Growing up gay in a straight man’s world isn’t easy.
For Leon Else, he had a particularly tough journey to accepting himself after years of suppressing his true identity.
After coming out publicly in 2017, the British singer-songwriter – who is based in Los Angeles – started using his music to speak to his fans about his journey, as well as his relationship with mental health after being diagnosed as bipolar.
It all came to a head three years after he’d first started his music career with his 2014 EP, River Full Of Liquor.
Since then he has moved through different styles of music, but the thread tying it all together has always been his knack for insightful lyrics and a solid pop sensibility.
His new single Easy Love – which receives its premiere here on GAY TIMES below – is a prime example of how Leon continues to use painful and challenging experiences as inspiration for an infectious pop bops, and make it work incredibly well.
We caught up with Leon to discuss his new music, his journey towards self-acceptance, why he set up a blog to have an ongoing conversation around mental health, and why he thinks LGBTQ creatives essentially rule the world.
Congratulations on your new single Easy Love. What’s the story behind the song?
It’s kind of about almost verging on the edge of sex addiction, I guess. I went through a really big break-up and I kind of had a bit of a breakdown. That was when I was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I started using sex as a form of escapism – almost like how some people would abuse drugs or alcohol. The song is about knowing you shouldn’t be doing it and know that it won’t help you, but at the same time you find yourself still doing the same old thing – even though it leaves you feeling like shit afterwards. Or, what’s actually worse, you find yourself going through multiple partners searching for that numbness. You try to make yourself go numb to escape the pain that you are in. Every time you sleep with someone you lose a bit of your dignity and you lose a bit of yourself. The song is talking about how I tried to stop but I couldn’t. It was like an addiction at the time.
Did you find putting this experience down on paper and turning it into a song helped with the healing process?
Absolutely. Whenever you put something out there and you talk about it with friends or you put it down in a song, it helps you process exactly what is going on. For me especially, putting it out there in a song helped me have the realisation of what kind of situation I was in.
Dealing with a break-up by going through multiple partners feels like a modern form of coping because technology has given us access to do that relatively easily. Do you think dating apps are a good thing or bad thing for us?
I think both. It depends on your experience and how you decide to use the app. Especially in the gay world, to have sex is so easy. You just whack on an app and you’ve got a thousand people all looking for one thing. But then at the same time there are apps that promote dating, and there are people out there looking for that. I do think in the gay world, those quick hook-ups are quite rife. It is a really common thing.
Sometimes it feels like the community doesn’t talk about how that can affect some people’s mental health. Those apps can become addictive. Do you think there needs to be more discussion around that?
Yeah, I think so. I can only talk as a gay man – I can’t talk for everyone – but from my experience I do feel like everyone is searching for something. They search but then think, ‘Oh, can I get something better?’ Or ‘Is there something else?’ There’s a feeling of missing out. I think also with men, in general they are more sexual. It’s such a sexual community from my experience, and I think it does affect people’s mental health. People do end up feeling shit. People do turn to sex for escapism and to feel something. Especially me – I wanted to feel something. I wanted to feel something other than pain, and that helped me do that. When you’re neglected, you’re told you’re this, you’re told you’re that, your pictures aren’t hot enough, you don’t look a certain way, you’re not muscly, you’re not masculine, you’re not feminine – there are all these things we’re told we have to live up to. We’re a community that wants to be accepted by everyone else, but actually within our community we can be so judgmental. For me, all the things I read and all the things I experience, I think the gay community can be quite cruel to each other.
It comes down to that toxic masculinity that gay men need to unlearn after years of feeling like they’re not going to be accepted for who they are, and being conditioned by a heteronormative society to act a certain way.
I only came out a couple of years ago, so I came out quite late. But for me growing up, I had to try and hide any kind of femininity – any feminine characteristics or traits that I had. If I was acting feminine, I would get more bullied than what I already did. You go to the extreme or trying to be more ‘straight’ and more masculine. Also, a lot of gay men like the idea of having a straight guy. Of course I can only talk from my experience and the gay guys I know, but sometimes I feel like they think that the more masculine a guy is, the more nearer to their fantasy they are. It stems from a lot of people’s upbringings and the things they have gone through.
You just mentioned that growing up you felt like you had to hide any feminine traits you had, but how did that impact your ballet training? There must have been a battle inside yourself there?
