me the record when you have the A-OK.
BC: I have the A-OK. I really want to hear what you think. It’s funky.