Leland Breaks Down Writing Songs for Selena Gomez, Troye Sivan and Ariana Grande

’That [Taylor Swift] moment was insane. Troye’s mom and I were ... clutching each other and crying’

#BehindTheBangers is a series spotlighting songwriters and producers.

When Taylor Swift brought out a surprise guest performer during her Reputation Stadium Tour stop at the Rose Bowl in Southern California in May, singer-songwriter Leland stood in the front row already knowing all too well who’d be joining her for the guest duet. With 60,000 people watching, Swift introduced Troye Sivan. They sang Sivan’s “My My My”—a song Leland co-wrote—while strutting on the stage like synchronized models.

“That moment was insane,” Leland said. “Troye’s mom and I were in the very front right by the runway, clutching each other and crying. That is what was really special and it felt like that song was finally in an arena like it’s supposed to be.”

As best friends, Leland and Sivan have shared a wild year together, including Leland receiving a tear-inducing video call from Sivan with some big news.

“I was sitting outside Target when he FaceTimed me to tell me about Saturday Night Live and we both cried,” Leland said, recalling Sivan being selected to perform their co-written tracks “My My My” and “The Good Side” on SNL. “If you’d have told me that [SNL and Taylor Swift] were going to happen this year, I would not have believed you.”

Leland, known as Brett McLaughlin to friends, kept his momentum going this summer and fall by joining Troye’s tour as an opening act. Before their show at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, Leland stopped by ONE37pm to talk about producing the soundtrack for Netflix’s teen hit Sierra Burgess is a Loser and reveal untold stories about writing songs for Charli XCX, Ariana Grande, Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini, Sabrina Carpenter, Betty Who, Allie X, Daya, OneRepublic and more.

Charli XCX & Troye Sivan // "1999" (2018)

Leland: This was the song that Charli XCX and Noonie Bao and Oscar Holter had started together. Three people I adore. Charli is one of my favorite people in music and a songwriter that I look up to and respect. Noonie, Troye and I wrote [his and Ariana Grande's] “Dance To This” and Oscar produced Troye's Bloom album, so it’s family at this point.

So they had most of “1999” done and asked Troye to come on, so Troye and I wrote the bridge. I helped vocal produce the second verse. The lyric "I know those days are over, but a boy can fantasize about JTT on MTV”—that is very much my upbringing. I remember racing home to watch TRL every day after school. ... The full circle moment was when Sabrina Carpenter performed “Why” on TRL and dedicated that performance to me, which was very sweet.

Troye Sivan & Ariana Grande // "Dance To This" (2018)

Leland: Troye knew he wanted to put the word dance in the title but not make it an uptempo bop. It was our first time for Troye writing with Noonie; we just love her and really wanted to work with her. Oscar Holter is one of my favorite producers with songs like “Run Away With Me” by Carly Rae Jepsen. It was just such a nice day and it was a song where it felt like everyone really equally contributed. I wrote the melody for the verses pretty much right off the bat. Troye kept singing and wrote the pre-chorus. Noonie started working out the chorus, as Oscar was coming up with the guitar riff. It is so rewarding to hear that guitar riff open live, like it does on the record, and see the reaction in the crowd. I love when songs had an identity right from the beginning. We were sitting in the room and immediately all of us knew Ariana needed to be on the song. You can hear as you’re writing a melody your dream artist on that song. When I’m writing for Selena Gomez, before she comes in and does her thing on it, I can think to myself if the song is going to work for it. With “Dance To This,” when Ariana recorded it, it exceeded all expectations and felt like it just fit her voice perfectly.

Leland // "Mattress" (2017)

Leland: “Mattress” is [about] unrequited love, which we’ve all felt at some point; and if you haven’t, then fuck you. All of my songs are completely autobiographical. They capture a moment, or a night out, or a moment reflecting after a night out. As I go out less and less, my songs are going to change a little bit in that type of subject matter.

Whether I’m writing for myself or another artist, I will compile a list of titles that I think work for that artist. I had “Fetish” in my Selena pile for songs for the longest time. I had vowels for my Capital Cities's quirky titles. For me, I had “Mattress.” It’s very stream of conscious, whatever I identify with in that moment. I had just gotten a really comfortable W Hotel mattress and wanted this boy to sleep on it. It didn’t happen.

Selena Gomez // "Rare" (TBD) // "Fetish" (2017)

Leland: I’m not sure when “Rare” is coming out, but she’s been talking about it a lot and I know it’s important to her, which means a lot. I can’t say anything else about it. “Rare” was a word in her pile. “Fetish” was a project where I felt like they didn’t need me. Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels are such gifted songwriters and tapped into this evolved version of Selena, which felt perfectly curated and just stunningly written.

