Mothica says resilience lies at the heart of her music
Alt-pop newcomer Mothica has taken TikTok by storm with her emo-reminiscent anthems. This is no trend-setting movement for 15 seconds of fame, however: Mothica is the emotional outlet of artist McKenzie Ellis to express and explore personal trauma and insecurities through her intense songwriting. Confronting subjects such as domestic abuse, suicide attempts and assault, Mothica’s tracks contradict their contagious instrumentals with gut-wrenching lyricism that reach far beyond the TikTok experience.
After the success of hit single “VICES,” Ellis’ eight-year career finally launched her toward festival appearances, heading to play Louder Than Life and Aftershock later this year. Ahead of a busy year launching her sophomore album, Nocturnal, Ellis details the viability of online musical success, the pros and cons of hard-hitting lyrics and what’s coming next…
Was music your first career goal?
It’s weird to grapple with because a lot of musicians say they wanted to be a superstar or imagine themselves winning a GRAMMY, but I didn’t. I had dreams of going into coding, science and app development; I just wanted to be known for my ideas. Music was so emotional and secretive for me that I didn’t even think that was a career path. Everything was so precious. It worked out that in this day and age, musicians are doing more than just writing songs on guitar; there’s so much of the visual aspect that I love, so it became a perfect career because I can change roles whenever I get stuck. It’s funny that the things that feel like a job to me are the things like taking care of my voice, doing vocal warmups and exercising in order to be onstage.
You attribute your success to TikTok, but do you think it is a sustainable platform for musicians to chase their big break? Is it truly viable to build a career upon TikTok’s algorithm?
Posting about music online is definitely different to the traditional path of playing a million shows to get your name out there. Luckily, I played about 70 shows in real life before I ever posted, so I have that experience, but it’s funny how introverted being able to connect with people online has made me. The first show I played after the pandemic was Lollapalooza, and a lot of people knew my song “VICES,” which had done well on TikTok, but at the next show nobody knew the lyrics — I can’t really gauge what people know online.
When your music reaches beyond the novelty of a 15-second clip, how do you preserve the deep meanings behind your material while promoting on a platform like TikTok without trivializing those personal experiences?
I told my managers that my song “CASUALTY” is so deep to me — it’s about alcoholism, addiction and depression — that I didn’t want to be constantly posting about it because it’s so heavy. I don’t want to think about little clever ways to say it. I think as a response to that, there are a lot of songs on my next album that are more empowering and fun; still about real topics, but it’s hard to continually talk about traumatic things and whittle them down to a 15-second clip.
Writing such deeply personal lyrics can feel like a tenuous balance between honestly representing your own feelings and objectively portraying experiences for listeners to relate. How do you maintain that equilibrium?
The songs I thought were too personal and specific to me were the songs that connected the most to others, and that was really interesting. I thought “VICES” was way too literal and nobody would relate; maybe it would be a sleeper that a super fan might like, but it actually connected to more people, so that pushed me to try not to water things down and become vague. You can tell the specifics if you feel comfortable.
After the positive responses to your songs “buzzkill” and “forever fifteen,” you set up an online feedback form to hear your audience’s own stories on emotional topics. How did that process feel?
It was really special to have people share their stories and demonstrate to me that I wasn’t alone in these experiences, but I had to preserve my own well-being reading their messages. It was really heavy because I wanted to honor and respond to every single one, but you can’t when there’s thousands. It became very emotionally exhausting to be there for everyone, but also to know that I’ve been there.
You’ve always described yourself as a self-made musician, but your rising success on TikTok led you to recruit a record label and PR for the first time. Was it a difficult decision to hand over elements of the creative process you’ve kept to yourself for so long?
As I was talking with labels, I realized that I like controlling the visuals and planning what songs come next, so I wanted to preserve that decision. That’s when I had the idea to have an imprint label so that it was still my creative process. I spent so many years doing it on my own that I still wanted to do that but with some people cheering me on. I wanted to be more easygoing because I always thought a label would have more expertise and I would love everything they suggested.
What inspired your move to create your imprint label Heavy Heart Records with Rise Records and BMG to release your second record, Nocturnal?
In my first conversation with the label, the owner told me, “My mom grows luna moths. Do you want some caterpillars?” I ended up getting all these little caterpillars that I would feed and clean every day. They’re a lot of work, but I took that as a sign. It’s weird because the luna moth was the moth I was thinking about for the album; it’s night- and lunar-inspired, so it was a cool coincidence. I told myself I wouldn’t make this the reason to sign, but I’m easy to win over, and they ended up being the best fit. I’ve been growing the caterpillars for seven months, and it was so hot the other day that one of them hatched!
How would you describe Mothica in one word?
Resilient. I used to message venues to try to book shows at festivals where there are so many fans already there; now lots are popping up on my calendar. I’m glad that after my one song did well, people have stayed on to listen to the others. I don’t even know where I’m going, but I’m excited to do it.
SONG RECOMMENDATION: “SENSITIVE”
This interview appeared in issue #406, available here.