Mackenzie Scott walks into an east London pub one hot spring evening, looking utterly exhausted. The 24-year-old came straight off a New York red-eye into hours of interviews, and faces a 5am alarm to fly to Paris, then Berlin, the following day. It’s all in support of Sprinter, her second album as Torres (her grandfather’s surname). Scott isn’t complaining; she’s just new to the advance fanfare.
Her independently released eponymous debut slipped out quietly in January 2013. Pitchfork gave its influential best new track stamp to Honey, a slow-burning, ultimately ferocious account of emotional betrayal, and her stark electric guitar hymnals won her respect from musicians including Sharon Van Etten. Back then, Scott still lived in Nashville, after graduating from Belmont University as a songwriting major. She had started writing only a few years earlier, back in Macon, Georgia, inspired by a friend who recorded with her boyfriend. “I’d read about Taylor Swift, but I’d never actually met someone who wrote,” she says.
Although she loved “90s pop country”, Scott’s musical grounding came from her Baptist upbringing. She sang praise songs in youth group, but envied the band playing guitars on stage. “I so desperately wanted to be part of that world,” she says. “It was a boys’ club, I did not make it in. That was pretty upsetting.” Instead, she taught herself guitar and sang in a nursing home to comfort lonely residents.
So far, so holy. But Sprinter is Scott’s attempt to reconcile the darker side of her youth, “running away from some aspects of my past, but also towards something that I consider to be truer”. She was adopted at birth: Scott’s pregnant biological mother approached her Bible studies teacher to ask if she would adopt the child; she consented, and the couple that became her parents “thought the event divine”. She repeatedly affirms that she has “nothing but love” for them, unlike the church.
Sprinter’s title track details a “pastor sent down for pornography”a reference to an incident when she was about 11 in which a church leader lost his job. “There were more people throwing stones than extending love,” Scott says. As a pious teenager she shamed peers for “unfit behaviour – having a beer at a party, having sex,” she says. “I regurgitated a lot of pretty hurtful dogma.” It’s taken her a decade to confront the resulting guilt.
Once at college, Scott gradually began shunning religion – Cowboy Guilt recounts her liberation: “It’s about when I first started drinking, and started allowing myself to consider the universe for the first time through a different lens.”
Its spacey, modernist riff also marks the most pronounced transition in her songwriting. Recorded in Dorset with Rob Ellis (PJ Harvey’s regular producer), Sprinter embellishes Scott’s tough, lambent rock with electronic textures and unbridled aggression.
“This time, I didn’t feel the need to mince words,” she says. “I was reading Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing – he talks about, when was the last time your true loves and true hates made their way on to the page? No matter what you’re writing, just make the fuck sure that it isn’t lukewarm. And this record was my attempt at not being lukewarm.”