Meet the sad pop prince here to rule your world and ruin your life.
“Texas sunsets are unlike anything you’ve ever seen,” declares pop music’s freshest face, Conan Gray. “They’re just like a bright, gigantic, orange streak. Also Texas is just flat. There is nothing in Texas, it’s just cows, and barns, and tractors, and gas stations — especially where I grew up. You look out and it eats you alive.”
On this particular June morning Gray is sat in the apartment he just moved into in Los Angeles, bedhead hair in full flex, having woken up 15-minutes ago. He’s a long way from the small-town retirement community of Georgetown, Texas, where he did most of his growing up. Gray says he gets homesick for Texas all the time, but calls his besties from back home every single day to stay connected and keep him grounded. Just 18 months ago back in the Lone Star State, the world of Conan Gray was drastically different. So how did a small town boy from suburban Texas become Gen Z’s ascending pop prince?
The story starts back in Lemon Grove, San Diego, where Conan Gray was born on 5th December 1998. A lot has happened in his short 20 years on planet earth and, at times, Gray’s life reads more like the plot of a coming-of-age drama like Boyhood. Let’s just say, it hasn’t all been beautiful Texan sunsets.
When Conan was one year old, his father, mother and big sis left their white picket fence house with kumquats in the yard and moved from San Diego to Hiroshima, Japan, to care for his sick grandfather. There, Gray was raised “completely Japanese” until he was three and a half and the family moved back to the USofA. What happens next is a complicated story. Darker days ensued and although there were times when the sun shined, after the eventual divorce of his parents a tumultuous family life ensued, resulting in what Gray summarises as: “Debt, foreclosure, angry rich people, angry poor people, eviction, running from the cops, child protection services, and a lot of yelling.”
“I continually had to learn the way the world really is,” says Gray of his premature loss of innocence. “I grew up very, very, very quickly. When I think back at who I was when I was seven, I very much feel like seven-year-old me was like 45 years old — really taking care of myself, I had to be super independent… Throughout your life you have all these things that mould you into who you are. My past definitely wasn’t very good, I had a pretty rough childhood but it also fully made me who I am. It’s hard because I wouldn’t wish my childhood on any body but also I don’t think I’d have it any other way myself for me.”
Eventually the Gray clan settled in Texas and that’s where he began to really build his own inner world — singing, making art, drawing, and hiding in his room. After getting a computer for Christmas in the fourth grade, Gray discovered YouTube and made his own channel where he’d post vids of himself hanging out and playing with his pet geckos.
By the time Gray hit freshman year, while he was knuckling down studying to get the grades he’d need to go to college on the West Coast, he’d launched a new YouTube channel: ConanXCanon. Every weekend he’d work tirelessly on new videos, openly sharing his world in super articulate ways, painting his nails (he doesn’t give a flying flip about being a girly guy thank you), shopping at thrift stores, singing covers and eventually some original songs — basically living a secret double life on the internet as a vlogger with thousands (now millions) of followers who connected to Gray as an IRL BFF.
Gray describes the look he’s been cultivating since those early thrift shop days as: ”Like a 35 year old man who’s stuck in the 90s”. He says it’s a style that’s built out of necessity, since they often had little money when he was growing up, inevitably he’d wind up “wearing clothes that some old man died wore”.
“I wore clothes from the 80s a lot of my childhood because it was all I had,” says Gray. “My mom was a total 80s queen, she was such a perfect disco queen and she really liked to dress me like a 90s kid. It’s funny how thrifting has become trendy because for me it was necessity. That’s what built me as a person. When you go to a thrift store you have to think ‘what do I like’. It made me really think about who I am, my whole life every single thing made me decide very quickly ‘this is who I am and I have to stick to it’, and my style reflects that as well.”
That’s the short story of how Conan Gray came to be ushered into the ranks of YouTubers turned pop stars — which is of course now a legit trajectory for artists as proven by Justin Beiber and Troye Sivan (sorry I don’t make the rules). For the self-confessed “outsider” who doesn’t even like to order his own food at restaurants, YouTube was a lifeline for social interaction where he could not only project his own thoughts out into the world from the safety of his bedroom, but also make connections. “I truly grew up on the internet,” Gray says, “I was a very lonely kid, I moved around a tonne so I didn’t have very many friends, so any social interaction of mine happened on the Internet.”
