Conan Gray: Star boy

Debut album 'Kid Know' made Conan Gray a star. Now, with its follow up approaching, he's determined to keep it real.

Debut album ‘Kid Krow’ made Conan Gray a star. Now, with its follow up approaching, he’s determined to keep it real.

Words: Ali Shutler. Photos: Dillon Matthew.

“My life is extremely bizarre,” says Conan Gray. “I can’t imagine a lot of the things that I do day to day are very relatable.” He’s right. A few minutes ago, he was packing for a last-minute trip to Italy (business, not pleasure). When he later posts highlights of it on Instagram, over a million people like the clips of him at high-end luxury fashion show Saint Laurent. Then there’s the obvious oddity of being interviewed for the cover of a magazine. “There are a lot of things that I do that would be strange for most people,” he continues.

Despite the shift to multi-million streaming cover artist who can count the likes of Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish as fans, Conan Gray is still the sort of musician who can jab at your heart with a ballpoint pen. Debut album ‘Kid Krow’ came early last year, establishing him as a relatable Gen Z superstar, while the three very different tracks that we’ve heard since see him just as honest, just as vulnerable, and still talking to us like a best friend.

“A lot of the things that have changed in my life are things that have made me so self-conscious, nervous or really introspective about life. Other things have been really joyful and made me want to dance around. The emotions are very much the same as what I’ve always written about. I don’t think it matters what your life is like; everyone relates to just being a human, and I’m just another human in very strange circumstances.”

Conan Gray has always found himself out of his comfort zone, though. With his parents divorcing when he was three and his dad in the military, Conan moved homes twelve times throughout his childhood. “Do I look like I ever fit in?” he asks us today before admitting that, “I’ve tried so hard my whole life to chameleon. I got as good at it as I could have for my racial circumstances. I was one of very few Asians at my school in the middle of Texas, so automatically, no matter what I did and no matter how much Hollister I wore, I was not going to fit in.” To answer his own question, “I’ve never fit in. I’ve always been the new kid, and it’s funny to me now (though probably wasn’t at the time) because in school, people used to think I was mean because I was so standoffish. I still hear people say that today, but I’m not mean; I’m just terrified of you. It’s just social anxiety.”

Despite his best intentions, “I do a really bad job of fitting in, so I’ve just accepted the fact that I look like a walking mop, and I’m bad at socialising. That’s just what I am, and that’s fine.”

That isolation is why Conan turned to the internet as a teenager. At the start of 2013, he uploaded a short clip entitled Let Me Introduce Myself to YouTube. Other videos followed that showed off his baking (5 Minute Chocolate Cake), his family and his day-to-day life. There were Ukulele-backed covers of Adele, Ariana Grande and The Beatles alongside original songs. Over three years after he started, he reached 100,000 subscribers, but it was never about being famous. “It was always about wanting to be less alone. I was a very lonely kid, and I didn’t have many friends growing up just because I was always moving around. But the internet was a consistent place where I could talk to people. I just grew up online.”

According to his mum, Conan started singing when he was two and never really stopped. When he was 15, he had to stop talking about his dream of one day getting a record deal (“maybe everything I’ve ever wanted my entire life”) during a YouTube video because it was too overwhelming. Again though, it was never about fame, fortune and megastardom.

“I’ve always felt strange, and one of the main reasons why I started writing music was because I never knew how to relate to people. I never knew how to get people to understand how I was feeling, but writing music suddenly became this way that people could understand me. For the first time, it felt like I was heard.” Music, Conan explains, “was a language that I knew how to speak. It’s funny how many times I sit down to write a song and say something that I didn’t even know I was feeling until it came out of my mouth. I write music to relate to other people and to understand myself.”

Despite years plugging away on YouTube, the first time Conan really connected with others was ‘Idle Town’. Released in 2017, it was recorded in his bedroom and was initially written as a love song. “I was really into this person, and the song [then called ‘Stay ‘Til Midnight’] was very sappy. It basically said, ‘I have such a big crush on you’, but then that person destroyed my heart and made me feel like a sack of burning shit.” But from those faecal-laced flames rose a bedroom pop phoenix. 

“The music is very introspective and about things like life, fate and soulmates because I can’t stop thinking about those things”

Conan Gray

“I was so sad, so I changed all the lyrics with a real ‘Fuck you, this song isn’t about you anymore’ energy. It’s now a love song for all my friends in my hometown. It’s a love song about being from the suburbs, being a normal kid and loving your friends and the shenanigans you get up to.” He put it on the internet, not caring if anyone liked it, “but it was crazy to see how many people related to that song about growing up in a small town. Even if you don’t think people will relate to your music, there’s a chance they might.” 

