Mackenzie Scott’s voicemail greeting is a short segment of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” Her voicemail box is full. This, I learned on a recent morning when I called her to discuss “Helen in the Woods,” the third single off her upcoming third album Three Futures, the video for which premieres exclusively here on W.
“I forgot. I totally forgot,” Scott said, laughing and adding, “My dad hates it.” Scott, the Brooklyn-based, Georgia-raised musician who records as Torres, wrote most of Three Futures, which is also her debut on 4AD (the label of Grimes, The National, Deerhunter, and Daughter), in one sustained period after the release of her critically adored sophomore record Sprinter. But the furious, delirious “Helen in the Woods,” which Scott, now 27, wrote approximately five years ago while still in college, is an outlier.
In its first iteration, “Helen in the Woods” was an acoustic track, “loosely based” on a friend’s experiences with a stalker, but inverted: “A really scary man is the stereotypical stalker story, but in this case it was flipped and it was a woman,” Scott explained. Gender can often inform what constitutes a stalker, and what pushes an obsession over the top—a woman’s obsession will more often be pathologized and a man's, romanticized. As a consequence of reversing the typical stalker narrative, Scott made a video that pushes against those norms: “I wanted to write a song about obsession; there’s that fine line between innocent obsession and then, you know, stalker territory, which I’m kind of constantly flirting with in my own life." She laughed. “I just told you that.”
She filmed the video last month in Highlands, North Carolina; her third collaboration with her friend, the director Ashley Connor, “Helen in the Woods” is also the simplest. While her previous two videos, for “Skim” and the title track, “Three Futures,” were more elaborate, more densely conceptual, and more overtly sensual (“sexy, in some ways”), “Helen in the Woods” is direct, and a bit deranged. Scott appears alone throughout the video, flitting across several different rural settings while maintaining the same manic expression on her face.
“We just wanted to go for it,” she emphasized. “I want viewers to question, I guess, whether I’m crazy,” she continued. “The way that the video comes across, now that I watch it back, is like, ‘Am I Helen?’”
In the video’s most striking frames, Scott hovers against a sea of trees that loom in the background. The scenes seem to defy physics—leading me to wonder if they were green-screened—but, she assured me, they “are all legit woodsy shots.” She refused to elaborate further, but she did add that the video was entirely shot on film. “We walked away from the whole thing saying, ‘Well, I hope we got it,’ because we couldn’t look at it,” she said.
Though Scott has been sitting on “Helen in the Woods” for five years now, it was only when she began working on Three Futures that she found an outlet for the track. (As she wrote Three Futures, she mapped out a blueprint for a house, in which each song was a room; “Helen in the Woods” was the red room, scented with cardamom and cedar. The room simultaneously occupied a place within this house and somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, which could explain the video’s Lynchian vibe.)
“This record, it’s a record about the body and it’s a record about movement, and in many ways it’s a record about desire and lust and obsession,” Scott said. Corporeal themes emerged as soon as she began writing, borne in part of a desire to take better care of her own body—but also, maybe more importantly, of “reaching a new place in life where I’m no longer ashamed of just being a sexual being and a sensual being and feeling like I don’t have to keep a veil over my sexual self,” she said. “These are, I suppose, parts of living I didn’t realize I had access to as I was growing up.”
So when it came to the original folk song that was “Helen in the Woods,” she thought, “You know, if I just wrote a really sick guitar lick over the top, just made it really maniacal,” she said, “this would make a lot of sense.”
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