Songwriter Profile: It’s All Coming Together For Leland
Leland moved to Los Angeles with a publishing deal and $300 in his pocket. Over the next few years, the budding hitmaker wrote songs every day while trudging through a series of odd jobs that included catering Kim Kardashian’s second wedding. The stars finally aligned for Leland when he was invited to write for a then-unknown teenager called Daya and churned out “Hide Away.” The double-platinum success of that song combined with multiple credits on Troye Sivan’s critically-acclaimed Blue Neighbourhood opened all kinds of doors.
I recently caught up with Leland at a West Hollywood coffee shop and asked about his slow and steady rise up the songwriting ranks. The songsmith explained how some of his biggest songs came together (he started Troye’s “Talk Me Down” in his car on the way to a session) and revealed some of his upcoming credits. He also opened up about his own artist project. Leland is touring with Allie X at the moment and has a new track on the way called “Mattress.” Oh, and he’s also composing the score for a movie. Get to know the singer/songwriter a little better in our Q&A below.
When did you decide to pursue songwriting professionally? I went to Belmont in Nashville and they had showcases where you would audition with original music and a lot of my friends needed songs. My first round of sessions as an amateur songwriter was writing songs for my friends. I viewed them all as artists and separate projects, and that was when I got my first taste of writing for other people. That’s how I got started and through that I was introduced to Jon Platt at EMI, who now runs Warner Chappell. He offered me a publishing deal on EMI while I was still in college. After college, I packed everything up and drove to LA.
Did you already have sessions lined up when you got to LA? No. It was really hard. The transition was really hard. I moved to LA with $300 and got a speeding ticket in Texas and blew a tire as I was pulling into LA, so it wasn’t easy. One of the first people I met that I’m still very close with was Ferras. I got his number from a mutual friend and cold called him. I was like, “Hey, I just signed a publishing deal. I don’t have anything, but we should write sometime.” And we did, and we’re still writing songs to this day. My first cut was with Ferras. We wrote “Galaxy” for Jessica Mauboy and Stan Walker.
Were you also writing songs for yourself at the time? No, I wanted to be able to pay bills writing songs for other people. I knew that I didn’t have a grasp on who I was as an artist. I didn’t have the resources and I just knew those doors weren’t opening yet, so I wanted to focus on writing for other people and I wanted to prove myself as a writer. So for years, I’d say for the first two or three years, I had every job under the sun while writing every day.
What was your worst job? I sold magazine subscriptions for one day and I couldn’t do it. It was on a college campus and it was through Craigslist. It was annoying, I had to bug college students while they were having lunch or on a break. I was like, “I’m so sorry, I’ll do anything, but this is not for me.” I catered for two years and found it to be really fun. I catered the VMAs one year while my friends were nominated, so I was in a catering outfit while they were in tuxedos. We gave each other hugs and it was embarrassing, but it was fine. It was a very strange moment. I was like… fuck.
Awkward. Any other highlights? I catered Kim Kardashian’s wedding to Kris Humphries. If you watch the E! special I’m all over it. I catered many, many events. I sang in a cover band that was awful and paid me next to nothing. Some gigs, I would drive to the gig and because of gas and food expenses, I’d lose money. Then I taught at a college. I taught songwriting and that was fine. A lot of my students are now actually doing really well so it’s strange to be in your mid-20s and have students.
When did things start to turn around? Not until “Hideaway” went to radio.
What came between “Galaxy” and “Hideaway”? A lot of terrible jobs and a lot of terrible songs. Like, I’ve done some good songs that you’ll never hear. I had cuts with Jessica Sutta, who was on Hollywood at the time. I adore her. I think I had some DJ cuts, but nothing really big.
Tell me about “Hideaway.” My friend Gino Barletta, who I’ve been writing songs with all that time, knew Daya from Pittsburgh. Her parents wanted to send her to LA to sit in on sessions and just kind of hang out. It was a case of right place, right time. We happened to write “Hideaway” and then I left and didn’t think twice about it. Gino’s manager Steve wanted to take it to radio and I was like, “Well, I’ve heard that a million times.” I was working on Troye Sivan’s first album at the time, so for me I had all my eggs in that basket. I had a special feeling about that project from the first day I met him, but then “Hideaway” started to go and I was like, “Oh my god!”
