The Story of Conan Gray: self-confessed overthinker, sad-pop prince
From his YouTube beginnings to his status as sad-pop's promise-filled prince, Conan Gray is one of the many artists pushing pop in new directions.
Words by Nic Kelly. Header image by BCS Imagery.
In just a couple of years, Texan icon-in-the-making Conan Gray has gone from 'Z-grade vlogger who can sing' to a properly prioritised pop prospect with the potential to blossom into something remarkably special. TikTok-fuelled labels like 'e-boy' and 'my king' have been thrown around willy-nilly by his young audience - who you'll often find on apps like these, where it seems music's next big stars are being born - but there's an energy, sophistication and depth to the 21-year-old that makes you feel like he won't be silenced to the trash heap of ‘next big thing’ pop kids the labels throw into the ether each year.
A singular Australian show - which sold out in ten minutes - sees Conan and his seemingly perfectly curated all-girl band do a retrospective on his musical output so far. With his debut album - March's highly-anticipated Kid Krow - on the way, this is the last time he’ll play this particular setlist; the next show he does will be the first of the album’s live experience. Because of this, Conan Gray's Australian debut feels particularly special, something emphasised by the line around the block that formed early on that day.
The set begins with selections from his first proper EP, 2018’s Sunset Season, social comments Crush Culture, Greek God & Generation Why see arms swaying and before the latter, a rubber worm attached to a string handed to Conan. It’s typical of this audience: they’re self-deprecating, in on the joke and there to laugh at their collective misfortune.
However, a telling sign of the development of Conan’s songwriting and sense of self between the last record and the upcoming album, is an unpredictably intense backgrounder he gives the 300-strong crowd before playing his most recent release, a heartbreaking ballad detailing childhood depression called The Story. "I had a really dark childhood," he explains. "I really, really remember clearly thinking… ‘there’s no way I’m going to live past 12-13’. I remember thinking 'I can’t do this anymore,' and right at that moment, I started writing songs and putting them on the internet."
From heartbreaking to hopeful by the end of that song, to noughties-pop-punk reference Checkmate and the current radio smash Maniac, the set explores every corner of Conan’s sound and story. This is an artist with immense depth and a reason to have a microphone in his hand, whose promise as "pop's next big thing" extends far beyond A&R-built songwriting sessions and maximalist Max Martin choruses. Conan Gray is an artist who - like many acts to find a younger, socially aware audience in the past year or two - actually means something, and that's great to see.
Pre-show, armed with shedding shellac on his nails and a coffee ready to be guzzled like there's no tomorrow, pop's most exciting new name is prepared to chat about a thought-out record that the pop community and his quickly building fanbase is eager for. He's danced around the contents of Kid Krow before, but don't underestimate how ready this album is. Entirely self-written and produced by one person in Dan Nigro (Carly Rae Jepsen, Caroline Polachek, Kylie), the album is out March 20 and there's no doubt it'll throw up surprises until well after the day it drops.
Image by Mallory Turner.
You are the self-professed king of overthinking. Do you think it's a problem with our generation that we overthink?
Yes. I think it is a result of the internet. Our attention spans are literally so astronomically small, that the second a thought enters our head, there's a million others that follow it... just like that. Also, I think we're an extremely self-aware generation, so anything that we do... like me sitting on this couch, I'm like, "am I sitting on this couch normally, or is this extremely planned? Why do I have my wallet in my pocket?" It's like every single thing that we do, we see and a camera sees, it's all it's there for everybody. There's just so much information all the time and we were raised on cartoons that had such quick thoughts...
Exactly! They're just trying to keep our attention span at all times. What kind of cartoons did you watch?
I loved SpongeBob. There was a point in my life where I had SpongeBob painted on my wall, which sounds cute, but HORRIFYING in reality.
Waking up at 3AM to a giant yellow sponge looking at you from above...
Which is exactly what happened. Also, that house that I lived in whilst I had SpongeBob painted on my wall was DEFINITELY haunted. I swear on my life, it was a haunted house. Every single night I would wake up at three in the morning, exactly. I didn't know at the time, but that's the witching hour. Like, that's the time when ghosts come out to play. Also, one time I was sitting in my bed and I heard someone walking in the hallway. I was like "oh, that must be my stepbrother or something..." Then it walks into my room. I was like, "that's weird". I look up. There's nobody there. I keep hearing footsteps and I'm fucking freaking out at this point, so I shoved myself under the covers and I hear like, tapping on my bed frame, because I had a bunk bed and then it started - whatever it was - whistling, and literally started whistling some kind of tune.
At that point, I was like, "bitch, I'm dead. I'm literally going to die at this point." I was fighting for my life. I remember I threw my covers off the bed, ran into my sister's room, she's like, "Conan, what the fuck is wrong with you, why are you in my bed" and I was like, shaky. That house was absolutely haunted. Faucets would turn on and off all night long. My cat would walk in through one door and come out of it completely different. Yeah, it was haunted.
