Leith Ross Is Here to Heal Listeners (and Stray Cats)

Winnipeg-based songwriter opens up about how viral fame has been "one of the hardest and most wonderful experiences I've ever had"

Photo: Meredith Truax

BY Heather Taylor-SinghPublished May 18, 2023

"I'm an involuntary cat sitter," Leith Ross declares during the middle of their interview with Exclaim!

Just before our call, the 24-year-old Ottawa-born/Winnipeg-based singer-songwriter was picking up a stray cat from their front door, a new norm for them. "Six months ago, there was a super nice stray cat hanging out on our porch, and we took her to the vet and they said they couldn't give her any shots because she was pregnant — and then all the shelters were full. [The cat] tricked us into this experience," they say laughing. 

Housing stray cats isn't the only community the artist has fostered. Ross has gained a steady following since their single "We'll Never Have Sex" went viral on TikTok in 2021. Over a year after the track's release, the video has over eight million views.

"It was probably one of the hardest and most wonderful experiences I've ever had," Ross says of the track's viral moment, "but I've had so many messages about this [song] helping people, so it definitely did feel worth it and meaningful." The effortlessly honest song, which unpacks queerness and the nuances of finding someone who unconditionally loves you, appears on Ross's debut album, To Learn (out May 19 on Republic Records).

Growing up, Ross says they were an obnoxiously musical child and a very performative toddler. "There's old [family] movies that we have of me doing shows in the living room. I would put on dresses and dance and sing — the whole thing," they recall. Their home was filled with music of all genres, but folk was a mainstay. They cite Corinne Bailey Rae's self-titled album and India Arie's Acoustic Soul as childhood favourites.

Ross's interest in music drew them to Humber College's jazz vocal program, where they learned the more technical side of musical theory. With this knowledge, they released their acclaimed 2020 folk EP, Motherwell, which was recorded in one afternoon "live from the floor," with the help of their peers. 

After college, they moved across the country to Winnipeg, where Ross says there's an extremely supportive music community. It's also where they wrote most of the tracks on To Learn. Ross describes the 13-song album as "sad folk songs with a little something. I would say, [the album is] a half step up from what used to be my comfort zone, sonically."

The album represents and evolution of Ross's usual process. "This new record is the first time that I've ever recorded [songs] over a long period of time and [was able to] go into the studio on different days and modify things. There was more flexibility for what the sonic landscape was going to be," they explain. To Learn feels cinematic, and is distinctly a departure from Motherwell. With the inclusion of soft drums and mellow-sounding guitars on tracks like "Guts" and "Too Much Time in My House Alone," Ross has levelled up.

While the traditional folk songs are prominent on the record, there is a newfound warmth to their voice and instruments, giving listeners the experience of having Ross coo into their ear.

"The time period that [the album] was written over, I felt like I learned the most that I've ever learned in my whole life — and not in a gentle way," they say. "It definitely felt like a really intense transition into adulthood because it was spanning the time period of being in college to then moving across the country and living on my own." 

A standout moment on To Learn is "Guts," which unpacks Ross's personal experience with sexual violence. Prior to the track's release, they issued a trigger warning on their social media. "Before, I would write songs about anything and release them, and then I would deal with the feelings afterwards," they say. "I've recently been making an effort to try to tell if it's going to be healing or if it's going to be a bit too vulnerable."

Having a social media presence makes this a tricky balance, but Ross, who was a self-proclaimed "gay kid on the internet," is figuring it out. "I do have a love-hate relationship with social media, but what I love is having access to people." Case in point: Ross' upbeat track about having an intense crush, "(You) On My Arm," has been used in hundreds of TikTok videos.

Their songwriting process is one of vulnerability and openness. "I'll have a feeling, and then I'll sit down with an instrument — usually everything happens at once, like lyrics, melody, guitar, and [a song] comes out in like, an hour or two," they explain.

Afterwards, Ross leaves the song in its raw form. "I always get this feeling that the Leith that wrote the song understands why they wrote the song better than Leith in the future does, and has better access to the feelings and to the intent," they reflect. 

As for Leith's future self, they will spend the coming weeks and months on the road, sharing these emotionally raw tracks with audiences worldwide. The road ahead excites and terrifies Ross, but their purpose remains the same: "My main dream has always been to help people, and if I can do that with music, that's the ultimate goal." 

Order To Learn on vinyl or CD here. Stream the album here.

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