Conan Gray: “I made the album with the intention of wanting to surprise people”

Conan Gray is embracing vibrant new horizons as he meets his prime pop potential with ‘Found Heaven’.

Words: Neive McCarthy.

Even when you think you’ve seen and felt it all, something new is always around the corner. Life is full of surprises, good and bad, and there comes a point where you have to embrace that – which is what Conan Gray is learning to do. Delivering his unexpectedly poptastic third album ‘Found Heaven’, Conan returns victorious and growing with each track. A world away from its predecessors, ‘Found Heaven’ is a surprise, for sure.

“I think it’s hilarious,” Conan smiles. “I made the album with the intention of wanting to surprise people and giving people something they weren’t expecting. Now that it’s here, I’m like, ‘What if it’s not what they’re expecting?’ I very much did what I was hoping.” 

For those expecting more of the melancholic worlds of ‘Kid Krow’ and ‘Superache’, ‘Found Heaven’ might be a bit of a shock to the system. It’s a vibrant, technicolour jaunt through synth-heavy havens and dancefloor tears. Still, some things never change – for Conan, the nerves around the album’s release remain even four years on from his first. As he has always done, Conan has crafted an album cut from his very core – the inner workings of his mind and feelings are lit by the disco ball at the album’s centre. It joins a parade of albums documenting his life and career, each new experience cast under that glow.

“It’s really weird because I have time capsules of when I was 17, and also now at 25 – it’s a whole life recorded in music,” muses Conan. “Music is such a powerful descriptor that when I hear songs that I recorded when I was 17, it brings tears to my eyes because I can hear him; I can hear that version of me. This album is a little bit funny because it was the best time of my life and also the worst time of my life. Subconsciously, you can hear the songs I wrote at the worst time and the songs I wrote when I was really fucking happy.”

Born from a time that arguably saw the most change in Conan’s life so far, ‘Found Heaven’ is built on a narrative of new emotions – falling in love, having your heart crushed, navigating life in your twenties. Each scenario brought something fresh, something unrecognisable, and the result of those experiences were transformative for Conan. When it came to actually making the album, the experience in itself felt new in different ways, too. Such an unfamiliar time in his life bled into the sound, transforming Conan’s artistry into something new and fresh, too.

“I never really thought I would make three albums. I never thought I would make one album, to be completely frank,” reflects Conan. “When I was faced with making it, there’s just no blueprint. With your debut album, you kind of know what you’re supposed to do – you’re establishing yourself, saying hello. Your second album continues with that. With your third album, there’s no blueprint of what to do. I knew that, and since I had the opportunity to make something, I thought I’d just make something different. 

“The album ended up being this capsule and very much being a concept album. It’s very unanimous. I don’t know what my next music will sound like; I know it won’t sound like my old music. It’s this beautiful bubble of this time in my life. I really wanted to surprise myself and make myself laugh – laugh at everything that happened and smile at it and not feel like the music has to sound miserable just because it was. Now, when I look back at it, it’s all hilarious to me.”

With the tools to reconcile this new version of himself and find some beauty amongst the pain, ‘Found Heaven’ proved to be a deeply invigorating experience. It became a source of light in the dark – a way to spin these things to alleviate the heaviness of those feelings and became an act of excavation.

“Writing music is my main way of processing all emotions,” explains Conan. “By the time a song comes out, I’ve usually healed past what I’m talking about. It was a huge healing thing, and I’ve never felt stranger in my life than when I was making this album. I was in this headspace that was so different than I’d ever felt before, and I was experiencing all these new emotions for the very first time. I was falling in love, then I was heartbroken all of a sudden – there were all of these crazy mixtures of things. Writing has helped me feel past it but brings up other aspects all the time. It’s weird because you write about these things, you feel better, and then you sing the song six months later, and you’re like, ‘Wait, ouch, that kind of still hurts’. It’s a weird thing.” 

That pain is laid out on these tracks but made more palatable and lighter by the sheer scope of the sonics – it’s like nothing Conan has done before, dazzling, larger-than-life iterations of pop that see Conan take on a new role. He acts as a kind of ringleader, masterfully commanding the stage and handling his emotions with care until the raw pain eases into a dull ache. Of course, such a change of pace took considerable work for Conan to achieve.

