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The new Okkervil River album is called Away. I didn’t plan to make it and initially wasn’t sure if it was going to be an Okkervil River album or if I’d ever put it out. I wrote the songs during a confusing time of transition in my personal and professional life and recorded them quickly with a brand new group of musicians. I got together the best New York players I could think of, people whose playing and personalities I was fans of and who came more out of a jazz or avant garde background, and we cut the songs live in one or two takes – trying to keep things as natural and immediate as possible – over three days in a studio on Long Island that hosts the Neve 8068 console which recorded Steely Dan’s Aja and John Lennon’s Double Fantasy. I asked Marissa Nadler to sing on it and got the composer Nathan Thatcher to write some beautiful or- chestral arrangements, we recorded them with the classical ensemble yMusic and then I mixed the record with Jonathan Wilson out in Los Angeles.
2013-2015 had been a strange time for me. I lost some connections in a music industry that was visibly falling apart. Some members of the Okkervil River backing band left, moving on to family life or to their own projects. I spent a good deal of time sitting in hospice with my grandfather, who was my idol, while he died. I felt like I didn’t know where I belonged. When there was trouble at home, a friend offered me her empty house in the Catskills where I could go and clear my head. New songs were coming fast up there, so I set myself the challenge of trying to write as many as possible as quickly as possible. I wasn’t think about any kind of end product; the idea was just to write through what I was feeling, quickly and directly. Eventually, I realized I was writ- ing a death story for a part of my life that had, buried inside of it, a path I could follow that might let me go somewhere new.
“Okkervil River R.I.P.” and “Call Yourself Renee” are good emotional transcriptions of that time. I wrote the latter on psylocibin mushrooms on a beautiful afternoon in early fall in the Catskills. I wrote “The Industry” quickly after getting some bad news. “Comes Indiana Through the Smoke” is an anthem for the battleship my grandfather served on during the Pacific Theater of World War II. Before becoming a private
school Headmaster, my grandfather was also a jazz musician; he paid his way through college as a bandleader, toured with Les Brown and His Band of Renown, and spent summers playing a residency at a NH lakeside gay dance club called The Jungle Room that kept live monkeys in the basement. (You can hear his actual trumpet on this song, played by C.J. Camarieri from yMusic.) “Judey on a Street” is a love song, sunny but written late at night when the woods are maximum spooky. We cut “She Would Look for Me” pretty shapelessly, with a lot of improvisation, and it’s also a love song. “Mary on a Wave” is about the feminine aspect of God but is in a very masculine tuning: DADDAD. It’s also a love song. I wrote “Frontman in Heaven” in an obsessive three- day streak of writing for 14 hours, going to bed, getting up and writing again. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. I wrote “Days Spent Floating (in the Halfbetween)” by just jot- ting down the first sentence that popped into my head every morning in October im- mediately after I opened my eyes. At the end of the month I had a finished song. It was recorded as an afterthought as the last thing we did when they were about to kick us out of the studio. You can hear me flub some lyrics. But one take and we had it.
I think this record was me taking my life back to zero and starting to add it all back up again, one plus one plus one. Any part that didn’t feel like it added up I left out. Weirdly, it was the easiest and most natural record I’ve ever made. More than any time in my life before, I felt guided by intuition – like I was going with the grain, walking in the direction the wind was blowing. The closer it got to being finished, the more the confusion I’d felt at the start went away. It’s not really an Okkervil River album and it’s also my favorite Okkervil River album.
Will Sheff May 18, 2016
TORRES knows the darkness. The Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter otherwise known as Mackenzie Scott waits until anything—an idea, an emotion, a memory—gnaws at her, tearing at her fingers and throat until she releases it in song. Her husky voice strains against its human biological constraints like a wild-eyed horse, whispering desperately "Don't give up on me just yet" on one end and yowling about jealousy with unnerving intensity on the other. Following her self-titled debut in 2013, TORRES pushes herself to even noisier extremes on Sprinter, a punishing self-examination of epic spiritual and musical proportions.
A keen awareness of Scott's place in her family and in the world suffuses Sprinter, contributing to themes of alienation throughout. "You're just a firstborn feeling left behind," she sings on the ominously brewing "Son, You Are No Island," which references one of Scott's influences on this record: English poet John Donne's 1624 poem Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Scott's tortured wailing circles spirals downward around itself, reflecting in a dark mirror the feelings of an adopted child. "Whether it be abandonment, or fear of rejection, or perhaps inability to connect with people, comes down to that fear of isolation, of not being good enough," says Scott. "Those are themes that have cropped up in my personal life, in my writing.”
"Scott escaped the confines of her churning mind in order to find herself by recording Sprinter in the market town of Bridport in Dorset, England with co-producer Rob Ellis; and then at the Bristol studio of Portishead's Adrian Utley. With his guitar riffs and synthesizers lingering in the background like a lowland mist and PJ Harvey's Robert Ellis and Ian Olliver on rhythm—the two fortuitously reuniting 23 years after the release of Dry, and in Scott's 23rd year of living—she crafted a "space cowboy" record. "That's as simply as I can say it," says Scott, who cites inspirations as diverse as Funkadelic and Nirvana, Ray Bradbury and Joan Didion. I wanted something that very clearly stemmed from my Southern conservative roots but that sounded futuristic and space-y at the same time."
It seems like an odd thing to look for in the picturesque seaside green, rolling hills in the south of England, but Scott had never been there before, and as a stranger in a strange land she found what she was looking for: a lost childhood. Sprinter was recorded in a room that had formerly been used as a children's nursery, which combined with the alien landscape fuels the self-searching that roils TORRES' music. "Cowboy Guilt" perfectly encapsulates the contrast of Deep South conservatism with future sounds, juxtaposing George W. Bush parodies with wearing one's Sunday best, bouncing on a mechanically whimsical melody.
After all, it was Scott's Baptist upbringing 4,000 miles away in Macon, Ga. that gave her a voice in the first place. When her parents gave her an acoustic guitar at age 15, after giving her flute and piano lessons before that, she would sing church hymns at the local nursing home to get over her stage fright. As Scott moved away from organized religion toward something far more real and personal ("I still think of myself as quite God-fearing," she says), she ranged farther from home, to Nashville—where she grappled with her outsider status yet again, faced with an insular music scene as hard to break into as if it were surrounded by England's famous hedgerows—and then to New York, where she finally felt another semblance of being at home.
"Nashville was just a bit too small for me," she says. "I don’t really like walking down the street and knowing everyone that I see along the way. I was raised in a small town and there are very special things about it, but I don’t prefer to live that way. I like the chaos of the city."