Do you think that's kind of carried on to the Conan Gray vibe? Looking at all the artwork around Kid Krow, it's all very witchy.
Look, I had a really dark childhood. It was super less than ideal and I think with Sunset Season, my first EP, it really - perfectly - was all about my senior year in high school which was hard, but also a great time. I had really good friends at that point and all we would do all day is skip class and go get Slurpees. That was our life back then! I feel like my EP like feels like that - you know, I fell in love for the first time - but the album is like, my whole life, you know? It recounts everything that's ever happened: all the shitty things, all the hilarious things, all the people I fall in love with throughout the past couple of years. It's a long stretch. I think when you look at my life as a whole, it's definitely less beautiful and perfect than my senior year of high school.
But it can be hard to kind of get into that when you're writing, right? And you write practically everything on your own, it would be hard to convince yourself to dig deeper and go into that darker shit, right?
Yeah, it's also scarier now, because when I was making my EP, no one gave a shit about me. I didn't really have to think about "is this thing too much"? But also, I think it's a songwriter's duty in life to tell the truth. All I really want to do with my songs is to help people work through their emotions and I write songs because it's how I handle my own emotions. When I'm writing a song, I'm like, "Okay, I'm gonna write this line that might make me look bad, it might be kind of stupid, it might be like really hard to admit, but people deserve to know"... Also, we live in an era where fucking everything is fake! We need like one human being to be like, "okay, this is this is the truth".
We need some fucking realism.
Yeah, and the album definitely sounds like a conversation I'm having. It's very me. I don't take everything super seriously. I'm super sarcastic and, you know, life has been tough but I try to just laugh about it. I think that's what the album sounds like.
I remember watching your chat with Zach Sang, and I remember you talking about how you've "psychotically written albums about relationships you've never been in." So with all that said, how much of Kid Krow is genuinely autobiographical about those years and how much of it is exaggerated a little bit?
I think I am a bit of a melodramatic person! I don't think I could be a songwriter if I were super like "meh, it just didn't work out," I'm like "FUCK YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUU". I think that's pretty much exactly how I am. I think it's 100% autobiographical; it's just me, in an album, which is why if people don't like it I will take it very personally and I will cry for years and years, but also like, it's who I am. Not everyone has to like me, you can like me or not like me. I don't need to be liked by everyone. It's more for the people that know me, my friends and stuff from back home. I texted all the songs to them whilst I was making the album and they were the quickest to be like "this song doesn't sound right" or "this song is literally so you, it's hilarious."
So that was kind of how things made the cut? It had to be really you and really genuine?
Yeah! Also, I'm so close with my friends - they really had a big impact on the album. Even the title of the album literally came from my best friend: we were just talking about what animal we would be if we were an animal. She was like, "oh, you'd be a crow" and I was like, "you know me so fucking well and that's so fucking true." I am a bird because I just left and moved away and she was like, "what the hell, why did you leave?" Also, I tend to be kind of dark and cynical, but I also don't take life too seriously. My life has been dark in the past, but in my adulthood, I'm just like "fuck yeah, I'll laugh at my pain" and I don't take life too seriously, so my friends and the people who were super close to me really did depict how the album took shape because they know me so well and I wanted the album - especially my debut album - to be like, by the time you've listened to it from top to bottom like, you know me.
You're basically a friend. There's literally a track on the album called Can We Be Friends which is literally a message to the person listening to the song like "hey, like can we be friends"? It's very much like, "This is who I am. Take it or leave it. You don't have to like me but if you do, I will take a punch for you and we can be best buds and it can be me and you versus the world," and I think the album sounds like me. It's me! It's me, just in a 12-song album and if you like it then you like it and if you don't, then whatever!
I know there's a song called Heather on there that you seem excited about, people seem excited about, what is so special about this record? Without giving too much away, because I know people need to hear it to get the full context.
Heather is the one that always wrecks me every time I listen to it. I think what I like so much about that song is that it's about a feeling that you don't really want to admit. The whole song is written about like, hating the person that... You know when you like someone and they like someone else? You know how you fucking hate that person. You have no reason to fucking hate that perfectly nice girl named Heather. No reason! And she's wonderful and sweet and she is sunshine and you're like, "I hope you die". FOR NO REASON! That's not, like, a good feeling to admit! It's very stupid thing; there's no reason why I should feel that way. It's also like "Does that make me a bad person?" Yeah, probably and no one ever talks about it or, like, even if they do you're always kind of like sly about it. It's embarrassing and I think that I spent so long trying to write a song about that feeling and that song just feels so right and I'm like "oh fuck you Heather, but also, you're so wonderful, I'm so sorry."
Every time I fall in love with a straight man, I feel that deeply.
