You may not have heard of Leland, but you’ll certainly know his artistry.
Since 2015, American performer and producer Leland has conquered the world of songwriting, penning massive pop-bops for artists such as Daya (Hideaway), Troye Sivan (Bloom), Betty Who (Ignore Me) and Selena Gomez (Fetish). Oh, and he also co-wrote Kardashian: The Musical, VH1 Divas Live and Kitty Girls – three of Drag Race’s most sickening episodes ever.
Now, the singer – real name Brett McLaughlin – is aiming to dominate the charts with the release of his relatable break-up anthem Run Into You, and the critically-acclaimed synthpop banger Mattress – the latter of which received a flawless remix with musical partner Allie X.
Leland sat down with Gay Times and discussed going solo, his partnership with bff’s Troye and Allie, and the importance of having queer perspectives in the music industry.
How did you get into the songwriting industry?
I started songwriting because I was in college in Nashville, Tennessee, a very conservative part of America. I found a group of friends who are funny and irreverent, and we were all singers. They needed songs, and I started writing songs in high school, and I took the initiative to write songs for them.
Who were your favourite artists growing up?
I grew up in a really conservative Christian home in South Mississippi, so my influences were very limited until I discovered Britney Spears and Prince. Then, the door to discovering bands like Tears For Fears, and I think everything changed even more for me when I discovered Robyn. Robyn is still one of my favourite artists. I think Body Talk is just one of the best examples of songwriting, period. Everything about her, visually and sonically, her voice. Once I stopped listening to Christian music, because I found that other music existed, that is when everything changed, and those influences were changed with Robyn, with Prince, with Britney, with Tears For Fears.
I’m still waiting for a Robyn album. It’s been, what, eight years?
I’m about to fly to Sweden, or wherever the fuck she lives to be like, ‘Girl, let’s get going. We need this music!’
What was it like growing up as a gay man in a conservative household?
It was not easy. My family is very loving, and we’re still very close, but it wasn’t easy and it was because my parents didn’t know any better. I think I was the first gay person that my dad met, knowing that they were gay. I was a late bloomer in a lot of areas, and there was a lot of secrets, which I didn’t like. I see friends who have such open relationships with their parents, and they don’t hide anything. So for me, I don’t think I was able to really pull the trigger on being an artist until I reached a point where I was completely comfortable with myself. Also, I gave no fucks about what anyone thought. Thankfully, moving away for college was amazing because I found people who were like me. Then, moving to LA was even better.
How did they take your reaction to coming out?
They took it not well. I think it’s important for me to have that experience to talk about because there are so many people who have experiences that are amazing and they cry with their parents, and it’s so great. My parents cried for a different reason. That initial shock lasted about a year, but time helped, and them saying that I was still the exact same person that they had raised, that helped. I will also say, my parents came to visit when I performed at the ASCAP Awards, and it was their first time visiting LA. They met my entire group of friends, and seeing good examples, seeing that nothing is different and that they are all amazing people with amazing hearts helped. Instead of fighting, I was like ‘Look, you’re coming into my world. I’m not gonna hide anything from you, and I think this is gonna be good for you’ and it really was.
You’ve formed a little team with Allie X and Troye Sivan, how did that come about?
Allie X and Troye are two of my favourite people in the world. They are so talented as songwriters and artists, and just good people. I met Allie through a man named Nick who manages songwriters such as Starrah and Nick had been telling me for a few months – this was probably four years ago – ‘I have this girl, you have to meet her, and you need to write together’. I was like, ‘You don’t even need to convince me, I want to!’ And so I went over to their house, was introduced to Allie, and we just connected. At the time, she just put out Catch, and so I was like, ‘Oh my god, this girl knows who she is as an artist. She is a master of writing pop’. We started writing together, and shortly after, one of my dear friends, Tyler Oakley – we’ve been friends for five or six years now – and he said, “I’m bringing my friend Troye to your show, I need you guys to meet’. We snuck Troye in because he was under 18 at the time, and we met, exchanged info, and Troye told me that he was about to start writing for his project. I knew from our first meeting that he had a strong sense of self, and this wasn’t going to be a YouTube artist who was coming in to take one of my songs. It was going to be a true partnership. At the time, we didn’t know we were gonna become close collaborators, or even best friends. I was thinking about what kind of session we could put together, and I said, ‘Well, I’ve started working with this girl Allie X, who I love’, and Troye was already a fan of her. And after, we just all stuck together.
Sounds like an authentic relationship you all have together.
