The rising singer-songwriter discusses their debut album To Learn and why they would like to have a ‘queer anti-capitalist agenda’
It’s hard to write a truly original love song. But artist Leith Ross is doing just that. Based in Winnipeg, Canada, and named after the Scottish town their mother was raised in, Ross has emerged as one of Gen Z’s most original yet masterful songwriting talents after rising to fame on TikTok for their gut-punching folk musings.
With a debut EP Motherwell that was originally coursework for their senior year at college, Ross recorded a breathtakingly spare collection of songs with fellow student musicians, unpicking everything from their social anxiety to the burden of adulthood and faith. And when they started posting a mix of covers and original music on TikTok, it didn’t take long for them to pick up steam in the form of almost half a million followers on the app and a major label record deal, picking up comparisons to the likes of Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Mitski along the way.
Since then, the 24-year-old has continued to put soul-bearing words and intricate melodies to the unspoken twists, turns and nuances of our messy existences, with a distinctly modern perspective: whether that’s grappling with sexuality, relationships, trauma or health. Their breakthrough single “We’ll Never Have Sex” paints a tender tale of asexual romance that has amassed over 47 million streams on Spotify alone. Opening with the sucker-punch line “depollute me pretty baby, suck the rot right out of my bloodstream” and lamenting on the simple sweetness of affection without expectations, it’s the prototype for their trademark brand of deeply specific, queer storytelling that somehow swells into something universal and affecting.
Elsewhere, they capture the existential aches of missing someone you haven’t met yet, wanting people to love you who you don’t love back or that three per cent of you that feels like it will always belong to someone it shouldn’t. On their debut album To Learn Ross’ pen turns outwards to capture more of the complex external world that they inhabit outside of romance and their own mind, exploring explosive love for your chosen family but also tackling topics of asserting boundaries and navigating the aftermath of an assault.
We catch up with Ross in the midst of their sold-out European tour to unpack their musical mission, One Direction conspiracy theories and why music makes us better people.
You explore so many different forms of love in your songwriting, that feel both super precise and also quite universal. What makes love such an endless source of inspiration for you?
Leith Ross: When I was younger, romantic love was such a huge source of inspiration to me. But now I feel like it’s becoming even more intense because as I get older and I explore my queerness, both personally and also politically, I’ve learned so much about different kinds of love. Like community love and friendship love, family love, chosen family love, all of those things that I think we’re discouraged from putting the same amount of effort into as we do with romantic love.
So that question really resonates with me right now, specifically, because it’s something I’ve been thinking about so much. Like my future and the different kinds of love that I have the chance to experience right now and what kinds of love are going to be important to me going forward? It’s been just a huge well of inspiration for writing and trying to express what love is beginning to mean to me in a less romantic way and in a more personhood kind of way. It’s so expansive and it covers everything, every relationship that you have and also the ones you don’t have, which is crazy.
Community and care also feel like a key theme in how you operate both in your music and just in real life too as an artist. What’s your take on music as a safe space for people?
Leith Ross: Music is of the people and always has been, which it’s quite easy to lose sight of. It’s such an accessible avenue to community in a sense, because you just end up in rooms with a bunch of people that have similar interests or morals or goals to you. And I think we don’t take advantage of it as much as we could for the kind of organising that could come out of that.
I personally am very attached to the history of folk in the way that it used to be an inherently political space for the working class. I feel like I’m just at the very beginning of my journey of talking to other folk musicians and trying to figure out how that happens in a way that is good, in our current climate, but it is something that I definitely care so much about and want to try to do better.
That feels like it’s also tied into improving access and diversity within the indie music spaces too, which is something you’ve spoken about before on social media too?
Leith Ross: Exactly. I think the specific genre that I participate in has become so absorbed into that commercialised version of ‘white folk indie music’ where it’s portrayed as very soft and cottagecore and all that stuff, which are very subtle, specific signals. So it makes a lot of sense to me that most people wouldn’t feel welcome in that space, which I don’t think we think about enough. I think that’s definitely a part of what we were just talking about in having those spaces returned to being a bit more inherently political… Like I want people to know that I have an agenda! There’s kind of this thing where people are like, ‘oh, you don’t want to have an agenda.’ But… I do. I would like to have an agenda and I would like to have a queer anti-capitalist agenda if at all possible.
It definitely feels like there’s a fear of claiming your politics in case it means you’re shoehorned into a certain narrative, like wanting to be seen as an artist in your own right outside of your identifiers?
Leith Ross: It’s true. And for me too, when I claim my queerness it feels a lot less about my own gender and my own sexuality. That’s obviously a part of it, because that’s what led me to it but when I think about queerness, I think about incredible, supportive community; people who have always been pushing boundaries. It’s inherently political, if you choose to embrace that. And so when I claim my queerness, I want it to be that thing. I want it to be queer in the sense of questioning all of the social constructs and powers that be.
So your album is called To Learn – what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the last few years?
Leith Ross: Not to take myself too seriously! It’s so easy when you enter the music industry and things are going nice and people are being nice and people are listening to the music, you can start taking yourself so seriously and hold yourself to an impossible standard. And not in a bad way, I’m not undermining myself but sometimes I just have to remember that I’m just some guy. And that even if everything went horribly, or everything crashed and burned, I would still just be some guy, just like every other some guy on the planet. And that really helps me!
What’s the worst advice you’ve ever been given?
Leith Ross: ‘Rise and grind.’
What’s your weirdest internet obsession?
Leith Ross: I’m just gonna be honest and expose myself. Doctor Who edits.
What’s the last meme you saved?
If you could listen to one musician for the rest of your life, who would it be?
Leith Ross: One? Oh dear. I’m thinking of a couple records from my childhood that could maybe sustain me. I’d have to pick one really folky one, maybe this sweet man David Francey. And then maybe Corinne Bailey-Rae’s self-titled record, that was a huge one when I was young. And then also a great record by Eddi Reader, Sings the Songs of Robert Burns. I’m sorry I cheated.
What fictional character do you most relate to and why?
Leith Ross: We were talking about this at brunch, Patrick Star from Spongebob. Because he’s sweet and enthusiastic but he also lives under a rock sometimes. I identify with that. He also kind of gives me transmasc vibes.
Please share the most recent note in your Notes app.
Leith Ross: ‘Questions for financial people?’ [laughs] Taxes? How to do them. I just know nothing about it and I cannot bring myself to learn.
What’s your star sign and are you a typical one of that star sign?
Leith Ross: Yes, I’d say I’m definitely a classic Cancer. I cry constantly, all day every single day, bawling my little eyeballs out at actually every single thing that happens.
“When I think about queerness, I think about incredible, supportive community; people who have always been pushing boundaries”
What’s your love language?
Leith Ross: For me, it’s absolutely quality time and acts of service. I have a thing about touch and about talking about my feelings out loud so this is good practice for me. I would say when I feel most loved is like when I’m with someone and we just sit together. Or I don’t know when I was really depressed and my mum just did my dishes, it felt like the best possible thing she could have done.
What’s a conspiracy theory you’re actually quite into?
Leith Ross: I don’t know if I should say, but... Larry? As in Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles [laughs].
When did you first become aware of the power of good music? What song could you not stop playing growing up?
Leith Ross: Probably when I was a tiny kid in the living room dancing with my parents and we were listening to this Kris Kristofferson record that we used to put on every Sunday. And there’s just a couple of songs about just the goodness of humanity, and it always made me want to be a good person, even when I was tiny. And I think that that changed me deeply and intrinsically, like music made me want to be a good person.
You encounter a hostile alien race and sound is their only mechanism for communication. What song would you play to them to inspire them to spare you and the rest of the human race?
Leith Ross: I feel like you could either go really funny or really real. What’s that song by Brian Wilson, “Love and Mercy”? Either that of “Final Countdown”.