When he moved to Los Angeles in 2012, Brett McLaughlin had never heard of RuPaul’s Drag Race. A recent graduate from Belmont University’s school of music looking to make it as a singer-songwriter, McLaughlin (known now by his stage name Leland) says he didn’t learn about the show until his friend Lucian Piane, who worked as a composer and guest judge on the show at the time, invited him to a watch party.
At that same watch party, McLaughlin met Freddy Scott, a fellow songwriter. The pair quickly formed a bond, as Scott tells Billboard, that would help define their professional future. “It just kind of serendipitously came together that we were at the same party, and we vibed and we joked around together,” Scott says.
Now, almost 10 years later, the pair are a major songwriting force on Drag Race, penning original tracks that range from rap cyphers to sugary pop jams, all to help challenge the queens of the show to access their inner diva.
Starting in season 9 of the show with “Kardashian: The Rusical,” Scott and McLaughlin have been behind some of the franchise’s most successful songs, including songs like “Drag Up Your Life” (All Stars season 3), “I’m That Bitch” (season 12), “Break Up (Bye Bye)” (Drag Race UK season 1), “UK, Hun?” (Drag Race UK season 2), and most recently “Lucky” (season 13), which the pair are currently submitting for consideration at the Emmy Awards.
McLaughlin describes the difficulty of the gig: Every season, Scott and McLaughlin will be approached by the producers of the show to put together a musical number — one that could be a single song with queens performing their own verses, or an entire, seven minute musical. “In seven minutes, we will go from doing an R&B song, to a pop song, to an operatic song, to a Julie Andrews Sound of Music [number] to country and every other genre,” he says. “It really requires not being precious with your work, moving quickly and not second guessing.”
But from the perspective of a songwriter, that simple fact can also make working on Drag Race exceedingly fun. Scott points out that being given what essentially amount to writing prompts from the show’s producers allows him and McLaughlin to work on and produce songs that they wouldn’t get the opportunity to work on otherwise.
“That is one of the greatest things about working on the show — that it allows you as a musician, as a songwriter, and just as a fan of music to get to include all of your inspirations, all of your love of different music in your work,” Scott says.
For a song like “Lucky,” the season 13 finale number performed by top four queens Gottmik, Kandy Muse, Rosé and Symoné, McLaughlin says the writing process began with RuPaul offering the inspiration of a ’50s-era twist-and-slide song, which the pair took and ran with. As they mapped out the different lyrics for Ru and the orchestrations for the queens’ verses, McLaughlin says that he immediately knew what his two jobs were in putting this song together.
“Our job description at RuPaul’s Drag Race is, one, to make Ru laugh, and two, to make the queens look good,” he says. “No matter who the queen is, no matter where they come from — our job, when we press record in the 15 minutes we have with them, is to make them look and sound as good as possible. We want them to leave the main stage or the hotel conference room feeling confident and excited to get into drag the next day and perform the song.”
Those performances, mixed with careful and well-considered songwriting, is what Scott says makes songs like “Lucky” take on a life of their own outside of the show. “I think one of the main things that we’re going for is longevity with this music. It’s not, ‘Hey, remember that one episode?’ It’s something that should last in the drag community, and should last in their careers,” he says. “It’s challenging. And it’s very rewarding when it works out on a song specifically like ‘Lucky’ where all four finalists have such different vibes, but together they form this Voltron of pop excellence.”
The pair have also experienced what it means to see their songs go viral — earlier this year, their song “UK, Hun?” written for the cast of Drag Race UK season 2, saw a massive spike on TikTok. The single, performed by the “United Kingdolls” (contestants Lawrence Chaney, Bimini Bon-Boulash, A’Whora and Tayce), quickly gained steam on streaming platforms and in sales, rocketing it up to No. 27 on the U.K.’s Official Singles Chart, and even earning a No. 2 spot on Billboard‘s U.K. Digital Song Sales chart.
Scott attributes the burst of success for the song to the performances of the four queens, and to the fans of the UK seasons, who he says were more than ready to have a song they could call their own. “The UK audience has had this excitement surrounding the show, like, ‘Finally, it’s our turn,'” he says. “And then it just exploded. So that was just so fun — but it was icing on the cake that we already have, the cake being our jobs and how fun and how incredible it is to do this.”
For McLaughlin, writing with stars like Selena Gomez, Ava Max, Troye Sivan and more have been career-defining opportunities — but working alongside RuPaul and the team at World of Wonder is what he says gives him the most joy in his career. “For us to get to spend time with these legends, it’s so incredible,” he says. “I consider them mentors and teachers whose whole lives have been one big practice of activism, you know? I do not say it on purpose, but we are so lucky to be able to work with RuPaul and Tom Campbell (head of development at World of Wonder).”
Furthermore, Scott says that being able to write music for drag artists that can become highly successful, especially when drag artists rarely see such success in the music industry, is a gift. “It’s so amazing to see these absolutely ridiculously talented queens shine the way they’re supposed to and get the recognition they deserve,” Scott says, smiling.
As for the future, McLaughlin says he shows no signs of stopping anytime soon, as he wants to continue producing fun, funny music that fans of the show will keep listening to for years to come. “We want the songs from RuPaul’s Drag Race to feel like the best hit of poppers you’ve ever had in your life,” he says with a giggle, before exclaiming once more: “Wow, I still can’t believe this is my job.”