“I’ve never felt stranger in my life than when I was making this album”

conan gray

“It was hard because I had to completely deconstruct all the things that I’ve defined myself as,” he considers. “I think that’s kind of your twenties in general. It’s taking all the things you think you are and challenging them and being like, is this really who I am, or is this just who I told myself I am? And so, with the album, every time I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t do that, I don’t make this kind of music’, I was like, but why? I had to see. This whole album is me thinking, why don’t I do this? Let’s think about that. It was all about trying something different. It wasn’t this wild, throwing myself to the wind, who gives a fuck. I really give a fuck – let’s really think about why I am the way I am.” 

In diligently getting to the root of who he was and what he might yet be, Conan managed to capture a freedom in the sounds of the album. In true Conan Gray style, there’s no shortage of lyrics that make you feel like someone has just taken a hammer to your heart. Before, he might have seemed to be languishing in those moments, but here, it feels like he is set free just by uttering those feelings that have festered.

“It’s strange because this is the first time that I’ve made an album and been really torn about what I should say because when you’re going through a breakup, there’s so many things that you don’t say. Now, I’ve said that because they’re on the album.” 

“You can never really get closure from a person,” says Conan. “There’s only so much closure someone can give you – you have to give yourself the closure; that’s the only way at the end of the day. That’s the thing about getting over things. You never get over something. You just become a different person. Everything that you do forever changes you, and I feel forever changed.”

‘Killing Me’ is filled with hurt, pleading to be set free from this situation, but in setting those anguished words to this neon-lit, synth-laden soundscape, he seems to almost unchain himself. He says his piece and does so in a way that you can’t help but dance to, despite everything that has led to it. With a permanent shift going on internally, his artistry needed to reflect that.

“I wanted to make the sound so different because I felt really different. I was in a completely foreign part of my life that I, one, never expected myself to be in, and two, didn’t know how to handle at all. There were all these feelings I had never felt before, and I needed to bottle them into something I could see so I could understand it. I needed to make an album that represented how this feels so that I can pick apart why I feel this way.”

“This album is me thinking, why don’t I do this?”

conan gray

A space to share his narrative, not mince his words, and find genuine joy in channelling these things proved invaluable for Conan. In a lot of ways, it’s a reclamation of power. Yes, someone might have caused hurt and pain, but in allowing himself the space to accept and then understand that there is some victory to be found – even if it just lies in finding some peace. ‘Found Heaven’ doesn’t shy away from those feelings in the slightest, no matter what form: ‘Winner’ is a declaration of hurt in every note, ‘Miss You’ is an upfront echoing of regret. There is no dilution, and there is something truly empowering to be found in that.

“It’s definitely about embracing those emotions,” Conan confirms. “Instead of looking at those emotions and being scared of them, it’s about being like, what a great thing that I got to experience that. I got my heart totally wrecked when I was making this album, and instead of being like, ‘Fuck you, this fucking sucks’, I’m so happy that I got to experience that. For so many years of my life, I hid in my bedroom, I didn’t do anything, I never put myself out there, and I never dated anyone. Then something happened to me, and I thought, wow, it’s time to stop wasting my life. I’ve got to experience these things; I’ve got to try and fail and make mistakes. The worst thing that can happen in any of these situations is that things don’t go the way you want. Just because something doesn’t go the way you want doesn’t mean that it’s not exactly what was supposed to happen. This whole album was a challenge of shut the fuck up, get over yourself, try some things.” 

That attitude lent itself to creating the sonic world for ‘Found Heaven’ – one that expanded outwards, played with range and saw Conan working with a range of big-name producers to inject a freshness to match his new outlook. Max Martin, Greg Kurstin and Shawn Everett all made their mark on the album, ensuring those new experiences were documented musically. 

“It was a very, very interesting experience because it was all very new to me. I knew I wanted to work with a bunch of different people to just push myself. I’m someone who gets so stuck in comfort zones. This whole album was about pushing myself out of my comfort zone, so I knew I wanted to work with different people and see what would happen. It was a huge learning experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was so, so cool to see what I would do. It felt like conducting an orchestra. Every person I worked on the album with had a very different skill – putting them all together to try to make an album that was cohesive was a really fun challenge.”

