Bouncing back from label changes, gear shifts and at least one existential crisis, TORRES talks life as indie rock's great survivor
“If I can be hopeful, then I feel like I can be helpful.” That’s how Mackenzie Scott, also known as TORRES describes the ethos of her new album, What An Enormous Room. But that’s not to say that hope is easy to find. Across this album, Scott lives in the moments where hope feels furthest away – moments of despair, of disconnection, of dread – and then claws her way to the light, or shifts her perspective to see that it’s there waiting to be found. “Didn’t know I’d wake to flowers after going to sleep to rain,” she sings.
With her first, self-titled album in 2013, TORRES debuted to instant critical acclaim from tastemakers like Pitchfork and NME. She toured with Sharon Van Etten, Garbage and Tegan & Sara, and continued to release excellent records to glowing reviews. But she’s been open about the roadblocks along the way – in 2018, she tweeted that she had been dropped from her label 4AD after only one record, for reportedly “not being commercially successful enough”. (She’s now on the esteemed artist-run label Merge). Now, after over a decade in the music industry, Scott has settled into a wisdom and comfort in her creative process.
Over the course of her six studio albums, TORRES has been constantly morphing. With each record – the last four of which, including this one, she’s had a hand in producing – she presents new textures, whether fuzzy garage rock or sheeny synth-pop. On What An Enormous Room, her sound is electronics and effects-heavy in a way that’s warpy and caustic, while her melodies combine a dark confidence with moments of disarming beauty. She recorded the record in a week and a half between her home in Brooklyn and North Carolina, with co-producer Sarah Jaffe.
With a UK tour upcoming next month, we spoke to Scott about her approaches to creativity and what she’s learned through the years.
What was the background of this album? Where were you coming from on a personal level?
I’ve sort of been awestruck at the state of the world at every turn. Like many of us I’m sure, I’ve had a few existential crises, I guess you could call them, along the way. And I’ve really fluctuated on the amount of hope that I’m able to conjure at any given point. [While writing What An Enormous Room], I’ve just been trying to zoom out a lot, and – this may sound a little bit self-aggrandising – but I also wanted to see if I can help sort of guide people through this time. If I can be hopeful, then I feel like I can be helpful. So when I was writing the album, I was just envisioning… possibility, I guess. Envisioning what the future could look like if the world doesn’t end.
Sonically, the album has this dark, warpy, electronic sound. When you were in the studio, how did you go about creating those sounds?
Honestly, it was really all over the place. With such a limited amount of time to get a recording down, it’s kind of like, ‘Okay, so now we’re going to do all the guitars, and then after that let’s focus on all of the drums ‘n’ bass,’ or whatever. If there’s one thing that’s recurring on there that’s new for me, it was an organ – I’m not actually nerdy enough to even remember what it’s called. But you’ll hear it, it’s very organy. And I did play some piano on this record as well, which is maybe new for me. Otherwise, [there are] just regular-ass synthesisers and drum machines, and then organic sounds on top of that. Like a drum machine with an acoustic drum kit on top of it, or a synth bass with a bass guitar on top of it. There was a real focus on combining synthesised, electronic instruments with warmer, more acoustic ones.
You co-produced this album, and you’ve produced or co-produced the last several TORRES records. What’s your approach to production for TORRES albums?
I’m in a different kind of world every time, sonically. I’ve usually demoed everything at least partially, and I sort of have an idea of how I wanna have it translate in the studio when we’re recording for real. Usually we move pretty quickly, and I like moving a little bit quickly. Leading with my intuition a bit and not overthinking every little move I make, and trying to make sure I’m just following what sounds good and feels good for the track. I think one thing that really defines the way that I like to produce an album is just to make sure that I’m not overthinking or overdoing anything, that I’m not getting hyperfixated on any one thing.
Like you said, your sound has really morphed and evolved with each album you’ve done. What do you think is the biggest lesson you’ve learned creatively over the course of making those albums?
Something that I think is really important is, anybody who does this should listen to their gut about what they’re making. Whatever the idiosyncratic aspect of the song or the writing is, it should be identified and amplified. Whatever the thing is that you feel like you’re not supposed to do or you’re not allowed to do or the thing that feels the most risky, I think that’s the thing that should really be played up. Because that’s the thing that will set one record apart from the next.
You pretty quickly saw a lot of critical acclaim and industry success when you started releasing music, but you’ve spoken openly about the roadbumps you’ve been through as well. What advice would you give the past version of yourself about the music industry?
I think maybe the advice would be less about the music industry and more about myself and my own expectations. I think I would tell her, you’re in it for the long haul. Pace yourself. Don’t get stars in your eyes, don’t try and be the biggest thing right out of the gate. I want a career that really sustains itself for hopefully my entire life. I hope I always get to make things and share them. And I think I would say to younger Mackenzie that any time anyone tells you it’s the end, it’s not the end. Don’t lose your mind over a few rejections.
You’re coming over for a UK tour next month. How do you envision translating What An Enormous Room to a live setting?
I’m really excited. I think it’s gonna be really fun. We’re gonna focus on bringing as much energy to the live performance of this record as possible. I think it’s gonna be really danceable, and really fun. I know it’s a darkish record, but the live performance might be a bit more upbeat than some past TORRES shows. It’s gonna be a party.