By Alex Gonzalez
With vocalists like Troye Sivan and Ava Max making strides in the mainstream space, pop music is becoming more queer-friendly. Behind some of their biggest hits is songwriter and producer Brett McLaughlin, known professionally by his middle name, Leland.
When he first moved to Los Angeles in 2009, Leland had $600 and a dream to his name. Now, his resume boasts songwriting credits for some of the biggest names in pop music. Serving as the executive producer for the Love, Victor Season 2 soundtrack, as well as the resident composer for the RuPaul’s Drag Race franchise, Leland is sure to dominate our playlists for this upcoming hot queer summer.
Leland grew up in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. As a child in a Christian family, he performed in youth choir, where he learned how to sing harmonies. Until high school, Leland primarily listened to Christian music. He later discovered pop by watching music videos on MTV.
“I grew up in the early 2000s, with Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and the TRL era,” he tells NewNowNext. “It was truly my era. I would run home from high school, and I would have a two hour window before the rest of the family got home.”
Inspired by the iconic pop sounds of the early aughts, Leland attended Belmont University after high school, where he dreamed of becoming a recording artist. But as a closeted gay man, he was still coming into his own identity and didn’t have experiences that would reflect in his art. It wasn’t until he was 21 that he came out to his family while visiting Mississippi on Christmas Eve.
Leland and his mom were sitting in the car in his grandparents’ driveway when he finally came out to her. His father came into the car, and he then came out to him. His father got out of the car, and his aunt, to whom he would also come out, got into the car. In a revolving door fashion, this would repeat as he came out to his grandparents and his uncle.
Attending a school with a robust music program, Leland later learned about the role of songwriters in the music industry. He lived vicariously through his friends in the program by helping them write songs for school projects. Even then, he had the self-awareness to realize that he wasn’t ready to be an artist. “I hadn’t really experienced love or heartbreak at that point to sing about them with conviction,” he recalls.
In 2009, Leland graduated from college and signed to EMI Music Publishing after Jon Platt offered him “a very small publishing deal.” He relocated to L.A. and crashed with friends rent-free for three months until he was able to get on his feet. At the time, he had $600 and a $300 speeding ticket he’d acquired in Texas during the move.
“I ended up not paying it for a while, and then I finally paid when I could afford it,” he remembers. “I had no songs out, no income from publishing besides the small advance that came with my deal. But that was money for me in case of an emergency. I am a better creative when there is consistent income coming in. So even if that means less time to pursue songwriting, I would have been less stressed.”
Upon arriving in L.A., Leland began searching for a day job as a consistent means of income. He worked catering gigs for years, and through them, he ended up meeting some of his closest friends. He also catered some of the most iconic events in pop culture history — including Kim Kardashian’s wedding to Kris Humphries and the 2011 VMAs, where Beyoncé announced her pregnancy with her daughter Blue Ivy. The work wasn’t always consistent, though, and Leland made up the difference with a handful of other gigs, including some music-related jobs.
Although Leland has worked in the music industry for over a decade, one of his most notable songs came out in 2018 in the form of the title track of Troye Sivan’s album Bloom. The song became an instant favorite among the gay community, who deemed it a gay sex anthem. Although “Bloom” is one of his favorite songs from his catalog, Leland admits he was initially apprehensive about how his overtly queer songs would be received.
“When I first started writing with Troye, I was so inspired to see how he would just simply use same-sex pronouns without batting an eye,” he remembers. “It wasn’t anything he gave a second thought to. Because I’m older than him, I reverted to the phrase, What will my parents think? That was in the back of my mind, but I never said anything about it because he was taking us down this road so fearlessly that I was excited and inspired.”
With songwriting as his primary means of income at the time, Leland was intent on writing a single that would be embraced by pop radio. But working with Sivan, he learned to disabuse himself of the need for approval from mainstream audiences. “Troye just knew who he was,” Leland says. “He knew what he wanted to say and didn’t give it a second thought.”
Since then, Leland has worked with the likes of Ellie Goulding, Charli XCX, and Ava Max. He helped co-write the latter’s “Kings & Queens”; together, they workshopped the lyrics of the chorus for about six months. “We did so many different versions of the chorus, and we would beat it to death,” he remembers. The hard work paid off: “Kings & Queens” has since peaked at no. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, marking Leland’s biggest hit to date.
Leland says he is currently working with Max on her follow-up project, which is “truly unbelievable.” Although he is still shocked by the success of “Kings & Queens” on TikTok, his work has caught the attention of TikTokers Dixie D’Amelio and Addison Rae. He helped co-write D’Amelio’s single “Roommates,” which he says began as a poem brought to a studio session by Demi Lovato. He also co-wrote “Obsessed,” Rae’s debut single.
Before the song became the self-love bop we know today, Rae brought the story of “Obsessed” to a recording session. Leland insisted that Rae expand upon the tale, telling her “there’s something here — let’s see what we can do with this story and this idea.”
Leland estimates that he and Rae have written “about 30 or 40” songs together and says Rae is an “excellent writer” and “wonderful human.” While he can’t tell us when we can expect new music from some of our favorite emerging pop girls, there will be no shortage of Leland-penned tracks this hot queer summer.
New music written by Leland will appear in Paramount+’s RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars Season 6, which he says is one of his favorite seasons of Drag Race he’s worked on to date. Later this summer, his music will also appear in the second season of HBO Max’s The Other Two. He hints that one of the songs will satirize Christian music. “When [creators Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider] asked me to do this and explained the context, I was like, ‘Amazing,” he shares. “My Christian conservative upbringing and listening to praise and worship music could not have better prepared me for what we did on this season.”
For now, fans can enjoy new Leland tunes on the second season of Hulu’s Love, Victor, out today (June 11). Leland serves as the executive producer for the show’s soundtrack, for which he tapped fellow queer artists Tayla Parx, Fancy Hagood, and SerpentWithFeet as collaborators. “Each artist brings so much to this soundtrack,” he says.
When writing songs for pop records, Leland typically has more agency. Still, he equally enjoys writing music to support film and television, and to help bring a writer’s vision to life.
“When writing for TV and film, there are more cooks in the kitchen,” he explains. “But everyone usually has the same end goal of what we’re trying to make, and I don’t mind having guidance. … My job is not to show up and do whatever I want to do; my job is to fulfill and help realize the ideas of the producers, writers, and creative team, and to support the scene.”
Although Leland is the mind behind several queer-themed hits, he says Love, Victor is one of the most important projects he’s worked on yet. He personally relates to the titular character Victor Salazar (Michael Cimino), who is raised Christian in the series. Leland also understands the trauma of keeping his authentic self hidden.
“I wish this show would have existed when I was younger,” he shares. “This show so eloquently, beautifully, and authentically covers some really important moments in a young queer person’s life. We all have unique stories, but as I was watching the show and writing songs for it, there were a couple moments where I cried because I related more than I wished I would have.”
Main image: Leland on the set of RuPaul’s Drag Race.