If you're willing to scroll back to 2013, you can watch a 14-year-old Conan Gray introduce himself to the world. Swinging back and forth on a patio seat, he chats about vlogging, his desire to share his photography and music. Just another suburban kid with a camera, his follower count is languishing in the hundreds, made up of mostly school friends and fellow lonely teenagers.
Fast-forward to 2020, and that subscriber button now reads as 1.7m and rising. Going viral in 2017 with his ode to sleepy Middle-American living (15-million-viewer 'Idle Town'), Gray is living in something of a whirlwind – touring with Panic! At The Disco, partying at the Grammys, and preparing to release his first debut album, Kid Krow.
"I don't think even now, to this day, I really feel like this is happening," he laughs. "I was 9 when I first posted on YouTube, just silly videos of my geckos or my day at school. The first video I posted of me singing when I was 12 was an original song – pretty bold Conan! - and that's definitely when people started to care about my channel.
"I literally made 'Idle Town' in my bedroom on Garage Band; it started blowing up, and I kinda realised that it might actually turn into something. But I was still kind of cool about it - when you're a kid you don't really understand that 10 thousand people is 10 thousand people. And when you don't really understand 10 thousand, you don't understand 100 thousand, or a million... It all just happened without me really realising it. I was 17 when that happened, and since then, things have gone very, very fast."
Fast is something that Conan has come to be used to. Born to an Irish father and a Japanese mother who divorced when he was three, his upbringing was somewhat turbulent, moving him from Texas to Hiroshima, to Florida, back around various suburbs of Texas, and then away to college in LA for a year before recognising that he was in a position to make music his main focus. The songs he writes reflects this sense of instability – steeped in nostalgia for what never really was, craving a sense of familiarity. Recent single 'The Story' talks about two friends running way from 'evil parents' to 'have a better life'; fan favourites 'Crush Culture' rolls it eyes at the sickening power couples of high school, while secretly wondering when love might happen for him too. They're themes that will relate to almost anybody in their confusing mid-teens and beyond – anybody who feels like they don't quite fit the mould.
"I grew up all over the place, and I always felt like an outcast, like I didn't belong in any place, ever," he explains. "People ask me about being mixed-race a lot, but I couldn't really tell you what it's like, because it's just what I've always been. When I was younger, I really hated that feeling, like 'what am I?' You spend so much of your childhood wondering how you can fit in with other people and put yourself in a box, but then the older I've gotten, the more I've realised that I'm a human being, and there just isn't room in that box. It used to bother me growing up, feeling like I had no sense of self or sense of home, but then I realised that I am my own home, and my own self. That's all that really matters at the end of the day."
It's easy to see why Gray's star has ascended. Even over the phone, he is immediately likeable and earnest, emanating good ol' fashioned Texan hospitality in his self-censorship of swears ("Oh shoot!") and a never-ending flow of affection for his fans and friends – the people he says helped raise him. He might be the current Prince of Sad Boy Pop, but he's got a pretty good handle on the way his open-book emotions might help others in the same situation.
"I didn't come up with that 'sad boy pop' title myself, but I think it's pretty accurate," he laughs. "I'm definitely a sensitive little baby who writes a lot of songs about people that he never dated. But I love to embrace the fact that everyone feels sad every once in a while. I feel like not enough people recognise that it can be okay to be sad; you don't always have to be constantly fixing your feelings or chasing happiness, you can just sit and reflect in your emotions for a while. I love writing about sadness with pop music, because it's so relatable – it's always fun to hear a sad story told in a way that doesn't completely bum you out. It makes it so much easier to deal with - I definitely have my moments where I'm super in my feelings, but every once in a while, I just want to dance."
Learning to balance his feels has led to some pretty special moments over the past two years. A string of consistent singles has given insight into his life that feels intimately personal – fans loves to guess who the object of his affections from tallying up his lyrics with his tweets, and although he insists they've never gotten it right ("It's super awkward having to text the person like 'I'm so sorry everyone is tweeting you, the song is not about you' – SO EMBARRASSING"), he accepts that the degree to which he's let people into his life is the cross he has to bear to make music that he truly believes in.
"On this album, I confess a lot of things that I'm not happy to admit," he says. "I have a lot of feelings that I'm pretty ashamed of or am embarrassed about feeling, but I think people deserve to hear the truth so they can know that that weird thing they're feeling doesn't just happen to them. The reason I started songwriting was that I so badly wanted to feel like somebody understood me."
"A lot of the singles have been these big pop songs, and there's more of those on the album too, but there's a lot that I say in the quieter songs that are things I've really only ever told to my best friends. It's going to be weird to say them out loud to the rest of the world. But I'm super close to my fans; I understand them, and they understand me, so I feel like my secrets are safe with them. Anyone who listens to the album, by the time you're done, you basically know all my secrets. You're basically qualified as one of my best friends! And I'm so excited to have 10 million best friends!"
Taken from the March issue of Dork. Conan Gray's album 'Kid Krow' is out 20th March.
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