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When I meet Conan Gray at a quaint Los Feliz restaurant, it’s impossible for him to pass by unnoticed. Discussing the schedule of the day — which included an upcoming photo shoot at another location — as Conan and his manager make their way out onto the quiet back porch to talk, the inkling that he was someone must’ve made its way through the staff grapevine.
About thirty seconds into our interview, the door bursts open and a clearly upset woman announces she’s the manager, demanding to know the details of our photo shoot. Unfazed, the young songwriter politely stares back at her, a little puzzled and completely unruffled that staff eavesdropping led to this strange confrontation. After reassuring the manager that our shoot would not be happening in her restaurant, the conversation turned to the difference between how public space is perceived in Los Angeles versus New York.
“No one gives a shit about other people in New York,” Conan laughs, skipping over ordering any coffee and ready to jump straight into conversation. “In LA it’s like… who are you!” As a recent transplant, Gray is more than familiar with the way the entertainment industry in LA permeates the city. Recently moving away from friends and family in Texas, he relocated to California for a short stint at UCLA before leaving academia behind to focus on his quickly-escalating career. Though he just turned 21 a few months ago, Conan has already been navigating the music industry for four years.
Since blowing up in 2017 off the success of a song he self-released as a high school student, “Idle Town,” he’s been moving through the kind of whirlwind, life-changing chaos that most young pop songwriters dream about, and is now just days away from releasing Kid Krow, his major-label debut. What’s most surreal to Conan, though, is that he spent his life dreaming about this day, and now that it’s finally here, he’s having a hard time accepting that it really happened.
“I would tell seven-year-old Conan that he successfully tricked millions of people into thinking that he was good at writing songs,” Gray laughs, when asked about letting his past self know about his current success. “I’d be like, ‘You did it, you did it! You tricked them.’ But I think I’m still very much in a state of wanting to do a good job, you never know when things like this will disappear. And I’m not the kind of person who half-asses something, If I like something, I’m obsessed with it. So I don’t think I’ll ever get to a point where I let myself fall into this dream.”
The dream began, as so many do, with a young, gifted child stuck in an unhappy home. Gray’s childhood was not only turbulent due to his parent’s divorce, but included abuse, and frequent moves before his family settled in Georgetown, Texas when he was in sixth grade. Lacking support and centering at home, Conan began creating videos and drawing his life experiences to express himself, first starting with videos at the age of nine and uploading them to YouTube for posterity’s sake. But as he embraced YouTube, a growing audience there quickly began to embrace him back, following along with his journey and multiplying exponentially over the years.
At first, Conan was happy just to have an audience that cared and a community to be connected to — but eventually, said community morphed into a full-blown fandom. Writing and drawing gave way to songs and videos, and when he was 17, the homemade music video for “Idle Town” was the culmination of everything. For his audience, who spent the last decade or so watching him emerge, and for newcomers, it was impossible not to get sucked into the charismatic forcefield of this fully-formed independent creator.
Currently, the original YouTube video for “Idle Town” sits around 15 million pageviews, and it was integral for another reason — the playful clip was what caught the eye of Eddie Wintle and Colette Patnaude, co-founders of the management company Expand Entertainment, who knew a sensation when they saw one. Pursuing the young talent, who initially took a few days to respond to their email because he was busy doing homework, Conan’s new management booked him a debut concert in Houston later that year. He was a natural as a live performer, too, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Working with Expand, Conan eventually signed to Universal Music Group through Republic Records — meaning he’s now on the same label as his longtime favorite, Taylor Swift — and his debut EP, Sunset Season, out in November of 2018, is full of chaotic, glittering pop driven by the same kind of intelligent storytelling that made Swift a global phenomenon.
The five-track EP included not just “Idle Town” but other fan-favorites like “Generation Why” and “Crush Culture” — each video respectively racking up over 11 millions views since release. (Cumulatively, the EP has over 300 million streams in the year or so since it dropped.) With a more substantial body of work, Gray’s momentum built during 2019, coming to a head with more incredible success behind “Maniac,” one of the lead singles preceding his full-length debut next week.
