Conan Gray is a young pop singer-songwriter who feels everything.
The 23-year-old who got his start on YouTube released his first album when the coronavirus pandemic was just getting started. Now, he’s putting out a new album called “Superache” to show people who he is.
“Those Days” was the first song that Conan Gray ever wrote. It was about a time when he lived in a small Texas town called Rockdale. (Population: 5,505.) In a recent video interview, he said, “The slogan was “an hour away from everything,” and the main thing to do was go to Walmart.”
He sang a few sad lines from his apartment in Los Angeles, with his long, bouncy hair pulled tight behind him. “And I know you really didn’t like the way I cried your name/But I hope you really didn’t mind the way I was those days.”
Then he stopped to talk about how dramatic the lyrics were: Gray wrote them when he was 12 years old and lived in Rockdale when he was 7. The idea that he had become so wise so quickly made some people laugh.
“When I was seven,” he said with a flourish, “back in the day.”
It’s not so strange that Gray, now 23, felt so deeply at such a young age. In the past few years, he’s built up a large following on social media by being honest about his life and writing songs about some of the most painful feelings young people have, like unrequited love and the pain of admiring a possible lover from afar. “Heather,” one of his most popular songs, is about how he wants to date the woman he has a crush on. In this way, he’s like a lot of Gen Z singer-songwriters who have used the internet to get around the traditional barriers to entry in the music industry by putting their hearts out there.
But along with his rising tenor and boy-band looks, Gray has set himself apart from the rest by writing songs from a more detached point of view. Instead of just stewing in his feelings, he has a natural ability to see the bigger picture and accept the melancholy cool-down that always comes after a heartbreak. On the song “Yours” from his new album “Superache,” which came out on Friday, his voice reaches a high, pained note when he sings about the peace that comes from an unbalanced relationship: “I want more, but I’m not yours. I can’t change your mind, but you’re still mine.”
Eddie Wintle, who has been managing Conan Gray with his partner Colette Patnaude since 2016, said, “Part of what makes Conan great is the way he connects so directly with this whole generation of kids who grew up on the internet.” “As long as he keeps doing that, I think the sky is the limit for what he can do.”
Sometimes the strength of his feelings is too much for him to handle, and Gray said that making the new LP “wasn’t fun.”
“My first album was a lot easier because I was just introducing myself: ‘Hi, my name is Conan, I’m 19, and I’ve had my heart broken once,'” he said. “But when I made my second album, I realized, ‘Oh God, now I have to tell people who I really am,'” he said.
Gray was born in Lemon Grove, California, to a white father and a Japanese mother who broke up when he was 3. He spent his first few years in Japan, then moved to a few other small towns, and finally settled in Georgetown, Texas. As the only Asian student in his middle school, his life there was often “brutal.” He wrote “Those Days” after seeing a video of Adele singing in her bedroom and wondering if he could also write a song from his bedroom. YouTube was also a website. As a teenager, he started making videos about his life with titles like “50 Facts About Me!!!” and “School Routine.” He also did cover songs on his guitar.
“I just did it because I live in a random town in the middle of Texas and didn’t know what else to do.” Gray said. “I didn’t really know if real people were watching these videos or not.”
Even though he had a couple hundred thousand subscribers by his senior year, everything changed when he self-released “Idle Town” in 2017. It was a gauzy pop song about how he was looking forward to feeling nostalgic about his small-town life, which he had come to appreciate. The video included home footage of Gray and his friends, as well as a shot of him running through a local retirement community, which was taken from “a tripod duct-taped to the back of my mom’s Toyota.” It went viral online, and because of that, he had to quit his freshman year at U.C.L.A. and sign a deal with Republic Records.
Wintle said, “They saw what we saw, which is that they thought he could be a big star. And they were very open to making sure they weren’t trying to change him into something he wasn’t.”
Gray’s first album, “Kid Krow,” came out in March 2020, right before the pandemic shut down the world. Gray was supposed to go on a tour, but it got canceled, so he spent a lot of time alone inside. “I just thought too much for two years,” he said. Over the course of 18 months, pieces of about 250 songs were used to make “Superache.”
Dan Nigro, who produced “Superache” and has worked on almost all of Gray’s music since he left YouTube, said, “It took us a while to figure out what we were making.” One turning point was when they finished the singles “Astronomy” and “People Watching” in February 2021. “This felt like a new version of Conan that was more grown-up than ‘Kid Krow,'” said Nigro, who also made the hit album ‘Sour’ by Olivia Rodrigo. “It gave us the confidence to say, ‘OK, we’re on our way to something great.'”
Gray got the idea for “People Watching,” in which he admires and wants a happy couple’s relationship, from a real couple he used to listen in on while he was in college. “I want to feel all that love and emotion/Be that attached to the person I’m holding,” he sings, his voice reaching a breathless crescendo as the music builds up behind him.
He said, “I’ve always been more of a bystander than a participant in life.” “In the past few years, especially, I’ve been living vicariously through other people’s lives and watching them.”
In the past few months, though, his life has changed so quickly that I’m sure a lot of people have been jealous. Gray has stepped into the spotlight as the music industry has come out of its pandemic lockdowns. He performed at Coachella and went to the Met Gala in silver disco-ball pants and white platform shoes. He was a huge Taylor Swift fan as a kid, and now he’s been asked to promote her music himself. He’s also good friends with Rodrigo.
Nigro said that both artists “do what they want to do with their music.” He emphasized that many other young artists are influenced too much by voices from the outside.
But Gray was honest about how he struggles with self-consciousness and doubt as he makes his way in the music business. “Over the past few years, I’ve really come to realize that I have to let myself make mistakes if I want to grow and not be this stunted person,” he said. “Dan and my friends had to say, ‘Who cares?’ for it to happen.” It’s better to be sad than to feel nothing at all.”
“Superache” is a story about how messy that process was. The title is meant to be funny, playing off the grandiose feelings that come with obsessive heartbreak. Gray said, “When it’s a real feeling, it can’t be too dramatic because it’s just telling the truth about what’s going on.” “All I really want is for people to feel a little less crazy right now with all the feelings they have.”