What happens when the pupil becomes the master? Torres is a former collaborator and support artist for the rather brilliant, and For The Rabbits album of the year winning Sharon Van Etten, and based on the evidence of Torres’ latest effort Sprinter, she’s more than ready to step out of the shadows and become a star in her own right.
Not that she’s the first musician to go from backing musician to become a superstar in her own right. Take Bobby Womack, whilst he began touring before he had even turned 10 as part of The Womack Brothers, who would sadly disband after the untimely death of their mentor Sam Cooke, it was only after a stint as a session musician for the likes of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin that he became a solo artist in his own right, and it took working for Sly & The Family Stone and Janis Joplin before he found any mainstream success of his own.
Led Zeppelin are quite famously “a bunch of session musicians” or at least they were until they formed Led Zeppellin! John Paul Jones was a successful session musician to the point The Shadows got him to fill on bass for two years, in fact his success with the band almost prevented him being able to join Led Zeppelin, which could frankly have changed the history of rock’n’roll as we know it, so thank heavens The Shadows let him leave! Jones also worked with acts as diverse as The Rolling Stones, Donovan, Shirley Bassey and Lulu, whilst in recent years he’s teamed up with Dave Grohl, Seasick Steve and Rokia Traore. If John Paul Jones has an impressive array of collaborators his bandmate Jimmy Page is arguably even more successful, playing on records by The Who, The Kinks, as well as playing on the soundtrack of A Hard Day’s Night, so you potentially add The Beatles to that list, all this before he took over from Eric Clapton in the Yardbirds, let alone planned the career of Led Zeppelin.
The roaring success of a variety of session musicians through time is undeniable, and a vital reminder that you shouldn’t be too quick to keep it in the band, there’s a lot of talent out there who might just be available to add a quick layer of guitar or a backing vocal down on your album.
Torres is a pseudonym for the work of 24-year old singer-songwriter Mackenzie Scott.
For starters how about that voice?! A blend of the angst of Amanda Palmer, the tones of Nadine Shah, and the emotive weight of Sharon Van Etten; musically it’s a varied walk through the best bits of the alternative spectrum. From synth laden pop moments through loud rock numbers resplendent with distortion and feedback, and minimal, moments where just her voice and a guitar are left to translate the thoughts inside her head.
Torres was born in Macon in Georgia, before relocating to Nashville to attend college and is now based out of Brooklyn. A rather impressive musical lineage! Nashville and Brooklyn need no introduction, and even the less well known Macon has given the world The Allman Brothers, Ottis Redding and Little Richard!
Back in July 2012, whilst still a student, Torres recorded and independently released her self-titled debut album. The albums success saw her support the likes of Sharon Van Etten, Okkervil River and Hamilton Leithauser. She signed a deal with Partisan Records and her second album Sprinter is due out on May 18th.
The album begins with the excellent Strange Hellos, the muted notes of a low-end string instrument, and Mackenzie’s lonely vocal carry the introduction, “I dreamt that I forgave but that only comes in waves, I hate you all the same” she sings before the whole thing bursts into a techni-colour blast of sound, a huge, bold, loud and angry start to the album it finds her “all for being real” but noting “if I don’t believe then no one will”, the first of a series of moments where the album ponders the subject of religion and faith, and the difference between the two.
It’s a subject revisited on the sublime title track, Sprinter. Sprinter starts with some driving electric guitars and squalls of swirling noise, when it resolves and the vocal enters proceedings it becomes a country-rock number;, a blend of a steady beat and muted guitar strums, it’s rapidly countered by a chorus with an glacial tinge, it shouldn’t all hang together as well as it seems too. The lyrics recall her Baptist routes, comparing a preachers words to his actions, he promotes the word of the bible, but “went down for pornography.” The song though is not about his faith or actions, it is about Torres looking back on her behaviour and questioning whether she did the right thing, “what I did, is what is done, the Baptist in me chose to run, but if there’s still time to choose the sun, I’ll choose the sun.” It’s a perfect musing on religion, no staunch atheism, or blind faith, an actual questioning of religions role in the modern world, from an undecided individual, the last record to cover the topic so well was Horse Thief‘s wonderful 2014 record Fear In Bliss.
Elsewhere the lyricism is equally impressive on other subjects: on Ferris Wheel, the one moment where her time with Sharon Van Etten truly shines through, she delivers an intimate dissection of unrequited love in all it’s flawed details, it’s a slow, painful burn of a song, matching a gently meandering guitar with a raw, unprocessed vocal performance, it’s brutally honest. She starts off questioning the situation “do I have a reason to be sad? Crying over something I never had”, talking of their love for her car and concluding “you don’t like me, you just like my ride.” She looks back through the rose tinted spectacles of love and recalls how, “you hide behind glasses, and music, and wit, you laugh at yourself and hand roll cigarettes, there’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do to show you that I’ve got the sadness too”, a woman so desperate to be loved, she’s willing to slip into the darkness with another, it’s a painful thing to listen, as she tries to convince herself, and her friends that she doesn’t “mind the way it feels, to ride an empty ferris wheel.”
If religion and love are universal themes we can all relate to, the closing track The Exchange is an alien concept to most; Mackenzie was adopted and the song details her own birth mothers adoption. It’s stripped back to the point of being almost acapella, only the lightest touch of a guitar string acts as an accompaniment, the intimate musical setting a perfect foil for the unsurprisingly moving tale, “the exchange was quick and quiet, the record sealed the names made private”, it latterly finds her mother noting “I don’t think you can pull me out of this”, seemingly pertaining to Mackenzie herself as she notes, “I am not martyr” implying she wants the best for her own child, and closing with the achingly beautiful note, “I will no longer claim to know where we go, when it’s time to go, when you go, will I go too? When you go I am going too!” It’s so deeply personal it feels almost voyeuristic!
Sprinter is also beautifully produced and played throughout, perhaps the result of the surroundings, Adrian Utley of Portishead’s studio in Bristol, or the result of the quality and experience of the players involved, including but not limited to PJ Harvey collaborators Robert Ellis and Ian Oliver. The musical variety is impressive; Cowboy Guilt, a tale of “drowning our winters livers with bleary expectations”, recalls the experimental pop of tUnE-yArDs, Son, You Are No Island, treds similar territory of dark synths and squeals of feedback to Perfume Genius‘ Too Bright and New Skin has shades of the gently unfurling beauty of Bill Callahan.
Errm, well aside from the fact that the vocal production on Strange Hellos has now become lodged into our heads as sounding a bit like Muse, it’s really quite hard to fault this record. It’s just a roaring success, near faultless, just get this album into your life and thank us later!
Sprinter is out May 18th on Partisan Records. Torres plays End Of The Road festival at the start of September.