The first song Conan Gray ever wrote was called “Those Days,” about a period he spent in a small Texas town called Rockdale. (Population: 5,505.) “The tagline was ‘an hour from everything,’ and the main activity was going to Walmart,” he recalled in a recent video interview.
He called out a few wistful lines from his Los Angeles apartment, his long, bouncy hair pulled tight behind him, squinting as if he wasn’t quite sure he was doing it right: “And I know you know the way I called you.” name / But I hope you didn’t mind how I was at the time.
Then he paused to acknowledge the melodrama of the lyrics: Gray was 12 years old when he wrote them and 7 when he lived in Rockdale, and the idea of adopting such a knowing perspective so quickly elicited some laughter.
“Back when I was 7,” he said with an exaggerated wave.
It’s not surprising that Gray, now 23, felt so deeply at such a young age. In recent years, he has built a wide audience on social media platforms by speaking candidly about his life and singing about the most torturous emotions known to young people, namely unrequited love and the particular fear of a potential lover from afar. (“Heather,” one of his more popular songs, is about his jealousy of a woman who dates him.) In this model, he’s no different from a number of Gen Z singer-songwriters who have used the internet to skip the world . traditional barriers to entry into the music industry by showing their heart.
But along with his ascendant tenor and boy band looks, Gray has set himself apart from the rest with a reflective distance in his songwriting. Rather than just marinating in his feelings, he has an instinct to perceive the bigger picture, as well as to accept the melancholic cooling that inevitably follows a heartbreak. On a track called “Yours,” off his new album, “Superache,” which arrived on Friday, his voice hits a soaring, pained note as he sings of the relaxation forced by unbalanced romance: “I want more/ But I’m not yours/And I can’t change my mind/But you’re still mine.”
“Part of what makes Conan is the way he connects so directly with this whole generation of kids who grew up on the internet,” said Eddie Wintle, who has been co-leading with partner Colette Patnaude Gray since 2016. As he continues to do that, I feel like the sky is the limit in terms of what he can achieve.”
The intensity of his emotions is overwhelming at times, and Gray said the new LP was “not a fun album to make.”
“My first album, it was a lot easier because I was just introducing myself – ‘Hello, my name is Conan, I’m 19 years old and I broke my heart once,'” he said. “But then the second album was like, ‘Oh God, now I really need 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 ambulatory; he spent a few early years in Japan, then stopped in several other small towns before finally landing in Georgetown, Texas. His existence there, as one of the only Asian students in his high school, was often ‘cruel’. Music offered one opportunity for self-expression: He wrote “Those Days” after seeing a video of Adele singing in her bedroom and wondering if he could write a song from his bedroom too. YouTube was another. As a teenager, he started shooting videos about his life with titles like ’50 Facts About Me!!!’ and “School Routine”, alongside covers performed on his guitar.
“I just did it because what else are you supposed to do if you live in a random city in the middle of Texas?” said Gray. “I had no real idea that real people were even watching these videos.”
Though he managed to rack up a few hundred thousand subscribers in his senior year, things changed dramatically in 2017 when he self-released “Idle Town,” a gauzy pop song about anticipating nostalgia for his small-town life, where he’s headed. had come. appreciate. The accompanying video combined house footage of Gray and his friends with a photo of him running through the local retirement community, shot from “a tripod with duct tape on the back of my mom’s Toyota.” It exploded online and the ensuing success eventually led to him dropping out of his freshman year at UCLA and signing a deal with Republic Records.
‘They saw what we saw,’ said Wintle, ‘and that is the belief that he could be a big star. And they were very open to making sure they didn’t try to mold him into something he wasn’t.”
“Kid Krow”, Gray’s debut LP, was released in March 2020, just before the pandemic forced a global shutdown. A planned tour fell through and, like many others, Gray spent a lot of time alone indoors. “It was two years of just thinking too much,” he said. “Superache” was recorded bit by bit over an 18-month period and selected from about 250 tracks.
“It took us a while to figure out what we were making,” says Dan Nigro, who produced “Superache” and has 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’. “This felt like a new version of Conan that was more mature than ‘Kid Krow,'” said Nigro, who also produced Olivia Rodrigo’s breakout 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 couple he overheard during his short time in college. “I want to feel all that love and emotion / be attached to the person I’m holding,” 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 said. “I live — especially in recent years — vicariously through other people living their lives and being able to see them.”
In recent months, however, many listeners have certainly coveted his rapidly changing life. As the music industry has emerged from the pandemic lockdowns, Gray has stepped into the limelight by performing at Coachella and attending the Met Gala in silver disco ball pants and high white platform shoes. A Taylor Swift Super Fan Growing Up, He Is Now personally called to promote her music, and also enjoys a high-profile friendship with Rodrigo.
Nigro said both artists “do what they want to do with their music”, stressing that many other young artists are unnecessarily influenced by outside voices.
But Gray spoke openly about struggling with feelings of self-consciousness and doubt as he forged his path within the music industry. “Over the years I’ve really grown to see that I have to let myself make mistakes if I want to grow 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” chronicles that messy process. The title is meant to be a bit funny, leaning towards the feelings of grandeur that accompany an obsessive heartbreak. “If it’s a real feeling, it can never be too dramatic because it’s just an accurate representation of what’s going on,” Gray said. “That’s all I really want, for people to feel a little less crazy about all the emotions they’re feeling right now.”