Leon Else began recording music at the age of 12, using his creativity as an escape from his rocky upbringing in the U.K. He scrapped and saved to send himself to dance school where he became a talented ballerino, but ultimately decided to pursue music, releasing a series of songs online. In 2018, Else was properly introduced to the scene when the popular Netflix show 13 Reasons Why featured his moody, lovestruck single “My Kind of Love.”
Else, now 27, out of the closet and living in LA, is reclaiming his independence as an artist and as an individual, with his poignant and deeply personal music video for his newest single, “Beautiful World” (premiering below). Unlike the music videos of today, Else has forgone stylization and digital wizardry in favor of vlog entries from his phone and laptop.
The string of clips shows Else struggling with (at that time undiagnosed) bipolar disorder. One moment he’s sobbing into the camera; the next laughing hysterically. His moods shift and change rapidly and often at random, leaving him confused, lonely, and with a face often bruised from crying. Yet there are bright days and more balanced times, and when Else can poke his head above water he has words of wisdom to share with viewers.
Billboard spoke with Else about his love for Amy Winehouse, his struggles with mental health and coming out, and how he’s doing now.
Where are you finding musical inspiration right now?
She’s a kind of all the time inspiration for me, but definitely Amy Winehouse. I fell in love with her the first time I heard her…. That brutal honesty in her lyrics… She talked so openly about people trying to maker her go to rehab, at a time when I feel like no one on the radio was singing about stuff like that. She’s such an inspiration, and I try to emulate that honesty — I try to be as open with my lyrics as she was with hers. Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, we all go through pretty similar struggles in life, but sometimes it takes someone to stand up and sing about it to get everyone else to talk about. We owe her for that.
What’s the inspiration behind “Beautiful World”?
I made “Beautiful World” before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It was about me being in a really, really bad place. It was a really dark time. The song is inspired by the experiences of handling the terrible ups and downs of mental illness. I just felt so completely alone during that time, and since it was before I was diagnosed I really didn’t know what was going on with me. I was really confused, scared. But the song reminds you that, yes, there will be cloudy days but there will also be sunny days, and you have to always remember that even though you’re having a hard time right now it's still a beautiful world… above the clouds are always blue skies, you know?
Speaking of focusing on better days ahead, can you talk about your coming out experience?
It was really, really, really tough for me. I think there's a misconception out there that you come out and it's all rainbows and unicorns. There's all these new lovely videos on YouTube showing kids coming out to their parents and their parents are all happy and accepting. I think that's great, people should not be afraid anymore to come out. But the reality is that it’s not always like that. Sometimes, coming out starts a journey of healing.
I grew up in a dysfunctional household and was abused by my stepdad. I was bullied a lot at school. So it wasn’t easy coming out for me. Coming out unlocked a lot of things for me. I went to therapy for the first time in my life and talked about everything. The sexual abuse, the mental health struggles, the closeted sexuality. All of it. But I still think about it all the time… is the record label going to judge me? Will my fans judge me? Will they still like me and buy tickets to my shows? I actually became suicidal after I came out, so… Sometimes it will get worse before it gets better.
And how are you now?
Now I’m doing better, but it’s a mental health journey.
How did you decide to make this video like it is? So raw?
The video is a collection of vlog entries i had made when i was really going through it. So you see what's happening to me in the moment. Sometimes I’m crying, sometimes I’m laughing. There’s a clip of me freaking out and basically sobbing before getting on stage at a Pride event, having to act like I’m so happy to be there and relaxed and full of pride when actually, as you can see, I was a total mess.
I don't know why I filmed all of the clips at the time, I guess it was because I just felt so alone. I thought vlogging was like talking to someone. And at the time of these clips I was also going through a breakup with the person who I had come out of the closet for, so it was genuinely one of the hardest times in my life. So it just felt more genuine to make a video like this that matches the tone of the song. It’s not stylized. I wanted to show people what was really happening with me. I just thought, "Fuck it. Let’s do something real."
What kind of advice would you give to others grappling with mental health issues?