Torres becomes the cowboy

On Silver Tongue, Mackenzie Scott is liberated from the reticence that hung over her early albums — singing about love and mysticism, becoming the cowboy she’s always wanted to embody.

January 15, 2020
Torres becomes the cowboy Photo: Michael Lavine c/o Pitch Perfect  

Mackenzie Scott once sang that she was “not a righteous woman” but “more of an ass man.” The line jumped out from “Righteous Woman” off of 2017’s Three Futures, her third album under the name Torres — a sly repudiation of Scott’s Baptist upbringing in Macon, Georgia, focused on the body and its capacity for pleasure rather than the church’s instruction to deny the flesh. “Righteous Woman” captured Scott’s new outlook and, amidst the sensuous and intentionally luxurious synthetics of Three Futures, provided a little levity. Scott even decided to merchandise the lyric, selling a line of beige dad hats that read “Ass Man” in blue cursive above the brim.

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Today, sipping incessantly on black coffee a few blocks down from her new home in Brooklyn, Scott can’t stop laughing about the Ass Man hats. “Would you believe that I sold more of those hats than records?” she asks. “Turns out it was a very popular selling point!”

Silver Tongue, Scott’s fourth album, due out on January 31, is her first for the legendary North Carolina-based label Merge and first since a disappointing split from 4AD in the wake of Three Futures, the latter of which had her seriously contemplating a life away from music. “I wondered if I was just fooling myself about being able to actually have a career in this terrible industry,” she says. “My initial reaction was shock, fear of the unknown. Rejection is hard for anyone.”

When Scott did start writing again, she didn’t write about the depression and anxiety she felt in those first few weeks after the split, living alone in Manhattan with only her cat for company. Instead, Silver Tongue is a collection of love songs — still pockmarked by anger and jealousy at points and coiled around the wide-eyed mysticism she explored last time out, but easily her most welcoming album yet.

Scott is in love with her girlfriend, the artist Jenna Gribbon; she painted the cover of Silver Tongue, a radiant portrait of Scott with her hand inviting the listener in. And she’s now comfortable singing about being in love with a woman. From the start, Scott was saddled with the “confessional” tag that most young women with guitars have to lug around forever, but she was hardly an open book on her self-titled debut from 2013, instead tip-toeing around romantic attraction. Scott claims she doesn’t listen to any of her albums after they’re released, but she remembers the ash-light “Don’t Run Away, Emilie” — in which she sang, “I need you 'cause you see me / Somehow” — as a moment in which she walked right up to her point without fully expressing it.

“I thought that I was being really revealing, [but it] could be about anything now as far as I'm concerned,” she says. “I'm sure that it doesn’t sound like a love song to anyone, but it was about someone that I was in love with, and at the time that I wrote that my family didn't even know that I loved women. It was about protecting my family and maybe protecting myself from the world, too[...] There was fear involved — of not wanting to reveal exactly who I was, because I wanted to be accepted.”

That was Scott at 21, living in Nashville after leaving Macon to study songwriting at Belmont University. She moved to New York after the album’s release and, as people tend to in New York, started over. On 2015’s Sprinter, she was harsher and angrier, intent on staring down her childhood until its worst antagonists were cowed into silence, and her third record burned it all down again. Three Futures was often rhapsodic, with Scott ecstatically trying to tease out every possible sound from the synths she’d started to embrace.

She was in touch with her senses in new ways, as though after years of living through a TV screen, she’d finally walked outside to experience the world as it was. "I can walk over the Manhattan Bridge, look at the city with my eyes, and feel the sun on my skin," she told me at the time, thrilled by the thought. The monolithic God of her childhood had disappeared, replaced by an implacable spirituality she’d absorbed walking around New York. “To be given a body / Is the greatest gift,” she sang on “To Be Given A Body” the last song on the record.

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“It's funny how we always think, in the moment, that we're so much wiser and more advanced than before,” she says now of that era, wrapping her fingers around her coffee cup. “I was like, Man, I'm really onto something here: I've found God in the city. I feel like a completely different person than I did then.”

Torres becomes the cowboy Photo: Michael Lavine c/o Pitch Perfect  

Scott doesn’t want to disparage the way she spoke or thought two years ago. The relationship she had with her own body was, she admits, “amazing,” and feeling such compassion for herself — and New York — opened her up to others. “It feels a little funny to have gone in that order,” she says, “but I had to learn how to love myself, deeply, before I could understand how to love other people.”