“When I was nine the Internet was definitely a different place,” he continues reflecting. “YouTube wasn’t a place where people built careers, YouTube was just this website where people posted videos of cats, it wasn’t what it was later on. When I started making videos as a nine-year-old, I had no intentions really of anything coming of it, I was just lonely and bored.”
The first actual song Gray ever wrote of his own was called “Those Days”, he was 12 at the time and he thinks it’s probably still floating around on the internet somewhere. “I wrote it on a real Adele streak,” Gray reminisces, “I really wanted to be Adele, but it’s kind of hard to be Adele when you’re twelve years old and don’t have her voice [laughs].”
“I’ll always have this deep angst in me that will never fade away.”
The sound Gray would come to develop for himself is a dreamy, swooning kind of pop, instilled with a soft scoop melancholy, that channels Lorde’s suburban storytelling (“She was the first person in pop music to really, in my generation, talk about being normal, being in suburbia and not partying, and sexing, and drugging all the time,” he says explaining his devotion to the New Zealander). For Gray — who wrote all of his debut EP, Sunset Season, and recorded it on a mic taped to a broken lamp — the most important thing he can do with songwriting is to tell the truth.
“People can tell when someone’s, not necessarily lying, but isn’t expressing themselves the way that they fully are. The most important thing with songwriting is human connection. It’s hard to connect with someone who is fabricating a truth. My truth is that I definitely had a super rough childhood, I was abused for most of it, and it caused me to grow up really quickly and caused me to be an extremely lonely, psychotically workaholic seven-year-old kid. That’s something I’ve come to terms with, especially as I’ve gotten older and also that I’ll always have this deep angst in me that will never fade away.”
Angst, it turns out, is the big theme for Gray’s forthcoming debut album that he’s currently in and out of the studio recording. After he’d finished writing his debut EP he just continued writing, sometimes smashing out two songs a day in his bedroom, “rotting into oblivion” until, suddenly, he had 200 songs and realised it was probably time to make a whole album with some of the producers that came flocking after the release of Sunset Season.
“I adore pop music, it’s this beautiful, mathematical but absolutely erratic form of music. It’s interesting because it’s like a haiku,” muses Gray, “It’s a pop world.” Even though he’s all about that pure pop life, Gray’s world has pretty much exploded since writing Sunset Season as a highschool senior living in the middle of Texas — he’s gotten older and his new writing reflects that and his new experiences.
“The album sounds like the album a twenty-year-old would make. I’m facing that spot in my life that every single twenty-year-old has faced, where you’re like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on right now, I don’t know where I am, or who I am, or what’s going on, or what my future’s going to hold — but I’m just going to figure it out right now. I have all these emotions that are super extreme because my hormones are super confused but I’m just going to figure it out and that’s what my album sounds like… There’s a bunch of screams.”
“The world right now needs a bit of anger,” Gray continues, and to be honest who wouldn’t be angry as a twenty-year-old living on a planet about to go up in flames as it faces imminent climate catastrophe — something he touch on in the lyrics to EP track “Generation Why”: “‘Cause at this state of earth decay, our world’s ending at noon”.
“When you’re a kid you very innocently believe that grownups rule the world and know what’s going on,” says Gray. “We’re all really angry, the world we grew up in and the people who raised us didn’t do anything to prevent our children from having horrendous lives, where they can’t live on the planet they were born on.”
“We’re all really mad at what’s happened with the government and with the planet,” he continues defiantly. “The album is a bit angrier than the EP. My track “Generation Why” touched a little bit on what it’s like to grow up in this climate, in this world — the album definitely is an album that you listen to in fury. It’s gonna be one of those ‘I’m mad’ albums. Everyone’s just like ‘what the fuck?!’ And my album’s ‘WHAT THE FUCK?!’ We’re all on the same page about what the fuck.”