Yeah, we really want the best for each other. Allie and I played LA Pride this past week, and when I was speaking with the booking agent for Pride, I was like, ‘Listen, I’ve been dreaming of playing LA Pride, I’ve been going to it for years, you also need to book Allie X. She is iconic, and I promise you that not only will she play a good show, but people want to see her there’. It was so much fun, and Troye and I played Pittsburgh Pride together on Friday, and I’m sure he had something to do with me getting booked there. We all just bring each other into projects, we all collectively write for each other’s solo projects as well. So, there’s never been inbalance of Troye asking us to write for him, and then if we ask the same for him, it’s not returned. It’s very much all a symbiotic relationship.
Your first big songwriting hit was Youth with Troye. How did it feel to have a massive single?
Nothing changes! As far as your outlook, nothing changes. Besides being able to pay bills a little longer, you know? Also, being able to take a little more risks. Before you are able to write songs full time, my perspective was very limited in that I was thinking ‘I need a radio hit, I need radio hit, I need a radio hit.’ When really, I should’ve just been thinking ‘I just wanna write good songs’. Thankfully, I feel like the day we wrote Youth, we were just trying to write a good song and it connected. The same goes for the Daya song, Hideaway. We were not thinking that we wanted to write a song for radio. So, really, nothing has changed expect for now, I get to work everyday and be a bit more selective about the people I work with. Not just the ones I know I can get hits with, but where I know I can go to work and have fun, and work with people I love.
You co-wrote Troye’s new single Bloom, and people have come to the conclusion that it’s about bottoming. Can you tell us the inspiration for the track?
I mean, you said it! Troye and I were in Stockholm and we were writing that day with Peter Svensson, who is a legend, and Oscar Holter. The day was starting slow, so Troye and I were just like ‘Fuck it, let’s just write something funny’. We were having a conversation about what either of us were going through personally, and it turned into a lyric. Peter and Oscar didn’t know what we were writing about, because they were helping with melodies, inserting lyrics here and there. It wasn’t until the end, when we were like, ‘Surprise! We wrote a song called Bloom’. Even after that, we didn’t leave the session thinking we had a hit song. We did feel that way about My! My! My! the day before, so we were still on a high. I remember Troye and I listening to My! My! My! on the sidewalk on his phone, and he said, ‘I think this is the first single’. With Bloom, we didn’t have that same feeling. I loved it because it was good pop, and I love the production. Troye had to live with that lyric and come to a place where he also had to give no fucks, and you’ve obviously seen that by how he’s presented the song and the video. Even on stage at Pittsburgh, he said to the audience, ‘Is anyone blooming tonight?’
‘Bloom’ will definitely be part of the gay vernacular soon.
See, that’s more important to me than radio or charts or whatever.
Can you tell us how the collaboration between Troye and Ariana Grande came about?
We wrote it in LA at Max Martin’s studio, a gorgeous house which is formerly Frank Sinatra’s. We brought in Noonie Bao. Troye and I both love her and we were petitioning for her to come in and write with us. She wrote Stay for Zedd, and has written a bunch for Charli XCX. We were all there, and from the beginning, Troye said he wants a song with ‘Dance’ in the title, but he didn’t want it to be a banger, he wanted it to be a chill bop. Troye and I have very similar lifestyles where we don’t go out that much, we prefer a night at someone’s house or at an apartment with friends, as opposed to going out and blackout. Our preference is to dance around the apartment. The song is the perfect example of a song where everyone contributed melodically and lyrically, equally. There are bits of Noonie, bits of Troye, bits of me. From the moment someone in the room – I think it was Troye – said, ‘This should be a duet,’ we all collectively said Ariana Grande. Ariana already happened to be working at MXM the same time. There’s a strange phenomenon at that studio where you will be writing in one room and Justin Timberlake, Julia Michaels, Justin Tranter, Taylor Swift or Ariana is in the other room. Ariana was there the next week, and Troye and Ariana are dear friends, and she’s a huge supporter and generally a good person and good friend to him. He texted her and said, ‘Hey, feel free to say no, but would you have any interest in doing this song?’ And I kid you not, I think it was 48 hours later and she was recording the song. That does not happen. It is not normal. I’ve had to wait a year and a half for certain artists to record songs. For that to happen so easy, it was really special.
What made you want to become a solo artist?
