Before she wrote Silver Tongue, out later this month, Torres’ Mackenzie Scott stopped writing music altogether. After releasing three albums of searing, searching guitar rock, Scott says she needed to reassess. It’s a “delusional pursuit,” as she calls it, to try to make a living as a musician right now. Did she even still want to do it? What was even worth writing about?
Scott found herself “emotionally overloaded” — drained by the global political scene, romantic heartache and a family health scare. And in April of 2018, she was dropped by 4AD, the label that had released 2017’s Three Futures and with whom she was supposed to have had a three-album deal. On Twitter, she said the label dropped her for “not being commercially successful enough.”
“I wish them all the best,” she said in a tweet. “Also, f*** the music industry.”
Eventually, the turmoil was enough to prompt Scott back into writing music. The resulting album, Silver Tongue, is the first Scott produced by herself, for reasons both practical (it’s expensive to pay a producer) and personal. More so than ever before, she says, she was able to enter the studio with a precise vision for what she wanted to record, and she didn’t need to rely on someone else to make it happen. She speaks of the record with a sense of measured, assured calm; when I ask her to describe the vision she towed into the studio, she says, flatly: “Well, exactly the record that I made.”
Silver Tongue is fixated on desire, and Scott paints the sensation as something desperate and strange. The songs sometimes touch on the rush of infatuation, but more often situate themselves in the places where love intersects with fear, jealousy, shame or ignorance. “I was trying to write myself out of a tunnel,” Scott says of the album’s creation. “A tunnel of burning, dark desire.” On the album’s cover, painted by her girlfriend, the artist Jenna Gribbon, Scott stares directly and intensely at the listener with her arm outstretched: Inviting you in, but on her terms.
When we spoke by phone, Scott was at her home in New York, hanging out with Gribbon and her cat, Little Bat. We discussed the tumult of her past few years as an artist, how she aims to push boundaries in her songs and how the music of Game of Thrones made its way into her new record.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Marissa Lorusso: Last June, when you announced that you were signing to Merge Records, you said you felt like you’d “lived an entire lifetime in the three years since recording Three Futures” and that your new record “documents the significant fruits, for better or worse, of some terrifically delusional pursuits.” What was that time like? What were you pursuing?
Mackenzie Scott: Mostly I was pursuing romances. [Laughs.] But also a career in this industry, which is kind of a delusional pursuit. I think it’s wildly grandiose to pursue a career in the entertainment industry, especially in 2020. I think it grows more and more unsustainable, more grandiose, more of a pipe dream, to think that one can sustain oneself in the entertainment industry right now.
I imagine you mean financially most of all — but in other ways, too?
Yes, financially. But also, musicians and entertainers in general are so ubiquitous at this point in time; to take the things that I’ve made and to put them out into the world and tell people, “Listen, I know that there are a lot of people making noise right now, but here’s why you should listen to the noise that I have to make” – it’s a really delusional pursuit. It’s a big ask, and it takes a lot of tunnel vision for anyone to look at what they’re making and think, “Yes, this is important.” [Laughs.] But I’m still doing it, so.
You wrote most of the songs on Silver Tongue in a pretty condensed amount of time, right? Tell me about that time.
It sort of always takes me a couple of years to make the record. But this time was different — there was a point about a year and a half ago where I wasn’t writing. I’m kind of always writing, but I took a pretty significant chunk of time to not write anything, and just to decide if I still wanted to write; and, if so, I needed to determine what was actually worth writing about.
What made you want to take stock in that way?
I think it’s really important for people who make things to … be able to look at your body of work and say that you fully believe in it; that you can get behind it and push it out into the world in hopes of somehow helping or healing, or doing some kind of good. I needed to make sure that that’s what I was doing. Because this is not a time in history where I feel like it’s acceptable for people to put s*** into the world. It’s just not. I needed to make sure that I wasn’t doing that.
What helped you decide to go back to writing?
Well … turmoil? [Laughs.] Being desperately in love and feeling like I had no control. I think, for me, a huge part of writing is about control. As a person in this world, I have a really hard time saying the thing that I really want to say in the moment when it matters. I’m always a few steps behind. It takes me a really long time to formulate a thought and turn it into words. But I’m also a person who really feels like I need to have some sort of a last word; so my superpower, if you will, is getting to have the last word via writing. I was feeling pretty powerless during the process of writing this album, and it made me feel like — well, at least I have this. At least I can lean on this.
