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Biloxi-born songwriter goes from catering for a Kardashian to being tweeted by TSwift

Leland performs at the Echo in Los Angeles on July 15, 2015.
Leland performs at the Echo in Los Angeles on July 15, 2015. Chad Elder Music Photography

The first time Brett McLaughlin heard his song was on the radio, he immediately called Sirius XM Radio to get a signal sent to his car, but it wasn’t working.

So he pulled over and kept trying.

“They were like ‘Open your door’ so I was opening my door driving like 10 mph down the highway, desperate to hear my song.”

Eventually, he heard “Hide Away” by Daya, which he — and a friend who happened to be in the car with him — helped write. It was a moment immediately captured in Snapchat videos to share with friends and family, a pattern that would be repeated several more times — when he heard it in the mall, in the gym, wherever.

The song is now playing on radios in his South Mississippi hometown, sometimes followed on air by an announcer declaring “written by Biloxi’s own Brett McLaughlin.”

The name may sound familiar. The Brett McLaughlin Band played in Coast venues while McLaughlin was in high school in the early 2000s. After graduating, he went into the music program at Belmont University in Nashville, then signed with EMI Music Publishing in Los Angeles as a songwriter.

He’s been in L.A. for five years, working “every job under the sun,” even as a caterer at Kim Kardashian’s (first) wedding.

It’s only been the past two weeks that McLaughlin’s been able to make a living solely as a songwriter, but it looks like that’s not changing any time soon.

“Hide Away” has so far peaked at No. 31 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 14 on the Pop chart.

That’s exciting, but not quite as exciting as when Taylor Swift tweeted that an EP he helped write was “STUNNING AND AWESOME.” EP is music lingo for an extended play album.

The EP was “Wild” by Troye Sivan (pronounced Troy Sivahn), a 20-year-old South African–born Australian and social media superstar with 3.8 million YouTube subscribers.

McLaughlin and Sivan were friends before they started writing songs together, and they were walking when the notification appeared on McLaughlin’s phone.

“I was like Troye, stop. He was like, ‘Who died?’ And I was like no one’s died, check your phone.”

“And then we just celebrated for the next two hours,” he laughed.

And TSwift’s not the only famous fan. Sam Smith tweeted lyrics from the song “Bite” and Adele had a fangirl moment during a video interview when she said she “burst into tears” after hearing Sivan had covered her song at a show. Also “Wild” was No. 1 on iTunes in 30 countries.

Sivan’s full-length album “Blue Neighbourhood” was named the top album of 2015 by the Associated Press, and his image graced the cover of Rolling Stone Australia this month.

McLaughlin said he helped write seven songs on “Neighbourhood,” including “Youth,” the single released to U.S. radio stations Friday.

“I am very excited for what is about to happen with him and I’m also just excited to be a part of his story because of what he is doing and the impression he is making at such a young age,” he said.

Part of that impression is being a young, openly gay musician — Sivan’s “Coming Out” YouTube video has 6.2 million views so far. But that doesn’t overshadow the music.

“What I am glad about is that sexuality doesn’t matter and it really doesn’t matter in this instance with Troye,” he said. “It’s purely the music that is pushing this project.”

“We’re not shoving an agenda down anyone’s throat, we’re just making honest music that is speaking to people universally.”

Working with an artist such as Sivan, writing love songs about boys that millions across the world have responded to, wasn’t even a distant dream when McLaughlin was growing up.

“I am now openly gay, and growing up in Mississippi, in a conservative part of the country, I was terrified, you know, but also confused,” he said. “And … I didn’t feel comfortable to talk to anyone about what was going on in my head.”

One place he did feel comfortable, though, was in the theater program at Ocean Springs High School.

McLaughlin was born on Keesler Air Force base into a military family, lived on the Coast for a while, then moved around — including a two-year stint in Italy — before coming back to Ocean Springs for middle and high school.

“Where I felt able to creatively express myself was with Mrs. (Sandra) Camphor,” the school’s theater teacher from 1995 until her retirement in December.

Camphor remembers McLaughlin’s performance in “The Serpent,” which garnered eight awards at the state competition and got the troupe to The Southeastern Theater Conference.

At the end of the play, he sang “From a Distance” a capella. It was closer to the straightforward Nanci Griffith version than Bette Midler’s embellished cover, Camphor said.

“He comes out on stage and there’s a spotlight on him, and he starts singing and it’s completely a capella and it’s beautiful,” she said. “It’s so soulful and it was so stunning that when he comes off stage and he comes up the middle aisle, all eyes are on him.

“It’s probably one of the most moving moments I’ve seen on stage, particularly for high school students.”

McLaughlin always knew he wanted to be a singer, but didn’t really figure out what that meant, or who he was, until college.

He started writing songs for himself and for friends entering Belmont’s talent showcases, which required original music. He wrote songs for all the categories: pop, country, urban, Christian, other.

“That was good training for me to become versatile as a songwriter and to adapt,” he said. “Because (now) every day I’m writing a different type of song.”

But he’s still a singer. His solo project Leland — his middle name and dad’s first name — has gotten some attention from his covers of “2 On” by Tinashe and “Run Away with Me” by Carly Rae Jepsen.

McLaughlin credits a diverse group of friends — both in high school and college — who introduced him to a wide variety of music as something that has influenced his songwriting. He switches from big-band records on his turntable to the top 40 on Spotify, and counts Jepsen, Swift, Rufus Wainwright and Robyn among his favorite artists.

“Listening to those types of things helps me to not overthink the songwriting process,” he said, adding that a common mistake for new songwriters is over-complicating songs.

“If you listen to the chorus on ‘Hide Away,’ it is insanely simple, so we had to not talk ourselves out of it.”

The simplicity seems to be working. He said people are starting to reach out to him, instead of the other way around, including in Nashville.

“The response in Nashville has been incredible because all I’ve wanted to do, even in Nashville going to college, was write country songs,” he said. “And it was very difficult to break into that small circle, but because of Troye I’ve been able to meet songwriters I’ve always dreamed of working with because they are fans of the project.”

He now splits his time between the Music City and L.A., and he’s experiencing more and more of what he calls surreal moments. He heard two songs he helped write play almost back to back on a Nashville radio station. And he watched Jimmy Fallon introduce Sivan performing “Youth” on “The Tonight Show,” a moment he had acted out many times in the car while listening to the song’s demo.

But he’s not satisfied. He has his sights set on having a song performed at the Grammy Awards one day.

“I feel like I’m just getting started,” he said. “This is the first year where I’ll get to write songs every single day, so I’m excited to see what happens.”

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