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Queer Songwriter Leland Goes Solo on 'Mattress'

Photography: Maxwell Poth

Meet the musical force behind your favorite Troye Sivan, Selena Gomez & Allie X tracks. 

You've been singing his lyrics and soon you'll be screaming his name.

Leland, the Los Angeles songwriter behind some of today's most exciting music, has released his breakout single, "Mattress"--an anthem about unrequited queer love set against soaring electro-pop production. "Why do I always do this to myself?" Leland questions wistfully. "I let you go with someone else, when all I want is my body on your mattress."

The song's rooted in Leland's own experiences with romance as a gay man, but the sentiment is universal--a nuanced balance that's made Leland a reliable hitmaker for artists like Troye Sivan, Selena Gomez, Allie X and Daya.

Related | Why Troye Sivan's Martin Garrix Collab 'There For You' is Important for LGBTQ Listeners

He's been a pillar for Sivan's music from the start, collaborating with the YouTube sensation on Blue Neighbourhood highlights, "Youth" and "Talk Me Down," as well as his Martin Garrix scorcher, "There For You." Leland's also contributed to Allie X's slow-burning success from day one, most recently co-penning her biggest hit to to date, "Paper Love." But his latest co-write, the career-defining "Fetish" for Selena Gomez, signals a much-deserved shift in Leland's deep discography--one aimed directly at mainstream success.

Listen to Leland's "Mattress," and learn more about the musical force, below.

OUT: The majority of your career has been spent writing songs for other artists. What sparked the decision to go solo?

Leland: I know there are people who need to do one or the other, and really focus on one or the other. But for me, I enjoy blending it all together. I feel like I've been an artist behind-the-scenes, helping to create sounds and jumpstart careers by co-writing songs. A lot of my stuff as a writer, until recently, has been with new artists, which I love doing--being on the ground floor. I feel like I've been contributing so much of myself to that, and just wanted to shift focus a bit to see what happens. I'm not going into this with the goal of becoming a superstar, I just hope people connect to the music.

What music has inspired your solo work?

I grew up listening to Tears for Fears, Prince and a lot of '80s anthemic pop music. I want my contributions to be pop anthems, and that's naturally where it's going anyway. I want to contribute great pop music, but I don't want to pull any tricks or shticks--just write good songs and contribute to what I feel is a really exciting time for pop music.

What took you so long to pursue this?

I felt I couldn't be a solo artist until I was comfortable with myself, and that only happened within the past year or two. I feel like my relationship with my family came into a good place, where they fully accepted who I am and that allowed me to be comfortable writing the kinds of songs I want to write--to sing about boys and not have to hide anything. It became clear and I became comfortable with being an artist that's fully transparent and authentic. I'm realizing as I'm speaking to you now that I'm in a place where I'm really comfortable with myself, so sonically, lyrically and visually I'm excited to do exactly what i want.


Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, which is not far off from what people think it's like. I will say that everyone is friendly. If people were making fun of me about being gay or feminine--I was not out in high school--it was behind my back. I'm grateful I was never scared to go to school. I was singing and performing in high school, so I was always in the position where fellow students respected me.

At what point did you openly discuss your sexuality?

I grew up in church--I was there three days a week and only listening to Christian music. My first string of concerts were all Christian artists that were superstars in my eyes until I won tickets on the radio to go see Britney Spears. Then in college, I discovered Prince and other music. Growing up in Mississippi, I made the best of what I had. I did not feel comfortable, whatsoever, to come out. It wasn't the time or place and I wanted to wait until I was in college and financially independent to do that. I think Mississippi has evolved and it's obviously because of people in it who're open-minded and genuinely loving. There is a subculture there that's afraid because they don't understand, but I made the best of what I had in Mississippi.

"Mattress" is innately a sexual song, so in order to sing those lyrics, you'd definitely have to be comfortable with your own sexuality. Do you think the song is a reflection of that growth?

Absolutely. I would never have been able to write that song if I had not been comfortable with myself. This song wouldn't exist if I wasn't a gay artist that's out and proud, and able to write about the feelings and emotions I'm going through. It's sort of a sad lyric with a happy beat, and that's really the tone I'm setting for my music. There are some songs that will be more positive, but what we go through in relationships isn't always positive.

