“I wanted to work at a record label for other musicians”
As a wide-eyed 17-year-old from Oklahoma, McKenzie Ellis came to New York for college to study interactive media at the renowned Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Now 22, her former goal of working at a record label after graduating seems to be more of an “if all else fails” backup plan. That’s because these days, she’s sitting in the artist’s chair herself. The name McKenzie Ellis might not ring a bell, but her stage name, Mothica, is sure to leave an impression.
When she caught word from her manager on January 24th that she’d hit one million monthly listeners on Spotify, Mothica was at home sick lying in bed. While excited by the news and itching with an instinctual resolve to mark the occasion, the young songstress celebrated the only way she could at the time – by treating herself to a hot shower and taking care of herself in advance of her first show of 2018.
It wasn’t until that performance a few days later, at Elsewhere in Brooklyn, that she was able to truly take stock in the feat with friends and fans. Celebrating one million unique monthly Spotify listeners and her first show of 2018, Early Bird Music sat down with Mothica before the show for an in-depth conversation, where we discussed her recent successes and how she envisions her career unfolding as an artist. Read the full interview below.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
EB: Let’s start from the most obvious question – how do you get from McKenzie Ellis to “Mothica”? How did you come up with that name?
Mothica: “I like moths and identify with them. They’re nocturnal, and I’m up at all hours of the night, since I have sleep issues and insomnia. Moths ramming themselves into lights is a metaphor for trying to be successful no matter what, whether you fail or not. I pretty much go hard at everything I do whether or not that’s detrimental to my own well-being.”
EB: Is it ever difficult to be “Mothica” instead of McKenzie Ellis?
Mothica: “The funny thing about it is that people don’t separate it. There are so many people in my life who just call me by my stage name. I’m in their phone as Mothica – they might not even know my actual name. I don’t mind, people can call me whatever they want and I’m not picky about it. They’ll tag me in something gothic, like a moth, and say “It’s you!” I like that people can put me in a box – it’s the box I chose to be in. I embrace living the alter ego.”
EB:Speaking of being put in a box, do you find it annoying, or maybe flattering, to be compared to other artists?
Mothica: “I’ve been called everything, compared to everything. I’ve been told I have a monotone voice. I’ve been told I’m Lana del Rey on a budget, a Halsey cover band, store-brand Banks. I kind of think it’s funny. If you’re putting me in the category of those cool musicians (who I also listen to), then that means I’m doing something right. They’re not saying “you suck”, or that I’m less successful.”
EB: Speaking of success, Congratulations on reaching one million monthly unique listeners on Spotify. That’s quite the feat, especially as an independent artist. Give me an idea of how much work that really took you, and how much it still takes.
Mothica: “Thank you! I’ve been waiting for it for so long. A lot of people ask me if I have a PR firm, and how I get plays and streams. Really in the beginning and still now, I would research other artists that I liked, I looked up blogs they’d been featured on, and I would contact them, and read about what they listen to. I would also make a personal connection with all these smaller blogs, which have since become bigger. And when I play a show, I’d send out personal emails to everyone. I’d hit up producers, I knew their discographies, and I was doing all this research by myself.”
“There’s no real manual online for how to make it in music. You have to meet people. I would also go out to shows, talk to the band, find out who their manager and booking agents were – and try to go through them. It was a complete grassroots approach.”
EB: What was the catalyst that drove you to ultimately to pursue music as a career?
Mothica: “Despite going to art school, it wasn’t the thing I did when I was alone, not my passion. Music was super-secretive and cathartic for me. I used to make acoustic covers and original piano songs, until I met someone that showed me SoundCloud and electronic music.”
“I had never made anything electronic before, so being from Oklahoma, that was a revelation for me that you could make music on your computer. I then started singing over people’s tracks, learned to produce on my own, and now I do both. Now that it’s my whole life, it’s weird transitioning to where your passion is what you have to do for a job. So it’s been cool, but now at least I have some people working with me or for me, who allow me to focus on creating.”
Speaking of streaming services like Spotify and SoundCloud, how have they played a role in getting your name out there in the music world? Do you think you’d be where you are without those platforms?
Mothica: “Well it’s funny, my songs on SoundCloud were doing well at first, and organically I was getting a lot of followers, but you don’t make money from that at all. On promotional channels like YouTube, you don’t make money from that either.”
“With Spotify, I don’t know how my first track got shared on New Music Friday, but it showed up and then it snowballed, and people at Spotify knew who I was. Now, every time I release something, I don’t even talk to them directly – they just put me on things. And because a lot of my songs were self-produced, I was seeing all of that revenue. So streaming, it does actually pay my bills. People think that Spotify and Apple are screwing over artists, but that’s true only because the labels themselves are screwing the artists. It’s different when you’re independent.”
In a recent tweet, electronic artist 3lau (@3LAU) shared similar thoughts about streaming payouts as an independent musician:
A major label deal can often distribute less than 20% of all streaming income, split between all artists on a song – that's AFTER their completely ambiguous "costs."— ▽ (@3LAU) February 16, 2018
Independent artists like myself can receive over 80% of all streaming revenue, and that's paid out BEFORE costs.
EB: How does creating music compare to performing, for you?
Mothica: “When I was doing music online, I had a following but I had never played a show. I wanted to be a songwriter and I was terrified of performing. I wanted to write for other people. When I played my first show, I ran off the stage crying. At that point I was playing by myself and just triggering tracks, though. Now that I have a full live band, I’ve written all new parts, and they add something new to the music.”
