This interview is all that stands in the way of a trip to a cat café for Leith Ross. The Canadian songwriter is currently in Amsterdam preparing for their European tour, buoyed by the unexpected success of last year’s breathtakingly candid breakthrough single, ‘We’ll Never Have Sex’, which has thus far amassed circa 60 million streams on Spotify.
Despite the lure of cats, Leith is happy to explore the myriad of topics that are contained within their debut album 'To Learn' at length. The Ontario native has gained a reputation for being an astute lyricist thanks to their knack of demystifying unusual themes such as asexual love. The candour with which Leith Ross approaches such topics has stopped many people in their tracks, but for Leith, it’s the only way they know how to approach their life and songwriting even if it is scary at times.
“Honestly, opening up isn't the issue. I feel like in my personal life I'm such an open crybaby kind of a guy,” states Leith. “It's less the writing of the song that's hard and more when I get to the checkpoint of how I'm allowing it to be public information.”
“Writing it, and experiencing knowing that stuff about myself comes pretty easily and then on the day when it's being released, that's when I'm like, ‘What the hell am I doing?’
For Leith the weird part is not inviting strangers into their inner monologue. “It's more the acquaintances, people that I've known in elementary school or whatever who now all of a sudden know all of my deepest darkest secrets, which I would never tell them in real life.”
However, being so open doesn’t come without cost and they have had to develop a strong self-defence mechanism alongside their artistry. “I've had moments were I've released something and then realised I didn't want to and then I've had moments were I've written something and immediately I'm like, 'I'm not releasing that - that one is staying with me.'”
“I had no idea, there was no part of me that was like this will be the one,” declares Leith when we enquire if they foresaw the success of ‘We’ll Never Have Sex’. “It was more like, there's no way I'll ever release this…”
Leith put the success of ‘We’ll Never Have Sex’, which they popped online on a whim, down to the universe. “I posted it twenty minutes after I wrote it because I was like, ‘It's summertime, it's Covid, I'm bored’, so I put it online and over the course of the next three months everything went crazy.”
“I had no plans to record it at all. I just thought it was this little ditty and here we are...it was through a massive amount of cyberbullying, kind cyberbullying, but cyberbullying nonetheless and then we released it.”
‘We’ll Never Have Sex’ stands out from the crowd in the current wave of sad folk because it tackles complex issues with intimacy and has since become an anthem for the asexual community.
“The song was written about, definitely some feelings of asexuality but also a whole bunch of other things,” explains Leith who identifies as non-binary, queer, transgender. However, while such a topic may stand out as being anomalous to the straight world, to Leith Ross such feelings are almost mundane in their regularity.
“It always feels like the songs that resonate the most with people are the ones that I feel are the most obvious to me and almost the most borderline boring because I'm like, ‘This is just a feeling I have’, but I guess it makes sense in the long run that those would be the ones that resonate with people because we're all just basically living the same life in some ways, so it would make sense that the same things would resonate.”
“I go to that YouTube comments section when I need a good cry,” notes Leith Ross, who is visibly moved when we mention how incredibly open and expressive the reaction from fans has been to the video, which has over 1.2 million views on YouTube.
Leith Ross’ love of music stems from their Scottish grandfather who imbued his love of folk music at every opportunity.
“He could play six instruments but couldn't read sheet music. He just had these crazy ears and just loved it. So, my whole childhood he's just be like playing the fiddle in the corner.
"To this day my favourite music is to listen to is old Celtic stuff. So, I would say that's my main inspiration and some old folk tunes from North America."
And Leith Ross is quite taken with the current crop of Irish trad acts such as Lankum. “I feel like I've been waiting for this moment where all of a sudden all these people are recommending new trad bands to me and I'm like, ‘This is the best thing ever.’”
In fact, the connection with trad/folk music runs so deep that Leith plans to explore it on record in the future. “I really wanna do a trad folk record where it's just acoustic folk music.”
“When I do that, I definitely want to be doing it In Ireland. I wouldn't want to be doing it anywhere else,” they add.
And you shouldn’t take such assertions for granted as Leith Ross truly has a deep affection for Ireland, which alongside their love of trad/folk music stems in part from the other great musical lighthouse in their life, John Prine, who lived in Clare for many years.
Leith Ross received the inaugural John Prine songwriter fellowship in 2022, an honour she describes as winning a "Grammy times twenty". Receiving such an accolade so early in their career can break many a young artist.
“The pressure I experienced only lasted for like a second and it was kind of like, ‘Oh ooh, I have to prove myself worthy of this’, but then I had this moment where I was like, ‘This is not what John would want’.
“I feel like he is one of the artists that really taught me about how not to take myself too seriously, not take the world too seriously, like just have a good time and have fun. His lyrics are so clever but they are also so funny, and he was just so observant about the world, and he would never want me to feel that way.
“In the end it just kind of ended up inspiring me, plus, it's the coolest thing that's ever happened to me so my career can only go down from here and I mean that in a positive way. I feel like I've won the Grammy times 20 and now I can just relax and have a good time.”
This connection to John was further cemented when they came to Ireland for the first time.
“My sibling and I were trying to find a place to stay for a little bit in the countryside after we'd finished our show in Dublin because we just wanted to explore.
“We just picked this random little thatched roof cottage. We didn't even know what part of the country it was in, we were just like we'll get a train we'll find a way to get there,” explains Leith.
“And this lovely local woman takes us on a hike, and it just so happens that this was the town where john lived… and we had no idea, we picked it totally by accident, so it was one of these crazy universe things.
"So, then I got to hear from this community of people living in County Clare about how he would play in the local pub and just so many stories about him and his lovely wife Fiona - who is an angel. It's amazing it's a huge honour and I feel like Ireland specifically is such a special place to experience that.”
Following the success of subsequent singles ‘Orlando’, ‘Guts’ and ‘(You) On My Arm', Leith Ross released their debut album ‘To Learn’, which taps into the sadder side of coming-of-age, earlier this year to critical acclaim.
“I feel like the song is such a good overarching description [of the album] even in the timeline order of how it felt to experience all the things I wrote the record about,” says Leith, considering why they chose to name the album after that song.
“…it's just so easy to feel like the world is beating you while you're down and then when I wrote To Learn, I had the realisation that as much as it sucks, I am learning so much about myself and about what I want to do and who I want to be and so it is a blessing in disguise, even if it feels horrible.
“So, I think it's the perfect encapsulation of the record, yeah, there's some really sad songs and, obviously, I wrote about some stuff that was really hard to go through, but in the end, it does feel worth it to grow up a little bit and learn more things."
Leith Ross plays Vicar Street this Friday (Nov 3rd). Tickets from €25.00