That love is not just romantic — it’s as much about ”someone you see on the subway, looking at them and instantly being empathetic towards them, though you've never met them.” But Silver Tongue focuses intently on intimacy. The fully acoustic “Gracious Day,” Scott’s starkest moment since she wrote to her birth mother on Sprinter’s “The Exchange,” is a proposal: “I don’t want you going home anymore / I want you coming home.” On “Records of Your Tenderness,” she aches at the top of her register through a rare minor-key melody: “I let myself love you knowing I could never look back.”

And occasionally, Scott seemingly suggests that “Righteous Woman” opened a door she can no longer close. In the middle of some of Silver Tongue’s most tender moments, she adopts a hyper-masculine voice. She turns herself into a cowboy as she sings on the airy “Dressing America” that she sleeps with her her boots on in case she needs to “gallop over dark water to you on short notice.” One of the album’s best lines comes on its first single, “Good Scare,” when Scott imagines writing a “country song” for her lover: “I’d sing about knockin’ you up under Tennessee stars in the bed of my red Chevrolet pickup.”

Scott plays with the trope on Instagram too (“Your daughter still calls me daddy, son,” she wrote under one post), and she admits that she’s joking, at least a little. “The country trope is very humorous, but it's also what I grew up in. So it's camp, but it's also serious. I've always wanted to be that country boy who impregnates his girlfriend in the back of a truck. I kind of feel like I embody that person, in a way — in my own interpersonal dynamics with my girlfriend, in her eyes, I am that cowboy.”

She beams as she rifles off a disclaimer. “I'm going to preface this by saying I love men — I don't want you to get the wrong idea here,” she says. “But it's fun to go into it being both demeaning to men, because I'm appropriating something that historically has belonged to them, but also to take it for myself. That makes me feel powerful. So much about power and control is tied up in the way that we use language. It doesn't matter if I can or cannot impregnate somebody, I can still say that I can — and if I say it out loud, it can be as true as I want it to be. That makes me feel like I can be anybody that I want. I can be both a man and a woman, funny and serious, hot, sexy, and laughable. Anything I want it to be.”

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Torres becomes the cowboy Photo: Michael Lavine c/o Pitch Perfect  

It’s important to point out that Mackenzie Scott is a psychic. She tells me this excitedly over our second cup of coffee, insisting that she tries to use her powers for good, and I believe her in part because she can be incredibly persuasive in person, reeling off theories about metaphysics and the unknown with a contagious enthusiasm. “I truly believe that, if I wanted to sit across the room from you and put something in your mind with my mind, I could do it,” she says without breaking my gaze. “I could think something and send it to you with my mind, and I think you could probably feel it in some way. I think there's a lot of energy to be harnessed on this planet.” She stops for a second and starts laughing: “This is a ten-hour conversation, and I don't even know how to circle back to the original thing.”

The original thing was “Last Forest,” the second song on Silver Tongue. “Forgive me for being forward, but have we done this before?” Scott asks there over an icy melody before her guitar sparks up into a chorus and warms the mix: “Now something jogs the memory that I’ve loved you repeatedly / I’ve run to you It’s come to me / Been chasing you for centuries.”

This is not a love-struck metaphor, but a very literal warping of time. “When I met my girlfriend, I recognized her,” Scott says. “It was instant recognition.” Growing up in the church, she was led to believe that we all had one life, that time moved forwards in a straight line. But a few years ago, she started to have “very intense dreams.” “I was aware, whenever I woke up, that these were memories of some kind,” she elaborates. “I didn't know if they were past life memories or memories of the future that hasn't happened yet, but I knew that these dreams were not just dreams that my brain had come up with — they were actually experiences that I, or my cells at some point, have experienced or would experience.”

Torres becomes the cowboy Photo: Michael Lavine c/o Pitch Perfect  

When Scott moved to New York after Torres, she started to question a God she’d been told she knew. You can hear those one-sided conversations on Sprinter and Three Futures, just as you can hear new deities and theories edging their way into her periphery. She’d been given one vacuum-sealed answer to every question about her existence, and a hole had been punctured in it. No theological Band-Aid could have patched it up.

I ask her if the church has stayed with her, now that she’s been in the city for so long. Does a childhood belief in the supernatural help to inform and guide the way that she’s thinking now?

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“I certainly don't think that I've lost that,” she says, splaying her fingers out on the table and looking down for the first time. “I've learned to take what was really amazing. It wasn't all bad. I was raised in a household where my parents believed in the supernatural and believed that it was very real and powerful, and my relationship to it has just changed. Yes, there's no religion anymore. What it is, is an acknowledgement of the unseen.”

Torres becomes the cowboy