Even on a mercilessly rainy spring afternoon, the line at The Fleece – an independent venue in the heart of Bristol – runs around the block. At the front of the queue stands this evening’s headline performer, Leith Ross, greeting fans who have chosen to stand through extreme weather for hours ahead of the show. Behind them, tiptoeing through piles of soggy fleece blankets, empty crisp packets, broken umbrellas and supermarket flowers, a security guard is handing out supersized plastic bags from a nearby building site – “makeshift ponchos,” he jokes to NME. “I can’t believe people put themselves through this for me,” exclaims a bright-eyed Ross, as blustery winds continue to sweep across the cobblestone streets.
Yet for this group of rain-soaked teenagers, battling the elements feels like the least they could do for their favourite artist. Ross, a Canadian singer-songwriter from Manotick, Ontario, has accrued a dedicated fanbase in thrall to music filled with sparkling galaxies of emotion: their songs are burdened with uncertainty and transition, and being young but feeling old. Fans see their own heartache in Ross’ thoughtful, if anguished storytelling, which serves as a reminder that the most striking perspectives often come from those who are underestimated. “Honest, I can tell you now / I love you more than my future spouse,” Ross sang on their 2020 single ‘I’d Have To Think About It’, a deceptively gentle paean to a summer romance that could sound right at home next to the catchy, unsparing indie-rock of Lucy Dacus or Julia Jacklin.
When NME brings that lyric up in conversation with Ross a few hours later, they shift their gaze to their feet, their cheeks suddenly aglow with mild embarrassment. “Oh my God. That line came out of me at a time when I couldn’t imagine ever feeling that way about anybody else in the world, I suppose,” they say, exhaling. “It’s funny how everything about my life is so different now. The way that I approach relationships has done a complete 180. Finding one person and settling down isn’t in my dreams anymore.”
In a hotel bar heady with the scent of coffee and burning candles, Ross is contemplative as they begin to unpack the life-changing few years they spent making their forthcoming debut album, ‘To Learn’ (due May 19). The 24-year-old has spent the last three days in Bristol rehearsing for a sold-out UK and European tour, alongside visiting some of the characterful pubs within the city’s queer nightlife scene with their backing band, which is made up of their closest friends.
The new record basks in the idea of this community, one that can sustain itself wherever Ross finds themselves in the world. At their gigs, each band member is given the opportunity to perform a track from their own respective solo projects, which is testament to the respect they have for each other as performers. “There is not one specific love song on my debut,” says Ross. “I think my priorities now lie with the people that I want to have around forever and form a family-like connection with, which can then be extended outwards.”
On ‘To Learn’, Ross is laying to rest years of moving towards self-acceptance, and letting go of the deep connections to place – particularly the idea of home – they explored on 2020’s ‘Motherwell’, which was recorded direct to tape in four hours. Named after the Scottish town in which Ross’ mother grew up, the mixtape asked questions about identity and belonging that felt both adolescent and eternal, which coincided with Ross coming out as trans non-binary.
Raised in the “conservative and cut-off” Manotick, which has a population of less than 5,000, Ross spent much of their free time on the internet, managing Ariana Grande and Doctor Who fan accounts on Twitter and Instagram while simultaneously using YouTube to learn more about relationships. They spent their teenage years spilling over with energy and desire, which they struggled to communicate without an outlet of expression in their hometown. “There was so much information I didn’t have access to, and so many life experiences I didn’t know anything about. The internet opened me up to the world – films, TV shows, the ‘Am I Gay?’ online quiz,” they say today, with a bashful laugh.
After finishing high school, Ross moved to Toronto, and enrolled at Humber College to study on a Jazz Vocal program. Ross speaks at full-pelt as they describe their ambivalence towards their degree; despite finally having the opportunity to mix with other musicians, living in Canada’s biggest city meant having to contend with its current rental crisis, where rates have risen by 24% on average in the past year alone. “It was really tough,” says Ross. “And college also wasn’t a super protective or encouraging environment. Every person who wasn’t a man was outnumbered by men by, like, 60 to 1.”
Following a stint at their childhood home during the pandemic, a post-graduation move to the quietly artsy Winnipeg would prove pivotal, leading to what Ross describes as a “radical and safe community.” They finally found their people. It’s here where they were able to write the majority of ‘To Learn’; album highlights like ‘(You) On My Arm’ and ‘Ask First’ are largely about finding compassion for yourself and your peers, chasing big feelings through invigorating guitar passages.
Yet it’s ‘We’ll Never Have Sex’ that truly succeeds in inducing secondhand catharsis. For Ross, the track is a reminder of the person they’ve become and the values they now cherish. They sing about wanting to be wanted just for being themselves, while pondering what physical intimacy means to them: “If I said you could never touch me / You’d come over and say I looked lovely.”
Ross explains: “I feel like probably every human being has a complicated relationship to sex, particularly if you’re queer, trans, have suffered any kind of sexual trauma, grew up in Catholicism – all of those apply to me.” They go on to suggest that writing the song was initially terrifying, but also akin to putting a live current through themselves. “Those lyrics are the most introspective I’ve ever been. It made me feel more emotionally responsible,” says Ross. They wrap up their point with a gentle nod and turn to look out the window, savouring a brief pause.
These lessons – particularly an openness to change, and communication – continue to inform ‘To Learn’. In March, Ross unveiled ‘Guts’, a strident reclamation of power that shows off the full breadth of their casually devastating voice. In a statement shared upon release, Ross disclosed that song is about their experience of sexual violence, something which they’re still figuring out how to talk about with other people today. But the chorus is so direct – “You wanted to say sorry / But I wanna see your body in a ditch” – that Ross felt overwhelmed by the way that their harrowing personal memories had entered a public space.
The day that ‘Guts’ was released, Ross threw a ‘distraction party’ with their closest friends in Winnipeg, where they switched off their phones, drank wine, played board games and avoided talking about the song entirely – helping Ross to get through this sudden, dark period of pain. “I had a really hard time releasing ‘Guts’,” Ross recalls, as tears begin to form in their eyes. “I really had to lean on the people who love me. At first, it all felt so intimidating, but then I started receiving messages from people who have been through a similar experience, and that was so touching.”
They continue: “With all traumatic events, you eventually hope that one day it will feel like a memory. The little twinge of pain doesn’t ever really go away, nor does the experience itself, but my biggest dream is that, in 10 years’ time, it will feel different.” Ross goes on to explain how, after acknowledging their trauma, they’ve since started searching for a new therapist. They speak slowly, exuding the aura of someone who has spent a long time sitting with their pain, and has finally worked to feel peace within themselves.
30 minutes after our interview wraps up, we head back to the venue so that the band can begin soundchecking. In between songs, Ross, donning a knitted hat with a Doctor Who Tardis on the front – a new, homemade gift from a fan – dances across the sticky floors with their friends. They start to lead a singalong of ‘Singin’ In The Rain’, clutching a pint glass like a microphone while everyone cheers in approval. The scene could be happening at any late-night party, but Ross looks truly free and content.
Leith Ross’ debut album ‘To Learn’ will be released on May 19 via Polydor/Republic Records
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