You didn’t have any inkling that it would be big? The day we wrote the song, I met up with my friend who is a songwriter and I played him “Hideaway” and he was like, “Oh, that’s going to be a smash.” Once things started to take off with “Hideaway,” it got kind of nuts because we had to write an EP for her in one weekend. Literally Friday through Sunday, we wrote that first EP, and then she came to town and recorded it. It was really, really fun. And then things started to fall into place. Songs I had written years ago started coming out. It all came together at the exact same time.
How did you meet Troye? I was dating one of his really good friends at the time. The guy I was dating brought him to one of my shows and we became friends through that. My ex was like, “You guys should write together.” He is the reason why all this has happened. So, I set up a session with Troye. He was a fan of Allie X, so I brought her along, and it went well. From that point on, we just kept writing together for the next year and a half.
What was the first song you wrote together? We wrote a song that has not come out and will not come out. It was called “Hologram Hearts.”
What was the first to make the album?“Bite.”
Troye told me the song was inspired by bathhouses. As a songwriter, do you sit and discuss that before writing it? For that song, we definitely discussed a story. We discussed an experience, we discussed the details. I’m so proud of the lyrics of that song, that we really took our time and said exactly what we wanted to say poetically. But it changes every time, sometimes we start with titles. For “Talk Me Down,” I wrote the chorus, melody and lyric in the car on the way to the session and sat at the piano and played it for them when I got there. I was about to go through a breakup. I could feel it coming and I was already sort of checked out. Troye connected with what I was going through and took that lyric and sort of made it his own story.
Did you think the album would be that big? I didn’t know that Troye was going to be as realized as an artist before I worked with him. I didn’t know he was going to have such a clear vision for himself and his music, stylistically, aesthetically, musically, production-wise. I’m very grateful I was able to work with an artist who has so much depth and substance and authenticity.
Did the success of “Hideaway” and Troye’s songs open doors for you? Absolutely. A lot of doors here and a lot of doors in Nashville. I’m working with Maren Morris soon and that was because she loved Troye and Daya. She shared a Daya song called “Cool” on Instagram and wrote “songwriting goals.” Both of those projects absolutely have. They each opened different doors. It’s so much easier for myself, for my publishers, when I want to work with new artists. The sales pitch is over. This is what I’ve done. It’s nice to be in that part of my career.
Do you ever look back on any songs and cringe? Of course. There are songs that come out that you’re proud of and songs that come out that you don’t tweet about. For every 10 bad songs I write, I’m grateful for that one good one.
Who else are you working with? I’m working with Sabrina Carpenter right now, who I adore. She’s so talented and I love her voice. What I can say is I have songs coming out over the next few months with people I’ve dreamed of working with. I’m so excited. It’s such a waiting game. I’m writing with Allie. I loved working with Capital Cities, I’ll be doing more stuff with them. I loved writing with Rachel Platten. We’ve written quite a few songs together. She has such positive energy to be around. We push each other in the studio and she knows who she is and knows what she wants to say. I’ve loved working with Andy Grammer. I’m working with a couple big DJs that I’m excited about.
Do you have any new music of your own coming out? Yes! This time, approaching the Leland project, there’s much less stress. There is more of an excitement for me just to be creative. Approaching an artist project needing a record deal fucks with your mind. It really does. So this time around, to just keep writing until there’s a song that I absolutely love and want to pool all my resources together and call in all my favors, that’s really exciting. This time around, the resources are better, the production is better, my songwriting is better. I’m working with Allie on it and I’m working with Troye on it. We’ve probably written three or four songs together. I am playing 90 percent new music at these upcoming shows. I’m working with Jordan Palmer, who produced Allie’s new album, and I’m working with Jonas Jeberg. He’s incredible.
I don’t know if I’m making an EP. I don’t know if I’m making an album. I know that I’m going to put out songs. I’m excited and I’m going to elevate the art. I’m not putting out a music video unless I fucking love it. I’m not putting out a song unless I fucking love it and I’m not asking anyone to tweet about it, post about it. I want people to do it because they like the music. I’m just going to have fun with it. My goal is to go on tour this fall, opening for somebody, and to start consistently releasing music. I also just got my first gig scoring a movie. It’s called Sierra Burgess Is A Loser and it stars Shannon Purser who is Barb on Stranger Things.