From the moment Mackenzie Scott opened her mouth on 'Mother Earth, Father God', the first track on her self-titled and self-released 2013 debut album as Torres, we were faced with an artist of mesmeric power. That voice, equally raw and intimate, singing to us tales of hurt and pain, innocence lost and searching - always searching - for a place in the world, yet never feeling like someone's who's been guilty of oversharing. The music, sparse and brilliantly judged so as not to crowd Scott's voice but also claustrophobic to the point where you felt like you were curled up in a ball of emotion alongside this Torres, but ready to unfurl and strike should anyone cross your or her path.

Two years on from that record and Torres is back with a record which has somehow surpassed the emotional intensity of that first release. Sprinter, named for Scott's passion for running in her younger years as much as for a metaphor for escape, takes the extremes of the debut album and amplifies: the quieter moments are even more intimately unnerving, while the times when Scott unleashes that bruised and raw voice are louder and noisier, perhaps even grungier if lead single 'Strange Hellos' is anything to go by. It feels like the only place Scott could have went after Torres, and so when I call her up in New York City, beanie-hatted and cat in lap, we begin by talking about exactly when Sprinter started to take shape.

Scott tells me that once the tour for Torres had finished up, the process of the follow up started almost immediately: "I started writing Sprinter, really intentionally, a little over a year ago," she says, her cat Little Bat sitting content, for the moment, in her lap. "I'd finished touring the first record for the most part and I just spent about six months locked away in my apartment writing the record, and then recorded it late August, early September of last year." The album recording involved decamping to the English countryside to work with a couple of well-worn West Country names: Rob Ellis and Adrian Utley. While the latter Portishead member contributed some guitar work, Ellis co-produced with Scott and found himself reunited with bassist Ian Olliver twenty-three years on from their first release together, PJ Harvey's Dry.

"I can't say that I really see the comparison myself much beyond being a woman and having worked with these people that Polly Harvey has also worked with!"

So: West Country, the Dry rhythm section... one might assume that Mackenzie Scott is a huge Polly Harvey fan - but it's simply not the case: "I guess all of that was a bit coincidental," she explains. "I really hit it off with Rob Ellis; I was aware of his work with PJ Harvey but I can't say that it really influenced my desire in any way to work with him. We just connected, and he asked Ian Olliver - who ended up playing bass on the record - just kind of as a friend thing. I think it was just an opportunity for them to play together after such a long time so... it seemed like from Rob's perspective it was a fun chance to play music with his buddies again."

Scott goes on to tell me that in fact far from being a die-hard Harveyite, she's only become a recent convert thanks to the recording process: "Well, I'm a fan now," she admits. "I love her and what I've heard now." So it must be slightly galling to her that people assume from hearing a musician making starkly honest music with a guitar and a voice, and simply because that artist is a woman who, frankly, doesn't sound very much like PJ Harvey at all, that the album is heavily influenced by said other woman? "I guess it's just because she's a woman and she sings what she wants to sing," begins Scott, wearing the look of someone tired with such lazy comparisons. "I can't say that I really see the comparison myself much beyond being a woman and having worked with these people that Polly Harvey has also worked with!"

It feels like Scott looked at her self-titled debut and took the best, most gut-wrenching moments and magnified them to make Sprinter. What we heard on 'Honey', from the tense "this cannot happen again / twice in a year is too much" to the throat-shreddingly impassioned "Honey, while you were ashing in your coffee / I was thinking about telling you / what you've done to me" has been amplified in Sprinter opener 'Strange Hellos'. A strutting and grungy track, the focus of a Torres song has always fluctuated between Scott's incredible voice and raw, intuitive playing. Here, there's something frighteningly focused about the subdued opening and the explosive moment where Scott roars "I was all for being real / but if I don't believe then no-one will / what's mine isn't really yours / but I hope you find what you're looking for." One track in and it captures what Sprinter is all about; while there are hints of a fractured relationship, it's more about Scott trying to find her place in the world at the age of twenty-three.

"I am writing in retrospect but I'm also writing about the present, and the present... there's not a lot of clarity there. So I'm asking a lot of questions and doing a lot of seeking, in that sense."

What was often explicitly relationship-based on Torres has become a bit more universal on record number two, and Scott sees this as the obvious next step: "Yeah it seems like a pretty natural transition with the themes on this record," she says. "This record is a reflection of a more adult outlook. I'm actually an adult now as opposed to when I started writing the first record when I was a young adult. The themes that I was focused on with the first record were the problems of a nineteen, twenty-year-old in college... lovesick, y'know!" This is perhaps what made Torres so relatable and so instant in some respects, and while that isn't lacking on Sprinter Scott is definitely painting on a wider canvas: "They were universal problems, but not quite as 'big picture', and my - I'll say - struggles and my focus the last couple of years have all been more on an existential plane... they've been worldly and otherworldly, rather than these really isolated one-off experiences." This, I say, feeds into how Sprinter feels like a grander (if even more instrumentally sparse) version album number one. Scott agrees: "I think the themes are just grander this time, so the writing process was naturally more, I dunno, like that - a bit more focused on the cosmos."

