During the title track of Torres' absorbing, sometimes-startling second album, Sprinter, bandleader Mackenzie Scott reflects on her religious roots, pulls them into the present and protests them all at once.
"The Baptist in me chose to run," she sings over receding guitars. "But if there's still time to choose the sun, I'll choose the sun." Scott's words form a fitting musical epigraph for Sprinter, an album in which she re-contextualizes the dogmas of her youth for more uncertain times. It's a headspace defined by big questions and unapologetic attitude, where issues and objections come surrounded by menacing music.
"The last two or three years have been about letting everything I know—or that I think I know—unravel," Scott explains from her Brooklyn home. "It's been a big process of unlearning. I've tried to forget the way I was raised—the stories, the cartoons, the books. I'm looking at the Bible, and it's more majestic than I thought it was."
Scott grew up in Macon, Georgia, surrounded by imperious projections of what God must mean. But at the age of 16, guitar lessons (from a "dear, dear classical guitar teacher named Perry Cantwell," she says) jumpstarted her long trek out of town and its ideals. She switched to the electric when she went to Belmont University in Nashville, drawing inspiration from Joan Jett and her college pals in the band Diarrhea Planet, a four-guitar arsenal with a different method for wielding the instrument as a weapon. When talking about her own approach to guitar, she emphasizes the fact that she's still learning, despite having studied the instrument for nearly a decade. It's an essential component of her success.
"I'll always be a student in a sense," she explains of the guitar. "I'm not a guitar nerd. Every time I pick it up, I'm just trying to figure out how to do something interesting."
Led by Scott's strong alto and her crystalline lyrics, Sprinter is one of the year's most enigmatic and alluring albums because it hinges on Scott's desire to keep questioning and exploring her surroundings—intellectually, emotionally, lyrically, musically.
Songs like the churning "A Proper Polish Welcome" and Sprinter's defiantly stark closer "The Exchange" showcase Scott's varied instrumental approach.
And her lines have an economy that could be described as terse. They blend the everyday and the mythical on songs like "New Skin," which describes her continued evolution in brief detail. "Lay off me, would ya?" Scott asks. "I'm just tryin' to take this new skin for a spin." It's a stark reduction of her experiences, both past and present. Scott admits her reading habits help deliver those unadulterated insights.
"My lyricism is rooted in something I know, a truth of some sort," says Scott. "I like to use literature I've read, for the most part, as a stencil or structure. I had a lot of different literary worlds I was drawing from. I was reading a lot of J.D. Salinger when I was writing, Margaret Atwood and Joan Didion."
To make Sprinter, Scott again fled the familiar, shipping to the English market town of Bridport to work with co-producer Rob Ellis (PJ Harvey, 2:54). Being an outsider in unfamiliar territory allowed her to focus and, eventually, override her old approach.
"I was just super lonely, to be honest. I didn't know anyone there apart from Rob Ellis. It wasn't a struggle; it was just an alien place to me," she says. "Being away from the distractions of New York—my day-to-day, not having the familiar comforts around, not having my friends around, not even having Wi-Fi when we were in the studio—gave me space. Even if I missed the Internet, it was best I didn't have it. I had space, and that afforded me the freedom to pay attention to what I was doing and think exclusively about that."
Such isolation helped turn Sprinter into a singular statement. Scott pushed herself into an environment that forced her to look beyond the constantly pulsing chatter provided by the Internet's always-crowded watercoolers and deliver some hard revelations of her own.
"It's painful to have to sit back and be by yourself—not just without friends, but also without Twitter and Instagram. I am just as addicted to that stuff as anybody," says Scott. "But for the sake of the art, you can't have that around. You just can't be thinking about it when you're trying to create something new."