It’s always been there. But it was about becoming comfortable with who I am, so that I can sing the lyrics that I want, and write the songs that are authentic to me. I also think it’s because I have a producer I love working with, and so we get together once in a while. The day we wrote Mattress, I said this song is too specific for any other artist. This is a song that is about one of my stories that came from something that I experienced, and I felt like I needed to put it out. I put it out with no expectations, which already helped! I didn’t have a publicist, and I still don’t. I didn’t have management, I didn’t have a record label. I had friends and artists who knew that I wanted to be an artist, and that I wanted to do this. I also wanted to wait until I had the right song. I’ve written so many for myself over the years, but had never put anything out with the right push as Leland, because I knew that it wasn’t really me. This song felt right, the timing felt right, I put it out a week after Fetish – the Selena song. Thankfully, Spotify and Apple Music were both incredible and playlisted the fuck out of it, all over the world with no label, no nothing. That song opened up so many doors, and to go from putting a song last year to opening for Troye this fall, is mindblowing.
Can you tell me a little bit about your new single, Run Into You?
Run Into You came from going out in West Hollywood. I, for a period of time, could not go out without seeing my ex. Initially, I was like, ‘This is gonna ruin my fucking night’. I didn’t wanna see him making out with someone else, and I don’t feel like I have to make out with someone else to feel good about myself. Eventually, I talked to friends about it, and again, I got to the point where I was like, ‘Give no fucks, go out and have fun!’ While Mattress is about unrequited love, I have had so many people reach out to me that Run Into You is something people are going through right now. It’s so much fun to sing, it’s so much fun for me to dance to on stage.
What was it like working on RuPaul’s Drag Race?
A complete surreal experience. I got to sneak on set every time they filmed the Rusicals, and to be in front of the camera was crazy! Especially because to me, not only is Drag Race entertaining and one of the funniest shows on TV, but it’s so historic and important. The team at RuPaul’s Drag Race is the absolute best. They are comedic geniuses, and are so loyal. I was brought into that camp through one of my dear friends, Lucian Piane, and then Lucian handed over the reigns to me, I think, three seasons ago? Any time I get a call to work on something for Drag Race, my answer is ‘Yes, let’s do it, the crazier the better!’ Also, Allie X sang on Bad Girls of HERstory, she did the voice of Princess Diana, and then I did the voice of Kourtney Kardashian for Kardashian: The Rusical. So, it’s very collaborative. One of my dreams is to write for Saturday Night Live at some point, and this just as good, if not better! This is it. This actually led to Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider – who have been the two head writers at SNL for the past six seasons – bringing me on to write all of the songs that they are writing and producing for Comedy Central. So, it’s just crazy how these doors open. The craziest thing ever will open up a door to something else.
You’ve completed the score for the upcoming film, Sierra Burgess is a Loser. Can you tell me a bit about that?
It’s a Netflix original film starring Shannon Purser, from Stranger Things. I scored the film and then Allie X, Troye and I wrote four original songs. This was an opportunity that was not handed to me, it was brought to me saying, ‘You have the potential to get this gig if you nail it’, as is with most things. I love a challenge, and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. They said they needed a song for a performance in the movie for Shannon, called Sunflower. Basically, I did a group text to Allie X, Troye and Bram Inscore, and I said guys, ‘What are you guys doing tonight? We need to get this song in the movie.’ We got together that night, turned it in the next day, and found out that we got it. I took the initiative of writing a few more songs, and then after that, I said, ‘I’ve never done this, but who’s scoring the movie?’ I think it’s a combination of asking. If you’re told no, cool. Ask another time. I then learned as much as I could, stepped up to the plate, and thankfully, Bram and I got the gig. I can’t give away too much about the soundtrack yet, but it’s going to have some incredible artists on it. I can say that Allie X is on the soundtrack, I’m on the soundtrack, and I can announce a few others in a month or so. It’s 80s, and synthy, nostalgic and beautiful, and I hope that it’s the soundtrack to everyone’s fall.
How important is it to have queer perspectives in songwriting and music?
It’s essential. For every narrative in writing, there’s someone who can relate to that. I want to incorporate putting more male pronouns in my songs because that’s who my songs are about. When writing, it’s not a conscious choice of whether to do it or not, it’s more of what’s right for the song. I am very outspoken about being a gay man, and my perspective, and I am also outspoken about other perspectives and other narratives and other queer artists. Everyone’s voices should be heard, because there’s someone who can identify with that. I still don’t think it’s perfectly balanced between straight narratives in lyrics and gay narratives in lyrics. Obviously, we’re heading in the right direction, and I could not be more excited to be making music right now. I feel like there is a desire for queer perspectives, and if you look at the YouTube comments for the Bloom video, for every ten positive comments, there’s a homophobic one. Yet, that ratio is so much better than it was before.
Leland’s brand new single, Run Into You, is now available on iTunes and streaming services.