Artist Spotlight: Mothpuppy

    Mothpuppy is the moniker of singer-songwriter Morgan Murphy, who comes from Long Island and is currently based in Baltimore, Maryland. After being taught how to play guitar by their youth group pastor in exchange for reading the Bible with him for 15 minutes, Murphy would play covers in secret and didn’t start writing and performing their own songs until college. Inspired by the city’s DIY community, Murphy began recording songs in their dorm room before recruiting other members to join the new project, whose first full-band album, Cool & Pretty, was a dynamic and emotionally affecting collection of songs that highlighted Murphy’s poetic, vulnerable lyricism and resonant voice.

    Those elements also punctuate Mothpuppy’s latest album, Limb from Limb, which arrives almost five years after its predecessor. Rather than working with various collaborators, Murphy co-produced the songs with John Toohey over a long period of time, developing a more purposeful approach to songcraft. The result is a captivating album that contains the same unbridled yearning you might look for in any lo-fi indie rock record but treats the space around it with care, letting it out in bursts and leaving things open to interpretation. At its core, though, it’s about going back, trying to feel OK, and somehow, making it.

    We caught up with Mothpuppy’s Morgan Murphy for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about their musical journey, the project’s origins, their new album, and more.

    When did music enter your life in a significant way?

    I don’t really have any immediate musicians in my family or anything like that. When I was younger, I lived in kind of a rural kind of area where there wasn’t really much of a music scene, at least to my knowledge. People weren’t really playing basement shows so much – I don’t know, maybe I was just on the outs or something. I was, but… [laughs] At any rate, it didn’t reach me. But I joined chorus when I was in elementary school, which is kind of how I started singing. I didn’t do that for a super long time, but it was good to have an introduction to that. And then I actually started playing guitar for my youth group, which is really funny because my youth pastor, like, traded me guitar lessons for – I had to read the Bible with him for like 15 minutes. Which is funny because I was not a religious kid at all, I kind of just ended up at group somehow, but I was interested in playing guitar. That was probably like 12, maybe 13, and from there I would write songs on my own I was pretty secretive about them. I really did not want to share that with anyone at the time. But eventually, it kind of got the better of me and I was feeling confident about putting stuff out there. And then in college, I had a solid crew of people who were thankfully willing to play music with me.

    Do you remember what sort of things you would write about?

    Yeah, I’m like cringing. I think they’re probably still even available. I think my songwriting was pretty unfocused; I had a lot of emotion that I wanted to get out, but I never wrote with any specific thing in mind. Some of the very first things I literally didn’t have lyrics for, where I was just recording myself singing and playing an instrument with a melody that I thought sounded nice. But yeah, so a lot of it was improvised, about being like, maybe just an angsty teenager. [laughs] Having a lot of emotions.

    There’s definitely still a lot of emotion in your songs, but there’s also a sense of control and progression in your delivery and the production in terms of how it comes through.

    Yeah, for sure. Maybe the timing of it all, how things ebb and flow in a song, has kind of remained a constant in terms of trying to hit emotional moments. But my lyricism has probably gotten more specific over time, just because I felt like it’s difficult to write music and be vulnerable. Even just the act of performing a song, it’s so vulnerable. So being like, I’m gonna write a song specifically about a certain situation in my life or a person or a place or whatever, that’s a whole other layer of vulnerability. And that side I’ve definitely worked on, getting a little bit more courage and making it slightly more transparent.

    You were talking about your upbringing earlier, and there’s this one line that stuck out to me on the album: “I want to go back where I came from/ So I could be the first one to see it through the eyes of someone/ Who’s learned to love someone.” I assume the “it” you’re referring to is the place you’re from?

    Yeah, it is. I have had a period of time where I didn’t really visit home, or at all. Last summer maybe is the first time I had visited in years, so I think I was feeling emotional about that. I guess I was feeling nostalgia? It’s weird when you grow up and you might have mixed feelings or negative feelings about certain things that happened to you growing up, and then you kind of associate them with a certain place. It’s weird getting into your late teens, early 20s, moving away from home, and I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but I definitely was like, “Oh, that place, I don’t need to go back there. I’m better than that.” Forming these sorts of negative ideas about the place that you’re from just because of all the associations you have with it. But now that I’m getting into my mid-to-late 20s, I’m starting to have more nostalgia for things even though I’ve traditionally had negative feelings for them. So I think that song is me navigating that, because I kind of had to face it head-on, going back home for the first time in such a long time.

    You talked about nostalgia, but the way that you phrase it in that lyric, seeing it “through the eyes of someone who’s learned to love someone,” it also hints at the growth you’ve gone through. And obviously, you can’t go back in time in that sense, but when you think about your upbringing from the perspective of who you are now, does it look any different from the memories you associate with it?