It shouldn’t come as a total shock that we’re not getting an album of love songs from the newcomer — especially when you take into account his very public ‘never been kissed’ status and the fact he penned an anti-PDA teen angst banger in the form of “Crush Culture”. Has Gray embraced his romantic side since then and is he crushing on anyone at the moment?
“No one in particular. I wish I had an answer for that because it’d be good for songwriting. I think it’s because I’m working on my album right now. All I ever think about is, ‘that lyric should change’, or ‘that synth needs to sound more like burrr’. I got back from tour and went straight in the studio. I’ll always have an existential infinite crush on Emma Whatson but that’s just a constant in everyone’s life. I don’t know who you are if you don’t love her. I don’t care what sexuality you are, I don’t care what point in life you are, if you’re not in love with Emma Watson you’re lying. She’s just a wonderful person.”
Having moved to the West Coast to go to UCLA, in an attempt to grab a small chance at being a “normal kid”, the recent rapid rise has totally changed everything for Gray. “What they don’t tell you about success,” Gray laughs, “is that once you get the smallest amount of it, then there’s more pressure to be even bigger. I’m having my small mental breakdown every single day.” As a result he’s had to stop fighting the fact that he’s not ‘normal’ any more. Gray says the attention wasn’t something that he ever really wanted but now he’s embracing it and, for his own mental health, has “stopped trying to be Hannah Montana” and pretend he can be a college student and a pop star at the same time.
“I spent a long time fighting it, being like, no I’m fine, I’m fine, I can go to that shopping mall it’ll be fine, I can sit in that cafe, sure, sure, I’ll go to classes and stuff and I’ll get stalked all day on campus and everything’s fine, fine, fine. Eventually I had to tell myself ‘this is not normal, you didn’t have a normal childhood, you’re not going to have a normal adulthood’. The second I accepted it, it became ten million times easier. My life isn’t like everyone else’s, but everyone else’s isn’t like everyone else’s as well. We all have unique, really horrifying, interesting experiences.”
“I have all these emotions that are super extreme because my hormones are confused but I’m just going to figure it out and that’s what my album sounds like.”
Part of why Conan’s success is a big deal is linked to his heritage — he’s half Irish, half Asian. Growing up in the middle of Texas being mixed race made him feel isolated, for example, he was one of three Asian kids in his entire high school of 2000 students. Gray describes being mixed race as “Very much not the best of both worlds” and more of “half of both” situation. Despite the k-pop explosion and the success of acts like Hayley Kiyoko, Asian representation in the music business is still ridiculously lacking and in need of dramatic reformation.
“It’s also important for me to use the fact that I am mixed race and slightly white passing, to just make as much space as possible for other people entering the music industry,” says Gray defiantly. “It’s really important to me to be a good role model to the kids that didn’t have a mixed race role model growing up. I didn’t have anyone, every single person I listened to was white and every single person around me was white — all these white people and I’m like ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with myself’ [laughs]. Since I didn’t know what to do with myself I was like OK I’m going to have to figure out my own thing.”
Right now, doing his own thing is working out pretty well for Gray. His songs have millions of plays, he’s started touring the world, and his DMs are flooded by 1000s of messages from devoted fans on the daily. Gray isn’t taking any of it for granted though, even if he doesn’t understand why or how any of this happened and has the “most intense imposter syndrome” when he looks at his career. “I don’t know who that is or how they did that,” he laughs, “I am just this dumbass who wrote songs.”
“That’s something I’ll never have settle into my bones because the second you accept it for what it is, that’s when it starts to get sad and boring. This is ridiculous! Especially when I’m on tour, I wake up, I got to like get a sandwich and 20 people are screaming and following me. I’m like ‘this is absolutely insane, this isn’t normal’ and I don’t think it’ll ever be normal and I don’t think anyone is ever supposed to have this happen to them.”
“The older I got,” Gray continues, “I started to embrace the fact that, no matter what I do with my future, no matter what changes, I will always have my rough past with me and it’s something I just can’t hide or change, it’s already happened. The older I get the more I embrace the fact that I definitely have a darker edge that most people don’t have and that I just have to accept or I’ll just come off as ingenuine.”
Here’s to embracing the dark side, teen angst forever, and a million more Texan sunsets eating us alive!