In the late 60s in West Virginia, residents purported to see a shadowy manifestation before disasters – including a collapsing bridge. Known as the Mothman, he became a harbinger of death and terror. Naturally, it’s a creature similar to this that alt-popper Mothica has manifested in the physical realm for her second album, ‘Nocturnal’.
“He’s kind of based on a Luna moth,” his creator begins. “I liked the glowing green of nocturnal and it being like nighttime, glow in the dark. He’s this kind of furry moth with the green suit and green wings, and he just wants people to fall asleep, but we don’t know why,” she smiles, questioning her answer.
For Mothica, ‘Nocturnal’ has been a long time coming. An ambitious offering, this second full-length brings together the ideas which first formed years ago when she set out creating music. Growing up as McKenzie Ellis in Oklahoma City, it was at 18 that she began writing music after a childhood of depression, self-harm, along with alcoholism aided and abetted by toxic relationships.
A hard worker by nature, it all began to pay off after a viral TikTok clip of her listening to her track ‘VICES’ worked its way onto 20 million phones. Ever since, it’s been Mothica establishing her vision – the first instance coming in the form of 2020’s ‘Blue Hour’. “I’ve been in the industry a really long time. You know, people had told me my time had passed,” she admits. “And then when everything kind of started happening, and I was like, ‘Oh, I can show you now that I was right, and I did have something worth sharing with the world.”
Here on ‘Nocturnal’, all rumination aside, Mothica’s main concern is taking herself from her driven cocoon into a fully-formed mythological Mothra of sorts. Noting it’s her “first time making what I think a Mothica album could be”, it’s a final form that threatens to keep on growing, proved by her multiple mentions of having concepts for future releases already laid out. “I want each release to be self-contained so that it has its own identity.”
Where ‘Nocturnal”s rock elements are a first, dark and moonless pop has been the DNA of Mothica. This time out, she was processing in the name of ambition. “A lot of the songs come from that – and a lot of songs will never come out because they’re just too angry.” Admitting that “I definitely experience emotions in extremes,” it’s this she pegs as the reason she’s able to write songs in the first place. “I don’t think I could write songs if I didn’t think dramatically that the world was ending every time something happened!”
But back to Moth Man. This personification of Mothica, and her fluttering namesake, comes from choosing the moniker when she was younger after finding an affinity with the oft-maligned goth cousin to the butterfly due to their nocturnal nature. Her moth alignment has meant “everyone always wants me to dress up like a moth, and I think I will for the next video, but I’ve been really resistant to it because it’s just too much pressure. If you’re Mothica, and you being a moth, how am I going to represent that?!”
On the topic of representation, her debut was focused on her sobriety. “I was very emotionally overwhelmed,” she recalls. “Everything was just a sea of emotion, anxiety, and those songs were very diary-like.” For ‘Nocturnal’, she says the validation of her music finally finding a mainstream audience, thanks to both ‘Vices’ and a remix of Bring Me The Horizon’s ‘Can You Feel My Heart’, allowed her to move forward. “I wanted to make something a little more empowered, and there’s a little bit more anger,” she says. “There are a lot more songs that are like, I’m gonna stomp on all my problems.”
Some themes from ‘Blue Hour’ are carried forward to ‘Nocturnal’, with the former being a sunset moving into twilight and the latter Mothica “owning the night.” It’s a sentiment which rings doubly true as she admits she also faced problems when darkness fell.
“I was going to sleep doctors a lot, and I had a lot of sleep paralysis and just issues with sleep,” she reveals. “I was diagnosed with hypersomnia; sometimes I would sleep for 15 hours a day, and sometimes not sleep at all. It was always a revolving theme in my life of being inspired and staying up all night and wanting to just go on this project, or being really depressed and just not wanting to be awake. So there was a sleep element throughout the album. I don’t write about my sleep issues, but I guess that’s why the subject kept interesting me.”
This inclusion of something which has plagued McKenzie lends itself to the empowering lightning strikes reaching down from the low sweeping angst-driven storm cloud in the form of chugging guitars and studious drums. It’s a reaction to a time she “spent a lot of years living in a basement with no windows in college, and so it was really weird.”
Unable to tell what time of day it was, “when you’re in darkness all the time you realise, oh, your brain kinda needs that to fully know what’s going on,” she says with an accepting smile today. “And so nocturnal just came up as a thing, and then we wrote the song, which is the most insane one, I think. You would not expect a Mothica song to have a metal breakdown in it, but we tried it, and then there’s a ‘Toxic’ by Britney Spears influence in that song too. That was so fun to me, just trying to see where it could go.”
Nourishing herself on a healthy diet of 00s staples such as My Chemical Romance, Paramore and Taking Back Sunday – and even a heavier dose of Children My Bride and White Chapel – along with going to shows at rough ‘n’ tumble hardcore venues at the age of 14, even to Mothica it’s a mystery as to why it’s taken her so long to write a record with some stony, rock guts.
But coupled with this spiky rock edge comes elegance. The first sounds heard on Nocturnal come from a haunting, elegant waltz before the brash bombast of the titular track. “I just love Motown and these old 50s songs and how depressing they are,” she laughs. “I’ve always wanted to write a modern spin on that.”
Even adorning the artwork is Mothica with classic retro marcel waves in her hair. “I’ve never had done-up hair, makeup styling – I’ve never got to live that little pop star fantasy until now”). The video for the single ‘Last Cigarette’ meanwhile has Mothica snooping around as a noir detective on the hunt for said Moth Man, who structures the album with interludes offering advice. It stems from wanting it to sound “like these old commercials about sleeping pills where it just has this sinister vibe.”
Wider inspiration for the project and its visuals came from the master of goth cinema himself, Tim Burton, partly due to his “whimsical and dark and weird” nature. But while there’s a grander concept at play, the songs are all standalone – a rough vein running through of self-help and understanding – but for the most part, its facets of Mothica presided over by her greatest invention yet.
While this soothing narrator may be garnering attention “because he was supposed to be kind of scary, but he ended up being kind of furry and cute, he might have some darker intentions we don’t know yet,” Mothica warns with a wink.
When it comes to realising her journey, after having paid her dues and been told it’s just not happening, Mothica’s evolution into this next phase still brings a side of doubt. “I don’t know if I ever feel super free,” she admits. “In making music, I’m always focused on what’s next, but a younger version of me probably wouldn’t be as confident to make ‘Nocturnal’.
“I would never allow myself to make something harder rock because I thought I’m not in a band; I would be a poser. Why am I setting that restriction on myself?” she ends, relishing in her sudden epiphany. “I can do what I want. In that way, I guess I do feel free to explore things I might have thought were off-limits for me.” For all his sinister intentions, it would seem Moth Man might just be a good egg after all.
Taken from the August issue of Upset. Mothica’s album ‘Nocturnal’ is out now.