    Yeah, that’s a sweet question. I think it does. I think both parts of it, right, like I think I can appreciate the actual area I grew up in, I appreciate the people I knew back then, probably more now, sadly, than when I was that age. It’s easier to see things in a nicer light looking back sometimes, so I don’t know, who knows. And when I went to visit, I was with my partner, so it was nice to go with someone who I love and show them around. Obviously, that puts a positive light on things. So I do think I am now able to be like, “Oh yeah, this is this really cool abandoned military base, I actually always loved going here. This is this corny little tea shop that I used to go to when I was in high school and didn’t want to eat at the cafeteria.” Stuff that I kind of like maybe took for granted at the time, or maybe just wasn’t able to see what was cool about it because I was still a teen.

    I wanted to go back and talk a little bit more about the origins of the project, which dates back to around 2014. Did you have a specific vision for Mothpuppy at the time, and what does it mean for you now?

    I definitely didn’t have a specific vision at the time. [laughs] I kind of was just getting into sharing my songs with people. Other than writing the rhythm guitar and the lyrics and the melodies, I guess the very base of the song, I really had no concept of what I wanted the songs to sound like. I think I know where my strengths lie, and so I kind of outsourced the rest to my really talented friends. And most of the songs were developed just by bringing them to my friends and by playing live. There was a bit of collective decision-making in how it would finally sound, but really it kind of came together because everyone’s just doing their thing.

    There’s still obviously a bit of that on this record, because once again  I am not doing everything. I definitely outsourced a lot of things to John to figure out what to do. And his sister Leanne, who plays violin on the tracks, which is really great. But because most of it was done over quarantine, so a lot of it was sending files back and forth to each other, and because it was much fewer people, the songs were being developed as we were recording instead of playing them live. So, John would ask me what I thought and I’d have to actually tell him what I thought, which I kind of struggled with for a while because I was kind of just like, “I don’t know.” [laughs] I can’t tell why I like certain things and why I dislike certain things. I think that’s something I’ve gotten better at over time, but that being said, I still don’t necessarily know what my vision is specifically. It comes to me as the songs are developing and I think about the way I want each individual song to come together.

    It’s been five years since your last album. What comes to mind when you reflect on Cool & Pretty and that period in your life?

    It was a very chaotic time in my life. I was still in college, and so all of that was done around classes and things like that. And I was also living on my own for the first time, I was living in the dorms for a year or two but had just moved out and got my own place. So I was navigating financial stuff and just feeling really new to the world honestly. I really have a lot of love in my heart for the time period, and the actual process of making the record itself was really fun. All of the people I knew who were helping me with it are all great people and we had a great time making it. But when I think back about what was going on in my personal life, it was all over the place. [laughs] I think that’s different to now where I feel a lot more comfortable in my life and who I am.

    Did you take a break from music and songwriting after it came out?

    I don’t know that I ever fully took a break. Some of the songs [on the new album] are pretty old. But I would definitely say I took a big break in actively pursuing music. I wasn’t really trying to play shows and I wasn’t really trying to record, I was just writing songs when it occurred to me to write songs, and then kind of put them on the back burner. I did shows here and there, and then I took a good hiatus from doing shows and focused on the recording aspect.

    When you’re in that period of just writing songs, what usually makes you feel inspired?

    A lot of it comes from having these emotions that I can’t really put words to. For example, ‘Pigeons’, a lot of that was just coming from a feeling of walking around – I live in the middle of the city, but it’d be nobody around and you’d hear this whistle of a train going by and you’re looking at the lights in the shops and you’re just like, “Damn, was I put here? I literally feel like a toy or something. This feels like I’m walking inside a Christmas train exhibit at the mall.” Things that are just kind of weird feelings that you can’t really put a name to, and I feel like those things really inspire me to write. I guess it’s me trying to figure it out or document those sorts of things in some way.

    I was thinking about this line from your previous album, “All my songs are just letters and I hope they reach you someday.” During this whole process, did you ever feel like you were writing for or to yourself?

    Yeah, for sure. I feel like I definitely write to myself a lot. Maybe I think I’m writing about someone else, and then when I’m done I’m like, “Oh, wow, this is kind of just me, isn’t it?” [laughs] I feel that way about ‘Friendly Fire’ on the recent album, because I was thinking about people I know who maybe self-sabotage, feeling bad for themselves. But when I listened to it back, I was like, “Yeah, that applies to me too.” I guess I’m able to write this stuff because it applies to me.

    I did have the song ‘Friendly Fire’ in mind with that question. And I was also thinking about that line about seeing “through the eyes of someone who’s learned to love someone,” because I heard it as if that someone could also be yourself.

    Yeah, thank you for pointing that out. I was ready to throw myself under the bus by attributing kind of a negative song for myself, but I think it works for positive things where maybe I don’t even realize it. And maybe, at least for me, it’s hard to even accept myself, so it’s easier to say I learned how to love someone else who’s like, not me [laughs] But I definitely think there’s some of that too. I feel more comfortable with myself now, so there is an element of learning – maybe not to love, but definitely accepting yourself. Hopefully I can love myself totally one day. [laughs]

    One of my favourite songs on the album is ‘I’ll Never Find Out’. In relation to what we’re talking about in terms of having a different perspective, I was wondering how things have changed since you wrote that song. Like, if you figured out any of the things you thought you never would.

