The first Youtube video Conan Gray remembers seeing is “Teardrops On My Guitar” by Taylor Swift. It was Adele’s 19 that shaped his songwriting — he’s 20, now — and for him, Lorde was a gateway to pop music that wasn’t just about partying, sex, and drugs. “Lorde really, to me, was just that first person that made me realize that pop music can actually mean a lot more,” Gray told Paper when they interviewed him in April, and where he also mentions his obsession with Adele, and the impact of Taylor. But it was Lorde’s Pure Heroine that influenced him the most: “It was the first time I’d heard pop music that I’d actually been able to relate to, and that was when my obsession with pop music began and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since.”
It’s not surprising that Conan found an anchor in such a relatable and universal artform. Born in San Diego in 1998 to an Irish father and a Japanese mother, Conan moved around a lot at a young age — including a two-year stint in Hiroshima, Japan as a toddler when his grandfather had cancer. After his parents eventual divorce, instability in his early life continued, due to both of his parent’s financial struggles, remarriages, and moving between their two households.
Detailing all the minutia of his young life in a “Draw My Life” video he created for his Youtube fans when the following hit 100,000, Gray notes how he turned to the internet for support and began his own Youtube channel for the first time in fourth grade. After moving through a couple different channels, Gray used the support of that fanbase to begin making music. One of those channels eventually became a million strong, giving Gray the kind of audience that most young musicians dream of finding.
While he was still in high school in 2017, he released his first-ever single “Idle Town,” a self-produced music video examining the sleepy Texas town he called home — a clip that went on to amass millions of Spotify and Youtube streams. A practically perfect, super intimate pop song, the track was an instant hit, and only the first indication of Gray’s songwriting abilities. After high school, Gray moved back to California to attend UCLA, but quickly took a break from college to focus on his musical career and began working with Republic Records in early 2018 following the surprise success of his first single. Quickly revealing a penchant for making bedroom pop that sounds big enough to fill stadiums, and updates rote pop lyrics with funny, sometimes scathing assessments of modern culture, Gray’s built-in following and the support of Republic kicked his career into high gear.
Releasing his first EP, Sunset Season, late last year with the label — kicking off with the single “Generation Why” (no, not a Weyes Blood cover) — Gray’s sharp, insightful analysis of all the critiques his generation faces featured the same kind of smeary, dream-pop that revitalized pop in the early 2010s and updated it for Generation Z. Following this up with my own personal favorite, “Crush Culture,” an anti-love song for all the jaded and perpetually teens out there, Conan continued to put out colorful, opinionated videos for his EP tracks, and even began releasing new singles in early 2019.
After Sunset Season peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Heatseekers Chart, Gray went on to open for Panic! At The Disco, play The Great Escape festival in the UK (where he covered Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8r Boi,” natch) and tour in America. In May of this year, Conan won the Shorty Award — a series of awards designed to highlight the best in social media — for Best Youtube Musician, cementing his place as one of the most influential and successful young people to use that platform as a launching pad. Releasing several more one-off singles, including the self-confident jam “The King,” the jittery kiss-off “Checkmate,” and his latest, imminent song “Comfort Crowd” — he teased on Twitter that it’s coming later this week, on 9/5 — Gray is rapidly becoming one of the most exciting new voices in the pop space.
Gray is adamant that a full-length album is coming, and he hasn’t stopped writing songs since the release of his EP last fall, so keep your eyes (and ears) peeled for information on his next big project, knowing there will be a steady stream of singles to check out in the meantime. And if Conan is an example of the kind of pop stars we’re going to get from a post-Lorde generation, then the future has never looked so bright for Generation Why.