Morgan Murphy is the lead singer and songwriter for Mothpuppy, a student band from Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, whose music sounds complexly melancholy, and whose poetic lyrics, which manage to use very specific images to explain abstract concepts, are delivered through Murphy’s distinctly airy, powerful voice.
The five-piece band is composed of a guitarist, a bassist, a violinist, a drummer and Murphy, who sings and plays rhythm guitar. At the beginning of their student life, the group was just a jumble of friends who played their instruments for fun when they weren’t working on their majors. But Murphy and bassist Ryan Vieira (both of whom prefer they/them pronouns) realized that there was real potential in their musical relationship. Murphy had been writing and recording music with their guitar and putting it on Bandcamp, and soon Vieira, who was Murphy’s neighbor at the time, joined them, bringing their bass over for jam sessions. With time, the casual collaboration began to turn into a more serious endeavor.
The last to join the group was their violinist, Becca Kotula, who Morgan saw perform in the school’s orchestra. Before long, as each member’s unique musical experiences collided and informed each other’s, Murphy’s melodies and lyrics began to take on an entirely new sound. “Our sound is chaotic I guess,” says Murphy, “in the sense that we all have very different musical backgrounds and we don’t really have one way to feel. We kind of feel it out as we go.” The nascent group began to play house shows, local clubs and venues in the city, and a small fan base formed accordingly.
In terms of their sonic forbearers, Murphy credits a handful of musicians that helped her evolve conceptually, a pertinent one of which was Rilo Kiley, a band whose musical parentage can be seen in the two groups’ shared indie-rock-meets-punk-angst vibe.
Both bands also share a more folk-oriented approach to song construction and storytelling, which attempts to paint their signature angst vividly enough to demand being taken seriously, transforming lyrics that flirt with whininess into much deeper, more compelling emotions. And, of course, there is an obvious parallel between their lead singers. Murphy’s approach to vocal melodies is very reminiscent of Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis, in that both occupy that sweet spot between breathy and belting and demonstrate a mastery of tiptoeing in and out of falsetto. Murphy, in particular, utilizes this ability to slide into falsetto and back frequently, using it as a tool to emote in the delivery of their lyrics.
The band’s name originated from Murphy as well. In the budding days of social media, Murphy used the tag “Mothpuppy,” a name that their friends began to call them as a joke. “They thought it was really funny,” Murphy says through a laugh, “but I didn’t.” As their live performances provided the group more opportunities to tighten their sound, the group decided to begin recording. Roughly two years after their inception, Mothpuppy dropped their first full album, “Cool + Pretty,” on March 10, 2017 on Spotify, Bandcamp and iTunes.
Murphy, who creates the main melodies, lyrics and chord structures for every song, describes the way the recording process has changed the way they write music. “I used to write just whatever I wanted, but now I write with the band in mind. I noticed the difference, because I used to do solo shows where I’d play acoustic versions of Mothpuppy songs or do test runs for new stuff. And now when I play new stuff without the band it sounds…off.”
On the topic of their writing, Mothpuppy’s lyrics are very intriguing. The song “Flea,” which contains Murphy’s favorite lyrics of the album, stems from an actual experience with fleas in their house. The fleas’ irritating presence quickly fueled an appropriately angsty metaphor, as well as added Murphy’s name to the company of Donne’s on the list of writers who have found inspiration in the bloodsuckers.
“What’s my job here?
I hatched from a pearl
Carried up from a draft
Onto your windowsill
What’s the deal here?
You were my blood meal
A lukewarm human
Moving thru the house
Why’d you drown me?
Light a tiny buoyant candle
Let it float in the bathtub
My family here with me
What’s the point of
Looking back at some things?
I was born on a Tuesday and
I died the next week”
The song builds powerfully, even hauntingly, before dissipating into a single note on the violin over a quiet guitar chord. Murphy says the ballad was made easier to write by the profoundly aggravating effect the bugs were having on their mood. “I just hated them so much,” Murphy says through another laugh. “I was getting so frustrated.” This kind of quirky specificity, wrapped up in a darker, raw emotion, is a perfect example of what makes Mothpuppy so entertaining. It is smart and emotional, yet unnervingly funny.
The biggest question for the group now is what’s next. They are beginning to graduate as a band, and none of their members are Music majors. Their bassist, Ryan Viera and their drummer, Shawn Durham, are Communications majors; their violinist, Becca Kotula, studies Math; their lead guitarist, Becca Wills, studies Psychology; and their lead singer, Morgan Murphy, studies English. And while their academic diversity has led to good things musically, it also means that the band’s future is uncertain.
Murphy has expressed their willingness to keep making music and doing shows while they are still near each other in Baltimore, but has recognized that their future is somewhat up in the air. Until then, at least, Mothpuppy will continue making its signature style of haunting, yet perplexingly fun music.