    True to the song, I have not found out, no. I think I’m as clueless as ever, really. I definitely used to have a lot of frustration about not understanding things or people around me, and so that song was really just me thinking back on people I knew at one point in time and have kind of just been wondering about them. But I definitely have to get used to not being in the know all the time. I guess I just have a lot of anxiety, so part of how that manifests is, if I can know all the knowledge there is to know about a person or a situation or whatever, I can somehow control how things are going on around me. Which is obviously kind of delusional. [laughs] It’s not really how life works. But I definitely used to feel that way a lot, which is something I’ve gotten better at.

    On ‘The Heat’, you interpolate ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, and there’s this intimacy to it that partly comes from the recordings you’ve incorporated in the background. What is the significance of that song and that moment for you?

    I mean, I love that song. I think ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, I don’t know, it’s a happy-sounding song, but when I would listen to it, I was like, “Dang, she’s just longing,” you know? [laughs] “I wanna dance with somebody who loves me,” like, I’m tired of all these like strangers. I think that’s something I really love about that song, other than it being a universal banger. And as far as what’s going on in the background, that’s just me and John throwing shit around. That is a song that I was kind of hanging on to for a while and wasn’t really quite sure what to do with it, and I think John did a great job taking it and transforming it even further. It had all this reverb and I think we were trying to think of ways to add to almost the bizarreness of it, I don’t know how to describe it, but we were recording and we had the thought of like, wouldn’t it be cool if we were just walking around, singing along to the song in a kind of meta way? So we did it.

    Why do you think the longing of the song resonated with you?

    I think especially when I was younger, I was definitely kind of like a homebody. I didn’t really have a ton of friends, I was very uninterested in opening myself up to people. But of course, you still feel a longing for acceptance in any sort of way, whether it be platonic or romantic. So I think I did spend a very large portion of my life kind of watching from a distance people have those experiences while I was just… not. And it felt like it wasn’t even meant for me, this kind of alien feeling of like, “Oh yeah, that’s cool. Other people are social beings and have wants and needs, but I’m not going to be able to ever achieve that.” Which, I’m sure people can relate to when you’re young and socially awkward. [laughs] But I think even as an adult, that feeling certainly carried even past the point when I got friends and formed these close relationships with people. Obviously, that’s not something you shake overnight.

    I also hear that longing in the chorus of ‘I’ll Never Find Out’, even though you’re talking about more specific things in the verses. I wanted to ask you about the cover artwork for the album, which you created with Sylvi Gorgon. Can you talk a bit about the concept and the process behind it?

    Yeah, that’s my partner, Sylvi. It’s actually from a picture of me when I’m a kid that I found at my mom’s house. I thought the composition was cool, and I was trying to get more into painting. So I painted it with just acrylics one day, and then I was hemming and hawing about what I wanted to cover to be, and I already liked the painting, which is rare for me. But it also didn’t look like an album cover really yet, so I took it to Sylvie, who is a great artist in her own right, so she edited it and did the font and added some extra details and things that made it pop out as an album cover. That was something I was really happy to collaborate on.

    Why was it significant for you to start with a photo of your younger self?

    I guess I’m talking about it as though it’s completely incidental, but I do think that there’s obviously – we’ve been talking about growth and reflection this whole time, so I don’t think it’s totally unimportant that it’s a painting of me as a little baby. I was innocent, I was a baby obviously, so kind of like totally untouched by anything that was yet to come. That, plus the little devil face – there’s something to be said there, but honestly, I haven’t thought it through too hard. That’s about as much as I’ve thought of it so far. I guess I’m trying to let go of like, anger I have towards myself and being like: I was just a baby.

    I know it’s a hard question, but what do you feel has helped you grow the most?

    Wow… Yeah, it is a hard question, but it’s good to think about. I don’t know. Obviously, I still have a lot more growing to do – I guess everyone does. But honestly, it’s kind of like a lifelong thing, but the last couple of years – I think I overwork to kind of avoid myself and my own thoughts and my own interests at times. I felt like I was really working myself to death almost, outside of things that I actually enjoy doing. I had a lot of shitty restaurant jobs, minimum wage-type deals. And then on my days off, I would always be just buzzing around, trying to see as many of my friends as possible, trying to make plans and avoid myself. But I was laid off due to quarantine, which was actually awesome, because I was just like, “Oh my god, I don’t have to work anymore.” Obviously, I am and was very nervous about catching COVID, but I was really forced to just face myself for the first time in a while.

    And I think really leaning into figuring out what I like and what I don’t like – I think that’s something we talked about with this album. Me having to make decisions about the way I wanted the songs to sound rather than having it happen upon me – that was a big thing for me. I’ve had time to think about the things that I like to do and pursue them, besides music, like getting back into like art and really crafting things that are important to me, which is something I don’t know if I’ve ever really put my whole self into. I guess the biggest thing that has helped me grow is deliberately trying to put myself out there as an artist and really trying to face rejection head-on. It seems maybe from the outside that I’m doing the same thing that I’ve always been doing, which is just writing songs and sharing them with people. But I don’t know, it feels different to really purposely try and craft what I think, not what somebody else thinks.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Mothpuppy’s Limb from Limb is out now.

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