The song saw him sign a record deal with Republic Records and was one of the first times that Conan believed he could write music beyond a high school hobby. “It was one of those moments where I thought maybe making music was doable. It changed my life.”

Today though, despite being a lifelong Swiftie, he isn’t sure if he wants that same level of stadium attention that she inspires. “It seems really intense. Legitimately, my only mission with my career is to make good music that people relate to. I just love to make music, and I’ll do whatever I need to do in order to do it for the rest of my life. I’ll always write music, though, even if no one cares.”

People do care, however. After debut EP ‘Sunset Season’ came in 2018, Conan released his debut album ‘Kid Krow’ in 2020. Written about just three people, its confessional lyrics and brooding cinema pop soon resonated with a world in lockdown.

He finds it weird it’s only been out 16 months because of how long he’d spent making it. “Some of those songs I wrote when I was still a teenager, so it’s interesting. I feel like my life has changed so much since I wrote those songs, and the world has obviously changed so much as well.”

Going into his debut, Conan “wanted the album to be a representation of who I was at the time. In the end, the album ended up being about growing up, being young and figuring your life out as well as those first experiences of love and heartbreak. I didn’t really have a plan, and there’s not really a theme with that album; it’s just like a series of diary entries.”

“[The album] is just as honest as I could possibly be,” explains Conan, who thinks that’s why it’s connected with so many people. “The music that I enjoy is real and truthful. I just tried to be honest with myself and with the music.” It also resonated because Conan never diminishes his emotions. Critics might call it melodramatic, but they’d be forgetting how apocalyptic those teenage heartbreaks can feel.

“That’s just how I am; I feel things a lot. I’m young, and when you’re young, everything feels so over the top and so ridiculous. Every small thing feels like your life is ending because a lot of the time, it’s your first experience feeling that emotion.”

‘Kid Krow’ took a lot of influence from the underground world of emo and alt-rock but didn’t shy away from big pop moments either. “I try not to restrict myself too much when it comes to genres. I don’t think people really care too much about genres anymore, anyway. The album is very all over the place, and it’s been my intention with all my music to just make each song exactly what it needs to be. Maybe one day I’ll make a really cohesive project, but that won’t happen in the near future.”

“I’m young, and when you’re young, everything feels so over the top and so ridiculous”

Conan Gray

The two breakout songs from ‘Kid Krow’ sit at opposite ends of what Conan creates. ‘Maniac’ taps into the uptempo, tropical pop that’s been Justin Bieber’s bread and butter in recent years. “It’s such a fun song, and the reaction was unlike anything I’d experienced before. I started to think maybe people just want fun songs from me.”

A few months later, though, “the most horribly depressing, painful song outperforms it”. ‘Heather’ was written about unrequited love and jealousy to the point that Heather has now become slang for someone prettier, more talented and more liked than you. 

The song doing so well “was actually really cathartic and validating because it was so special and so personal to me. I’ll have these moments where I really lose faith in the music, where I know none of it matters and think it’s all contrived, but then a song like that will connect, and I’ll think maybe there’s still some truth and real emotion in this world.”

Following the success of those very different tracks, Conan is free to carry on doing whatever he fancies, knowing that people will respond. It has, however, made things even more confusing. “Now I just have to do stuff and see what sticks.” With his new album, “I’m still in that middle ground of not quite knowing what I want to do, so I think I’ll just end up doing the same thing, where I do it all.”

Now, a moment of your time to address the elephant in the room. Conan Gray’s new album? Still not finished. Despite what some hardcore Coneheads (not the official fan name by any stretch, but we think it’s fun) think, Conan is not leaving clues across his social media teasing its imminent release.

“The reason why it’s not out yet is because it’s not done,” says Conan. He knows people expect some pop acts to churn out a new album every year, but for them and their teams of songwriters, an album is the same as curating a playlist. Conan isn’t doing that. “I’m tearing pieces of my soul out to write these songs. It’s going to take a little while. [A finished record] isn’t too far off, but I’m still in it. I’m deep in the middle of the process right now.”

The new material that Conan has been working on since his debut “does feel different. I think you can tell how much my life has changed, but otherwise, it’s still me writing.”

Despite all that’s changed between ‘Idle Town’ and now, the way Conan writes hasn’t. “Everything’s exactly the same. I still sit in bed, write songs and text them to my friends.”

