Conan Gray, an aspiring pop singer who feels everything
The first song Conan Gray ever wrote was called “These Days,” about a time he spent in a small town in Texas called Rockdale. (Population: 5,505.) “The tagline was ‘one hour from everything’ and the main business was going to Walmart,” he recalled in a recent video interview.
He invoked a few wistful lines from his Los Angeles apartment, his long, bouncy hair slicked behind him, squinting like he wasn’t quite sure he was getting it right: “And I know you don’t. really didn’t like the way I screamed your name/But I really hope you weren’t embarrassed by the way I was those days.
Then he paused to recognize the melodrama of the lyrics: Gray was 12 when he wrote them and 7 when he lived in Rockdale, and the idea that he had adopted such an enlightened perspective so quickly drew some laughs.
“Back then, when I was 7,” he said with an exaggerated flourish.
That Gray, now 23, felt so deeply at such a young age is not so surprising. Over the past few years, he has built a large following on social media platforms by speaking candidly about his life and singing about the most torturous emotions known to young people – namely the unrequited love and special anguish of admire a potential lover from afar. (“Heather,” one of his most popular songs, is about his longing for a woman who dates his crush.) In this pattern, he’s no different from a number of songwriters -Gen Z performers who used the internet to take the leap. traditional barriers to entering the music industry by baring their hearts.
But in addition to his rising tenor and boy band looks, Gray stood out from the pack with a thoughtful distance in his songwriting. Rather than just marinating in his feelings, he has an instinct for perceiving the big picture, as well as accepting the melancholic chill that inevitably follows grief. On a song called “Yours,” from his new album, “Superache”, released on Friday, his voice takes on a high and painful note as he sings the relaxation forced by an unbalanced romance: “I want more/But I’m not yours/And I can’t change your mind/But you’re still mine.
“Part of what makes Conan so special is how he connects so directly to this whole generation of kids who grew up on the internet,” said Eddie Wintle, who along with partner Colette Patnaude has managed Gray since 2016. As long as he continues to do so, I think the sky is the limit of what he can accomplish.
The intensity of his emotions is overwhelming at times, and Gray said the new album “wasn’t a fun album to make”.
“My first album, it was a lot easier because I was just introducing myself – ‘Hi, my name is Conan, I’m 19 and I had my heart broken once,'” he said. declared. “But then the second album was like, ‘Oh my God, now I have to tell people who I really am.'”
Born in Lemon Grove, California, to a white father and Japanese mother who separated when he was 3, Gray’s childhood was itinerant; he spent the first few years in Japan, then stopped at several other small towns before finally landing in Georgetown, Texas. His existence there, as one of the only Asian students in his college, was often “brutal”. Music provided an avenue for self-expression: He wrote “These Days” after watching a video of Adele singing in his bedroom and wondering if he could also write a song from his bedroom. YouTube was another. As a teenager, he started recording videos about his life with titles like “50 facts about me!!!” and “School Routine” alongside covers performed on his guitar.
“I was just doing it because what else are you supposed to do when you live in some random town in the middle of Texas?” Gray said. “I had no real idea that real people were even watching these videos.”
Although he managed to amass a few hundred thousand subscribers in his final year, things changed drastically in 2017 when he self-published. “Idle City” a wispy pop song about anticipating nostalgia for his small-town life, which he had come to enjoy. The accompanying video combined home footage of Gray and his friends with a photo of him driving through the local retirement community, recorded from “a tripod taped to the back of my mom’s Toyota.” He exploded online, and the success that followed eventually led him to drop out of his freshman year at UCLA and sign a deal with Republic Records.
“They saw what we saw,” Wintle said, “which was the belief that he could be a big star. And they were very open to making sure they weren’t trying to mold him into something he was not.
“Kid Krow,” Gray’s debut album, was released in March 2020, just before the pandemic forced a global shutdown. A planned tour was canceled and, like many others, Gray spent a lot of time alone indoors. “It was two years of overthinking it,” he said. “Superache” was recorded piecemeal over an 18-month period and selected from approximately 250 songs.
“It took a while to figure out what we were doing,” said Dan Nigro, who produced “Superache” and worked on almost all of Gray’s post-YouTube music. A turning point came in February 2021, when they completed the singles “Astronomy” and “People Watching”. “It felt like a new iteration of Conan that was more mature than ‘Kid Krow’,” said Nigro, who also produced Olivia Rodrigo’s landmark album, “Sour.” “It gave us the confidence to say, ‘OK, we’ve got the start of something really special.'”
“People Watching,” in which Gray admires and covets a happy couple’s relationship, was inspired by a real-life couple he used to listen to during his brief stint in college. “I want to feel all this love and emotion/To be as attached to the person I care about,” he sings, his voice reaching a breathless crescendo as the music swells behind him.
“I’ve always been much more of an observer of life than a participant,” he says. “I – especially in recent years – live vicariously through other people living their lives and being able to witness them.”
Over the past few months, however, many listeners have surely coveted her rapidly transforming life. As the music industry emerged from pandemic lockdowns, Gray stepped into the spotlight, performing at Coachella and attending the Met Gala in silver disco ball pants and tall white platform shoes. A super fan of Taylor Swift growing up, he is now personally called to promote his music, and also maintains a highly publicized friendship with Rodrigo.
Nigro said the two artists “do what they want to do with their music”, pointing out that many other young artists are unnecessarily influenced by outside voices.
But Gray has been open about battling feelings of self-consciousness and self-doubt as he navigates his path in the music industry. “Over the past few years, I’ve really grown to see that I have to allow myself to make mistakes, if I want to grow up and not be this stunted human being,” he said. “It took Dan and my friends to be like, ‘Who cares? It is better to be sad than to feel nothing at all.
“Superache” is a chronicle of this messy process. The title is meant to be a little funny, leaning into the feelings of grandeur that come with obsessive grief. “When it’s a genuine feeling, it can never be too dramatic because it’s just an accurate description of what’s going on,” Gray said. “That’s all I really want is for people to feel a little less crazy about all the emotions they’re feeling right now.”