What does Heather sound like, because what I'm really interested in with this album so far is you've got songs like Checkmate and Maniac which are big, bombastic kind of pop records. Then you've got The Story, which is simply you and a guitar. Where does Heather sit in that world? And I suppose leading from that, what does the rest of the album sound like?
Overall on the album, The Story is about as 'songwriter' as it gets and Maniac and a track called Wish You Were Sober are just about as 'big pop' as you can possibly get. I mean, I'm not the kind of person who only listens to one category of music. I listened to SO much different stuff - I was raised on Taylor Swift, but I'm also obsessed with Radiohead. So it's a big spectrum and the album is CHAOS. It's all over the place.
Which is you, isn't it? Chaotic and sad and... mental.
Yeah! It's like, "Is that kid okay?" and the answer's "No, that kid is not okay." It's pretty all over the place, but I think we live in an era of music where you can really do whatever you want. I think my hope is that if someone necessarily doesn't like Maniac that they'll like The Story, or if they don't like The Story that they'll like Heather. I want people to have options and also like, I think music should be accessible to all people and I love so many types of music that I don't feel the need to shove myself into a box.
Photos by BCS Imagery.
The thing that got me about my first proper "fuck, Conan's going to be a thing" moment - Checkmate - was that it took me to a We The Kings, super pop-punk vibe. Was that a big growing up sound for you, too?
Yes! I mean, I was like, a massive Avril Lavigne fan. Literally, like five-year-old me sitting there like [IMPERSONATES AVRIL]. What did I know as a five-year-old?! But I felt it. I was in my feels. That's a song where I could have had traditional like pop production but I was like, "this song deserves pop-punk production," and that's kind of how I've handled every song. I'm like, "I don't give a shit if like this song sounds literally nothing like any of the other songs." I'm like "I like this song, I think it needs this type of production and I think it needs to feel like this," and my head is WAY too messy to be able to organise it into a beautiful cohesive album.
It is, but also my favourite albums are cohesive. I don't actually know! I don't actually know, but also like I don't give a fuck - especially for my debut. Maybe later I'll make a beautiful cohesive album, but for my debut, I want it to feel like me. I am not a one-faceted human. I have way too many sides. I have way too many faces. I have way too many thoughts, to have made an album that sounded like one thing.
Have you worked with Dan [Nigro] on everything?
Yes, basically. There's one song on the album that I did with the Captain Cuts guys, called Little League. That's a super, super nice pop song. The thing is I'm such a sucker for pop music. So even the songs that are like "stripped" and "songwriter-y" or are slower, they're still pop songs. They're pop melodies and pop is just like coursing through my veins all the time, my album as a whole is a pop album!
You've spoken about Taylor, you've spoken about Avril, but who's speaking to you right now? Who are the new kind of generation coming up with you that you're obsessed with at the moment?
Well, since I'm in Australia, I think my answer would be Mallrat. I am obsessed with that girl. I DM her constantly. And she's like, "I don't care, like, who are you?" I mean, she's so sweet. Have you met her?
The greatest hugger of all time.
She's the SWEETEST and I'm just like "I love you. I love you. I love you" and she's like, "hey." I went to her show in LA and like danced my ass off. I love her. I think she's SO so good. She writes her own music and she even produces her own music which I think is like a thing these days. I think that out of this next generation of pop writers and songwriters in general, we crave genuine, real music that came from someone's mouth, you know? Not from a robot or something. I adore her. I have so much hope for the future of music with the way that music is moving. It's like, the world is rewarding music that feels real, that's weird and fun and interesting and not necessarily just a perfect little pop melody, because I think that we were trained to like certain kinds of music, but like, music is music. If you like it, you like it.
I feel like we're getting smarter than that as well.
We're all way too intuitive these days.
Yeah. And it probably goes back to what you were saying at the start about attention spans. They probably attract themselves to songs that can hold you for the whole time. A song like The Story is a perfect example of that. The whole narrative from start to finish, you want to know what happens at the end. It's the same as a Mallrat song like Charlie. It's those kinds of songs that are holding our attention span, they're the rate things that can cut through and actually get to us.
I think that a real human connection is what we're connecting to these days. Like "this thing happened to me, do you understand?" I think that's what I listen to in music and I think that - I hope that - that's what people want, because it's what I like, so I'd like to see more of that.
I think we crave knowing that someone else is going through the same shit.
We feel so isolated I think too, because the way that the internet has kind of simultaneously connected us and also, like violently separated us from reality! So, I think we do crave a little bit of like, "you and me are in this together".
I would be slaughtered if I didn't ask when you're going to do a full tour of Australia. Do you have anything locked in yet?
I don't have anything locked in yet. But I do know that next time I come, I'm gonna hit up like more cities.
Will it be this year? I'm just gonna keep digging.
I mean, I would like to think so. For sure.
Conan Gray's new album, Kid Krow, is out via Republic Records / Universal Music Australia on March 20th.
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