Even though I was dancing and doing performing arts, at the same time to balance it out I would hang around with the wrong kind of people – well, as your parents would say. I would get into drugs, into alcohol, I would even get into fights to try and prove my masculinity. I would go out shoplifting. I would do all of these things that I guess you wouldn’t think someone into performing arts would necessarily do. I thought the more masculine things I could do, the more ‘cool’ things I could do, it would throw off the scent that I was gay.
You’ve spoken before about your coming out journey not being an easy one. Do you feel like you’ve reached the other side of that, or is it an ongoing process?
It’s always an ongoing process when you’ve grown up in a certain kind of way. When you’ve had it ingrained in you that being gay is bad and it’s something to be ashamed of, and it’s perverted, that always stays with you no matter what. It’s always a journey of self-acceptance and self-love. For me, growing up in such an abusive household and being abused because of what people thought I might be… A lot of people think you come out and it’s all rainbows and unicorns, and everyone starts waving a rainbow flag and life’s just fucking fabulous, but for a lot of people it’s not. For a lot of people it’s the start of a journey of healing and self-love and actually trying to accept themselves. You have to come out again and again and again, and every time you come out you’re worried someone is going to judge you. You still carry all of those things. Even though I’m in such a good place with my sexuality and I’m more comfortable than I’ve ever been, there’s always that feeling of shamefulness, or someone judging me, or ‘Am I not going to get this because I’m gay?’ There’s always going to be that, but I’m definitely in a good place.
Because LGBTQ people tend to come out in their late teens early twenties, they kind of have to go through puberty again with understanding who they are and navigating their sexuality in a more open way. All of the experiences your straight friends had in school, you have to go through later in life. I imagine you had an experience similar to that.
Oh my god, absolutely. I feel like I missed out on so much, and I feel like I’m having to do that now. It makes me feel sometimes like I’m lost, and I want to go crazy. I have this longing sense of youth and I’m kind of really scared to lose it because I didn’t have that freedom during my actual teen years. I guess you do always feel a bit sad about that because you’re like, ‘Fuck, I wasted so much of my youth hiding that I forgot to live.’ At the same time, I think the gay community in general is quite young. We are quite young at heart, and that’s because of what you were saying. We spent so many years suppressed that when you finally come out, that’s when your life starts. In a way we’re lucky because we’re a lot younger in the mind.
Your song What I Won’t Do marked the moment you became more publicly open about your sexuality. Obviously for you that was a moment for yourself to go through that self-acceptance, but how important was it for you to be a visible LGBTQ artist for young people to look towards?
At first I wasn’t really thinking about it because I was so traumatised at the time. I just needed to try and release all of this stuff off my shoulders because I was so depressed. I was suicidal. I was in a such a dark place that I was just trying to release myself. I’d never spoken about that I was sexually abused. I never knew I had bipolar disorder, so all of that came at once as well as coming out. Then at the same time my boyfriend left me that I came out for, so it was like this fucking tidal wave that just knocked me flying. But at the same time, it was the best thing that has ever happened to me. So I wasn’t really thinking about the LGBTQ community, it was just me trying to find peace in myself. But as it has moved along, I definitely see the importance of it. We’ve come so far but we’ve still got such a long way to go. We are humans just like everyone else and we deserve equal rights, so if I can do anything in my power to spread awareness by being an openly gay man then that’s what I would love to do.
As you said earlier, coming out is just the first step. Part of that journey after that moment is understanding the community that you are now a part of. Do you feel like you’ve learned a lot about different LGBTQ experiences since coming out?
Yeah, from going to different events and speaking as an openly gay man when I collaborate with people, and just being a part of things. I went to the first ever Billboard Pride Summit, and just sitting there listening to all these stories is really inspiring. To learn about trans and non-binary. Sometimes you get nervous about saying the wrong things, but it’s fantastic that people can start living their truth and it’s inspiring to see people living so freely.
Have you felt accepted in the music industry as an openly gay artist, or do you feel like you still face challenges?
There are things you’ll never know. You don’t know what happens behind closed doors. You’ll never know if you’ve lost an opportunity because you’re gay. But from first-hand experience, I haven’t had a problem. The music industry is quite open to that, as far as I’m aware. Sometimes you get more opportunities because you stand for something.
It’s a fantastic time for queer artists. So many are finally getting the exposure they deserve and being celebrated for who they are.
Yeah, I mean look at Lil Nas X. He’s broken Billboard records as a black gay man who touches upon hip-hop and country – it’s just groundbreaking. It’s fantastic to see LGBTQ artists coming through like that. It’s about time the world fucking woke up! They need to realise that actually, a lot of LGBTQ people are the influences to your life, to your fashion, to your music, to so much of the creative stuff. LGBTQ people have been ruling the world for a long time. We’ve been at the forefront of so much that they have a lot to be thankful for because of us. We’ve been quietly always there, and people need to realise that. Because of our community, the world is a better place.