“Now I love performing, and I can focus on singing and talking to the crowd. I feel more comfortable now to be an artist, and I don’t cry myself to sleep. Performing brings out a new side of me: my outgoing side. I have two modes, and that second mode turns on at a certain point when I perform. It’s fun to talk to people after the show and figure out how they’ve heard of me. It’s a nice little ego moment. But, honestly, I’m an introverted mind, so I much prefer creating music and writing songs. I’ll write ten songs in a day if I’m into it.”
EB: When you’re writing, where do you draw upon for your sound and musical style?
Mothica: “The concepts I come up with for my music always go back to myself, though. I was kind of a scene kid, and listened to metalcore and really heavy metal music. When I was 14 or 15, I feel like everyone in that scene went into the more emo side – Bright Eyes and Death Cab for Cutie. But I was listening to more sad music, like Daughter. So when I started making electronic music, I still had the background of the emo-songwriter feel. In general I’m a pretty heavy-hearted person, which is the title of my latest EP.”
“I probably spend 90 percent of my time waiting to be inspired for songs. So I go out, and I’ll actually go to bars by myself and talk to people of very different backgrounds. I’ll write lyrics while watching a movie on silent at a bar. I even have a master list in my phone of song titles and random phrases.”
Past struggles with depression and anxiety as a teen have also played a role in shaping her persona as an artist.
Mothica: “Depression and anxiety definitely plagued me throughout my high school years. There was an incident where I jumped in front of a car when I was 15. I was on antidepressants throughout those years. I think they definitely contributed to those feelings, too. But I’ve kind of embraced the chaos of it, and since my people listen to me because they relate to these experiences, I’m not trying to hide it anymore, or pretend it doesn’t exist.”
“There are certain things that I don’t talk about in my music though, that maybe in my personal life, I might. I try to keep things pretty dark and self-reflective. I try to not talk about sensuality, and I try not to cuss, because I feel silly doing it. I also try to stay away from internet lingo, like language about “texting you back”. But I would write that song for someone else – I like to write in a bunch of styles when it’s not my name on it.”
EB: Speaking of the internet and your image, you’re focused quite a bit on the visual aspects of your art on top of the music itself. Generally, do you think that visual representation, branding and music videos have become more important in recent years for artists?
Mothica: “Definitely. With the internet, people have to start thinking about themselves critically from a visual standpoint. I talk to a lot of other artists that are really talented but they don’t have a strong brand, or vision, or “look”. Just because you’re talented doesn’t mean you stand out or are unique. So I like asking other people: “Okay, what sets you apart? You have these influences but how are you different? What’s the reason why people should listen to you?” That’s hard to answer for some, but because it’s been ingrained in me, I have that strong [grasp] of my brand.”
“Only I can see where I want it to go.”
“I’m in control of every aspect of Mothica. I don’t leave up to anyone else, which is super overwhelming, and I would love to distribute those responsibilities. But right now I have to have my hand in everything. With my new music coming out, I have multiple music videos made, I’m designing more merch, doing all the artwork, and helping build a website. It’s all created and directed by me, down to the visuals and decision-making. I’m still starting out and only I can see where I want it to go.”
EB: Where do you want it to go?
Mothica: “I’m putting out a bunch of new songs this year, more songs than I have in most years – probably twelve songs total. I’m planning a tour in April, because we’re going to road trip down to Oklahoma where I’ll be playing in my hometown. I’m putting everything I can monetarily and emotionally into the project this year, because I have been doing this project for three years, and it’s time I get the ball moving.”
“My plan with my music now is to go as far and as hard as I can as Mothica, and eventually I do want to work on developing other artists, maybe at a label. I really like finding the identity of people and giving my unsolicited advice, so if I can get paid to do that, or paid attention-to, I’d love that.”
Mothica has attributed a lot of her progress and success as an artist to other people’s help and advice, and offered up some of her own to her fans on Snapchat this past week following her “Lovetalk” release:
Mothica: “I tweeted this the other day, that “relevance is irrelevant if creating is your livelihood”. I’ll always be involved in the arts and music in any way I can, and if you feel that way too you [can’t] get caught up in the numbers. I don’t even look at the numbers anymore, because it is a weird confidence thing. If you don’t like this single, maybe you’ll like my next single, maybe you’ll hate all my music. It’s what I’m choosing. I’m not making it for you to enjoy – that sounds bad – but it’s a personal thing. I’m honored that people have enjoyed what I’ve made.”
Accounting for commentary that she might receive through the annals of the internet, McKenzie Ellis isn’t perturbed by any of the outside noise, good or bad. She continues to chug along, focused on building her brand as Mothica while channeling an unwavering sense of identity and stylishly creative sensibilities that result in emotionally captivating music.
With a million listeners on Spotify behind her, a brand new single “Lovetalk”, and all kinds of new music due out this year (trust us when we say all kinds), Mothica’s star power is on the rise, and we’re looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.
Want more Mothica? read our review of “Lovetalk” here and check out our first edition of #OffTheCuff below. In our inaugural clip, we discuss Mothica’s social media presence, Lil’ Bow Wow, Sk8r Bois, her mom’s BFF-status with Miley Cyrus, and a giant snake named Fluffy.
#OFFTHECUFF: EP. 001 // MOTHICA (@DEARMOTHICA)
Throughout any interview, it’s easy to get off topic quickly during the Q&A process. With #OffTheCuff, we’ll be compiling the best spontaneous audio snippets from our conversations with artists that stray a little far from the beaten path.