Some of my favorite songs are on Selena's Revival album. It was when Selena evolved into this superstar force, so it was something I wanted to be a part of. In a situation like that, you have to write a really good fucking song. ... For a couple weeks, myself, Gino Barletta, Chloe Angelides, Jonas Jeberg and The Futuristics worked on a ton of Selena ideas, and “Fetish” was the standout by the end of that. I thought to myself, “This is where I would love for her to go.” It feels just edgy enough, “fetish” as a word is a push.

Thankfully, she loved the initial version of it and then we all worked together to make sure it was perfect for her. That video is one of my favorite videos. Period. Then to have it do justice to one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever been a part of to one of my favorite artists, I just thought it was so well done. Some really iconic visuals were created in that video. The freezer scene where she is on the table and it’s raining inside—those moments were amazing.

Leland // “Revelation” for "Boy Erased" (2018)

Leland: This song was written specifically for the Boy Erased movie. Jónsi from Sigur Rós had piano chords and melodic ideas. He, Troye and myself came together and wrote that song.

The source of inspiration is not a happy one; [conversion therapy is] very dark and comes with a lot of trauma and has been very traumatic for a lot of people. I saw the materials for Love In Action, which is the gay conversion camp in this movie. The only other time I’d seen these materials was when I came out. To see these again as an out and proud gay man, secure in who I am, working on shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race with credits on album like Bloom, and not look at them as an actual factor of “Do I need this in my life?” Looking at it now like, “Wow, how tragic and sad is this?” I’m so grateful that I came out when I was able to and able to financially sustain myself. It was just a mind-fuck seeing those materials again but being older and knowing how ridiculous it is.

Carrie Underwood // "End Up With You" (2018)

Leland: I wrote with Hillary Lindsay, who is Carrie’s main collaborator of many years. She is someone I look up to and respect so much. Hillary, myself and Will Weatherly all met for the first time in a room one day and wrote this song. My goal wasn’t even to get a Carrie song. It was just to meet these people, become friends, hope there is an organic connection there and continue to work together. That is the whole point, it’s not a one-off situation where we have a one-off opportunity.

My goal in co-writing is always to develop a relationship and write many songs together. We wrote “End Up With You” that day. My ears for country are not that; my instincts are always going to be pop. So when I’m writing a country song, I don’t know if it’s good. I know if I like it. But if a country audience is going to embrace it, I don’t know. That’s what happened with “Miss Me More” for Kelsea Ballerini. Hillary texted me a few weeks later and said, “I texted the song to Carrie and she loves it and wants it. Don’t tell anyone.” I was like, perfect. That was eight months before the song came out. I heard it for the first time at the album listening party in Nashville. Carrie is the sweetest. She was like, “Thank you for that song, and for giving me that song.” Also, she didn’t ask for any publishing. Her name didn’t need to be on the song. That was my first song to appear on a No. 1 album.

Kelsea Ballerini // "Miss Me More" (2018)

Leland: This was before the Carrie song. We wrote it two and a half years ago, and it is her single now. It goes to country radio this month. I’m excited to see the video. I love Kelsea. We have written 10 to 15 songs together at this point, and I just think she is a brilliant songwriter and an incredible artist. So we’re working on the next album now. It’s awesome to see everyone have their moments. In country, I want to work with Kavey Musgraves and Keith Urban.

Leland // "Sunflower" (2018)

Leland: I did the whole Sierra Burgess Is a Loser soundtrack and scored the movie. We were making Bloom and Allie X, Troye, Bram Inscore and myself had been writing for a couple weeks at that point. My friend Jonathan Watkins who is a music supervisor called me and said he is working on a movie, a little indie film, and there is a song that the main character Sierra Burgess, played by Shannon Purser, sings in the movie. He is going to have a few people trying, but if we wanted to give it a go, he’d love to see what we had to offer.

One night we were writing for Troye, I took a second, convinced everyone, like please let’s try to write this song, and we wrote “Sunflower” that night. It is in my nature to go above and beyond and to give more than what is asked for. So we wrote a few songs, one called “The Other Side,” which Betty Who sings on the soundtrack. And a song called “Kid Wonder,” which Allie X sings on the soundtrack in the opening scene of the movie.