It’s because we challenge the status quo.
And we’re fucking good at what we do!
So back to Easy Love – will it be joining your other releases this year on a new EP, or are you working towards an album?
Yeah, I was thinking of releasing an EP but then thought, ‘What’s the point?’ With EPs you end up putting songs out that you’re not really promoting. I just thought there was no point putting music out and not really giving it the chance. In this day and age you just need to keep coming with content. So I was going to release an EP called Beautiful World and put this collection of songs to it, but ultimately I decided I didn’t need one. Right now I just need to be discovered more, so I just want to focus on one song at a time. Easy Love is a part of that world.
It’s been five years since you released your River Full of Liquor EP. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned during your time in the music industry so far?
I think patience. I’m not a patient person but fucking hell I’ve had to be patient. And my patience has been pushed to the limit! I also think just not giving up and to keep going is a lesson I have learnt. But also just to be kinder to yourself. As a creative you put yourself out there and you’re being judged the whole time. People don’t realise that when you’re putting a song out there, that’s a part of you. That’s something you’ve worked on and put a lot of effort into. A lot of people forget that, so you have to be a lot kinder to yourself. Just try and take off the pressure, which I’m the worst at. Also in the music industry – I guess this is a bit negative – but I feel like you shouldn’t overly trust people. Don’t get me wrong, there are some really good people out there who will stick by you through thick and thin. But there are people who will only be around for you when something good is going on. The moment something isn’t going well you can literally get dropped like a sack of shit and discarded to the side. That can really get you down. The lesson in general is believe in yourself and just keep going.
I also wanted to quickly talk about your Tumblr page I’m Not Crazy I Don’t Think where you speak very openly and honestly about mental health. Why did you decide to set that up?
Since being diagnosed as bipolar I’ve opened up and I talk a lot about mental health. So when I do interviews and put songs out it brings to the forefront the issues around mental health. But when I’m not releasing music, it kind of just goes quiet so I wanted to keep the conversation going to do my part to end the stigma around mental health. It’s place for people to go where they feel like they can connect with me. Being open and vulnerable is the most powerful thing you can be, because that’s what makes people connect. If you don’t have connections, you’re not living. It’s just about letting people know that they’re not alone wherever they are in the world.
There’s one post most people will relate to on the blog and that is your entry titled Addicted To Likes, which is about Instagram. How do you deal with the pressures social media adds to our lives in general?
It’s so fucking hard! We’re a generation that’s addicted to likes. Every time you get a like, it’s a hit. You get a sense of euphoria and you feel validated. The pressure is enormous. I feel the pressure loads, but I have to do it because that’s my platform to reach my fans and to promote my music. If I didn’t have to do it, I wouldn’t. It’s hard because if I don’t get the likes I want, I feel like shit and I feel like people don’t give a shit. It’s like, ‘Oh god, no-one cares about what I’m doing.’ It’s a really hard thing to deal with. I think most people feel the same.
Do you think if Instagram get rid of the likes like they have been testing in some countries, that will help?
Yeah I think so. I think people want the likes so other people can see the amount of likes they’ve got. It’s the same with followers. The amount of people I see go, ‘Oh my god guys, I’ve reached a million followers – I just want to thank you so much.’ It’s just like, okay it’s only a million followers – you’re talking like you’ve just won the Nobel Peace Prize! I think hiding the likes is a great idea. I think Kanye West mentioned something about. It will take the pressure of the people who don’t have a million followers. The kids who are growing up and looking for validation but aren’t getting it. The people who are killing themselves because they don’t feel like the world is accepting them. They don’t feel like they’re good enough. They compare their real lives to everyone’s Instagram-filtered ‘perfect’ life. So I do think it’s a good idea.
So the new single Easy Love is out now – what’s next for you?
I’ve kind of learned to just not think too much into the future. I take each moment as it is. I get really anxious thinking about the future and where I’m going to be. I don’t set myself goals because naturally things happen in life and sometimes it takes longer. You then have this sense of disappointment because you are not where you want to be. So I’m of like, fuck knows. Fuck knows where I’m going to be next month. Fuck knows where I’m going to be next year. All I know is that my song is coming out and I’ve got to try and do everything I can to get it heard by everyone!
Leon Else’s new single Easy Love will be available to download and stream from 30 August.