“‘Maniac,’ is a song that I wrote literally in the shower,” Conan says of the track, which currently hovers around 87 million streams on Spotify alone. “I think it’s the kind of song that you sing in the shower, or you know, scream in the car. With music, there are songs that make me want to cry and fucking melt through the floorboards, and then, other times I just like want to have a fun song. II was really silly and I think people resonate with that every once in a while.”
Singing about an ex who tries to twist the story around on him, Gray turns the insults of a former partner into a playful sing-along, reclaiming power and poking fun without ever straying into mean-spirited attacks. It’s a fine line for a songwriter to walk, but even at a young age, Conan has a better grasp than most on how often people — Gen Z-ers, in particular — say one thing and mean another. Multiple tracks on Kid Krow are fascinating explorations of the gap between what people say and what they do, investigations of desire and the reluctance that so often trails in its wake.
“Growing up, the majority of my life is me just observing people,” he remembers. “I’m always just trying to figure people out because we’re weird creatures. We’re weird things. Nothing we say is ever really a hundred percent true. I also love the idea of picking myself apart, and picking other people apart, and kind of finding truth within our generation of massive fakeness.”
Another songwriting tactic that sets Conan apart from his pop cohort is the casual use of different and neutral pronouns in songs, an implied queerness or lens in his songwriting that leaves room for multiple interpretations, creating space for fans to see themselves clearly in an industry that has historically been coded very straight. “I’m a girly boy and I don’t care (kinda)” he professed in a video from January of 2018, discussing the sometimes toxic impact of masculinity in his life. Though he’s openly asked fans a number of times not to label him strictly as “gay” or put him in a box, but he’s also adamant that supporting the LGBTQ community (and anyone who feels marginalized, really) through his work is a very important element of it.
“What I love about music is its accessibility — that people, no matter who they are can listen to it and find a little bit of comfort in it,” he explains. “So when it comes to putting pronouns in the songs, and stuff like that, I try to make songs that people are going to find comfort in, and be able to put themselves in my shoes. That’s why I try to avoid all of those things in general. When I listen to music, I find myself in the songs, and I think most people listen to music that way, too. So as a songwriter, I’m like ‘what can I do to make these songs feel a little bit more at home to the people that listen to them?’”
As a half-Japanese and half-white kid growing up in Texas, Gray has also addressed the complicated struggles of being mixed race in his video series in the past. Expressing in the clip that his racial identity is another element he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed for, Gray is still an important voice on the subject, an under-discussed issue in the music industry (and pop in particular) which has historically been dominated by white stars.
Moving through the interview portion of the day and into some outdoor locations in Los Feliz for the photo shoot, discussion of the ongoing pandemic, the Coronavirus, crops up. Conan is slated to make his Coachella debut a few weeks after the album drops, but hints that maybe a fall date for the festival would make more sense in the current climate. A few days later, the event announces it will shift its scheduled programming to October of this year, making his suggestion feel either prescient, or pre-discussed.
With an upcoming European tour that will likely also be canceled out of concern for public health, there remains one place where Conan can always connect with his fans safely — on YouTube. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the internet,” he laughs, happy to fall back on the force that catapulted him to stardom in the first place. And one thing is certain, whenever his tour does get rescheduled, and that Coachella performance finally happens this fall, all the followers who have been subscribing to his channel for years will be delivering a smug I told you so to their friends just getting on board — that’s how compelling he is live.
Thinking back on breakout stars like Lizzo and King Princess performing at Coachella last year and blowing up, and my own experience seeing Conan perform to a screaming throng of fans at The Troubadour in late 2019, it’s a safe bet that the high-profile festival performance this fall will propel him to a similar glow-up as those other pop sensations.
And now that being a full-time musician is literally his job, Gray does have a lot of tenderness for the hard-working kid who got him here. Thinking about that sad little kid making videos at home does elicit a certain level of gratitude and incredulity in current Conan. “It’s kind of hard to imagine, but making stuff and making art and writing and drawing was like a full-time job to me,” he says, shaking his head ruefully. “Looking back I’m very grateful for young Conan for working so hard, because he was taking care of me, now. Also, I realize how ballsy I was as a kid, for no reason, really! All the odds were against me and somehow it all worked out. No one would’ve looked at me and thought like ‘oh yeah, he’s the future,’ ever. So I’m grateful and I’m just kind of dumbfounded.”
Kid Krow is out 3/20 via Republic Records. Get it here.