McKenzie Ellis chose the name Mothica when she was 15 and in need of an Instagram username. “I became really obsessed with moths,” she explains. “They were kind of these darker butterflies that were nocturnal and they are self-destructive and I made a joke about feeling like I was a moth. I’ve been going by that since way before I ever made music as Mothica.”
On our Zoom call, Ellis wears winged eyeliner, makeup freckles, and a pink beanie over her two-toned hair. Her arms are covered in tattoos (featuring multiple moths), and the closet behind her is an eclectic mish-mash of things. She borrows gowns from her mom’s vintage store (a well-known shop that has been visited by the likes of Miley Cyrus, Janelle Monae, and others) for photoshoots. When she isn’t wearing Victorian gowns, she’s dressed head to toe in black lace, mesh, or (shamelessly) her own merch. When she isn’t in a Zoom writing session, she is probably making a TikTok.
From her childhood home in Oklahoma, Ellis is celebrating the release of her debut LP, Blue Hour, a searing account of the triumphs and tribulations of recovery. The term Blue Hour names that time of transition after sunset, when the sun isn’t in the sky but it’s still close enough that the night sky lightens into a perfect brilliant cobalt. The album sounds like this time of the day, dark but with permeating lightness, and foreboding shrouded in dreamy pop. Ellis’ own blue hour was her journey to sobriety as it coincided with the making of this record.
At the end of “Crash,” Ellis narrates this moment and what it means, a reminder why she is still here and a reminder why she shouldn’t give up. “Without all the pain I felt, I wouldn’t appreciate the beauty that came afterwards,” she recites over the fading track.
Before COVID-19 took hold, Ellis spent nearly every day in the studio writing for both herself and other artists. As a result, her own work is vast in sonic texture and each song has an entirely different aura. With a subtle 1950’s swing, “Blackout” is one of the songs she’s most excited about. She has a big music video planned that will finally bring to life an idea that she has had for years. The track itself personifies depression, as it recounts a toxic relationship with it.
Ethereal and honest, “Spiral” is Ellis’ favorite on the album, on which she declares that she’s “not afraid to spiral” because it’s “all about the cycle” and recovery isn’t always linear. “I wrote it kind of as a message to myself about my depression and things I want to hear when I’m really going through something,” she explains. “I would say that is one of the only songs that I listen to for my own enjoyment, which is really rare.”
Blue Hour is practically oozing with sonic textures, as Ellis draws inspiration not from other music, but from sounds in which we may not always see musical potential. “I always try not to be inspired by pop music. A lot of the songs I’ve tried to make the production sound like the lyrics,” she explains. One instance of this is on her song “Oh God,” where she uses a sample of church bells to bring that religious connotation to life.
On minute-long “sober interlude” Ellis shares an intimate portrait of coming to terms with yourself and sobriety. “In November of 2018 I had this really bad night where I was drunk and I was on drugs and I ended up in the hospital for self-harm. That was the first instance where I realized this is really a problem and I actually need help,” recalls Ellis. “That was the first time, so in that little interlude I reference that. It’s kind of like me talking to myself in the mirror.”
When Ellis first started writing for Blue Hour, she was still drinking and realized she had a problem. “The first few months, there’s something called a pink cloud where when you first get sober you feel euphoric and you feel high. I think it’s because you’re just so proud of yourself. It’s also very trippy. For me, I always drank when I was around people, so being around someone and talking to them face to face was very weird,” Ellis reflects. “It’s written from me realizing I had a problem, to being in the hospital, therapy, and then it ends with me. I feel very strong in my sobriety now. [Blue Hour] is like a little time capsule for sure.”
With one time capsule complete, Ellis already has the next one on the way. “I’d say my album is really kind of emotional and I really feel like it’s a transitional moment for me. Even the sounds of the album are kind of ethereal and ocean-like. My new music that’s coming afterwards is what happened next, which is super empowering and angsty and there’s a lot more grit to it,” teases Ellis. “I’m just writing about other topics like, after my sobriety there’s so many other things I didn’t really get to address like body image issues or other topics that come up.”
The next project from Mothica will be an EP titled “Forever Fifteen,” a nod to one of her (many) tattoos and an allusion to her suicide attempt. The phrase is also hidden in the pre-chorus of “Blue Hour.” As Mothica moves into a new era, the symbolism behind her name has changed. Before, she was a moth drawn to a flame, beckoned ever-closer to her own demise. Now, she flies toward the light, choosing perseverance and self-improvement.
Blue Hour comes with a visual component, in the form of a three-minute ‘mini-documentary’, telling Ellis’ life story along with her fall into a dark place in her teen years. “I’ve talked about a lot of the more heavy topics on different posts and I talked about depression and abuse but it was all kind of like… you’d have to really find those posts,” says Ellis. “I wanted to share some context of my upbringing and how I even got to this point and why the album means so much to me because you have to understand the whole timeline of it. Obviously it was very condensed. It’s like my life story in three minutes so I couldn’t say everything.”
Another outlet for Ellis has been TikTok, an ideal platform to showcase not only her music, but bare her soul, share her other art, promote her merch, and express herself. She’s the ultimate internet kid but all at once the anti-influencer, creating art for art’s sake instead of for product promotion. “It’s crazy that music is my main thing now because I don’t consider myself a musician-y person,” Ellis reveals. “I write. I’m such a visual thinker that even when I write lyrics it’s all in my head and I have to visualize even the way the sounds are. I love making visual art and videos, I just got into editing my own videos. I design the merch. There’s so many aspects that I have to be juggling in one million different areas.” All of the above have earned her a dedicated fan base (several fans have gotten Mothica-inspired tattoos).
“VICES” was released as a single and quickly found a home on TikTok. The “pass the brush” challenge that was popularized by the makeup artist community was morphed into a “pass the vice” challenge, prompting TikTokkers to share their vices as the track boomed in the background. “VICES” would be Ellis’ first single played on pop radio, which is no small feat for an independent artist. “It’s cool to see my song organically with no money put into it get the same numbers as a label would. That’s so validating to me,” says Eliis. Blue Hour was also the number one pop album on iTunes upon its release.
Blue Hour is available on iTunes.