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Leith Ross and the Power of the Gay Internet 

How the tender hearted singer-songwriter went from posting on TikTok to dropping a highly-anticipated major label debut.

by Laura Stanley

Photo by Jennifer Doerksen

Leith Ross joined TikTok to find gay friends. During the pandemic, Ross was living at their parents house in Manotick, Ontario (just outside of Ottawa) and physically isolated from other queer people. Seeking connections, they turned to TikTok in 2021 and began posting themself playing covers and eventually original, tender folky songs.

“I was posting songs for my gay internet friends and things started going well and I was like, ‘okay, I guess this might work’ so I started posting more,” explains Ross, who now has more than 450K TikTok followers and has racked-up 8-million likes. “That’s how I jump-started my career.”

When Ross speaks with RANGE, they have just finished a sold-out tour in the UK and Europe, and with their debut full-length album To Learn just a few weeks out they are about to embark on a another sold-out headlining tour of North America. Ross is admittedly overwhelmed by the sudden attention but is incredibly thoughtful when wrestling with it all.

“When I’m on stage, I’ll look out into this audience of hundreds of people and I think, ‘you are all individual, complex people that I do not know but we are all in this room together for the same reason,’ and there’s no way for me to understand that fully,” Ross says. “After I get off stage, sometimes, I’ll just start bawling my eyes out and it’s not sadness, it’s just the most intense version of being overwhelmed that I’ve ever experienced because I don’t have a way to conceptualize, emotionally, hundreds of people knowing my songs. It’s super hard but I wouldn’t want to be numb to it either because it’s also a miracle. It’s a beautiful and fascinating thing to experience.”

Before temporarily moving in with their parents, Ross lived in Toronto while enrolled in Humber College’s jazz vocal program. For their final project, Ross recorded an EP of eight hushed songs live-off-the-floor in a couple of hours. In the fall of 2020, Ross released the EP, entitled Motherwell. Ross learned a lot writing and releasing Motherwell, but when reflecting on the recording now, they note how separated they feel from the person who made it, even pointing to how their singing style has evolved. “But it’s a beautiful thing to have a snapshot of that time period in my life,” they conclude. “I’m very grateful for it.”

Drawn to the city’s kind and supportive music community, Ross moved to Winnipeg just over a year ago. While living in Toronto, Ross had met Winnipeg-born musician and producer Joey Landreth and the pair started working on songs together. Motherwell was released on the label Landreth helps run called Birthday Cake. Once in Winnipeg, Ross recorded To Learn with Landreth at his studio, Stereobus Recording.

The entire process of recording To Learn, to use Ross’ descriptor, was “very chill.” Landreth would text Ross about coming into the studio to work, Ross would come by with a new song, and they would record it, occasionally inviting guest musicians like Boy Golden’s Liam Duncan to contribute. The album was finished over the course of a year. “Its my preferred way to work: just vibes,” Ross says with a laugh.

Despite this relaxed recording process, the care Ross takes when writing songs is profoundly felt on To Learn. You don’t need to be a TikTok user to connect with Ross’ candid tracks and tenderhearted delivery. Often accompanied with only the plucks of a warm sounding acoustic guitar, Ross’ striking lyrics are breathtakingly beautiful even when they break your heart. Released in 2022, the brief, albeit emotionally abundant track “We’ll Never Have Sex” is a fan favourite with close to 47 million plays on Spotify. Its vivid opening lyric is one of Ross’ best: “Depollute me, pretty baby. Suck the rot right out of my bloodstream.”

“I’m an extremely sensitive person,” says Ross about how they foster their tender sound. “I’ve learned to be very, very careful about how, where, and when I record and with who. So the couple of times that I’ve recorded music and the situation that I recorded it in wasn’t ideal, I scrap it. I can’t release it because my body just holds onto the unpleasantness of something. So there’s a ton of care and specific decisions in the ways that I record because the topics of the songs are so vulnerable and I need the recording environment to be really healthy, therapeutic, and safe. I think because of the fact that I am safe and happy when I’m recording, that comes across in the finish product. The songs are a bit more free and more me.”

On the album’s title track, Ross sings, “I’m living to learn.” As Ross learns how to cope with all of the attention and new experiences, it’s an apt summary of the whirlwind few years. But despite all of the changes in their life, Ross stays grounded by friends, family, and kindness.

“The two things that I’ve been clinging to as of late are to not take myself too seriously and when I’m feeling down, my mom always tells me to do something for someone else. Those are the two biggest building blocks of my happiness in my life right now,” Ross explains. “When I try to help other people or force myself to not take myself too seriously, I remember that as much as I am an important or special person, I’m also just some guy. My music doing well or me being cool or whatever, it’s just not important in the grand scheme of things and that’s very liberating. Be good to people, be kind, and be helpful.”