That energy is also how Conan decides which songs get released. For ‘Kid Krow’, he wrote over 200 songs, but when it came to narrowing them down, he says: “It was about which songs my friends and I were still humming months later or which ones really affected us. They’re the deciding factors, and I think that’s how it’ll always be. That’s just how I make music.”

“I’m constantly afraid of being out of touch”

Conan Gray

At the start of the year, Conan released his first new music since ‘Kid Krow’. ‘Overdrive’ inspires the sort of joyful escapism that would make Carly Rae Jepsen want to get involved and felt like a fresh start. “I needed to release that song because the year before it had been so horrible that I just couldn’t add to the compound misery. ‘Overdrive’ was me shaking it out and saying that some things are just supposed to be fun. It was a song that cheered me up and made me feel good every time I listened to it. It’s what I needed at that time.”

Conan released what he accurately describes as “the most painful song ever” a few months later. “’Astronomy’ was my way of saying, ‘by the way, I’m still so sad, and I’ve been excruciatingly deeply sad all year, just like everyone else’. It’s been a really hard almost-two-years now, and that song was very much a journal entry. The lyrics are thoughts that I was having about life, about growing apart from people, and about growing up. I just needed to say what was on my mind.”

With those two extremes ticked off the ol’ Conan Gray checklist, new track ‘People Watching’ is perhaps his most pop moment yet. On it, Conan thinks about all the lives he could live. It’s nostalgic for possible futures and is so overwhelmed by all the possibilities that it stays in the same place.

“I do this thing where I go to a college campus” – usually UCLA, the place where he studied filmmaking before dropping out to pursue music – “and just stare at people as they walk by. I wonder what alternate lives I could have lived, what would have happened if I’d gone to school instead of releasing music. Would I have been happier? Would I have fallen in love? Would I just feel unfulfilled? Everything that’s happening to me is so crazy; it’s hard to accept that this is what my life is.”

But the song is about one couple in particular that Conan used to see time and time again. “The guy was this average brunette dude, and the girl was really cool with tattoos and platinum blonde hair. I picked up little pieces of their life because I’m a creep who eavesdrops, but they were perfect and really cute together. I see couples like that all the time that look like opposites but are perfectly matched, and I can’t help but wonder, what if I was them? What if I was average brunette dude?”

“I’ve been very introspective this year. Nobody on earth should think about themselves this much,” Conan reflects. “The music is very introspective and about things like life, fate and soulmates because I can’t stop thinking about those kinds of things. I’m single, so it’s not like there’s a bunch of love songs. Maybe I will fall deeply in love before the album’s out, and that will change,” he says, before adding, “but I don’t think so,” with a grin.

Despite the emotional vulnerability across his music, Conan’s songs always come tongue-in-cheek or with a roll of the eye. “I’ve always taken life very seriously, but I’ve always tried to write it off as not as bad as it really was,” he explains. “I like to joke about things; it makes me feel better. How Gen Z copes with traumas is just by joking about it, it’s a very generational thing. I don’t like to get too serious, but how I deal with pain is with a little bit of humour. It wasn’t funny in the moment, but it can be funny later.”

We’re talking to Conan a few days before the release of ‘People Watching’ and he’s been nervous for weeks. “I lose my mind before I release every song because it’s so scary.” Despite the success, “it’s only gotten scarier to release music because I’m constantly afraid of being out of touch. I would hate for someone to be like, ‘what is this kid singing about, because nobody has experienced this in their entire lives and Conan Gray is an idiot’, so I’m horrified.” 

He doesn’t think there will ever be a point where he feels totally confident releasing new music. “I’ve always been a perfectionist; I’ve always needed to do things as well as I possibly can because I’m so scared of not being good enough. I’m afraid of letting people down. That’s just who I am, and it’s affected my life drastically. But, it’s also a mistake to stop questioning your music. I think that’s when really bad art starts getting released.”

“There is a lot of pressure,” admits Conan, but it’s all coming from within. “I really don’t want to let the fans down. I’m not trying to make music that’s necessarily catchy and cool; it’s more about ‘I’ve felt like this, have you felt it too?’ It’s always been that question for me. What I’ve always done is write music that I’m trying to understand myself through, that I’m also trying to understand them through. It’s always been about that connection. I’m constantly afraid of upsetting them, so I have to make music that feels genuine to me. Fans see right through anything else, so I have to be real.”

Taken from the September 2021 edition of Dork, out now. Conan Gray’s new album is coming soon.

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