So while Scott muses on the cosmos, she continues to touch on themes we can all understand and identify with. Religion crops up throughout, whether it's on the John Donne-referencing 'Son, You Are No Island' or when Scott describes herself as the titular 'Sprinter', running from the pastor who "lost his position / went down for pornography," running from the baseball and the bat and the "word of life on severed tree," running from so many aspects of her childhood. Writing about her younger days, trying to work out her place in the world when faced with a Baptist upbringing of which she didn't quite approve, an adopted child... these things seem to have come back into Scott's psyche at a time when she's once again searching for a place in the world. I ask Mackenzie if these childhood experiences were a way of trying to understand where she is now as an adult? "I get that," she agrees. "My childhood definitely made its way into the writing, my upbringing... but ultimately I think there's just a lot of reflection on where I am currently. It's like, I'm writing about what's happening in real time and so because of that and the nature of writing about things happening in real time there's a lot of grey areas. I am writing in retrospect but I'm also writing about the present, and the present... there's not a lot of clarity there. So I'm asking a lot of questions and doing a lot of seeking, in that sense."


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Back To The Interview...

On 'New Skin' we find Scott asking "who's that trying to speak for me? What is it that they claim to be?" both questioning her Baptist youth and an unnamed person very much in her present. She goes on to sing "I am a tired woman / In January, I will be just 23," then of a "firstborn feeling left behind" on 'Son, You Are No Island', so is Mackenzie still looking for a place free from belief? She agrees, but with a caveat: "Yeah definitely; I'm still trying! But it isn't really so much about what I believe; I know the way I wanna live my life and I know what kind of person I wanna be - I'm more just trying to figure out how to be a functioning human with peace and joy in my life and to not be drowned by my existential dread, essentially." And that's done by having the attitude that the only way to learn and grow is by asking questions? "It's like you said, at this point I don't know," starts the Georgia-born singer. "I'm trying to figure out a lot of things and there's obviously a lot more we cannot know as humans as we can know, you know? About everything, about our world... so that's what this record is about: me trying to thrive regardless of my existential dread."

Alongside the themes already mentioned by Scott, there is another leitmotif weaving its way through Sprinter: water. Whether it's the line "son, you are no ocean... you'd drown to save yourself," the mention of Poseidon and "pale legs straddling the sea" and "I wish I was the sea" on 'A Proper Polish Welcome', a nod towards drinking with "we drowned our winter livers" on the spaced-out 'Cowboy Guilt' and the traumatic cries of "mother, father / I'm underwater / and I don't think / you can pull me out of this" on the astonishing closing track 'The Exchange', where Scott's voice smothers the listener in all its unaccompanied glory, there's water everywhere - even on Mackenzie's face on the album cover: "You're very observant!" laughs Scott in response. "That's an acute observation, but you're right, the water did make... oh god, I almost said the water theme made a splash on this record hahaha... God that is so stupid!" Unintentional joking aside, this wasn't any kind of happy accident on Scott's part as she explains: "There was an intention. I wanted to make people feel like they were suffocating with me, haha! And yeah 'The Exchange' was meant to be uncomfortable..."

"I definitely wasn't, at least not to my knowledge, affected tremendously by my adoption. It's more I just have some questions about genetics, ancestry, and things like that..."

Water also plays a big part in the Baptist tradition, and these references to drowning and being underwater, along with Scott's image on the cover certainly point to Sprinter carrying the imprint of baptism across its tracks. Scott has gone on record to say she remains "God-fearing" despite her misgivings about her religious upbringing, so I ask if her take on religion is something else that causes some problems when trying to find a place in the world? "I wouldn't say that it's any harder for that reason," replies Scott, "but I guess I don't know how many people like me are out there. It's such a personal thing for me now, I'm not in the church and I'm not congregating with those people but I'm also a Christ follower. I don't talk about it a lot because it is such a personal thing for me, so I do feel like I walk alone for the most part in that." I say there's a heavy irony in being supplied with musical instruments by her family, only for music to be Scott's route out of Georgia and away from the Baptist faith: "It's true! Isn't that cliché?" she replies with a knowing chuckle. "Rock and roll ended my religion... rock and roll is my new religion! Ha! I did grow up singing in church, I've always especially enjoyed playing and singing hymns, but if given the opportunity to play my own songs in church, I'd do so. But it's not an opportunity that comes my way very often, getting to sing the songs I wanna sing in church!"

Although it's fairly common knowledge that Mackenzie was adopted at birth ('Moon & Back' on the first Torres album is a song written from the perspective of her birth mother) it's not something that's explicitly discussed a lot in her music, but closing track 'The Exchange' does address the fact her adoptive mother was also adopted: "my mother lost her mother twice / once in '54 / then later in life", sings Scott, her voice an intimate whisper, uncomfortably close in the listener's ear. While there is no doubt Scott's adoptive family is her family, I am interested to know if there's an element of feeling out of place or lost at twenty-three that can be traced back to the moment described in 'Moon & Back': "I've never had any conscious issues with my adoption," says Scott. "I've never felt out of place with my family but there are definitely some subconscious, kind of latent effects that set in - or for me they set in around the ages of 22, 23." That's very recent, I say. "Yeah, really recently... and those are issues to be worked out with myself and with my shrink! But.. I definitely wasn't, at least not to my knowledge, affected tremendously by my adoption. It's more I just have some questions about genetics, ancestry, and things like that... some questions I might not have had as a kid. And there are always the psychological issues that arise in a person who's been adopted at any point... but again that's not something that's been weighing heavily on my conscience."

In the end, though, all of Mackenzie Scott's life, all the ups and downs she's been through before and after Torres, all finds its way on to Sprinter. There's no filter with this magnificent writer (song writer doesn't really do justice to the poetic words Scott uses to create and hold together her records) and that's just how Scott likes it: "Yeah....writing the songs is step one in figuring out where my head is. All of that - my upbringing, my childhood - goes into the songs."

Torres' new album, Sprinter, is released on May 5th (US) and May 18th (UK/EU). You can stream it by heading here.