In working with such a variety of talented producers, Conan was able to unlock sides of himself that he might not have otherwise. Across the album, his vocals bend, pushed to the limits of his range and morphing him into a different kind of talent. Conan commands each track, with the energetic, electric instrumentals a weapon he wields expertly. It’s an unlocking of true pop potential, spilling out masterfully. 

“I’d always really wondered what would happen if I made an album like this,” recalls Conan. “I think younger Conan would find it all really entertaining. A true pop album like this and an album that really pushes me to do something larger than myself, has always been a question I’ve had. I didn’t know what that would look like – I just had to try it and see what would happen.”

In letting go of those ideas that might have held him back and allowing himself to become encompassed in the possibilities of what might happen, Conan has poured more of himself into the album than ever before. ‘Kid Krow’ and ‘Superache’ were innately personal and from the heart, but here it feels like Conan has truly relinquished himself to this project. Existing in the world of ‘Found Heaven’ has seemingly been an immersive, enveloping experience. 

“It was a pretty tumultuous time of my life, and I’m excited that the period of making the album is over and I just get to live it. I’m excited to get to play the songs for people and not have them festering in my bones anymore. There’s a lot of anticipation when you’re waiting for an album to come out. As long as these songs are only being heard by me, then I’m still dealing with the emotions. Once they’re out, they get to be redefined. They take on new meanings that don’t have anything to do with the specific people I wrote them about; it’s kind of a relief.” 

“Shut the fuck up, get over yourself, try some things”

conan gray

There’s no doubt, however, that Conan’s interest in how they will be redefined will not wane. With an intimately close relationship with the fans who have followed his career from the very beginning, he has, in fact, already had the opportunity to see some of those reimaginings – at a special listening party for some of his oldest supporters, he ensured they were some of the very first to hear ‘Found Heaven’.

“It was so special,” Conan says. “I was really emotional during it because a lot of these people are people that watched me grow up, but I don’t think they realised that I also watched them grow up. I’ve known some of these people since I was in high school, and they were in high school. It’s a crazy thing. I knew that the first people I wanted to play the music to were the people who actually listened to the music. We had a lot of fun, drank hot chocolate and coffee in a cabin in the woods, and listened to the songs. They’re going to be brutally honest with me, and it was really fun to see their experiences. I know them really well, and they’ve been a fixture of my life since I was 17 or 18, so it was really special.” 

From his early days of releasing originals on YouTube, to ‘Crush Culture’ and now to tracks on the album like ‘Alley Rose’, Conan has offered a vulnerability and an openness in his music that has resonated with his fanbase. The journey he has been on throughout the making of ‘Found Heaven’ will be familiar to many of them. Conan acknowledges how re-examining who you are, having your heart crushed, picking yourself up and dancing again are all hallmarks of your twenties. In as much the way Conan has a time capsule for each phase of his life, his listeners too, have these moments attached to his songs, immortalised in their own way.

“I just write about my life, and I consider myself a pretty fucking normal person – I don’t think I’m some fucking miracle,” laughs Conan. “I know that the things that I go through are things that other people go through. I started writing songs because I’ve always felt generally pretty alone and lonely. As I’ve written more and more songs, I’m starting to realise that I’m really not alone at all. Everything I’ve ever been through, even if it’s extremely niche, there are millions of people who have been through the exact same thing. There’s been a lot of comfort in finding out that I’m just very much not special at all. I love that about writing songs. This album is another part of that. It sounds different, and it looks different, but I know at the end of the day, they’re just emotions that everyone has felt.”

Ultimately, that’s the magic of ‘Found Heaven’ – and perhaps the found heaven itself. There are going to be difficult, dark times, and there are going to be moments of despair, but there is a real beauty in feeling those things so deeply and knowing that you are not the only person to have experienced these things. There’s something heavenly in reaching that point, and that’s what Conan stumbles upon here. It might be gut-wrenching at times, but his new music feels celebratory; there are still things to be experienced and felt, and they have the potential to change you again and again. ‘Found Heaven’ is a surprising turn, but the way the last few years have changed Conan Gray leaves him at his most powerful – brave, bright and better equipped to navigate whatever his next steps might look like.

Taken from the April 2024 issue of Dork. Conan Gray’s album ‘Found Heaven’ is out 5th April.


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