On March 11, the United States initiated a travel ban from Europe to limit the spread of coronavirus, causing confusion and pandemonium. Around that same time, Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Mackenzie Scott was in Berlin, playing one of the last shows of her European tour behind Silver Tongue, her fourth album as Torres. “It was really bizarre because we were having such a fun time,” she said over the phone on Tuesday (March 17). “Two weeks into touring, you’re finally starting to sound really tight. To have it just shut down like that is a bummer.”
To follow along with Torres’ tweets last Wednesday was to see a real-time escalation of the changing conversations around COVID-19, which has now caused a near-shutdown of the live music industry. First, she promoted her Berlin show with skepticism about asking people to gather during a pandemic. Then she basked in the joy of delivering a powerful set to a grateful audience. Then came the worries about getting home mid-crisis, the fear of being stuck abroad as flight prices skyrocketed. Eventually, she asked fans to donate money to help her and the band get back to the U.S. (They were able to return home on Saturday.)
“It all happened so much more quickly and drastically than anyone was expecting,” Scott said. “To be overseas watching it unfold from the backseat of a van on our cell phones was very surreal.” And yet the response to her situation has also given her hope for what comes next. “I have extreme gratitude for everyone who has reached out to help me and other artists in this time,” she added. “I’m hoping that everyone is just going to take a nice big breather and heal themselves if they can. Hopefully live music doesn’t die and it all comes back in the fall and everyone’s more excited than ever.”
Pitchfork: What was your mindset like while playing in Berlin? It was right around the time that everything started getting canceled.
Mackenzie Scott: Well, first of all, I had been sick with the flu! Three out of four of us in my band had it. So we were just trying to fight that, working hard to get our spirits up. At that point we had no idea what was actually about to happen. Right before the show, our opening act Katie Harkin told me that she was going home because of the repatriation for non-citizens [associated with the U.S. travel ban]... She’s English but she lives in New York, so she was concerned that she wasn’t going to be able to get back. She decided to go home, and I found that out right before the show. Then we played and it was the most fun show of the whole tour! It was awesome. Our spirits were very high. Then we got back to our hotel and that’s when everyone started texting me.
What was the atmosphere like during the performance?
The vibe of the whole tour felt kind of wary and uneasy. The energy was very uncertain from us, my bandmates, our crew, but also from fans. When we got to Berlin, people just really showed up. The fear didn’t seem to hurt the crowd the way it did in other places. It was a full room. People’s awareness seemed to be heightened to the idea that they might not get to see shows for a little while. And sure enough, my show ended up being the last one there before they announced that they were closing for two months. And same with the one that I played in Copenhagen [on March 10]. I was the last show for a lot of these venues! Which is concerning in and of itself. Like, “Torres Has Touch of Death.”
When you got back to the hotel and heard the news of the travel ban, what was your reaction?
The moment the announcement was made that we had to get home, I got on the computer and started looking for flights. Every time I refreshed the page, the flights disappeared, and prices were going up every second. It was insane. We ended up driving to Amsterdam because we found a middle-of-the-night flight from Amsterdam to Moscow, then a six-hour layover, then into JFK, which was an 11-hour flight or something.
How were you and your bandmates feeling through it all?
Honestly at that point, we couldn’t stop laughing. I think we were just delirious. It’s so surreal. I don’t think any of us processed what was happening. I still haven’t processed what this is going to look like for the next few months or even days or weeks.
When did it become apparent that you wouldn’t be able to pay for travel yourself?
Oh, I mean, immediately. The stressor was already present. Making a tour happen for a musician like myself, who’s not exactly making a lot of money at this point in my career, there is already a good bit of overhead. There’s not any wiggle room. Let’s just say, I was already projected to either lose money on the tour or barely break even—and that was before any of this happened.
When I realized that I had to get home very quickly and that tickets were not going to be cheap, I knew I couldn’t put it on the credit card we’d been using because it’d been maxed out already from hotels and travel expenses. The cash I made from merch was going directly into paying for gas for the van. I didn’t actually have any money at all to spend. So I just asked people. I asked fans on the internet, which I’ve never done in my life. Asking for help in general is not really my forte. But I got so scared that we were going to get stuck.
The response was pretty overwhelming and immediate.
Oh my God, people were so generous! I’m still trying to figure out what my plan is for thanking people, because it’s the reason I made it home quickly and safely.
I know you also interact with fans on Patreon, where they can subscribe directly for exclusive material as you make it. Does this method of self-sustainability feel like a path forward for artists?
It does give a lot of peace of mind, just to have any amount rolling in that can go toward paying bills or buying groceries. It helps create the opportunity to actually focus on writing songs and producing—all the things that artists should be able to focus on. It’s an extreme time of scarcity for everyone—not just artists, I understand—but artists have taken some of the biggest hits. So I’m hoping to be part of the solution. I’ve got a wide open mind in terms of what that can look like.
What do you think musicians and fans can learn from this situation?
Musicians need to learn how to channel their energy so that they don’t lose their ability to keep making things. I guess that’s my fear, that artists will burn out because it just doesn’t feel possible anymore. And for other people, it’s an opportune moment to see the underbelly of what artists have been talking about, which is that there’s no sustainability. The model has changed and none of us know how to survive because, frankly, corporate giants are controlling the access we have to the money in the music world. We’ve been saying it for a long time: Artists are not getting compensated fairly for their work. I think there are many opportunities right now in this time of self-reflection and self-quarantine for people to use their brains to develop empathy in areas where it might not have existed before. Fingers crossed for that.
Are there things that are giving you hope right now?
Well, yeah. When I asked people for help, I got more of it than I ever could have expected. That was a huge encouragement. That made me feel like everything is going to be alright. But I also realize there are many people who don’t have that net to fall into. A lot of people are really scared right now. I’ve got hope, but that doesn’t mean people won’t also suffer. That’s the anxiety that I’m riding right now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork