Songwriter Leland Talks Selena Gomez's 'Fetish' & Working With Fellow Queer Artists

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Patrick Churvis and Stevie Hannigan
Leland

Every song has an origin story. Selena Gomez’s “Fetish” can be traced back to the Hollywood Hills within a canyon neighborhood that rock stars considered homebase in the mid-1900s. That’s where songwriter Brett McLaughlin, best known as Leland to his music peers, remembers penning seductive lyrics -- such as “take you over and under and twisted up like origami” -- for Selena’s newly released song 15 months ago.  

“We set up shop at Jonas Jeberg’s studio in Laurel Canyon and hammered away at ideas,” said the 29-year-old Mississippi native, who moved to Los Angeles in 2011 to accelerate his career. “We listened to everything we had written and ‘Fetish’ seemed to be the obvious standout.”

Leland’s work on “Fetish” could help him reach a new peak on the Billboard Hot 100 as a songwriter. His previous highs were with Daya’s “Hide Away” and Troye Sivan’s “Youth,” which both peaked at No. 23.

In this Q&A with Billboard, Leland takes us behind the scenes of Selena’s “Fetish," discusses working with fellow queer artists like Troye Sivan and talks about earning recognition from Taylor Swift and Sam Smith. The songwriter also teases upcoming projects that include scoring a film that stars Stranger Things' Shannon Purser and his own single called “Mattress.”

How did you sync up with Selena Gomez to co-write “Fetish”?

The idea for “Fetish” came from a session that was part of a two-week long writing camp for Selena. Normally, labels or publishers put together writing camps, but this was something we organized ourselves. At the time I had just finished working with Gino Barletta, Chloe Angelides and Jonas Jeberg on Daya’s debut album Sit Still, Look Pretty, so we just shifted our focus to Selena. At the end of the two weeks, we listened to everything we had written and “Fetish” seemed to be the obvious standout.

From there I took the song to The Futuristics, who I had recently met. I was a fan of the duo’s work on Machine Gun Kelly and Camila Cabello’s “Bad Things.” They worked with Jonas on co-producing the song and nailed it. We sent it to Aaron Bay-Schuck at Interscope Records. He was amazing about keeping me in the loop with everything, and I trusted him completely. Once Selena got the song, she tweaked some things and made it hers. It was a really fun process to watch.  

What do the song's lyrics mean? And what is your favorite lyrical contribution?

Our goal was to take the word “fetish” and relate it to an emotional and sexual connection with someone. The word already felt appropriately edgy, so we wanted to make sure it was executed in the best possible way. One of my favorite lyrics I contributed was the end of the second verse when she sings, “Take you over and under and twisted up like origami.” Gucci came in afterward and wrote his own verse, which I love.

What are your thoughts on how Selena has presented the lyrics visually through promo art and the official audio video?

I am blown away by what director Petra Collins and Selena have created visually for “Fetish.” The audio YouTube video is beautiful and uncomfortable in the best way.

How long did it take to complete the song?

The timeline from writing the song to release was about 15 months. We wrote the song in April 2016 and didn’t send it to anyone else except Selena’s team.  

Will you be doing more songs for Selena, potentially for her much-anticipated third studio album?

We’ll see!  

Selena has a big LGBTQ fanbase. Did that play a role in you wanting to work with her?

My desire to want to write for Selena stemmed mainly from how incredible the songs were on her last album Revival. Being a part of the LGBTQ community myself, I appreciate when an artist doesn’t pander to the LGBTQ community but rather lets the music organically gain fans. That’s what Selena has done beautifully.  

You’ve worked with other queer entertainers in the past. Why is it important for queer songwriters to work queer artists?

I’m so grateful to have been a part of Troye Sivan’s releases, from “Youth” to his recent “There For You” collaboration with Martin Garrix. It’s so freeing to write songs about boys with Troye and use male pronouns without having an ounce of hesitation. Troye and I, both being gay, means we have shared so many of the same experiences growing up and are able to translate them into lyrics we both connect with. It’s important for queer songwriters to work with queer artists, because we are able to put stories in the spotlight that are specific to our community.

What are some of your favorite songs you've written that you think deserve more recognition?

Some songs I’ve co-written that I think deserve more recognition are “Paper Love” by Allie X and “Ugly” by Jaira Burns. Both are amazing artists who should be superstars.  

How did you initially get into music and songwriting?

I got into songwriting when I went to Belmont University in Nashville. My college would have different showcase opportunities for artists in country, pop, R&B and other genres. Each person in my group of friends sang a different genre of music, and needed songs to perform. I took it upon myself to write or co-write those songs. It was my first taste of having other artists cut my songs, and I got a huge rush when I heard them performed for the first time.    

You'll be turning your songwriting success into your own solo career, similar to what Julia Michaels and Emily Warren have recently done. Is the songwriter-turned-solo-artist a new trend? Or are people just noticing it more?

I don’t think the idea of songwriters becoming solo artists is a new trend; it’s more that there are stories attached to these writers, which allows for greater exposure. Having support from artists we’ve written for is also really cool and speaks to the type of people we work with. Selena is a massive fan and supporter of Julia Michaels, as are The Chainsmokers to Emily Warren. There’s also an increase of focus on songwriters, thanks to programs like Spotify’s Secret Genius initiative.

When is your next solo song coming out and what is it about?

I’m putting out a new single called “Mattress” next Friday, July 21. “Mattress” is a song that I couldn't give away because I'm too connected to the story. It wrote itself in about 45 minutes, and most of that time was spent making sure the melody was right. I wrote the majority of the song with Jordan Palmer, who produced it, then brought it to Allie X to finish, because we basically work on everything together.

Who have been some high-profile people or celebs who have shared your songs on social media? And how did you react to them?

I was walking home from a bar with Troye when Taylor Swift posted about his EP Wild. That’s a moment that’s hard to describe, because it came from someone who he and I respect so much as a writer.

Sam Smith posting lyrics I wrote from Troye’s song “Bite” was also a really cool moment. I’m a big fan of Sam and his writing, so that was awesome.  

What else are you working on?

I recently worked on Sabrina Carpenter’s “Why.”  I also just finished scoring my first film with Bram Inscore called Sierra Burgess is a Loser. The film stars Emmy nominated actress Shannon Purser (Barb from Stranger Things) and features an original song in the movie I co-write with Troye Sivan, Allie X and Bram Inscore. The film will be out next year.

Now that “Fetish” is out, how do you feel the song is being received by fans?

I couldn't happier with how fans have reacted to the song. Selena has had so many incredible songs in her career, and my only hope for “Fetish” is that it continues that streak. I’m incredibly grateful to be a part of her story. Selena is an amazing artist and person, which makes this experience even better.