Last year, you did a solo tour of house shows, and you also started releasing music and updates about your music on Patreon. It seems like those things might have connected you to people in a new way. What has that been like?
It’s been a relief, and it’s been really encouraging. It’s really easy, I think, when you start putting out records and touring and you sort of become part of the machine … to lose touch with the fact that the network of support that you have in individuals is still very important. And specifically, in the case of that house show tour that I did, it was like stage-diving or something; it was like diving into a crowd that I hoped was there. And they were! I wanted to see — sans booking agent, sans publicity, all that – if I could reach out to my fans and see if they would catch me by, like, agreeing to last-minute host a show in their living room. And then there was that double amount of trust, hoping that people would show up for the shows. And when they did, it was — It sounds really corny, but it was really moving.
What were you listening to when you were coming up with the vision for Silver Tongue?
Whenever I feel emotionally overloaded in my life, I can’t listen to music to all. I’m just so moved emotionally by music that there are chunks of time where I have to keep music away, and this happened to be a couple of years where I had to do that. I don’t need to go into too much personal detail, but it was just kind of a hell of a couple of years – you know, everything that is going on in the country, and the world; and my relationship was – obviously, as you can hear [on the album], my relationship was a major point of stress for me; my dad had a major accident that left him paralyzed in that time; I was dropped from my record label. I was very much broken, and I could not listen to music at that time.
If you couldn’t seek refuge in music during this time, what else helped?
Well, I sought refuge in exercise and in TV, basically.
What were you watching on TV? Did any of it make its way into what you were writing?
I watched The Handmaid’s Tale … I watched all of Mad Men, start to finish, during that time. Oh, and I marathoned Game Of Thrones from start to finish. I kind of think the Game of Thrones music made its way into some of the songs. Like, you know, Daenerys’ theme song? Every time she rides in on the dragon — it’s like one theme song that plays? It’s almost like Enya minus the lyrics. It’s very beautiful, ethereal, triumphant, soaring music — and I do think that some of the musical moments from that show made their way into the album.
I want to ask you about the album art. It’s a painting of you by Jenna Gribbon, your girlfriend. You’re a subject of many of her paintings, and I would imagine that your relationship with her plays into the music that you write – so, to a certain extent, you’re both creators and you’re both muses. What’s that like?
She’s somebody who is always looking to do something that pushes boundaries – and that is something that I’ve always tried to do myself and it’s also something that I respect immensely in other artists. So this sort of cyclical muse type of relationship that we’ve got going on – it’s made me a better artist, I think. It’s kept me from getting lazy in my craft. … It’s completely thrilling.
We live together; her studio is in our home, and I work from home mostly, so it’s completely an environment of making things. And I feel like I’m excited again.
Were there specific boundaries that you were inspired to push on this record?
Well, yes — but also, I don’t have to work very hard to push boundaries, I think, just because of who I am. And it’s not just a gay thing — although that is part of it! [Laughs.] We forget, still, how many people in this country and in this world are homophobic — or even if they aren’t homophobic, they don’t understand what it looks like for two women to be in a relationship and live together. They don’t even know what that looks like; there’s no representation, really, for so many people.
I’m always sort of trying to use a little bit of the language of where I come from and mix it with the language of where I am now — which is why I think it’s interesting to throw in references to the South, and to simple times, but as someone who’s in love with a woman.
It seems like this record is the first time where you’re really forthright about the fact that you’re in love with a woman. Was it a conscious decision to be more open about that on this album?
It’s not that I was ever trying to hide anything, I just wanted to leave room for people to put themselves into the song. And so, by not using gender pronouns, I think that was part of the effort. But I don’t think that really helps all that much, is what I’ve come to decide.
The impression that I get from people in general is that they felt like I was just being veiled on my previous records. It was never my intention to be veiled; it just got interpreted that way. This time around, I didn’t hold anything back; trying to withhold anything at this point feels not-worth-it. If I’m going to put a record out there, I want people to know exactly what it’s about.
I want people to understand that women can burn for each other. And it can be not just as compelling, but more compelling, even, than your average straight love story.