I made artwork for everything and packaged it, sent it over including “Sunflower” and didn’t hear back right away. Jonathan wasn’t hearing back from the producers, and it had been two or three hours. Their timelines are insane, so they’re going to listen right away. He was worried, so he called Rachel, the executive producer of the movie, and she was like, “Oh my gosh, we’ve been meaning to call you. We’ve just been listening to ‘Sunflower’ over and over and are crying. We can’t believe how they captured this.” That lead to me saying, “Well, who is scoring the movie?” and I was already emotionally prepared to hear, “We’ve hired so and so composer.” But I knew with the aesthetic of the film, the vision director Ian Samuels had. ... They offered us the gig to score the movie.

Sabrina Carpenter // "Lie For Love" (2018)

Leland: Doing the soundtrack was really fun, we scored it scene by scene, and then they’d ask for certain scenes to have actual songs with lyric and melody, so we’d write the song to the specific scene. And when it came to putting together the soundtrack, I’d have to go in and finish all of the songs, since we’d only have a verse and a chorus. So for Sabrina Carpenter’s song “Lie For Love,” there was only a verse and a chorus. So I had to go in and finish the song for her.

I had Jordan Palmer, who has produced “Mattress” and “Run Into You” and did Allie X’s last album, come on. He came in and we found the right key for Sabrina, tailored the production to her and to where the soundtrack should go. It was a race to the finish line and things became really exciting when Netflix officially bought the movie. And Noah Centineo and Shannon Purser. It just felt like, and still does feel like, a really special project, and the soundtrack was the first score my label put out.

Betty Who // “Ignore Me” (2018)

Leland: I love Betty Who. I’ve been a fan of her for so many years. I remember when Arjan Writes wrote about her on his blog before he was at Apple, and then I showed Betty Who to Tyler Oakley when we were on our way to dinner somewhere. Just to see where we all are now, wow. I’ve only written with Betty twice, but the first time was a song called “Ignore Me.” And then having her come on and do “The Other Side” for the Sierra Burgess Is a Loser soundtrack was really special. Her voice is so good, and I think she’s an incredible performer. The sass in “Ignore Me” comes from us both talking about whether it was a person or a situation where something has changed, something is dead, let’s move on. It was a really fun, easy session. I love Peter Thomas who has worked with her for years. It was a really fun session.

Daya // "Hide Away" (2015)

Leland: Revisiting “Hide Away” is always a really special experience. I wrote that with some of my best friends of many years. We’ve all hustled and come up together. Daya was a 16-year-old transplant from Pittsburg, and it was her first songwriting session. That session was very much a moment of, we’re not trying to write a radio hit, we’re just trying to write a song. We didn’t overthink the simplicity of it. And have that song take a life of its own, gain traction, and do what it did, that was very special. I love that Sit Still Look Pretty album so much. There was a song called “Love of My Life” that should’ve been a single, it was a very underrated bop.

Allie X // “All The Rage” (2017)

Leland: “All the Rage” is my favorite song we’ve done together. When she does it live, it is crazy. “Sanctuary” was the first song we did together and I helped with some of the melody and lyrics for that. She had a lot of the bones together for that song. We’ve done so many songs over the years. I love Allie. She is one of my favorite people to write songs for. We don’t write nearly as much as we should, since we’ve always on the road or touring or working on something. Last year when we spent so much time together working on Sierra Burgess and Bloom, that was a really special time. I love when we’re all in Bram’s garage studio in sweatpants and a T-shirt eating snacks. It’s in Eagle Rock. It’s 45 minutes outside of Los Angeles. It is not a fancy studio, but I love it and I miss it.

OneRepublic // (Coming soon)

Leland: I can’t say the name of the song yet, but I wrote it with David Brook, Andy Grammer, Ryan Tedder and DJ Frankie. I am very excited about that. It is coming out attached to a movie. I am also excited about when tour is over, taking some time to become fans of new artists. I don’t need to be in a room with major artists every day.

Most of my success has been with new artists so I really love that part of it. I’m also just excited to have time to write more for me. And then I have another season of RuPaul’s Drag Race coming out. And I just worked with Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, who're the two head writers at SNL for the past six seasons and they have a new show with Lorne Michaels. Molly Shannon is the star and a few other people. I did all the music for the show. I don’t know when that is coming out.

I’m excited to take a second and make it a point to take projects that are purposeful and stand for something. There was a time when I said yes to everything, and you have to. But now I’m very conscious of the music that I’m making. I’m very conscious of who is singing it, what they stand for, what they advocate for, so that to me is just as important as the songs that I’m writing. I am going to take a second to figure out. I’d love to score another movie, I’d love to keep writing comedy music, I’m going to develop some things on my own, and I’d love to work on a movie musical.

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