Related | Allie X: Pop's Coolest, Weirdest Newcomer Gets Real on CollXtion II

Allie X co-wrote "Mattress." What is it like working with her in-studio?

She is my ultimate Queen of Pop. There are only a few people I will text and say, "How is the Queen of Pop doing?" and it's Allie X, Troye Sivan and Daya. I reserve that for people I'm obsessed with and love and believe that they're superstars. Allie X is the one, no doubt about it. In studio, we have the best time. We get each other and complement each other so well as writers. We're very loyal to each other and bring each other opportunities. As far as writing in sessions, she comes up with ideas I wouldn't come up with and vice versa, so that marriage of collaboration works really well.

How did you break into songwriting?

I went to Belmont college in Nashville, and had such a great group of friends who were all different types of artists--country, pop, hip-hop, Christian--and they all needed songs to perform. So I said, "If you guys need songs, I'll write and produce them." I ended up getting connected to Jon Platt at EMI, who now runs Warner Chappell, and he offered me a publishing deal my senior year of college. They'd just heard three songs I'd written, just on the piano, so when I graduated, I moved to LA and hit the ground running. Nothing happened for the first three years. I was just writing songs and became good friends with an artist and songwriter named Ferras, who now writes with Katy Perry. I was a terrible songwriter--good enough to be given an opportunity, but not good enough to be in great sessions with great artists at the time.

What are your defining characteristics as as a songwriter?

I often do stream of consciousness. Words and melody come at the same time--not that we always keep them, but I'm very big on how something speaks and how something sings. Sometimes I'll write a song around a certain phrase and what that means to me, making sure it speaks and sings, as well. I like weird melodies and weird phrasing--challenging ourselves to write something that sounds different, but also catchy. That is the ultimate goal.

Related | Troye Sivan: First YouTube, Now the World

You co-wrote Troye Sivan's latest single, "There For You." What's the story behind it?

I wrote that song with a couple friends and was like, "I think this could be good for Troye." So Troye and I were heading to a session and I played him the demo in the car and he loved it. I felt like it was right for him and he recorded the song, wrote on it, as well, and a few days later Martin Garrix finished it. Then they performed it at Coachella two days later. So I don't overthink songwriting. I write songs that I personally connect with and hope they find homes. That same thing happened with "Fetish" [by Selena Gomez]. We wrote that song and it felt right for her. She made it her own.

How did you first start working with Troye?

I became friends with Troye right when he signed his record deal with Capital and he was a fan of Allie X, who I was writing with. So Troye was like, "We should write with her," and I said I would love to. I have to thank Tyler Oakley for introducing me to Troye. I had just become really close to Tyler and Tyler was close to Troye, so Tyler introduced us and said, "You're both just starting, you should write." I brought Allie X to that first session because Troye was a fan, and we started working on his first EP.

Related | Hitmaker Justin Tranter & Courtney Love on Bringing Outsider Perspectives to Mainstream Radio

There's a surge of queer visibility in pop music, right now. What are your thoughts on that?

I'm grateful to be taken seriously as a songwriter in this moment. I think gay songwriters have always been around, they've just been cooperative out of fear of not getting into the room because they want to work with certain artists. Right now is such a beautiful time where we don't have to worry about that. I'm not going into rooms as a gay songwriter, but as a songwriter who happens to be gay. I feel respected in every single room. I'm not shy about who I am. I think it's important for all of us to band together and support each other.

Do you feel like you have a responsibility to support the LGBTQ community?

I really love being introduced to other gay talents, who may not be able to be writing and producing full-time, and position them in opportunities where they can. I had a full-time job, while I was a songwriter, and I just wanted to be writing songs full-time. It wasn't until two years ago that I was writing songs full-time. While there is such an incredible crop of gay artists and writers who're shifting pop culture, now I think it's our turn to help cultivate that next group of talent. Because there really is room for everyone. I've been in a group text with Jesse Saint John, Sarah Hudson, Ferras and JHart, and we just make a point to lift each other up on days where you want to quit. I feel like I can do anything, right now, which is a really good feeling.

Photography: Maxwell Poth
Styling: Jesse Saint John

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